We've broken down every aspect of the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument. Between statistics, rings, teammates, era and hairline, there are more articles, blogs, columns, podcasts and ancient scrolls written on the pair than any other in NBA history. Yet through all of that, there is one factor that nobody really wants to acknowledge.
You'd think with LeBron's receding hairline (that's right, I'm going for one hairline joke every paragraph), this would become a more prominent feature in such debates, but neither side ever seems to acknowledge the very simple fact that LeBron simply doesn't have enough time to catch Jordan.
Why? I'll give you four numbers that tell the whole story: 31, 28, 24, 24. Those are, in order, the ages of Dwyane Wade, LeBron, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I think it's pretty safe to say that for LeBron to at least match Jordan in the court of public opinion, he would need to at least match Jordan's six championship rings.
With that in mind, let's push those numbers up by five. In other words, assuming LeBron stays in Miami, he and Wade would both be well past their primes upon winning their sixth ring. Why is that relevant? Didn't Jordan win several rings in his 30s?
Because Durant and Westbrook will both be in their prime when that happens. Do you really want to bet on a 36-year-old Wade and 33-year-old LeBron beating those two in their prime?
Oh, and that is assuming that Miami beats Oklahoma City or a team good enough to beat Oklahoma City six years in a row. That is not happening. It would be completely unprecedented in post-merger NBA history. Since Bill Russell's Celtics, no team has won more than three titles in a row.
Therefore, realistically, LeBron probably won't be chasing ring No. 6 when he's 33, he'll be fighting for No. 3 or No. 4. If he wants to get to six, it will probably be a chase that leads him into his late 30s.
Again, think of Father Time. Do you really want to bet on a 37-year-old LeBron against a 33-year-old Durant?
This brings up another factor: aging. LeBron's game is based largely on athleticism. How well is he going to age? How will he adjust to fading physical skills? Remember, Durant's game is based largely on shooting. He will age like a fine wine. LeBron? We can't be sure. The longer that this drags on, the better that it gets for Durant (who, as of right now, cannot be compared to either but still stands to benefit in his own right).
"But wait, Sam," you're probably thinking. "Can't LeBron make up for a few lost rings with superior stats?"
The answer is a resounding no.
Counting stats (points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game etc.) are completely useless in regards to comparing players from different eras. Too many circumstances, such as teammates, level of competition, rule changes and playing styles make them impossible to really quantify.
The only stats that really matter when comparing across era are efficiency stats. In particular, there are five that do the best job of measuring overall impact on the court: PER, Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares, Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating.
Who will be the better player at the end of their careers?
Even when you consider Jordan's two-year nightmare in Washington, he has the edge in PER, Win Shares and Offensive Rating. When you factor in LeBron's eventual decline, it is almost a statistical certainty that he will dip below Jordan in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares, where he now holds only the slimmest of leads. Assuming a fairly standard statistical regression due to age, time will be able to dull his incredible efficiency stats at least to the point where they dip below Jordan's.
So how can LeBron reset the clock? The answer is an ironic twist of fate. He would have to ditch Miami for Cleveland in 2014.
This would align him with a a 22-year-old (in 2014) Kyrie Irving, who may be just as good as Wade right now. Irving would ideally enter his prime just as LeBron is leaving his, giving Cleveland an eight- to 10-year window of potential championships. If LeBron really wants to get to six rings, that's his best shot.
But how would the public perceive him for ditching two contending teams in one career? How much would it add to his no-shows against Boston and Dallas? Those are asterisks that Jordan simply doesn't have on his resumé. A return to Cleveland might give LeBron a chance to match Jordan's objective feats, both through winning and, to a lesser degree, statistically, but it would kill him in the subjective and mythical portion of the discussion.
If you want to argue peaks, that's one thing. You could make a strong case for LeBron's 2013 campaign against some of Jordan's finest.
But the race for the title of greatest of all time isn't measured in peaks. It is measured by the entirety of the mountain. When it comes down to it, time simply won't allow LeBron to match the sheer breadth of Jordan's accomplishments.
So settle for No. 2, LeBron. It was well earned.