LeBron James, Michael Jordan and greatness are all used in the same sentence more often than not.
While it's fun to debate whether LeBron or MJ is the greatest of all time, it's always assumed that LeBron is chasing greatness in the form of Jordan and all of his accomplishments/accolades.
By dissecting the incomplete and ineffective way we use language, let's switch that assumption around to get the Jordan-chasing-LeBron debate started.
Language and the words we decide to use make our individualized worlds global, because they give us a foundation of commonality and reference.
But we rarely fully utilize language
Take, for example, the way we use the world "love." I'm guilty of saying, "I love my wife," then following it up with, "I loved that movie," after I watch The Dark Knight Rises.
Obviously, the love I have for that movie and the love I have for my wife are vastly different. But the way I communicate my feelings toward them sounds identical.
The only saving grace in that situation is context, which allows an individual to understand the intrinsic difference between marital love and appreciation for a movie about a guy who dresses up like a bat.
The only problem is that sometimes our perception of words differ based on what they are being used in relation to. This is where Michael Jordan, LeBron James and the word "greatness" come into play.
Whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is as great as the other is a question that can't be answered on a universal scale, because it all depends on what the individuals debating the topic define as greatness.
There are a number of ways in which you can view "greatness" where LeBron reigns supreme and Jordan pales in comparison. And that starts with the constant criticism and adversity LeBron faces on a daily basis both on and off the court.
Adversity/Criticism Thanks to Sports and Social Media
Let's just get one thing out of the way. I'll be talking about the "sports media world," and that includes me and the work I do for Bleacher Report. I'm not separating myself from it, instead just trying to bring a fresh perspective to the table.
Some will say LeBron only has LeBron to thank for the adversity he faces on a daily basis.
He can thank "The Decision," his inability to win his first two NBA Finals or his past tendency to fade away in clutch moments. But the true backlash to all of that was significantly heightened thanks to the massive amounts of sports media outlets and the explosive growth of social media.
I'm sure LeBron doesn't monitor ESPN and everyone's Twitteriffic opinions on a day-to-day basis, but there's no doubt he hears and sees what the world thinks of him.
Wow, LeBron can't even choke correctly. You have to finish out the choke.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) June 19, 2013
Many are comparing Lebron to Jordan, but Lebron never saved Earth by defeating a race of evil alien Monstars. #NBAanalysis— NOT SportsCenter NBA (@TheNBAonNOTSC) June 23, 2013
I'm not saying Jordan didn't deal with the media, but his days in the NBA were in the midst of the sports media boom just starting to take place in society.
In Jordan's day, he had much more "control" over the messages he promoted and the image he created of himself.
As long as he acted respectful in press conferences, answered questions with an intelligent response and kept himself out of any significant off-the-court trouble, Jordan could spoon feed reporters what he wanted them to promote about him.
Jordan didn't have to worry about the "always connected world" that we currently live in, and that certainly lessened the amount of pressure he faced on a day-to-day basis.
The media-driven world we live in today, with instant reaction and platforms that not only display people's opinions but also validate them, is a whole different beast than what sports media looked like during Jordan's tenure in the league.
We live in a world where opinions are elevated to scientific fact in the matter of minutes. And the multitudes of voices critiquing LeBron on a daily basis are much louder than the voices of those who critiqued Jordan back in the day.
Aside from watching Jordan on the court and in press conferences, there weren't ways for the world to follow him and voice its opinions. LeBron, on the other hand, is constantly faced with the world's opinions on everything he does on and off the court.
That, mixed with the weight of the world-ish expectations placed on LeBron, make his accomplishments at his age that much more impressive.
Expectations Entering the League
It's safe to say that the expectations regarding LeBron and Jordan weren't even close to being on the same level when both players entered the league.
Jordan entered the league in 1984 as the third overall pick—which equates to being Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft. That speaks louder than anything else regarding what the world thought and expected of Jordan.
If teams expected Jordan to be the greatest of all time, he would've been drafted first overall. I'll just remind you that scouts had three years' worth of tape on Jordan competing against the best of the best on the college level to ascertain his level of potential.
LeBron, on the other hand, was labeled as The Chosen One and the greatest since Jordan even before he graduated from high school.
The vast majority of the world—including me—doesn't understand the weight of that kind of expectation and just how hard it is to live up to that. Well, LeBron does because he's done just that.
It's often easier to achieve certain levels of excellence when expectations aren't at an unrealistic or heightened level, as in Jordan's case.
Facing expectations to perform at a level that is somewhat unquantifiable and extremely subjective isn't an easy task—and it makes it that much more impressive when you begin to surpass that level of expectation, which LeBron is currently doing.
No one has entered the NBA with the kind of expectations LeBron has, and the fact that he's lived up to those expectations truly puts him in a league of his own.
Entering the NBA Out of High School
When you compare the first three years of Jordan and LeBron's careers, the first thing many will point to is that LeBron entered the league out of high school and Jordan instead took his talents to the NCAA.
Whether we want to admit it or not, entering the NBA as a 19-year-old or as a 21-year-old are two vastly different things.
While LeBron was 19, 20 and 21, he was facing off against the best players in the world and dominating them, averaging 26.5 points, 6.6 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
Jordan, on the other hand, three years removed from high school, was averaging 17.7 points, five rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game playing against the nation's top collegiate talent.
You can't compare those three years because the competition they played with and against is incredibly different. But Jordan had three years to hone his skills at a "non-high school level" before he took his game to that next level, more affectionately known as the Association.
We all know the difference between a high school senior and a college junior, and the fact that LeBron handled himself with poise and dignity as a college freshman in the NBA is rather remarkable.
I don't think those three years Jordan spent in college are mentioned or talked about enough when we evaluate the professional careers of both legendary talents.
I don't know the magical way to appropriately evaluate and compare LeBron and Jordan's first three "non-high school years," but I do know that dominating the NBA in his teenage years is something Jordan can't ever have on his resume.
And it's certainly something that doesn't get LeBron as much credit and respect as it should.
Lots of analysts, fans and everyone in between like to point to the undefinable "killer instinct" as the major difference between LeBron and Jordan.
We can perceive someone's passion in clutch moments by our observations of their actions, but knowing the intensity that is alive in someone's heart when a game, season or legacy is on the line isn't definable. And there's no way to change that.
Based on observations, Jordan and LeBron display their killer instincts in very different ways. Where Jordan wanted to beat down his opponents on the court, at blackjack tables, on the golf course, during the offseason, etc., LeBron wants to share his talent to make those around him better and learn from them.
Take, for example, his practicing with one of his biggest opponents, Kevin Durant. Is that something Jordan would've done? Absolutely not, but that doesn't mean that's the right way to do things.
Differing in how each player approached and embraced greatness is something to be treasured and respected, not something to be compared and judged in a negative light.
LeBron couldn't survive in the NBA without a killer instinct and a desire to dominate everyone around him—there's just no questioning that. He simply approaches the development of that mentality in a different way than Jordan.
Differing Routes to Greatness
Like I mentioned before, greatness can't exist in our world in a black and white framework.
Within the greatest-of-all-time debate, though, LeBron's success is compared to Jordan's in terms of the chronology of his dominance.
Many will point to the fact that in Jordan's first 10 years in the league, he won three NBA titles and dominated the game with a killer instinct the likes of which none had seen before.
Throughout LeBron's first 10 seasons in the NBA, he won just two titles, but four NBA MVPs and two NBA Finals MVPs.
If Jordan came after LeBron, the argument about greatness would be extremely different. It would depend on what has more value—championships or MVPs, allegiance to a team or pursuit of championship opportunities, well-balanced dominance or offensive explosion, etc.
LeBron's greatness has taken a different route than Jordan's, and in a perfect world, that would be just fine. In the media-focused world we live in, though, it's not OK, because the mold of greatness has been formed in Jordan's career, and any variance from that path takes LeBron one step away from G.O.A.T legacy.
I'm not MJ, I'm LJ— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 13, 2013
Two people using different routes to get to the same destination isn't bad; it's simply different, and we all need to get used to living in a world where greatness that's on the same level yet looks different is acceptable.
Greatness doesn't exist in a single form, even if we try to make it to.
Defining greatness is one thing. Allowing each individual player to define greatness for themselves is another, and that's where we need to be.
Viewing Jordan's success based on LeBron's path to greatness leads us to the point that not only are LeBron and Jordan different players, but Jordan will never be who LeBron is.
That's neither good nor bad. It simply is.