Michael Jordan retired after the 1997-98 NBA season. Ever since then, we’ve been looking for his successor, the player who would take his place as the best in the game—and possibly surpass him.
Shaq couldn’t do it.
In our memories, early-2000s Shaquille O’Neal was an unstoppable monster. But in reality, he only won one regular-season MVP and was often slowed by injury—and free-throw shooting.
Kobe couldn’t do it.
Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game, averaged 35 for a season, and imitated Jordan’s “I’m a jerk, but it’s because I want to win, so it’s okay” attitude. But he never really dominated the rest of the league. He only won one MVP and couldn’t even get out of the first round until Pau Gasol arrived. Steve Nash has more MVPs than Kobe, and no one’s about to compare him to Jordan.
Even Washington Wizards early-2000s MJ wasn’t able to succeed himself.
That leaves us with LeBron.
Kobe is great, Kevin Durant is great and getting better, James Harden can score, Carmelo Anthony can score—but no one really disputes that LeBron James is head and shoulders above everybody else in the league.
There hasn’t been a player this far above his peers since MJ. So, naturally everyone wants to know: Is LBJ better than MJ? What does he have to do to surpass him as the greatest of all time?
I think it’s a valid debate.
But I also think it’s like comparing apples and...well, something extremely different from apples.
Jordan is Jordan, and LeBron is LeBron. Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever. LeBron may well end up being the most perfect basketball player ever. But that isn’t the same thing.
When Jordan played basketball, he played ferociously. His legendary killer instinct may be overstated—don’t forget, he once shot a free throw in a game with his eyes closed while teasing Dikembe Mutombo—but watch any old Jordan playoff game and you’ll see his constant action, constant involvement and constant expenditure of energy.
He’ll get his hand in the passing lane on defense on one end to force a turnover, then dive out of bounds to save a teammate’s errant pass on the other end, get the ball back and find another teammate for a corner three.
He’ll shoot, miss, get the rebound, go up again and get fouled.
He’ll chew out a teammate for a defensive mistake, then bring the ball downcourt and find that teammate for an open shot immediately afterwards.
Jordan missed something like 10 of his last 11 shots in Game 7 of the '98 Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, and his team still won—because his constant activity wore down the Pacers on both ends of the floor, and the Bulls were able to outlast them.
Jordan games, especially the ones from early in his career, always follow the same pattern. He spends the first six minutes of the game deferring, deferring, deferring, trying to get his teammates involved. And then he’ll take a couple of shots because he gets open, and by the end of the first quarter he’s suddenly got 10 points. It’s almost like he can’t help himself.
Jordan played basketball so hard he bent the game to his will. Jordan conquered basketball.
LeBron occasionally has to do that.
Sometimes he has to win a game through sheer will and expenditure of energy. That’s how he won Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Ray Allen made the corner three with five seconds left, but LeBron won that game. However, LeBron knows exactly when to unleash his inner Jordan, whereas Jordan was always Jordan.
LeBron isn’t conquering basketball; LeBron is solving basketball.
LBJ is turning himself into the perfect basketball player. He only takes good shots—if he shoots at all. He makes incredible passes. He defends the player that most needs to be stopped. He positions himself perfectly while playing off-ball defense, sometimes so perfectly that the ball won’t even come to his side of the floor.
He’s trying to master the game to the point that every move he makes is the correct one—and the game of basketball does all the work for him.
LeBron will seemingly be in cruise control for much of a game, not because he’s lazy, but because he’s seeking to make the perfect pass, jump in the perfect passing lane or take the perfect shot. He’s studying the angles. He’s watching the trends.
Does it look like he’s loafing on defense or being too passive on offense during the regular season? That’s not passivity: He’s constantly attentive, trying things out, figuring out how to win games without lifting a finger, how to control an offensive possession without ever touching the ball.
LeBron wasn’t being tentative in Games 1 through 3 of the '13 finals.
He was probing, getting a feel for the series and how best to win it. People forget that the Heat won Game 2 in a blowout, and all LeBron did was score 17 points and make the perfect block at the perfect time. That was all the Heat needed to get on a roll and crush the Spurs.
It’s not about stats. LeBron doesn’t have to average a triple-double to achieve basketball nirvana. The ideal LeBron game would be this: James takes a few great shots, plays perfect help defense and sets a few key screens—and the Heat win 103-94. He doesn’t even have to make any of the shots. What matters is that when those shots were taken, they were the perfect shots to take given the situation.
If his team is on the ropes and needs him, he’ll go into Jordan mode—like at the end of the Chicago Bulls game that ended the 27-game win streak last year, when LeBron switched onto Kirk Hinrich so he could let him drive to the hoop, swat his shot and get the ball back every time down the court.
But otherwise, he lets the game come to him in the truest sense.
Jordan never tried to be the perfect player.
He never stopped to think about it, probably. He was too busy killing himself on both ends trying to win basketball games. He didn’t want to be perfect—he wanted to be unstoppable. He was efficient, but his efficiency was a by-product of his outsized talent and will to win. And win he did.
James is trying to be efficient by playing the perfect basketball game. There was no such thing as a "bad shot" for Jordan—because it was Jordan taking the shot. But James has spent the last few seasons cutting “bad shots” out of his repertoire. And it’s helped him win.
Jordan and James are similar in that they both dominated the NBA during their eras. Even if James never wins another title, we’ll call this the LeBron era in 10 years. And Jordan—do I need to mention the six titles? The 10 scoring titles? The five MVPs? The Defensive Player of the Year award?
But that dominance is all they have in common.
It’s not just that Jordan and James are different players with different, if overlapping, skill sets. They approach the game in totally unique ways. They’re both great players, but they aren’t cut from the same cloth.
There will never be another Michael Jordan. Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant have spent their careers imitating Jordan, but all they’ve succeeded in doing is paying him a compliment. And if there ever is a LeBron James imitator, another player who seeks basketball perfection the way he does, he’ll do it in a totally different way—and he probably won’t do it as well.
So no, LeBron will never catch Jordan, but he doesn’t need to. He’s doing things to basketball that we didn’t know could be done.
And if future generations remember him as the greatest ever, that’s fine. But he’s still no Jordan.