The debate surrounding who is the greatest basketball player of all time is the most intense out of the major sports. In hockey, Wayne Gretzky is the undisputed greatest player, and in baseball and football the debates are more about specific positions. Comparing a pitcher to a hitter or a linebacker to an offensive lineman is basically impossible.
When it comes to the greatest of all time debate for basketball, with all due respect to the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant, there are two players that are a class above the rest: Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Both dominated and defined the NBA during their careers, but regardless of what happens in this year’s playoffs, James has proven that he’s the greatest player of all time.
The strongest argument in favor of James is the impact he makes on the team he plays for. Since the 2002-03 season, the season before James entered the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers averaged just under 22 wins a season. When James joined the roster, the team skyrocketed to 50 wins. That is simply absurd. Never before has one player been the difference between a championship contender and a fixture in the lottery.
On two separate occasions, James joined the Cavaliers and transformed them from a cellar dweller to a guaranteed finals berth. Even after Kyrie Irving left the Cavaliers, James still led them to the finals. When Jordan left the Chicago Bulls to play basketball in 1993, the team still won 55 games without him and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks to seven games in the conference semifinals. The Bulls obviously needed Jordan to win a championship and they were worse off before he came back the next year, but Scottie Pippen was more than capable of leading a team to success on his own.
James, excluding this year, has never played with a player as good as Pippen. Jordan had Pippen his entire reign of dominance, and despite the perception of Pippen as a sidekick, he is one of the best forwards to ever play the game.
In terms of individual playing ability, James’ size and strength, paired with his agility, make him impossible to stop. He is as good of an athlete as anyone in NBA history, but he has the size and strength to overpower any defense. James is also the best passer in the game, and has been his entire career despite not playing point guard. His passing ability will keep him at an elite level for longer than other players. Even when he loses the athletic ability, he will be able to impact the game, like Steve Nash or John Stockton, in the final stage of his career. At age 35 and in his 17th year in the league, he is still in the MVP conversation and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
A point that must be addressed is James’ finals record compared to Jordan’s. There is no denying that a 3-6 finals record is less than ideal; however, just like Jordan’s early career losses to the Celtics and Pistons are not held against him, James’ losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are just the result of him playing all time great teams. The team James carried to the finals in 2007 was the worst team to ever make the finals. The Golden State Warriors was a super team assembled just to defeat James. Jordan never had to go through a super team like the Warriors because of how the league was when he played.
Even after the Warriors won 73 games, they still felt like they needed the greatest scorer of all time to defeat James and the Cavs. The series with that 73-win Warriors team was legendary. James rallying his team back from 3-1 down and completing arguably the best play in finals history, the block on Andre Iguodala, is what cemented his place as the greatest.
Overall, the size and strength of James makes him a more versatile player, and his ability to turn any roster into a contender by joining it is unprecedented in NBA history, making him the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball.