Part Five: The Fable of the Two GOATs

The combined history of the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Asssociation is littered with phenomenal athletes, fierce competitors, inspiring leaders, technical wizards and legends who will never be forgotten. Cases can be made for countless of past and present players as to who belongs on a Mt Rushmore for basketball stars and – for many people – personal preference will at the end of the day be the deciding factor over pragmatic analysis.

For Jordan and James, their individual and team achievements have them in most people’s “Top 5” if not in either the one or two spot. What makes these two men stand out is the ability to capture the imagination of the public on a consistent basis. Fans of other teams have tuned into their games in the hope of seeing the seemingly impossible happen, those moments and performances of magic that very few can conceive of let alone execute.

When you’re using the word “greatest” it is singling out an individual as that “-est” represents being above all others. It is more than a simple comparison between two or three options but a statement that there is no comparison. There are plenty of greats in basketball but at the end of the day there can be only one “greatest” so this installment will look at the moments and numbers that have many placing these two athletes above all others.

A Spectacular Move

People often cite Jordan’s fierce competitve nature as being his greatest asset of many outstanding strings to his bow. His will to win has been said by many teammates, rivals and those that have followed the game to be peerless. It is something that is hard to measure because without the tools to get the job done, you can want something as much as anyone but it won’t happen. Jordan did get a lot done in his career but where to start is a conundrum. Let’s start from the end and work our way back.

What Sorcery is this? The Wizard Years

Many look at Jordan’s time playing with the Wizards as a black mark on an almost spotless career but everything considered it proved how good he really was. He came out of retirement at 38 years of age to help boost a struggling Wizards organisation both on and off the court.

The season before Jordan suited up, the Wizards had a record of 19-63 and an average attendance of 15,577 which was 18th highest in the league. In Jordan’s first season their record improved to 37-45 and their home attendance rose to an average of 20,674 which was second behind only the San Antonio Spurs.

The Wizards got off to a slow start going 2-9 in the first 11 games of the 2001/02 of the season. They were soon to turn it around as the 38 year old – after three years out – began to find his rhythm. In the first half of the season there was a legitimate case for MVP calls as he was matching it with the league’s best before his knee injury. In the first 46 games of the season, a fit and firing Jordan led the Wizards to a 26-20 record with wins over top 5 opposition in both Conferences including Sacramento Kings and New Jersey Nets (a 22-point home win) who had the best records in their respective conferences as well as Boston who finished Eastern Conference runners-up. He also averaged 25.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks during this time.

That season’s MVP went to the Spurs main man, Tim Duncan who did have an impressive 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists for his team which finished 58-24, the second best record in the league behind the Kings. The season before they had an identical record but were top seeds in the NBA so it wasn’t as though Duncan propelled his team to new heights but more maintained a very high standard.

Jason Kidd, Shaquille O’Neal, Tracey McGrady and Kobe Bryant rounded out the top 5 voting for the MVP with only Kidd joining a losing team and seeing them improve dramatically. The Lakers improved on the season before by 2 wins but Bryant and O’Neal steal votes from each other while Orlando improved by 1 win on the season before. McGrady was the only player to have a 25-6-5 season (25.6ppg, 7.9rpg, 5.3apg) but whether it drastically improved his side is questionable.

Kidd did join a losing team this season which saw them go from 26-56 the season before to an amazing 52-30 season in 2001/02. Kidd with 14.7ppg, 7.3rpg, and 9.9apg was the main factor behind this but he did have help with Kittles returning from a year out and MacCulloch and Jefferson being regular starters who weren’t there the year before.

When you look at Washington, it is hard to argue that the transformation from 19 wins to 37 was largely down to Jordan. All the Wizards – other than Jordan – who started more than 10 games in 2001/02, were apart of the 19 win season the years before. Rip Hamilton was arguably the second best player on the team but he missed five weeks in the first half of the season with his own injury problems. When he returned from injury, he and Jordan played together sixteen times before Jordan’s injury for a record of 15-1. Immediately after the knee injury to Jordan, they lost 9 out of the next 10 games.

Jordan tried to play on but on a flight to Miami his knee became swollen  and stiff promoting the Wizards to place him on the injured list for immediate exploratory arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Jordan missed 12 games during this period which saw his team go 4-8 and their season had all but become derailed.

The Wizards were on course to become a winning team after a sub-20 win season with the addition of only one starter, Michael Jordan. He was also getting better as the season went too and in his last 10 games before his injury he averaged 29.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 47% from the field. Jordan finished the season averaging the most points, assists, steals and defensive rebounds (he was 3rd in overall rebounds) for his team and finished 13th in the MVP voting.

Before all was said and done at the Wizards, Jordan had delivered some remarkable performances and made a significant impact on a franchise in trouble.

  • At 39 years old, he had 21 points along with 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 21 minutes as the Wizards smashed the Eastern Conference runners up, Boston Celtics, by 45 points.
  • On December 29, 2001 Jordan became the oldest player (38 years and 315 days old) to score over 50 points in an NBA game. In a 17 point win over Charlotte, Jordan finished with 51 points and 7 rebounds. The very next game against the Eastern Conference champions and eventual NBA runners-up, he had 45 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in a 22 point win. He played less than 40 minutes in both games.
  • At 40 years old, he scored 43 points to go with 10 rebounds and 4 steals in a 3 point win over the Nets. Eighteen days later at the Garden versus the New York Knicks, he had 39 points and 8 rebounds in a narrow one point loss.
  • He played 30 games in his 40s. He had 7 double doubles, scored over 35 points three times, more than 25 points eleven times and over 20 points twenty times.
  • In his final season and in his forties, he played every game.

Mr Clutch

Jordan’s record isn’t spotless. In his 1251 NBA regular season and playoff games, he has missed game winners, he has at times failed to lead his team to victory in close games. Jordan has been involved in 214 games won or lost by 3 points or less of which he has hit only 25 game winners. Not all these games would’ve come down to last shots but it would be fair to suggest often he was not the match winner whether through deference to a teammate or failing to deliver.

However, there are few players that can match his game winning and game changing consistency. Whether it was leading a fourth quarter rally or hitting a buzzer beater, Jordan was fearless and there wasn’t much that he wasn’t prepared to do to win. His performances in the playoffs are legendary. He seemed to lift on the biggest stage which he graced 179 times, failing to score more than 20 points only 6 times.

Record keeping has become an art-form in modern sports so it is a tougher task to find accurate data before the 2000s. However, Jordan has reportedly hit 25 game winning shots (shots in the last 22 seconds of a match to win a game) in the NBA regular season and playoffs. Eight of his winners have been pure buzzer beaters while 9 of them have been in the playoffs in which he is 50% from the field in clutch shot which is even more impressive when you consider the league average sits at around 28%.

His first game winner in the NBA came in just his eighth professional game against the Indiana Pacers. Jordan hit the match winner with 4 seconds left to win the game 118-116 after the Bulls had scored 41 points in the last quarter. He finished that game with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 5 blocks. He would hit four game winners in his rookie season, including one in Game Three of the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks to force a Game Four.

His last game winner was in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz to win the game 87-86 and pick up his 6th and final Championship. He had 45 points that game and finished his career with the Bulls in perfect fashion.

Out On His Own

Over the course of his career, MJ set many benchmarks and broke a lot of records, many of which still stand today.

  • Leads all NBA/ABA players in MVP shares with 8.138
  • Number 1 in postseason win shares per 48 minutes with .2553
  • Number 1 in player efficiency rating with 27.91
  • All-Time Leader for the Chicago Bulls in points (total and average), total rebounds and defensive rebounds, assists, steals (total and average)
  • Only player in history to lead a team to a Championship with only one teammate averaging double figures in scoring. In 1997, Pippen averaged 19ppg with no other teammate averaging more than 8ppg
  • Only guard in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a playoff series (35.7ppg, 9.5rpg, 8.3apg, 2.5spg and 1.3bpg). He achieved this in the 1989 Eastern Conference semifinals versus the New York Knicks which the Bulls won 4-2
  • Only player to average at least 30 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals in a title run. He did it twice in 1991 and 1993
  • Led the NBA in scoring a record 10 times which also sees him hold the highest career scoring average (30.12). He also has the highest career playoff scoring average (33.4ppg)
  • Most 50 point games in NBA history with 8 and also the oldest to score over 50 when he scored 51 against the New Orleans Hornets at 38years and 315 days old
  • Most NBA Defensive First Team selections – 9
  • Has the most blocked shots by a guard – 893
  • Only rookie to lead his team in four statistics – points, rebounds, assists and steals
  • Only player to win the Defensive Player of the Year the same year as winning the scoring title (1987/88). He also won the MVP award that year

In Select Company

Jordan’s body of work is extraordinary. Apart from the lone records he holds, he is also in elite company with some other records and achievements too.

  • Only he and Wilt Chamberlain have scored more than 3000 points in a season. Jordan accomplished this in his 3rd season and 2nd full season when he averaged  37.1ppg in 1986/87
  • He is number 3 in NBA/ABA history in total steals behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd
  • Number 3 in steals per game (2.35spg) behind Alvin Robertson and Michael Richards. One of only 7 players ever to average over 3 steals a game for a season when he averaged 3.16spg in the 1987/88 season
  • He has four of the top 10 all-time player efficiency ratings in a season. Wilt Chamberlain has the second most with three
  • Was the first player to win Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in their career. Only David Robinson has since achieved this
  • Only player to win the MVP, Finals MVP and All-Star MVP in the same season more than once. He achieved it twice while Willis Reed and Shaquille O’Neal got it done once each
  • Led the league in scoring and steals in the same season three times. Only one other player has achieved this – Allen Iverson – who did it twice

He Got Game

Lebron James entered the league straight out of high school which at the time was not such a rarity anymore but what was rare was how readymade he was at just 18 years of age. His physical attributes and athleticism have been much vaunted and no doubt they have been a major contributors to his versatility and proficiency but it is his basketball IQ that has allowed him to reach the top and stay there.

Longevity will also be a big part of the Lebron Legacy. He has been able to play consecutive seasons without major injuries or other factors such as the two retirements of Michael Jordan.

A James of All Trades

His overall game is not only consistent but an equivalent skill set has largely been unseen at the top level. The numbers he has been able to accumulate indicate that he is certainly on a level separate from most of his peers when it comes to having the complete game.

He has had more seasons than any other player totaling over 2000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists. His effortless switching between positions 1 to 4 on the court has seen him achieve numbers that you’d hope for from positional specialists.

  • Only player to average more than 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists for their career
  • Only player to average over 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists for their career in the playoffs
  • Only player to average at least 25 points in 12 consecutive seasons
  • Only player to record a game with a minimum 63 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists
  • Most assists by a forward
  • Only player to be in Top 10 career playoff in points, rebounds, assists and steals
  • Value over replacement player is number 1 in NBA history at 108.96

Very few players have come into the league with such expectations let alone as teenagers. It would be fair to suggest that he not only met these expectations but exceeded than. His early start has allowed him to set many “youngest ever” records:

  • Youngest Rookie of the Year (19 years old)
  • Youngest player to record a triple double with 27 points, 11rebounds and 10 assists (20 year and 20 days old, versus Portland Trailblazers)
  • Youngest player to score 30 points (18 years 334 days v Memphis) and 40 points (19y 88d v New Jersey Nets) in a game
  • Youngest player to reach every point milestone from 1000 to 26,000
  • Youngest player to win 4 MVP titles (28 years old)

The Business End

An early criticism of Lebron once he started making the finals was that he wasn’t able to get it done in the big games or disappeared in big moments. The series against Dallas Mavericks when the Miami Heat were upset by Dallas 4-2 back in 2010/11 is often used to illustrate this perception.

However as James matured as a player, he became more comfortable with his role as team leader which has seen him put forward some amazing performances in playoff series. Most notably the performance in the 2015 NBA Finals in which his Cavaliers team lost against the Golden State Warriors. With a depleted lineup, Lebron pushed the Warriors to six games against popular opinion which had the Warriors running over the Cavs with little resisitence once Love and Irving were out.

It was the 2016 NBA Finals though that will cement the legacy of James. This time he had a full strength team but he was also facing the Golden State Warriors again – hottest team in the NBA – who had set an NBA regular season record of 73-9. Once again many gave the Cavaliers little shot and at 3-1 down the predictions looked on the money. However, James and his teammates were able to shock the world by becoming the first NBA team ever to turn around a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win 4-3.

Although he is 3 for 7 in the NBA Finals, his team’s have reached the final dance consistently and James has without question been the reason behind this. James owns some impressive Finals records:

  • Only player to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists in an NBA Finals series
  • Most points per game of any player on winning team in 7 game series (29.7)
  • Only player to average 35 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a Finals series (35.8p, 13.3r, 8.8a in 2015)
  • Only player to average 25 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in a Finals series, which he has done 3 times

In Good Company

Apart from holding many outright records, James has also managed to share some impressive records with other legendary basketball players such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Oscar Robertson.

  • Only he and Bill Russel have won 4 MVPs in a 5 year span
  • James and Jordan are the only players to win the MVP, Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal in the same year
  • Only James and Jordan have won MVP and Finals MVP in consecutive years
  • James and Oscar Robertson are the only players to average 27 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in at least 8 consecutive seasons
  • Only he and Jordan have won at least 4 MVPs and 3 Finals MVPs
  • Only he, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan have scored more than 10 points in 700 consecutive games
  • One of three players to average 30 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists in a single season. Jordan and Robertson (5 times) are the other two
  • Only Lebron, Russel and Bob Cousy have played in 6 consecutive Finals series and All-Star games
  • Only James and Wilt Chamberlain have recorded a stat line of 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a playoff game
  • Only James, Jordan and Shaq have scored 40 or more in 3 games in a single Finals series
  • James and Shaq are the only players to lead both teams outright in points rebounds and assists in a Finals game

Career Highs in a Game (Regular season or playoffs)

Jordan                          James

Points:           69                                 61

Rebounds:    19                                  19

Assists:         17                                  16

Steals:           10                                    7

Blocks.           6                                     5

Conclusion

The greatness of these two athletes is without question. Mentally and physically they have stood out amongst their peers to in their own eras dominate the competition and set benchmarks. Of course Jordan’s career is now finished so he won’t be able to add to his list of accomplishments while James has a few years left.

Time and generation gaps will always mean that the debate will continue on and so it should because that is half the fun of following sport. Remembering and honoring greatness in any field is something that should always be encouraged and it allows us to measure where we are and where we are heading.

Who knows when a third name will be added to the debate? One thing is for sure though every generation offers up candidates of GOAT.

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