As LeBron James adds to his amazing legacy by becoming the NBA’s career scoring leader, the debate resumes over whether he or Michael Jordan is the NBA’s all-time greatest player.
Los Angeles Lakers forward James, in his 20th NBA campaign at age 38, overtook fellow legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time league scoring crown on Tuesday.
“To be in the company with such a prominent dominant force as Kareem was, it’s an honor,” James told ESPN before breaking the record.
Retired icon Jordan ranks fifth on the all-time NBA points list with 32,292 in 1,072 games for a record average of 30.1 points a game. James was at about 27.2 with superior assist and rebound averages.
“Air” Jordan also was a winner and Most Valuable Player in all six of his NBA Finals appearances with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. He was a five-time season MVP and 10-time scoring champion.
James has won four titles in 10 NBA Finals appearances, eight in a row from 2011-2018. He was a four-time finals MVP and four-time season MVP and won his only season scoring crown in 2008.
Both captured two Olympic gold medals and each starred in “Space Jam” movies, becoming cultural icons with epic endorsement deals.
Like Jordan, James was a high-leaping, acrobatic, amazing playmaker in his younger days who adjusted his game to remain dangerous and raise the level of his teammates.
“We can enjoy one without tearing down one,” the late Kobe Bryant tweeted about the Jordan-James debate in 2018. “Don’t debate what can’t be definitively won by anyone.”
Only two players have more trips to the finals than James — Boston legend Bill Russell with a record 12 and his 1960s dynasty teammate Sam Jones at 11. James and six-time NBA champion Abdul-Jabbar each reached 10 finals.
“When you talk about just a basketball player, a complete basketball player, LeBron James is a much better basketball player than Michael Jordan,” former Detroit guard Isiah Thomas told ESPN in 2018.
“What I’m witnessing is LeBron James… dominating this period of time. I haven’t seen anyone else do that in our league, with the exception of two people and that’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.”
While Russell and Abdul-Jabbar were giants who dominated inside the paint, Jordan and James were playmakers who could threaten to dominate from anywhere on the court.
Former NBA All-Star guard Gary Payton resisted picking among superstars from different times.
“I don’t compare them,” he said. “You’ve got two players who dominated their eras. Michael won six. So what? Eight straight finals is really good.”
NBA legend Dominique Wilkins said James has a mental edge similar to Jordan’s ability to turn any perceived slight into motivation.
“LeBron always had a size and agility advantage over players but also the mentality,” Wilkins said. “He basically said, ‘I can do whatever I want and whenever I want to do it’ throughout his career.”
‘Once in a generation’
Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback chasing his second Super Bowl crown on Sunday, was raised on classic Jordan games thanks to his father and gave a divided answer to the Jordan-James debate.
“If I had one game, I would take Michael Jordan or one series,” Mahomes told Fox Sports. “But I would say for a full entire season, I’ve got to go with LeBron because he can do a little bit of everything.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says high regard for fitness has enabled James to have the longevity to make history.
“LeBron has taken care of himself so well and he has been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years,” Popovich said. “His commitment to the game and to what he has to do has allowed him to be in this position.”
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a former championship teammate of Jordan, says James gets better with age.
“It’s pretty remarkable when you’ve got a guy who is already considered one of the top few players ever to play the game can make that much improvement late in his career,” Kerr said.
James is the only player to average a triple-double in an NBA Finals and to lead both finals teams in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of respect,” Warriors star Klay Thompson said of James. “It’s an honor to face LeBron. He’s a once-in-a-generation type player.”