Who is the GOAT: LeBron or Jordan? Current players weigh in

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Some debates deserve a stage of their own.

So while our (anonymous) NBA player poll was released Monday, with a record 142 players weighing in on some of the most interesting questions surrounding their league, we decided to dive even deeper into the age-old GOAT discussion because there’s a fascinating voting trend that simply must be explored.

While Michael Jordan won the “Greatest of All Time” category for the third consecutive time, his once-massive lead over LeBron James has shrunk significantly with every passing poll. This time around, James almost took the mantle. The data speaks loud and clear…

  • 2019 (the first time The Athletic conducted the poll): Jordan earned 73 percent of the votes, with James second at 11.9 percent (a gap of 61.1 percentage points)
  • 2023: Jordan earned 58.3 percent of the votes, with James second at 33 percent (a gap of 25.3 percent)
  • 2024: Jordan earned 45.9 percent of the votes, with James second at 42.1 percent (a gap of just 3.8 percent)

But why has Jordan’s lead shrunk so much? We wanted to let the players themselves explain.

The consistent rationale among LeBron voters, both old and new, is that his longevity is the ultimate difference-maker between the two. He’ll be 40 years old on Dec. 30, yet is still great enough to be widely considered one of the best players in today’s game. While Jordan was epic in his 14-year career, from his 6-0 record in the NBA Finals to his five Most Valuable Player awards and his incredible two-way play, many players shared the view that James’ ability to remain elite for more than two decades puts him over the top.

Jordan, to review, retired twice (in 1993 and 1998) during his storied career and played 14 seasons in a 19-year span. When he was James’ age, in the last of his two forgettable seasons in Washington, he was putting up good numbers on a bad Wizards team that went 37-45 in both of his postseason-less campaigns. James, meanwhile, has saved some of his best work for last:

  • He broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record on Feb. 7, 2023
  • He led the Los Angeles Lakers to the Western Conference finals three months later
  • He led the Lakers to an (inaugural) In-Season Tournament title in December
  • He became the first player to be named to a 20th All-Star team in February
  • He was one of three players to average at least 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds this season (the others were Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić)

Out of respect for the GOAT incumbent, we’ll begin by highlighting this nuanced opinion from a Jordan voter who believes MJ’s influence on the entire sports world — not just basketball — is a deciding X-factor.

“The greatest ever is LeBron James, (but) the greatest of all time is Michael Jordan,” the player said. “The difference is stats. When you talk about impact, Michael Jordan. When you talk about stats and numbers, LeBron. Mike has the most impact, so that makes him the greatest ever in all aspects because he doesn’t just impact basketball. He impacts people who look up to him in tennis and football. But you won’t hear that about LeBron. … LeBron changed the game, but more so how it’s played. Jordan changed how it’s viewed. And that’s a big difference.”

Yet as the many LeBron voters detailed below, it goes much deeper than that for them. The microphone is theirs:


“I think what Jordan did in (14) years is crazy, but you’d have to add a whole lot of other things (for him to catch up with James). I think we got MVP fatigue with ‘Bron. I think he should have like seven (MVPs, rather than four). I think ‘Bron should have D-Rose’s (Derrick Rose) MVP (in 2010-11). I think he should have KD’s (Kevin Durant) MVP (in 2013-14). I think he should have James Harden’s MVP (in 2017-18). There’s a lot of MVPs he should have had.”


“Who would I draft in an all-time draft? That’s the way I look at it, you know what I’m saying? Some people look at it like, ‘Who do I want taking the last shot?’ Blah, blah, blah, all this other sh–. But in an all-time draft, I’m choosing LeBron. Why? I get 20 years of greatness, and I get somebody who plays one through five (point guard through center). And let me just say, the person I choose No. 2 would be Shaq (O’Neal), the most dominant player of all time. So in my GOAT debate, I would go 1-2 like that. And this is coming from a Kobe (Bryant) fan.

“Winning, era-wise, is tough. And obviously, you’ve got Mike as the killer. But then, how does he (adjust to the rise of) the 3-point shot? There are questions if we take off the Teflon MJ cloak. If you took players from right now and put them back then, we’re faster, stronger, more skilled. We’d kill them. It is what it is. Part of the reason Michael was Michael was he was the first of this generation’s athletes: 6-foot-6, 40-inch vertical, which back in the ’80s was insane. But we’ve got rookies and role players doing that nowadays. ‘Bron is 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, with a 50-inch vertical. That’s probably what it’s gonna look like in 2045. And then we’re gonna be looking at it like, ‘I don’t know if I could play with those little kids.’ (Nowadays) in high school, people are taking off from the free-throw line and windmill dunking on people. When I was in school, barely finishing a windmill was a thing. … Now, it’s like these kids are windmilling on kids, doing it in eighth grade. It’s part of evolution. And even with basketball, once people see sh– is possible, they try to do it. When I was a kid, Kobe barely did the through-the-legs dunk. That’s what we aspired to do. Now people are looking at Zach LaVine and the free-throw line 360 and other wild sh–. … It’s part of how this sh– grows.”


“(LeBron) for sure. I think him being able to literally do everything and win (titles) with so many different organizations (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Lakers) and also having the most points in his career, along with figuring out how to have longevity in his career. Everybody’s looking to have longevity, and he figured it out. He figured it out at the highest level. It doesn’t make any sense.”


“LeBron James is without a doubt the greatest player to ever touch a basketball. What he brings to the court, and for long he has, that’s my thing.”


“I’d say LeBron. Just to be able to do it for 20 years, it’s insane. I think it’s more of a longevity thing that you have to look at there, and (how) still every year he’s playing at the highest level. With the highest expectations (placed on him), he had everything to lose in terms of coming into the league. It would’ve been very easy for him to underachieve and not meet those expectations, I think he’s far surpassed them, all of them, somehow. … Being on the floor, the closer you are to the game, the more of a sense (you get) for how great LeBron is, how he sees things, how he talks. His impact on the game, his gravity on the game is felt.”


“(LeBron), easily. He’s the best at everything, His longevity, his consistency, his availability. And he’s won.”


“For me, personally, growing up, (James) has just been the pinnacle. Being a Midwest kid, I remember him being in Ohio at (St. Vincent-St. Mary High School), and I’m hearing about him as a young kid. And just seeing him come up and seeing him do everything that he’s done since he’s been in the league has just been amazing. It’s a testament to him and all the hard work. It’s not normal what he’s doing. At all.”


“Longevity, consistency for 20 years-plus.”


Required reading

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; top photos of LeBron James and Michael Jordan: Justin Tafoya, Nathaniel S. Butler / Getty Images)





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