Is LeBron Better Than Jordan Because LeBron Faced Tougher Competition?

(Note: This is an older post that I never completed until recently.)

The clip below features Colin Cowherd rebutting the claim that Michael Jordan faced tougher competition than LeBron. Before I say anything else, I’m wondering if you guys agree or disagree with this. I disagree with Cowherd, and I want to address, or more like attempt to rebut, Cowherd’s argument. I’ll do that after the clip.

Let’s begin with a short version of my rebuttal–namely, Jordan played in era of great centers. I might be going too far, but I feel like that fact alone comes close to proving that Jordan faced tougher competition–or played under tougher conditions, which is really the main point. As I hope to show below, that one detail, if true, could almost by itself mean that Jordan faced tougher competition–or at least tougher challenges than LeBron. There is a huge difference between a league with a few great centers and one with barely any centers at all, let alone a few great ones.

I’m going to flesh this out, but I want to address Cowherd’s approach of listing the teams Jordan faced in ’93, which I assume is one of Jordan’s best years. Cowherd lists the teams and then points out how weak they are offensively, but that’s a very narrow way of evaluating the quality of the teams. The Knicks never had great offensive talent, but they were a great defensive team (although I’m not sure if Riley transformed them into that team by then). I wonder if Cowherd thinks LeBron would dominate against the Knicks or if he’d struggle, particularly with the rules back then. I think the latter is more likely. And while Ewing was a tier below the all-time great centers, if he played now I think he’d dominate. Who would stop him? Add Oakley and Mason and they would dominate the boards on both ends.

Now, Cowherd points out that the all current teams have players, at all positions, that can shoot the three. Fair point. Whether this means LeBron and his teammates played better teams or not is another question (one I wouldn’t agree with), but Cowherd goes on to compare LeBron’s numbers to Jordan. I fail to see how an opponent with good three point shooters would adversely affect LeBron’s numbers. On the other hand, I definitely believe playing against a good defensive team with a good center, especially with the rules in the 80s and 90s would hurt one’s numbers. Could you see LeBron’s numbers if he had to play against Riley’s Knicks, the Detroit Bad Boys, Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, and Parrish-McHale’s Celtics? I definitely could, and I would guess that it would. What if Jordan played against the teams LeBron faced? Would you expect his numbers to go down? I wouldn’t–I’d expect to go up, especially with the current rules.

6 thoughts on “Is LeBron Better Than Jordan Because LeBron Faced Tougher Competition?

  1. It’s impossible to compare eras. I agree with the fact that Lebron would probably struggle more against the old Knicks and Pistons than any team out there now. But that’s more based on style of play than how good those teams were. The Knicks and Pistons would get run off the court by Golden State. It’s just that Lebron plays an older style, where he needs to get inside and bang and he gets a lot of garbage points just by out-physically guys.

    The other thing I would point out is today’s centers. Yes there are a few teams that don’t play with true fives. And there are few fives that can play inside offensively. But they are some good if not great defensive fives that do well in today’s game that would be unbelievable in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s almost like if I cannot get a five that can contribute offensively, I just get one that can play good defense. Guys like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, and Hassan Whiteside all fall in the category of defensive specialist. You add guys like Anthony Davis, the Greek Freak, and Joel Embiid to that list and that’s a good list of defenders in any generation.

    I think the point I’ve heard about Jordan’s competition (not from Cowherd) was Jordan’s rise came at the fall of the other great teams, like the Lakers and Pistons. They faced the Jazz and Suns, who were not all time great teams. The biggest competition was probably the Knicks? Whereas everyone points to Golden State as competition for Lebron. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but again it’s hard to compare eras.

    Today’s game (last couple years) is moving back to the 70’s, where offense is king, so obviously Jordan’s numbers would go up. But if Jordan played five years ago, I would tend to think his numbers would stay about the same. The rules are easier for offensive players, but the physical abilities of today’s players compared to when Jordan was one of the few that would lift weights is crazy. Jordan against the Lebron that would play defense would be unreal. Guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, even Rondo would make Jordan work. Of course nobody could stop Jordan, but Jordan would wear himself out playing against the defenders of today.

  2. I agree with the fact that Lebron would probably struggle more against the old Knicks and Pistons than any team out there now. But that’s more based on style of play than how good those teams were.

    Maybe I misunderstood Cowherd, but his position that LeBron is better than Jordan is based on their numbers. If LeBron’s numbers would decrease if he played against the teams Jordan faced, while Jordan’s numbers would stay the same or increase if he played against the teams LeBron faced, then that weakens Cowherd’s arguments.

    The Knicks and Pistons would get run off the court by Golden State.

    Really? But when a fast team plays against a slow team, who has more success at controlling the tempo? Based on what I’ve seen, the slow team generally can slow the game down more than the fast team can speed up the game for a slow team. This is especially true in the post season. You don’t agree with that?

    It’s just that Lebron plays an older style, where he needs to get inside and bang and he gets a lot of garbage points just by out-physically guys.

    I don’t know if what you say is true or not, but I don’t think he’d be able do that against the best 80s and 90s teams (particularly the ones with really good 4s and 5s).

    Guys like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, and Hassan Whiteside all fall in the category of defensive specialist. You add guys like Anthony Davis, the Greek Freak, and Joel Embiid to that list and that’s a good list of defenders in any generation.

    I haven’t watched those guys, so I can’t comment. Is it your impression that the teams that they play for also play really good defense, and would you compare their defense with great defenses in the past? My overall impression is that the defenses now aren’t that good.

    I think the point I’ve heard about Jordan’s competition (not from Cowherd) was Jordan’s rise came at the fall of the other great teams, like the Lakers and Pistons. They faced the Jazz and Suns, who were not all time great teams.

    Well, it’s important to note that Jordan’s rise took a while. How long did it take before he wont a championship? But that’s not all on him, and even though he didn’t win, he was still great. If LeBron game into the NBA in 1984, would he have put up similar numbers as Jordan? My guess is that he wouldn’t. He’s not as good of a penetrator, and the paint would be clogged.

    The rules are easier for offensive players, but the physical abilities of today’s players compared to when Jordan was one of the few that would lift weights is crazy. Jordan against the Lebron that would play defense would be unreal. Guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, even Rondo would make Jordan work. Of course nobody could stop Jordan, but Jordan would wear himself out playing against the defenders of today.

    I agree that players are more athletic–and they also are better ball handlers, and more players can shoot the 3 pointer–but I tend to think the increased athleticism and strength is overrated. You’ve also got to have skill and the understanding of the game. Look at Bird. Even if his defender was more athletic and more strength, that didn’t seem to be enough to stop him. (By the way, do you recall match-ups between Bird and Rodman? I don’t remember many or Rodman giving Bird a hard time. I would think if anyone could give Bird trouble, Rodman would be the guy. Or even Pippen.) Do you think Bird wouldn’t do as well if he played now? Not only do I think he’d do as well, but I tend to think he’d do even better. In today’s NBA, Bird could play as a 4, and I think he’d kill in the post.

    1. Based on what I’ve seen, the slow team generally can slow the game down more than the fast team can speed up the game for a slow team. This is especially true in the post season. You don’t agree with that?

      I think Golden State could do a check ball (ie: no fast breaks) and play half court and the Knicks and Pistons still would struggle to stay with them.

      Is it your impression that the teams that they play for also play really good defense, and would you compare their defense with great defenses in the past? My overall impression is that the defenses now aren’t that good.

      Yeah I know defenses are not as effective as those Knicks and Piston defenses. And you made the comment as to that is how the NFL is, but these things are cyclical so it’s hard to say if it’s more to do with those cycles or more to do with bad defensive play.

      Do you think Bird wouldn’t do as well if he played now?

      I think Bird’s talent is transcendent, so it’s hard to say. But if he had to face Rodman night in and night out, and he would definitely see something closer to that in today’s game, it could wear on him.

      Just as sort of a side note, the league has transformed in the last couple years or even more evident this year. Scoring is like it was in the 70’s where teams can reach 140 and teams are averaging over 120. I think there aren’t any teams averaging less than a 100. Whereas when Lebron was with the Heat there were few teams averaging 100. So of course numbers of individuals will go up as well and defenses will look even worse.

  3. I think Golden State could do a check ball (ie: no fast breaks) and play half court and the Knicks and Pistons still would struggle to stay with them.

    How do you envision that playing out? Are you thinking the shooters for G-State would just be too overwhelming? Wouldn’t you say that in terms of rebounding, the Knicks and Pistons would have a clear and significant advantage?

    Yeah I know defenses are not as effective as those Knicks and Piston defenses. And you made the comment as to that is how the NFL is, but these things are cyclical so it’s hard to say if it’s more to do with those cycles or more to do with bad defensive play.

    I don’t know what you mean by offering “cycles” or “bad defense” as the two options. If the answer is “cycles,” is the defense not as bad? ?

    I think Bird’s talent is transcendent, so it’s hard to say. But if he had to face Rodman night in and night out, and he would definitely see something closer to that in today’s game, it could wear on him.

    You mean, there are a lot of defenders that are in a similar ballpark as Rodman?

    Just as sort of a side note, the league has transformed in the last couple years or even more evident this year. Scoring is like it was in the 70’s where teams can reach 140 and teams are averaging over 120. I think there aren’t any teams averaging less than a 100. Whereas when Lebron was with the Heat there were few teams averaging 100. So of course numbers of individuals will go up as well and defenses will look even worse.

    But are the defenses good, but the offenses are just that much better, or are the defenses just really bad?

    When LeBron was with the Heat and they played the Spurs in the finals, I thought the Heat could go through stretches where they were a really, really good defensive team (especially when you consider defending all the three point shots). They didn’t always play at that level in my view, but when they did, they were really good–maybe comparable to great defenses in the past (although I’m not sure how they’d look against teams with a great center). Are there defenses now playing at a similar level?

  4. Golden State is not really a fast break team. They get baskets on secondary breaks, but even then I wouldn’t say that’s a huge forte of theirs. They execute in the half court. I will also say that it’s a misnomer that Golden State is a team that just takes long shots. I heard they are in the bottom half of the league in three points attempted. I will also add, that they don’t necessarily get a lot of second chance points. Are you saying the Knicks and Pistons are better equipped to stop Golden State than any team today or any team in the last five years? Other than being able to rebound, why would you say that? They are smarter on defense than teams today?

    To me there are more guys like Rodman today, than before. A guy like Capela or Whiteside could defend Bird today, whereas a center in the 80’s couldn’t. So that pool of guys is just larger for one and the guys are just more athletic today. You don’t think the Cleveland or Miami Lebron could guard guys in the Rodman vein?

    So in the NFL today, are the defenses really bad or the offenses good? And how do you know with certainty? I do not know which it is in the NBA, but I know it at least look like the defenses are trying versus what I see when I watch 70’s NBA. The biggest thing I’ve seen in the NBA in terms of defense is most (if not all) teams are switching all picks. Teams are done with hedging and rotating and leaving guys open. So good or bad, that is definitely something you see less of.

  5. I actually agree with most of your characterization of G-State. But here’s why I said what I said. Ultimately, I think they’re more like a transition team–specifically a team that relies heavily on offense. In a way, they also can play like Big 10 half-court offense, utilizing a lot of ball and player movement/cuts, and they generate shots from all of this, more than one-on-one play. But I think an opponent takes the air of out the ball, pounds the ball inside, and can really defend and rebound, this would not favor the Warriors. If the Warriors could defend and rebound really well, I might change my view.

    But even if this were true, their style of offense versus one that relies on penetration or post play would not be a good match up in my view. I don’t think G-State just takes 3s, but if their perimeter game struggles, the offense would be in trouble in my view. I feel like the reliance on jumpers is partly what makes them streaky. If they’re going against a team that pounds the ball in the middle or has good one-on-one players–and can defend and rebound–that’s not a good situation for them. And this situation would be similar to typical fast-breaking teams (i.e., they’re not that great in the half court, not that strong on defense).

    Are you saying the Knicks and Pistons are better equipped to stop Golden State than any team today or any team in the last five years? Other than being able to rebound, why would you say that? They are smarter on defense than teams today?

    I wouldn’t choose intelligence as the quality to distinguish the defenses. Usually, what separates defenses are effort, teamwork, and execution. A coach has to implement this and get their players to buy in. You also need players with the physical tools as well.

    Also, wouldn’t you agree that rebounding is a big deal, especially if a team is significantly better. I suspect you don’t think the older teams are significantly better? One of the reasons I believe the older good teams are better is that they had good centers and power forwards (versus stretch forwards). Is it me, or does it seem like almost every stretch forward sucks at defense and rebounding? Take someone like Dirk Nowitski. Given his height, he seems pretty bad as a rebounder, especially when they’re aren’t a lot of great 4s and 5s. Now, height isn’t everything, but still, if you have a height advantage, I tend to think that should translate to better rebounding.

    You don’t think the Cleveland or Miami Lebron could guard guys in the Rodman vein?

    Oh, I do. I tend to think that LeBron is overrated in several areas, but defense is not one of them. I don’t think he really faced a 3 that can move without the ball or a really good post player, but I tend to think he would do well against them. I would put him on par with Scottie Pippen (and I think Pippen was an excellent defender). The thing is, I don’t see a lot of defenders that are good as LeBron. (I’ll try to keep my eye on Whiteside and Capela.)

    So in the NFL today, are the defenses really bad or the offenses good? And how do you know with certainty?

    I like that I have to examine why I feel this way, and while I wouldn’t say I’m “certain,” I do feel fairly confident about my position. Off the top of my head, here are my thoughts:

    1. Good defense is characterized by positioning, coordination, and effort. If we see significant lapses (e.g., blown coverages), and that happens too often, I tend to think that’s a sign of bad defense, not a sign of really good offense. How often is an offense so good that they can create really great running lanes or really wide open targets, in spite of a good defensive opponent? That seems pretty rare to me. Instead, a sign of really good offense, in my view, generally seems to involve playing well inspite of a defense being in good position, playing with a lot of effort, and displaying talent.

    2. If a defense played great against average or poor teams, but then didn’t do as well against great offenses, we could conclude one or two things. One, the defense is not really that good, or, two, the offense is just vastly superior. The thing is, even the good defenses have not looked good against less than great teams (e.g, Vikings against the Bills), and these aren’t one-off situations, either. This leads to a third point.

    3. Inconsistency. The Chiefs, Rams, and Saints seem to have consistently good, if not dominant, offenses. There really doesn’t sem to be a defensive equivalent of that. That is not a good sign to me. I tend to think consistency is closely related to greatness. That is, if you’re very inconsistent, you’re not really great.

    I’m not 100% sure about these thoughts, and I’m interested in hearing if you agree or disagree with my thinking.

    I do not know which it is in the NBA, but I know it at least look like the defenses are trying versus what I see when I watch 70’s NBA.

    70s? Do you have a good idea about those teams? It’s hard for me to gauge the quality of defenses and offenses during that decade.

    The biggest thing I’ve seen in the NBA in terms of defense is most (if not all) teams are switching all picks. Teams are done with hedging and rotating and leaving guys open. So good or bad, that is definitely something you see less of.

    What’s a bigger deal are things like the degree to which shots are contested and to what degree. How difficult is it to even pass the ball, how much pressure is put on the dribbler. These are things I would be looking for.

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