Phil Jackson Cautiously Drops Wisdom on Jordan vs. James

It happened again last week, and it will keep happening. An age old query made since his Airness's retirement.  Anyone who was present for Michael Jordan’s reign, both former allies and past foes alike, have been asked incessantly. It’s a question one can’t always easily answer:  Is ______ _________ better than MJ?

So when Phil Jackson joined the "Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 Chicago’s radio show last week, it was inevitable he’d hear it.  While there has been a long list of hopefuls as the “Next Jordan”, the last decade provided us with two, legitimate contender’s to Jordan's GOAT status.  Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have been serious enough challengers that even most Jordan loyalists would admit so.

Kobe is, and has been widely regarded as the closest thing to MJ.  He holds that title because of several similarities.  First it’s his physical likeness to MJ, as both shaped what became the prototypical body for 2-guards: 6”6-6”7, lanky, athletic, yet strong guards.  Kobe’s offensive arsenal also mirrors MJ’s: both bearing fatal fade-away and pull-up jumpers, strong footwork and post-play, and an inclination to occasionally put people on posters.

Kobe’s body of work in the clutch is also indisputable and straight Jordan-esque,  while being consistently referred to as “a cold blooded assassin” more than any real cold blooded assassin would hope, referring to a vicious drive and will compared to MJ’s.  Jordan vs. Kobe is a classic Apple’s vs. Orange’s: preference rules, so if you happen to like oranges, then you think they’re better than apples.

Then there’s LeBron’s case.  Most phenom’s playing the guard positions are measured by Jordan’s mold, but with LeBron it’s different.  He isn’t compared to MJ because of his likeness to Jordan’s game.  He breaks that mold.  He controls a game like MJ did.  LeBron is 6”8 of svelte, chiseled, coordinated basketball machinery. He doesn't stick his tongue out because he chews on a mouth guard that he wears down much like his opponents. He defies position and can best be labeled as point-forward.

Jackson, whose prolific coaching career allowed him the longevity to witness all three at their respective peaks (MJ, KB, LBJ), was asked if LeBron “has the potential to be better than Michael Jordan.”

“He's got all the physical attributes,” answers Jackson about James.  He continues, “He is a player that can play four positions. Except for perhaps the center spot, which he hasn't given a shot at yet, he can play those other four positions quite well. This is unique; Michael could play three and was very good at all three of those, but as a power player that LeBron can become, I think he has an opportunity to explore and advance some of the status that he has already gained.”

The Zen-Master also warns that “Winning six championships is an elusive thing out there and they haven't won two yet,” and that “I think he's there, I think he's at that position. He's got good things ahead of him and a lot of it depends upon if he's gonna be healthy for the remainder of his career.”

LeBron has a distinct game, dissimilar to MJ and Kobe in that LeBron looks to pass first, and always has.  Even with that mindset, LeBron still boasts the 3rd highest all-time career PPG at 27 ppg (MJ, at 30 ppg, is of course first on that list).  So it’s not his game or mentality, but LeBron’s level of sheer dominance that has him being compared to MJ.  Finally for LeBron, it resulted in a ring.

Trying to fit LeBron in the MJ mold is largely why LeBron was viewed as failing in the past, falling short in drive, hunger, and clutch plays.  But perhaps no other perimeter players in NBA history can dominate a game, regardless of where on the 94x50 foot court, both offensively and defensively, with, or without the ball, like James and Jordan.  They both control almost every aspect of the basketball game and that’s what defines greatness for a guard in what was originally a game structured around the big men.

Jackson's answers express that sentiment exactly .  I love how the Zen-Master  educates us on two things: 1) only Jackson can maneuver around this question as gracefully (Scottie Pippen, please take notes), and 2) LeBron and MJ are different animals, and only time will tell if LeBron, or anyone else will combine personal achievement with the winning of six titles like MJ masterfully did.

Jackson doesn’t answer the question necessarily, but instead presents strength's that one was better at than the other , and offers hope that LeBron will stay healthy enough during his career to definitively answer such question.

The “Better than Jordan” notion, however,  is a question that while is fun to ask at times, needs to go away for good.  If Kobe vs. Jordan are Oranges vs. Apples, then LeBron is a hulking Pineapple in the analogy, and if you happen to like Pineapples, you've enjoyed LeBron’s past six months of ballin’.  Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron were/are each their own unique players.  While stats help put the argument on paper, the point is to enjoy what we’re experiencing for the once-in-a-generation art that it is.  Regardless of apples, oranges, or whatever crazy fruit you prefer (did I really just compare LeBron to a Pineapple just now?), please just enjoy the lot before they rot.


Thanks to the good folks at, you can read the transcript of the whole interview there.



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