The GOAT debate between Michael Jordan and LeBron James has no expiration date.
Minutes after James finished his 20th NBA season, James sent the NBA into a frenzy with a stunning press conference in which he said he was 'uncertain' about returning for his 21st season. Though most just assumed James would return — and he still might! — a suddenly unstable future opens up the all-time legacy chatter.
Which of course means comparisons to MJ, which have not stopped since the Sports Illustrated cover was released on Feb. 18, 2002. Perhaps that is yet another way to compare the legacies of Jordan and James. In other words, let's try to debate this yet another way.
Start with their final season of high school. That would be Year 0 in this exercise, with Jordan at Laney High School in 1981 and James at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2003. Now, compare each season in chronological order from there.
For Jordan, that means three years at North Carolina before a NBA career where he retired twice between stints with the Bulls and Wizards. Throw in the minor league baseball foray and end-of-year comeback following the 'I'm Back' fax, and we can still match 20 seasons with James.
We scored each season there like a boxing match. Who wins more seasons: Jordan or LeBron? It's a different spin on an endless argument with subjective results, but we think the conclusion is close:
Year 0: 1981 Jordan vs. 2003 LeBron
Jordan averages 26.8 points per game in his season as a senior at Laney High School and set a then-McDonald's All-American Game record with 30 points. James averages 29.2 points per game and leads Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to the Division II high school state championship. James scores 27 points while wearing "32" instead of "23" at the McDonald's All American game and is the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.
Winner: LeBron. Did we mention he was an All-Ohio receiver in football, too?
Scorecard: Jordan 0, James 1
Year 1: 1982 Jordan vs. 2004 LeBron
Jordan averages 13.5 points as a freshman at North Carolina. He is part of an unforgettable moment with the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game against Georgetown. James averages 20.9 points per game and 5.9 assists. He won NBA Rookie of the Year honors for Cleveland, which finished 35-47.
Winner: Jordan. The college national title is a hidden championship in the debate.
Scorecard: Jordan 1, James 1
Year 2: 1983 Jordan vs. 2005 LeBron
Jordan earns All-American and SN Player of the year honors as a sophomore at North Carolina. He averages 20 PPG The Tar Heels lost to eventual national champion NC State in the ACC tournament and Georgia in the Sweet 16. James finishes third in the NBA with 27.2 PPG and makes his first All-Star appearances, but the Cavaliers just miss the playoffs.
Winner: LeBron. The only players who scored more points that season were Allen Iverson (30.7) and Kobe Bryant (27.6).
Scorecard: Jordan 1, James 2
Year 3: 1984 Jordan vs. 2006 LeBron
Jordan averages 19.6 PPG for North Carolina and repeats as All-American and SN Player of the Year. The Bulls take Jordan with the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft, and his popularity soars after leading the U.S. men's basketball team to the gold medal in the Summer Olympics. James averages 31.4 PPG, wins the NBA All-Star Game MVP and leads Cleveland to the Eastern Conference semifinals, but the Pistons won in seven games.
Winner: Jordan. It's close, but the impact of that gold-medal performance resonates more than pushing Detroit to seven games.
Scorecard: Jordan 2, James 2
Year 4: 1985 Jordan vs. 2007 LeBron
Jordan scores 28.2 points per game, wins NBA Rookie of the Year honors and leads Chicago to the first round of the NBA playoffs. James averages 27.3 PPG for a 50-win Cleveland team that makes a run to the NBA Finals. San Antonio sweeps the Cavaliers.
Winner: LeBron. The 48-point performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit seals it.
Scorecard: Jordan 2, James 3
Year 5: 1986 Jordan vs. 2008 LeBron
Jordan breaks his foot in the third game of the regular season and does not return until late in the season – though he does set a playoff record with 63 points in Game 2 of the first round series against Boston and leaves Larry Bird dropping an all-time quote.
James wins the NBA scoring title with 30 PPG and his second All-Star Game MVP award., but the Cavs lost in seven games to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. James is part of the "Redeem Team" that wins the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Consider Olympic Gold the tiebreaker for two all-time playoff performances between the GOATs.
Winner: LeBron. He scored 45 points in that 97-92 loss to Boston in Game 7.
Scorecard: Jordan 2, James 4
Year 6: 1987 Jordan vs. 2009 LeBron
Jordan takes the scoring title, wins the Slam Dunk Contest and leads the Bulls to the NBA playoffs, where they were swept by Boston again. James averages 28.4 PPG and wins his first NBA MVP award. The Cavs lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals in six games.
Winner: Jordan. Yes, James won the NBA MVP, but Jordan averaged 37.1 PPG – the fifth highest total in NBA history and most by any player since Wilt Chamberlain. That stands today.
Scorecard: Jordan 3, James 4
Year 7: 1988 Jordan vs. 2010 LeBron
Jordan repeats as Slam Dunk Contest champion in the legendary duel with Dominique Wilkins and follows up with the NBA All-Star Game MVP. He wins the NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year and averaged 35 PPG to win the NBA scoring title. The Bulls lost in the second round to the Pistons. James averages 29.7 PPG and wins his second MVP award, but the Cavs lose in the second round to the Celtics. That precipitated James' move from Cleveland to Miami.
Winner: Jordan. It's another close call, but James loses points for "The Decision."
Scorecard: Jordan 4, James 4
Year 8: 1989 Jordan vs. 2011 LeBron
Jordan wins a third straight NBA scoring title with 32.5 PPG, hits "The Shot" against Cleveland in the first round of the NBA playoffs and reaches the Eastern Conference finals, where the Bulls lost in six games to the Pistons. James leads the Heat with 27.1 PPG, and Miami barrels through the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Mavericks beat the Heat in six games in the NBA Finals.
Winner: LeBron. Considering the pressure after the move to Miami, getting the Heat to the NBA Finals is the difference maker here.
Scorecard: Jordan 4, James 5
Year 9: 1990 Jordan vs. 2012 LeBron
Jordan won a fourth straight scoring title with 33.6 PPG, but the Bulls lost to the Pistons in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. James averaged 27.1 PPG, won his third NBA MVP award and won his first NBA championship against the Oklahoma City Thunder.. James is NBA Finals MVP, and he leads the U.S. men's basketball team to another gold medal at the Summer Olympics.
Winner: LeBron. Do not forget about the unforgettable 45-point performance against Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals – which spawned a meme that remains in use today.
Scorecard: Jordan 4, James 6
Year 10: 1991 Jordan vs. 2013 LeBron
Jordan averages 31.5 PPG and won his second NBA MVP award. He finally leads the Bulls past the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, and Chicago beats the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. James averages 26.8 PPG, wins the NBA Awards and leads Heat to back-to-back NBA Finals championships with a seven-game victory against the Spurs.
Winner: Jordan. This is arguably the most difficult decision on this list because it is the only time both win a championship. The Bulls were 15-2 in the playoffs. The Heat were 16-7. Advantage MJ.
Scorecard: Jordan 5, James 6
Year 11: 1992 Jordan vs. 2014 LeBron
Jordan averages 30.1 for a sixth straight scoring title and wins his third NBA MVP award.. The Bulls finish 67-15 and cruise to a second straight NBA championship by beating Portland in six games in the 1992 NBA Finals. Jordan then leads the "Dream Team" to the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. James averages 27.2 PPG, but the Heat lost to San Antonio in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Winner: Jordan. "The Shrug" goes here.
Scorecard: Jordan 6, James 6
Year 12: 1993 Jordan vs. 2015 LeBron
Jordan leads the NBA in scoring with 32.6 PPG Charles Barkley wins the NBA MVP, but Jordan leads the Bulls to a three-peat by beating Phoenix in six games in the 1993 NBA Finals. James returns to Cleveland and averages 25.3 PPG The Cavaliers see a 20-game improvement and reach the NBA Finals before losing to Golden State in six games.
Winner: Jordan. This one also is close, but the championship is the separator.
Scorecard: Jordan 7, James 6
Year 13: 1994 Jordan vs. 2016 LeBron
On Oct. 6, 1993 – a few months after his father James was murdered – Jordan retires from the NBA. He turns to baseball and plays 124 games with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Jordan hits .202 with three homers and 51 RBIs. James, who averages 25.3 PPG, leads the Cavaliers to a 57-25 record and a return visit to the NBA Finals against Golden State. This time, the Cavaliers rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors, and James' block of Andre Igoudala is one of the signature plays. James ends Cleveland's 52-year championship drought.
Winner: LeBron. "Cleveland, this is for you."
Scorecard: Jordan 7, James 7
Year 14: 1995 Jordan vs. 2017 LeBron
Jordan returns to the NBA on March 18, 1995, with a now legendary fax that simply reads: "I'm back." Jordan plays 17 games – including his 55-point performance against the Knicks – but the Magic beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. James averages 26.4 PPG. And leads the NBA in minutes per game (37.8). The Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals and lose to Golden State in five games.
Winner: LeBron. The Warriors were simply too much with Kevin Durant on board, but James averaged 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the five-game series.
Scorecard: Jordan 7, James 8
Year 15: 1996 Jordan vs. 2018 LeBron
Jordan – with a full offseason to prepare – leads Chicago to a 72-10 record in the regular season. Jordan averages 30.4 PPG, and the Bulls beat the Sonics in six games – with the close-out game coming on Father's Day. James averages 27.5 points and plays in all 82 games in his final season with Cleveland. The Cavailers are swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals.
Winner: Jordan. This is the best single-season team in NBA history.
Scorecard: Jordan 8, James 8
Year 16: 1997 Jordan vs. 2019 LeBron
Jordan keeps the Bulls rolling. He averages 29.6 PPG, and Chicago finishes 69-13. The Bulls win back-to-back NBA championships after knocking out the Jazz in six games. James averages 27.4 PPG in his first season with the Lakers. Los Angeles finishes 37-45 and fails to reach the NBA playoffs.
Winner: Jordan. MJ's buzzer-beater in Game 1 of the NBA Finals set the tone for the series.
Scorecard: Jordan 9, James 8
Year 17: 1998 Jordan vs. 2020 LeBron
Jordan scores 28.7 PPG, earns All-Star Game MVP honors, wins his fifth MVP award and takes Chicago to the NBA Finals as part of the "Last Dance." The Bulls defeat the Jazz in six games, and Jordan's go-ahead shot seals the Game 6 victory. James averages 25.3 points and a career-high 10.2 rebounds, but the season is interrupted by COVID-19. James wins his fourth championship with a victory in the 2020 NBA Finals, which were played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Bay Lake, Fla.
Winner: Jordan. The image of the final shot at the Delta Center still stands.
Scorecard: Jordan 10, James 8
Year 18: 1999 Jordan vs. 2021 LeBron
Jordan retires on Jan. 13, a week before the NBA lockout ended. He accepts a position with the Washington Wizards as part-owner and president of basketball operations later that month. James averages 25 PPG in 45 games, and the Lakers lose to Phoenix in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
Winner: LeBron. This season will not be cited much by either side. Jordan fans will cry we included it at all.
Scorecard: Jordan 10, James 9
Year 19: 2002 Jordan vs. 2022 LeBron
Jordan returns to the NBA with the Wizards as a player. Jordan averages 22.9 PPG in 60 games. Washington finishes 37-45, an 18-game improvement from the previous season. James averages 30.3 PPG in 56 games for the Lakers in a forgettable season where the franchise finishes 33-49. Coach Frank Vogel is fired.
Winner: Jordan. At 38 years old, Jordan proved he could play at an All-Star level after a three-year layoff.
Scorecard: Jordan 11, James 9
Year 20: 2003 Jordan vs. 2023 LeBron
Jordan averages 20 PPG and plays in all 82 games in final season in the NBA. The Wizards miss the playoffs with a 37-45 record. James plays in 55 regular-season games, but he still averages 28.9 points per game, breaks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record and leads the Lakers to the Western Conference finals against Denver.
Winner: LeBron. The Lakers have made an impressive run from the No. 7 seed to beat the Grizzlies in the first round and the Warriors in the second round.
Final scorecard: Jordan 11, LeBron 10
What does your scorecard look like?
This is the subjective part. The toughest ones to pick were Year 2, Year 6 and Year 10, all of which went to Jordan in this exercise.
The score-sheet reflects the crux of this debate. James entered the league with higher expectations and delivered sooner, but Jordan's three-year college career gets lost in those comparisons. James reached the NBA Finals sooner.
Jordan's prime – and that eight-year window that produced six NBA championships – is hard to top. When you match those year by year – James reached the NBA Finals seven times in the same window. Jordan was 6-0. James was 3-4.
James' longevity – with no retirement stints – is making it more difficult just to rely on that six-championship stretch for Jordan. This year's run to the Western Conference finals is evidence that James could still play at a high level in his 40s.
This scorecard will change in the future, but in the present tense Jordan still has a slight edge.