Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?
Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.
We’re closing in on two decades of basketball from LeBron James, if you include those hyped-up (sometimes nationally televised) matchups from his prep days. That means nearly two decades of vicious dunks, passes no one else could make, and come-from-behind rejections pinned to the backboard or sent into the stands. Some will make the highlight reels, but a few we’ll never forget. In honor of Jordan-LeBron Week, the Ringer staff picked out some of their all-time favorite LeBron plays.
John Gonzalez: “Defense wins championships” is the sort of musty mothball phrase that uncles everywhere dust off for Thanksgiving conversations when someone dares to mention player efficiency ratings or the value of the corner 3. It’s an old axiom that’s easily mocked—to the point where even insurance companies score easy points by ragging on the saying in commercials. And yet, for all the amazing dunks and passes that LeBron has treated us to over the years, the play I think about most was his chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the waning moments in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
Look how far James travels on that play. When Iguodala takes the pass from Curry at the foul line, James is back at the 3-point arc—and still beats Iguodala to the rim. It was amazing to watch, and it helped deliver Cleveland a long-elusive championship. In that moment, defense really did win a championship. That’s how great LeBron is. Not only did he win a title, he made a cliché cool.
Punctuating a 48-Point Performance
Jonathan Tjarks: The most memorable play from one of the most dominant individual performances I’ve ever seen in a playoff game. LeBron scored the last 25 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, and he was dunking at will on one of the best defenses of all time by the end of it. There are a lot of great players who have game-winning jumpers. LeBron has game-winning dunks. A set defense should not give up a dunk in the last seconds of a playoff game. Young LeBron was just so big and so fast that there was nothing the Pistons could do to stop him.
Buzzer-Beater to Beat the Magic
Paolo Uggetti: A superstar athlete rarely surprises himself. The confidence required to perform at that high level makes even the greatest feats of athletic performance more affirmations than shock-inducing moments. This is why I love James’s game-winning 3-pointer against the Magic in the 2009 East Conference finals so much. The Cavs are down two and LeBron has only a second to catch and shoot a 3. He’s barely able to set his feet while falling away from the basket, and so he just chucks up a prayer. Even he was shocked that it went in.
For as much athletic ability and basketball IQ as he exudes, I always enjoy watching LeBron get hot from beyond the arc. LeBron’s always had an imperfect form from deep. The shots barely swish in, they don’t look smooth, and they seem to rattle in more often than most. This one was no different. But those imperfections makes this the perfect LeBron moment.
Dunking on Damon Jones’s Life
Danny Chau: LeBron’s singular athleticism has evolved just as much as he has in his 15 seasons in the league. But like with all the great physical anomalies in NBA history, there is nothing quite like witnessing the unbridled explosiveness of a star in his youth. Here is a young LeBron, in 2005, soul-reaving:
Here is what Damon Jones looked like trying to contest the dunk at the apex of his ascent:
Here, less than a split-second later, is what Jones looked like trying to contest the dunk at LeBron’s apex:
Jones manages an athletic feat that nearly rivals LeBron’s: I can’t say I’ve ever seen a person convey their regret in midair quicker. Jones turns away, essentially becoming a human step ladder. It was absolutely vicious, and it was one of the best LeBron dunks ever. The next offseason, Jones would take precautionary steps to prevent this from ever happening to him again: He signed with the Cavs. The two have been close ever since.
The Perfect Dunk
Justin Verrier: Behold the power of photography:
The play that produced this amazing picture (taken by the AP’s Morry Gash) was pretty routine for the Big Three–era Miami Heat: a steal, a breakaway, a no-look dump-off pass for an easy dunk. But in this one image, you can find virtually everything that made LeBron’s run in Miami so memorable. LeBron, one of the elite in-game dunkers in league history, levitates like Magneto and strikes a pose worthy of a new NBA logo. Wade rips off an ultimate “nobody can fuck with us” pose—before James has even finished his ascent. And poor Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might as well be speaking for the 29 other teams with the dejection written on his face. This Heat team may wind up as one of the most important in league history, considering all it wrought, and this image will likely endure as the way we represent that time.
GTFOH, Steph Curry
Haley O’Shaughnessy: My absolute favorite play from LeBron’s career, a shining star of his power and will, came during the penultimate Game 6 of the 2016 Finals. His overall performance during games 4-7 is the greatest athletic feat I’ve ever witnessed from an NBA player, and I’ll always remember when a fiery, frustrated Stephen Curry had the ball at the perimeter late in the fourth quarter of Game 6, with the Cavs blowing out the Warriors. LeBron switched onto him. Curry drove, trying to pull his “this will magically go in and defy all we know to be true about layups” trick, with LeBron trailing a step behind.
Almost instantly after the ball left Curry’s grasp, LeBron spiked it with his left hand. What follows is the most ferocious trash talk of the entire series: LeBron turned over his left shoulder, mean-mugged Curry, and let out a couple of words your mom would slap you for saying.