Almost since the moment the clock hit triple zeros in game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan conversations have only intensified. And it’s not going to change any time soon. So if you’re annoyed and tired of the topic, no matter whose side you’re on, get used to it. Unless you plan on avoiding the litany of debate shows on ESPN and Fox Sports.
The latest chapter is a hypothetical about how and when LeBron will take over as the Greatest Of All Time from MJ.
Case in point, last week Fox Sports One NBA Analyst Chris Broussard said on Fox Sports’ “Undisputed with Skip and Shannon”, that it will happen if James wins the next two NBA Championships, for a Cavs three-peat, giving him five total championship rings. The prevalent thought is that he would’ve beaten a better more talented team in the Golden State Warriors with four perennial all-stars. Assuming the Dubs make it to the Finals four consecutive season as well. Broussard, as well as Shannon Sharpe, said MJ “didn’t beat anyone” to win his titles, and that the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers were old and worn out by the time those Chicago Bulls teams reached their peak. I think that’s as ridiculous of a hot take as I’ve ever heard.
If I were on the show, I would’ve fired back… “were the Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed & Ben Wallace-led Pistons who had played in five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, two NBA Finals, winning one (2004), before losing to the ’07 Cleveland Cavs old?”
The previous variable used to compare the two use to be that LBJ accomplished more at a younger age than MJ, which I always thought was dumb because one came straight out of high school, while the other played three years of college ball. The only fair comparison would be years of service which I did back in 2013. So now in order to prop James’ legacy up, people want to diminish the competition Jordan faced.
Not only did those 90’s Bulls beat very good teams in the Finals, they also beat top competition in the Eastern Conference playoffs to get to the championship round. Something LeBron hasn’t had to do in his six-year Eastern Conference title runs, aside from playing against the big four in Boston of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.
Here’s a look at the team’s, Jordan’s Bulls had to conquer on their title runs…
After sweeping the 39-43 Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks in three games, The 1991 Bulls beat the Charles Barkley-led Philadelphia 76ers four games to one in the conference semifinals. Then they swept the 50-32 Isiah Thomas-led, two-time defending NBA World Champion Detroit Pistons to advance to the NBA Finals. Waiting for them was the 58-24 Magic Johnson-led and five-time NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers who just happened to beat the team with the best record in the Association that season, the 63-19 Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trailblazers in six games. Of course, we all remembered what happened in the Finals. Bulls over Lakers in five, and if it weren’t for a last second jumper by Jordan that rimmed out in game one, they would’ve swept the team of the ’80’s.
The 1992 Bulls team challenged the 70-win mark finishing the season at 67-15. After sweeping the young Miami Heat 3-0 in the first round, The Bulls went to a grueling seven games with Patrick Ewing’s 51-31 Knicks in the conference semifinals. Chicago lost home court advantage in game one, before coming back to win the series. In the conference finals they faced a 57-25 Cleveland Cavaliers team with All-Stars Mark Price and Brad Daugherty. The Bulls beat the Cavs in six.
In the Finals they faced the 57-25 Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trailblazers, who brought back their key nucleus from the same team that had the NBA’s best regular season record the year before and had lost in the 1990 NBA Finals. Some of those names; Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Danny Ainge who won two titles with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the 1980’s. It took those Bulls six games and a 15-point 4th-quarter comeback to win the series.
In 1993 the Bulls went into the playoffs as the second seed. They swept their first two rounds 3-0 over the 43-39 Dominique Wilkins-led Atlanta Hawks, and 4-0 over the 54-28 Cleveland Cavaliers who had three All-Stars in Price, Daugherty and Larry Nance. In the Conference Finals they met up again with the Knicks who had the second best record in the NBA at 60-22 and the number one seed in the East. Chicago dropped the first two games in Madison Square Garden, you may remember the stories that Jordan had went over to gamble in New Jersey in between those first two games. However, the Bulls charged back from the 0-2 deficit to beat their nemesis in six games.
In the Finals they faced the 62-20 Phoenix Suns, with the League Most Valuable Player in Charles Barkley. Most say this is the best team the Bulls faced in their six Championship seasons. The Suns had three All-Stars in Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle. They also had that Danny Ainge guy. Chicago never trailed in the series and was up 3-1 after four-games, it took them a John Paxson three-pointer with just over 3 seconds in the 4th-quarter to win the series 4-2 for their first three-peat.
Flash forward three years and the 1995-96 season and the Bulls set the single season record at 72-10. In the playoffs they swept the 42-20 Miami Heat of Alonzo Mourning and coached by their old foe from New York, Pat Riley. In the second round they faced another familiar foe in the Knicks who were 47-35 in the regular season. Chicago beat New York 4-1 in a physical series without Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc for two games. In the Conference Finals they faced the 60-22 defending Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic, led by All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, and won the series in four games.
In the Finals they defeated the 64-18 Seattle Supersonics with All-Stars Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf, coached by George Karl who is the fifth winningest coach in NBA history. The Bulls went up 3-0, and dropped games four and five at Key Arena, before winning the series in game six back in the United Center.
In the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals they faced the 64-18 and 62-20 Utah Jazz led by future Hall of Famers Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jerry Sloan. The Bulls won each series 4-2 to capture titles five and six for their second three-peat. But look at the teams they faced in the two playoffs before the finals.
In the ’97 playoffs they swept a young 44-38 Washington Bullets team with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard 3-0 in the first round, next the 56-26 Atlanta Hawks with Dikembe Mutombo, Christian Laettner and Steve Smith 4-1, before knocking off the 61-21 Miami Heat with Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Dan Majerle, 4-1.
In the ’98 playoffs they swept the 43-39 New Jersey Nets 3-0 in the first round, defeated the 51-31 Charlotte Hornets led by All-Star Game MVP Glen Rice 4-1, before winning an epic seven game series against Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose and the 58-24 Indiana Pacers coached by Larry Bird.
So as you can see, not only did Jordan’s teams beat historically great competition in the Finals, they also beat the other marquee teams in the league at that time.
It’s baffling to me that many are trying to diminish Jordan’s legend in an attempt to bolster James’ legacy. If you haven’t figured it out, I am on the Jordan side of these debates, but I can admit his “Airness'” legacy has grown “Paul Bunyon-like” in the nearly two decades since his last championship with the Bulls. But to say his competitors were far inferior than the ones LBJ faces is absurd. There are more teams in the Association now then when Jordan was in his prime, which means the talent is more spread out across the league. However you try to slice it, MJ played against better comp.