James, 28, is seeking the second title of his 10-year career. At 28, Jordan was months away from leading the Bulls over the Blazers in the 1992 Finals, repeating as champions and capturing the second title of his Hall of Fame career. Those parallel tracks have fueled endless comparisons, a topic of discussion that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra believes is an ultimately futile endeavor.
"Every time you try to compare a player to another generation, it's apples and oranges," Spoelstra said Thursday, hours before Game 1 of the Finals. "You'll never be able to tell [how James stacks up to Jordan or Magic Johnson] because they didn't play against each other. The game is different now than when it was played in the 1980s or even before that."
While most would agree that the Greatest Of All Time tag is Jordan's to keep until James can better approximate his track record of postseason success, the 2013 MVP has started to collect his share of superlatives. In recent years, James has been called "bigger, stronger, faster" than Jordan by TNT commentator Charles Barkley and "probably a better athlete" than Jordan by former Pistons guard Isiah Thomas. In winning his fourth MVP this season, James passed Johnson's three MVPs and now trails Jordan by just one. James' seven All-NBA First-Team selections already put him within reach of Johnson (nine) and Jordan (10), even though he will likely be playing elite-level basketball for at least the next five or six years.
Still, Spoelstra wouldn't bite.
"It's tough to compare," he said. "[James] grew up as a historian of the game. He's taken bits and pieces of everybody's game. He's a hybrid athlete as it is, just being 6-foot-8 with the size, speed and power that he has, and also the cerebral aspect of his game, to be able to see the floor, make any kind of play, [and] to be able to score 30, 40 [points] on a different night. I think he's incorporated a lot of people's games."
“If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice, but five beats one every time I look at it, and not that he [LeBron James] won’t get five, he may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”
James at first brushed off that talk -- tweeting "I'm not MJ, I'm LJ" -- but later made it clear in Houston during All-Star weekend that he very much seeks the Greatest Of All Time title.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” James declared, adding later: “As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”
James is seeking his second title in four Finals appearances as he also looks to avenge a 2007 Finals loss to the Spurs.
Longtime NBA trainer Tim Grover, who has worked for years with both Jordan and Bryant, told SI.com in April that comparing Jordan to anyone besides legendary Celtics center Bill Russell would be a mistake.
"Michael Jordan was 6-for-6in Finals, never lost a Finals, never needed a Game 7 to do that," Grover said. "Just by saying that alone, that puts him in a category I don’t think anybody else is in, except maybe a Bill Russell. Other than that, I don’t know if you can really put [Jordan] in the same category [with anybody].
"I think what [James] should do, instead of worrying about where Mike was at, he should be trying to get to the accolades, get to the Finals, as many times as Kobe had. ... I think the comparison [for James] should be more toward a current player he’s playing against now because of what Michael already did, and LeBron, in the early part of his career, faltered two times in the Finals. I think that [the Jordan/James] comparison can’t be made, just from that alone."
Even if Spoelstra unsurprisingly dodged the NBA's great debate with the start of the Finals looming, he did express an appreciation for James' ability to serve as a coach on the court by alternating between being a scorer and a distributor. "LeBron has a great feel for the game," he said. "Games within the game change, there [are] momentum swings, sometimes you need your best player being aggressive and getting to the basket, sometimes you need other people involved to facilitate. Sometimes you work together to try to get that. More often than not, he's reading that and feeling that during the course of the game. That's much more efficient than having to explain everything every single timeout."