Payton went on to describe LeBron and Jordan as “two totally different basketball players”
By Sam Quinn
The LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan debate will rage on for the rest of basketball history, but certain players have better insight into the greatest players ever than the rest of us. Gary Payton is one such expert. He faced Jordan head-to-head in the 1996 NBA Finals and defended him better than anyone else ever has. His experience against James isn’t quite as direct, as LeBron was simply too big for him to cover later in his career, but the two faced off 13 times in total and Payton won a championship with future James teammate Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Payton isn’t a big fan of the comparison. He views Jordan as more of a scorer and called them “two different basketball players” on an appearance on Scoop B Radio Overtime. However, he notably acknowledged that the Los Angeles Lakers star is the better all-around player of the two thanks to his versatility.
“Two totally different basketball players,” Payton said. “Jordan was a guy that he was going to make big shots. He’s going to take the ball every time and shoot it every time he has to. I think LeBron is an all-around basketball player. If you ask me who’s a better all-around basketball player… LeBron James by far. He does everything. He passes the ball better than Jordan, He can dribble it a little bit better than Jordan… shooting-wise, I don’t think so, rebounding I think he did but Jordan did rebound; but they’re two different basketball players.
Payton prefers another common comparison for James, and it’s a fitting one, as it’s the Laker legend that lured him to Los Angeles in 2018.
“I think LeBron is more like Magic,” Payton continued. “He can bring the ball down and play all different positions, he passes the ball and he makes everybody around him better. People would criticize him about why he didn’t take the shot… that’s the way he plays basketball. You gotta let that go. He’s putting his teammates in a position to have confidence to make that. When you have a teammate that’s going to be like, I’m just going to sit there and watch him and then all of the sudden he throws you the ball and it hits you upside your head, you ain’t ready. But when you know that LeBron is going to pass you the ball, be ready.”
Picking a GOAT between Jordan and James is ultimately subjective. The stylistic comparison Payton makes is the far more interesting conversation, as it requires placing value on the ways that they decided to play rather than the outcomes of their careers. There is no correct answer, and in Payton’s view, there’s not much of a reason to try to find one.