With LeBron James turning 33 last week, the comparisons naturally arise once again between LeBron and Michael Jordan as to who was the better player by this age.
Here, I’ll give a brief comparison of their respective stats before looking over the best moments of their careers, including game-winners, dunks and playoff performances, to celebrate the greatness that each player had already accrued before the age of 33.
Both players were dominant statistically and set the standard in the NBA for any other player wishing to be the best player. This was shown not only through their stats but through their achievements:
With LeBron having played more seasons by the age of 33, this direct comparison isn’t entirely reliable but it still serves to show that already, by this point in their career, they had amassed more awards and stats than many legends of the game.
Let’s look at some of their greatest moments up to this point in their careers.
Top 5 Game-Winners
5. 16th February 1989
(Bulls vs Bucks)
The Bucks had possession of the ball with a 1-point lead and just 9 seconds left on the clock but an inbounds pass went astray and the ball wound up in Michael Jordan’s hand. After a behind the back-dribble he went the full length of the court before rising up for an 18-footer to give the Bulls a 117-116 win.
4. 17th May 1993
(Bulls @ Cavaliers – Eastern Conference Semi-finals – Game 4)
With “The Shot” still fresh in the minds of many Cavaliers fans, Michael Jordan hit another game-winner in the face of Gerald Wilkins to sweep the Cavaliers with the 103-101 victory.
3. 11th November 1992
(Bulls vs Pistons)
Michael Jordan showed how the tables had turned against his long-time oppressor, the Detroit Pistons. With the Pistons leading 96-95 in OT after a Joe Dumars shot, Michael Jordan took the ball with 4 seconds left and drained a long-distance three for the win.
2. 27th May 1989
(Bulls vs Pistons – Eastern Conference Finals Game 3)
The series was tied at 1-1 and the Bulls were up against the dreaded Pistons once again. After an offensive foul on Bill Laimbeer, the Bulls had the ball with the game tied and just 9 seconds left. The Pistons put their best defender in Dennis Rodman on Michael Jordan but it didn’t matter as he banked in a tough shot whilst falling down to seal the game.
1. 7th May 1989
(Bulls @ Cavaliers - Eastern Conference 1st Round - Game 5)
The Cleveland Cavaliers had swept the Chicago Bulls 6-0 in the regular season but with the series tied at 2-2 and the Bulls down by one, Michael Jordan hit one of the most memorable shots in NBA history to upset the Cavaliers. Rising up over Craig Ehlo, he capped off his 44-point performance with a jump shot at the buzzer that silenced the Richfield Coliseum. It is now known simply as “The Shot”.
5. 12th February 2014
(Heat @ Warriors)
After Curry had given the Warriors the lead, the Heat opted not to take the time-out and the ball came into LeBron’s hands with 9 seconds left. With the Warriors leading by two points, many thought that LeBron would drive to the basket for the tie but he dribbled down the clock before calmly draining a fadeaway three-pointer for the win.
4. 22nd May 2013
(Heat vs Pacers – Eastern Conference Finals Game 1)
With the game in the dying moments of overtime and just 2.2 seconds left, LeBron used his incredible IQ to give the Heat the win. Catching the ball by the three-point line, he caught the Pacers off-guard by turning, driving to the rim and laying it in at the buzzer for the 103-102 victory after a perfectly timed drive.
3. 3rd May 2006
(Cavaliers vs Wizards – Eastern Conference 1st Round Game 5)
Having already hit a game-winner against the Wizards in Game 3, the ball was in LeBron’s hands in OT with the Cavs trailing by 1. The series was tied at 2-2 but LeBron took the ball and drove baseline, wriggling past the opposing players before laying it in with 0.9 seconds left for the win.
2. 10th May 2015
(Cavaliers @ Bulls – Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Game 4)
After the Derrick Rose game-winner in the last game, the Cavs looked to be in trouble with the Bulls leading the series 2-1 and holding a 7-point lead going into the fourth. The Cavs rallied to take an 84-79 lead but the Bulls tied it up at 84 after an offensive foul by LeBron. Having just been blocked seconds before, LeBron didn’t shy away from the ball and fired over Butler for the bucket and a needed victory.
1. 22nd May 2009
(Cavaliers vs Magic – Eastern Conference Finals Game 2)
The Cavaliers were being outmatched by the Magic and LeBron was carrying most of the load throughout the series with some huge performances. Despite his dominance, the Cavs were looking likely to go down 2-0 with a 2-point deficit and just 1 second on the clock. Step up LeBron. After catching the inbounds pass, he launched a tough three from well behind the arc to stun the Orlando Magic.
Top 3 Iconic Plays
These are some of the most iconic and memorable plays of Michael Jordan and LeBron James before the age of 33 that will live long in the memory of NBA fans. This will not include any game-winners.
3. 4th December 1992
(Bulls vs Blazers - Putback dunk of a missed free-throw)
In a repeat of last season’s finals, Michael Jordan came swooping in after a missed free-throw by Scottie Pippen to jam the ball back in against the Blazers. He’s achieved the putback dunk off a free-throw a few times but this is perhaps the most memorable one.
2. 30th April 1991
(Bulls @ Knicks – Eastern Conference 1st Round Game 3 – Dunk on Ewing)
After a series of moves, Michael Jordan shook off a double-team and drove baseline past Oakley and soared up high above Patrick Ewing’s outstretched hands and threw the ball down all over him.
1. 5th June 1991
(Bulls vs Lakers – NBA Finals Game 2 – Switching hands mid-air)
Having scored just 2 points in the first 20 minutes of the game, Michael Jordan rallied back quickly. He scored 13 consecutive field goals, the last of which was this spectacular layup, switching hands in mid-flight to avoid a Sam Perkins block to the shock and awe of everyone who witnessed it.
3. 9th June 2017
(Cavaliers vs Warriors – 2017 NBA Finals Game 4 - Dunk off the backboard to himself)
This may be an unpopular choice with many other deserving candidates such as the block on Splitter and the dunks on Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett but this gets in for the absolute outrageousness of the play. It would’ve been a disrespectful play to do it in a regular season game but to do it in a finals game is something that will perhaps never be seen again as he threw the ball off the glass and jammed it on his own teammate.
2. 29th January 2012
(Heat vs Bulls – Dunk over John Lucas)
Though the disrespect and power of the dunk on Jason Terry could have easily placed it in this position, LeBron’s insane athleticism here sets this apart. The ability to jump over a player to finish off an alley-oop is something that only LeBron has done and perhaps only he can do.
1. 19th June 2016
(Cavaliers @ Warriors – NBA Finals Game 7 – The Block)
In the dying moments of game 7 of the NBA finals, LeBron James showed why he was still the best player in the world. In a sheer display of willpower, athleticism and strength, LeBron ran the full-length of the court chasing after Iguodala and rose up to pin the ball to the glass and deny the Warriors the chance of taking the lead. It is an image that will be imprinted in the minds of Warriors and Cavaliers fans alike for a long while.
Top 5 Performances
5. 3rd June 1992 (Bulls vs Blazers – NBA Finals Game 1 – 39 Points, 11 Assists, 3 Rebounds, 2 Steals, 59.3% FG and 6-10 3P)
Though there are many more statistically dominating performances by Michael Jordan, this one sticks out in the minds of many fans as he hit a record 35 points in the first half including six first-half threes. After the sixth, he looked over at the broadcast table and shrugged as if to say he was even shocking himself with his own brilliance.
4. 28th March 1990 (Bulls @ Cavaliers – 69 Points, 18 Rebounds, 6 Assists, 4 Steals, 62.2% FG)
In his career-high, he torched the Cavs again in a stunning OT performance. With the Bulls up by two, Horace Grant missed his 2nd free-throw but a great rebound by Michael Jordan and two calm free-throws ensured they took the game 117-113 in OT.
3. 28th March 1995 (Bulls @ Knicks – 55 Points, 4 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 58.3% FG)
The Madison Garden was a place where Michael Jordan really excelled and his best performance was where he dropped a double nickel on the Knicks in 1995. In just his fifth game after returning to the NBA, many people were wondering whether Jordan could still play at the same level. With the Knicks trying to keep their playoff hopes alive, Michael Jordan strongly announced his return to elite basketball.
2. 16th June 1993 (Bulls vs Suns – NBA Finals Game 4 – 55 Points, 8 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 56.8% FG)
Michael Jordan was at his unstoppable best against the Suns, showing that Charles Barkley and the Suns were no match for him. He attacked the basket time and time again and the Suns had no answer for him as he made these 55 points look easy.
1. 20th March 1986 (Bulls @ Celtics – NBA Eastern Conference 1st Round Game 2 – 63 Points, 5 Rebounds, 6 Assists, 3 Steals, 2 Blocks, 53.7% FG)
In this double-overtime performance against one of the greatest teams in NBA history, Michael Jordan showed that he really could turn up for the occasion. The Celtics had gone an incredible 41-1 at home but that didn’t deter Jordan who pushed them to a second overtime. His performance wasn’t enough for the win but did lead Larry Bird to call him “God disguised as Michael Jordan”.
5. 3rd November 2017 (Cavaliers @ Wizards – 57 Points, 11 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 3 Steals, 2 Blocks, 67.6% FG)
With LeBron approaching 33, he showed that age was nothing but a number as he lit up the Wizards for 57 points in possibly his greatest regular season performance of all time. He scored 19 of his 57 points in the fourth quarter and whenever the Wizards threatened to mount a comeback, he extinguished hope with a breath-taking array of seemingly impossible shots that somehow kept going through the basket.
4. 20th June 2013 (Heat vs Spurs – NBA Finals Game 7 – 37 Points, 12 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 2 Steals, 52.2% FG, 5-10 3P)
Despite LeBron’s 16 points in the fourth quarter of game 6, many people considered him lucky to still be in with a shot at the title. But LeBron didn’t dwell on the past and left nothing down to luck this time with a dominant game 7 performance, including a dagger over Kawhi Leonard with under half a minute to go, showing how clutch he could be on the biggest stage.
3. 16th June 2016 (Cavaliers vs Warriors – NBA Finals Game 6 – 41 Points, 8 Rebounds, 11 Assists, 4 Steals, 3 Blocks, 1 Turnover, 59.3% FG)
The onus was on the Cavs to force a game 7 at the Oracle and after the incredible performance by Kyrie and LeBron in the last game, LeBron ensured that they weren’t giving up just yet. In an incredible all-around performance, LeBron dominated from the start to the end, not giving the Warriors a sniff of a chance in the game and proving that he was the best player on the planet.
2. 7th June 2012 (Heat @ Celtics – NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 – 45 Points, 15 Rebounds, 5 Assists, 73.1% FG)
The pressure was sky-high for LeBron James and the Miami Heat with many NBA fans waiting for him to fall at the biggest stage. After his disappointing performance in last season’s finals, Miami’s title hopes seemed to be on a precipice. However, LeBron James put up one of the best elimination game performances of all time. LeBron just could not miss as he scored from all over the court. The focus in his eyes showed that he was in a zone from the start. He had 30 points in the first half on 12-14 FG and the Heat comfortably came out victors.
1. 31st May 2007 (Cavaliers @ Pistons – NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 5 – 48 Points, 9 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 2 Steals, 54.5% FG)
Few people could shoulder the burden that LeBron James had to at the Palace of Auburn Hills on May 31st, 2007. LeBron put the Cavaliers on his back and powered through a double-overtime game to drag the Cavaliers home. He scored 29 of the last 30 points for the Cavaliers including the last 25 where he went 11-13 from the field hitting some incredible shots. The Pistons kept taking the lead but every single time LeBron responded with monster dunks, incredible three-pointers and eventually the game-winning layup. LeBron James was just 22 years old.
Though Michael Jordan had some amazing career moments when he was younger, many of his best moments came after he turned 33.
He captured two more MVP awards, 3 more NBA Championships and 3 more Finals MVPs. Not only this, but he had 3 All-NBA First Team Appearances, 4 more NBA All-Star Games, 3 more NBA All-Defensive First Team Appearances but also gave us some of the greatest moments in NBA history.
From scoring 40 points at the age of 40 to the “Flu Game” where he showed his undeniable grit and determination and finally, perhaps the most iconic moment of NBA history. The perfect ending to his career with the Chicago Bulls as he did what he does best in nailing the game-winner to take home his second three-peat.
Many moments of greatness were destined for Jordan after turning 33 and if LeBron wishes to “chase that ghost”, he can’t slow down now and needs to follow in the same vein. With many people basing greatness on the number of rings, LeBron may need to add a couple more rings to make people truly recognize his greatness. Another MVP award and continuing to break more records around the NBA will certainly help him too. Looking at how he’s started off this season, he may be heading in the right direction.
We know what Jordan came to do after his 33rd birthday as he continued to dazzle the world with his amazing skills and achievements. Now all that’s left to do is just watch and see how much more LeBron has in store for NBA fans around the world.