When Michael Jordan retired for the final time in 2003, he retired as the clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it greatest basketball player of all-time.
Better than Magic. Better than Bird. Better than Kareem. Better than Wilt. Better than the Big O.
And it seemed as if no one would surpass him. Ever.
Yet, here we are, a decade later, and there's a challenger to his Airness as the best player in NBA history.
In fact, I'll go a step farther and say that Jordan already has been passed.
LeBron James is the best this game has ever seen.
Crazy, you say. Insane. Laughable.
There are many out there who believe Jordan remains the greatest ever and their arguments are solid and based strictly on basketball — things such as scoring and defense and leadership and, particularly, championships.
But I would suggest that many won't even consider James to be a challenger to Jordan simply because they don't like James.
Take a moment, review the facts, have an open mind and at least consider that LeBron James has moved past Michael Jordan as basketball's greatest player.
Who's the better athlete?
Physically, there is no comparison.
James is 6 feet 8 and 250 pounds. Jordan played at 6-6 and around 215 pounds. James is bigger, faster and stronger. That doesn't necessarily make him better, but if we're talking just about sheer physical presence, James might be the most gifted body to ever play in the NBA.
Because of that size James is a more complete player, though Jordan might be the best pure scorer in NBA history.
Combining speed, agility, post-up ability and a jump shot that he worked on obsessively, Jordan averaged 30.1 points a game for his career and 32.2 during his first 10 seasons with the Bulls. That's more than James' 27.5 ppg, though it should be noted Jordan took way more shots than James — about four more a game.
Meantime, James is a better passer, averaging an assist per game more than Jordan.
Bottom line: Jordan was way more selfish than James, who looks to involve his teammates more. If James were as selfish, he would score as much as Jordan did.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey, who actually dared to suggest in Chicago that James is a more complete player than Jordan, wrote, "Jordan was enough of a jerk to take over a game and step on an opponent's neck while doing it. LeBron will get you 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists a game, and he'll make life sheer hell for whomever he's guarding, be it a forward, guard or center.''
Averaging a rebound more a game than Jordan, James is a much better rebounder and inside presence. Defensively, there's little if any difference. And while Jordan could play both the No. 2 and 3 spots (shooting guard, small forward), James can play Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (power forward).
James would have more tools in his toolbox to win a game of one-on-one with Jordan.
Doesn't James play with better players?
Let's get past the silly notion that James is simply a product of sensational teammates.
Yes, the Heat has some of the best talent money can buy, but that talent on paper hasn't necessarily translated to the court.
Considering a franchise-record 66 victories, the 27-game winning streak and how Miami is plowing through the playoffs, this is clearly the best team the Heat has had. It's also clear that it's because of James. Dwyane Wade (with his aching knee) is not nearly the player he used to be and Chris Bosh, while a marvelous talent, is a complementary player.
And let's not act as if Jordan wasn't surrounded by elite talent, starting with fellow Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, who is better than any teammate James has ever had. And don't forget Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder/defender of his era, a player who never asked for the ball, and another Hall of Famer.
When it comes to surrounding talent, remember this: The season before James left Cleveland, he led the Cavaliers to 61 regular-season victories. The season after, the Cavs won 19. In fact, the Cavaliers have 64 wins total in the three seasons since James has been gone.
On the other hand, Jordan led the Bulls to 57 regular-season victories and an NBA title in 1992-93 before retiring for the first time. In 1993-94, without Jordan, the Bulls won just two fewer games, going 55-27.
James' postseason resume is actually pretty good
When comparing the two, Jordan often gets the nod when it comes to things like leadership, killer instinct and playoff fortitude. Look, there's no question Jordan is one of the most competitive, intense, clutch performers to ever play a sport. Those who believe Jordan is the best player ever always start with this number: Six, the number of NBA titles he won.
Certainly, championships are important, but it's not just about rings. If it was, Robert Horry and his seven championships would be in the conversation as among the greatest players ever and that, of course, is just silly.
While Jordan deserves credit for his postseason success, James hasn't been given his fair due when it comes to the postseason.
James is on the verge of going the NBA Finals for the fourth time in 10 seasons. In his first 10 seasons, Jordan went to the Finals three times. The big difference, of course, is Jordan was 3-0 in those Finals, while James is 1-2.
But consider this: In his fourth season, when he was only 22, James led a team of castaways (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gordon, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson) to the Finals. Starting with his third NBA season, James has made the playoffs every season of his career and has never been eliminated in the first round.
Meantime, Jordan was knocked out the first round in each of his first three playoff appearances.
This isn't the be-all, end-all of determining who was better and it would be ridiculous to question Jordan's playoff record. There are plenty of factors for why teams have or do not have playoff success, including matchups, injuries, momentum and so forth. Still, the point is that James has had more playoff success that most might realize.
Pippen, Jordan's long-time teammate, said he thought James was a better all-around player. Another Jordan teammate, Charles Oakley, was recently quoted as saying, "LeBron is a better athlete, and he can do more than Michael on the basketball court.'' Former Pistons star Isiah Thomas — who, granted, never got along with Jordan — said James is more athletic.
In the end, the difference in eras is hard to measure. It's an age-old argument. Could Babe Ruth hit today's pitching? Could Gordie Howe compete against today's hulking defensemen? Could Rod Laver return the serves of today's players?
While the difference in the eras of Jordan and James is not as drastic as those analogies, there is a difference between the game Jordan played and today's NBA.
Jordan's era was more physical, rougher, dirtier. It took more to draw a foul. Hand-checking was allowed. Then again, James plays in an era that allows zone defense, making it hard to drive to the hoop.
Ultimately, those who love Jordan will never concede that anyone is or will ever be as good as Jordan.
But objectively, James' numbers already are starting to stack up to Jordan, especially when compared to the same point and age in Jordan's career.
Imagine where James will be a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. By then, you might have to admit that James is the greatest and most talented basketball player to ever live.
Me? I've already reached that conclusion.