Our brains work exactly like computers, moving all experiences, surroundings, and subjects into valued hierarchies for survival. Yes, that streaking idiot across the sports field has a computer in his head as well. But with nothing being more territorial than sports in the modern world, you hence won’t find anything that is more analyzed and compared by people - the pinnacle of this being the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate.
This question has been so well gone over with a fine-tooth comb that fans have ripped both careers apart piece by piece. But maybe the question of who’s the best center in basketball - Embiid or Jokić - can provide us with a more modernized approach since both dynamics are so eerily similar. Or in other words, when analyzing the two debates, it’s clear that Michael Jordan and Joel Embiid are cut from the same cloth, just like how LeBron James and Nikola Jokić are one.
Since defense is 50% of the game, let’s start there. There’s no actual argument for Jokić being a better defender than Embiid. Jo Jo has three NBA-All Defensive Second Teams to Jokić’s zero. Even the eye test proves it’s a clean wash in that department, just like how it is with Jordan and LeBron. The Defensive Player Of The Year regardless, Jordan was the first player ever to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season (which he did while averaging a whopping 37 points a game in only his second full season). That is until he broke the record again the very next season. Defense was maybe the one thing LeBron is not ‘All-Time great’ in. Case closed.
However, Jokić and LeBron not only make up with it from their versatile skill; it’s their biggest argument. A triple-double won’t represent one of their best games, it is their game. With the height to rebound and ability to score, Jokić and LeBron create separation through their unprecedented passing. It’s becoming increasingly less radical to say they both happen to be the greatest passers for their position ever as time goes on. Along with their situational context, what comes with that shows their knack to do more with less.
While Ben Simmons is no Scottie Pippen, although they may share the same maturity level, both Jordan and Embiid were gifted extremely talented defenders and playmakers as solidified partners early in their careers. So early in fact that they lacked a significant sample size of accomplishments away from them, always being judged for what they achieved next to their talented teammates.
Jokić and LeBron didn’t have that same luck. LeBron bounced from team to team after spending a near-decade without a perineal All-Star. Hell, he’s still searching for a stable supporting cast after a roller-coaster career. Jokić’s career is much less short-lived as of now, but he still has never played with an All-Star. Sure, Jamal Muray played like an All-Star in some bubble spurts but is now injured, forcing Jokić to carry a squad made up of Will Barton and Aaron Gordon to the 6th seed in the West. Kind of like LeBron carrying Kevin Love and Jordan Clarkson to the Finals.
Even the difference in their demeanor is oddly identical. Depending on who you ask, Embiid and Jordan were equally the biggest trash talkers of their respective eras. At least for superstars. While Jokić and LeBron certainly have tempers, it's mostly aimed at referees in the form of sulking for calls. This same shift in mentality explains their opposing approaches in crunch time plays. While Embiid and Jordan want the ball in their hand, in order to score with force, Jokić and LeBron represent the ethos of ‘making the right play’. It’s obvious to me which attitude is more successful but that’s just me. Let’s just say it’s hard to imagine Jordan or Embiid blowing a 25-point lead like the Nuggets did yesterday to the Clippers. Should I mention the 2011 Finals?
But these debates get overly swayed by the timeless testimony of individual awards. It’s only wrong because longevity essentially equals individual records and milestones. Of course, it’s a point for the Jokić/ LeBron team to stay healthy and elite, but it doesn’t justify the whole case. Is LeBron a greater scorer than Jordan because he will inevitably blow out his career tally? Of course not. Was Jokić really better than a healthy Embiid because he won an MVP while playing every game of the season? It’s an unpopular belief, but no. Everyone’s criteria of greatness sway drastically, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t value longevity. My only opinion is that doing something longer but less effective doesn’t make them greater in the metric.
But why think of comparisons so thematically? Well if you are so assured of one belief, why not follow the same rules when the grounds are so similar. For example, I know that Tim Duncan was greater than Karl Malone for the same reason I know Bill Russell was greater than Wilt Chamberlain. Just because Larry Bird was better than Magic Johnson but not greater, I believe that David Robinson should be classed as greater than Bill Walton, even though my answer switches if I’m choosing them for just one game in their prime. Like I said, our brains group these principles for survival. I plan my holidays for snow time rather than summer, because whether a subconscious decision or not, I value cold nights over hot ones. Except when it comes to sport, things get a little more heated.