Michael Jordan is successful in a way that LeBron, Kobe, and all other players currently in the league likely won't be able to emulate completely. Jordan hasn't played championship basketball in fifteen years, and he's still making more in endorsements than Kobe or LeBron, today's top earners. He's got a unique collection of individual awards that couldn't really be matched by a player in today's game, including LeBron. LeBron might be bigger and stronger than Jordan was. We could say he has better vision, and he'll probably end up as a better shooter. But LeBron isn't as dominant relative to the rest of the league.
Jordan really entered his prime at a time when the NBA was dealing with several debilitating problems at once. The two most charismatic and dominant players (Bird and Magic) were leaving the game, a combination of drugs and bad decisions had decimated some of the talent pool that would have made the league more competitive, and the game was transitioning from one primarily dependent on ticket revenue to one with growing global popularity that was experimenting with rule and format changes designed to be more TV friendly.
LeBron, Kobe, and every other player are very much playing in Michael Jordan's NBA and are making money from Michael Jordan's Nike shoe program. As great as Kobe and LeBron are at both basketball and maximizing their off-court earning potential, neither holds a candle to brand Jordan in the fundamentals of good brand management like image control, staying on message, and exploring new avenues of brand awareness. As much as its forgotten about today, Space Jam was a giant brand success for Jordan and no modern player has done anything remotely as ambitious or successful. Give Kobe and LeBron credit for opening up China, an opportunity that wasn't available to MJ, but the way he succeeded at everything else makes you think if he was playing today he'd be speaking fluent Mandarin and would spend his off-season getting hoodwinked at the tables in Macao.
If the measuring stick is team and individual success in the sport, it's unlikely Kobe or LeBron will get there, although LeBron's getting closer. I'd say Kevin Durant, just because he's younger, probably has a better shot. But even then, I wouldn't bet on it. Jordan not only won a gaggle of scoring titles, MVPs, and championships, but he also won DPOY, an award basically unavailable to a non-big man in today's game.
If the measuring stick is money, then its unlikely Kobe or LeBron or any other player will have the kind of marketing dominance that Jordan has enjoyed for the last 30 years. In the same way that no modern successful band should ever really be compared to the Beatles, no modern player can ever really be compared to Jordan and his impact. It was a unique time with unique circumstances, and he was exactly the right kind of person and player to hit the ball off the tee for a grand slam. It would be fair to say of Kobe and LeBron that they don't have the same opportunities to define success in that way and likely don't have the background and temperament that made MJ such a natural at it.More questions on 2012-13 NBA Season: