Michael Jordan has gone on over 20 years of being the undisputed greatest player in the history of basketball. This is not without clear reason. His ability and craft made him a dominant player with in the NBA and his impact on the game propelled basketball to becoming a global phenomenon. A perfect NBA Finals record and the means in which he got to that point adds a sort of mysticism that seems inhuman.
Despite all this there is one player who surpasses him in most statistical areas — LeBron James.
James’s career began with impossible expectations, yet he’s lived up to all of them. Despite this, LeBron is the first example of a player who, because of the evolution of the league, will most likely not get have the legacy and mythos attached to him the way Jordan did but is just as good, if not better, of a basketball player.
So let’s break it down.
People often point to both individual and team awards to justify how great a certain player is (MVP’s, defensive player of the year, All-NBA team, championships, etc.), but primarily relying on that criteria to truly judge someone’s greatness is misleading and lacks context.
Individual awards are given to players based on people’s judgment. A group of individuals evaluate their options in their own ways, then cast a ranked vote, and the player with the most overall points wins the award. This is not an empirical way to evaluate some’s ability or greatness. Doing so essentially places other people’s evaluations as greater than your own, or what the numbers actually say about a player. Moreover, individual awards are given based in the context of the league as it currently is, meaning that people have to choose players that these set amount of awards go to. The awards are confined to the era and year that the players competed in and those eras are not all created equal.
Championships are too a part of this problem. Players who outperform on the losing team often don’t get the credit for what they’ve done. Basketball is still a team sport, and James getting penalized for not winning series where he became the first player to score 50 points with 8 assist and 8 rebounds in the 2018 Finals, average a triple-double in the 2017 Finals and in total has 10 triple doubles all-time in the Finals, the most of any player in the history of the game, shows a disrespectful absence of context. Especially considering James’ teams have been favored in only two of his nine Finals appearances. Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six of his. With three championships, James has actually outperformed expectations in the NBA Finals, given the competition he has had to compete against.
Overall, finals appearances and wins themselves aren’t great points for debate. Nine Finals appearances by James are superior to Jordan’s six. Jordan’s six wins are superior to James’ three. James never losing in the first round of the playoffs is superior to Jordan getting bounced three times, twice by a sweep. Arbitrary evaluations of players at certain times only creates a circular argument that doesn’t actually help differentiate between players because there is nothing being quantified besides the number of games played and won — which again need context. The best way to evaluate a player’s ability and greatness is by their statistical feats, particularly in championship-level situations.
So what do the stats say?
First, both Jordan and James are on their own tier of greatness in NBA history. Jordan and James are 1st and 2nd respectively in career player efficiency rating (PER) — Jordan has a career rating of 27.91 and James has a career rating of 27.52. James is 1st in NBA history for career value over replacement player (VORP) at 133.24 while Jordan is 2nd, but quite further behind, at 116.08. Other names often put in the conversation are not in the same numerical realm.
While we could compare the usual regular season stats, its pretty commonly understood that Jordan has marginally higher points and steals per game, but James has marginally higher assists, rebounds and blocks per game. These trends are the same for each’s postseason statistics as well. Since basketball is a multifaceted team sport, the best way to evaluate a player’s greatness is though the advanced metrics which can take into account win shares, value over replacement, team usage and what percent of the team’s offense and defense comes from each player. These statistics provide the context needed to see where exactly those traditional numbers and coming from and how exactly they contribute to the team’s success.
We can focus on these statistics in the playoffs, when fans can universally agree that performance matters the most, and in which both Jordan and James have, up to this point, played an even 13 postseasons.
When looking at postseason PER, the difference between Jordan and James is razor thin — Jordan’s being 28.60 and James’ being 28.28. Their postseason win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) also match up closely with Jordan averaging .255 and James averaging .244. When looking at total postseason win shares however, James leads Jordan 51.0 to 39.8 since James has played many more playoff games — 60 more, and counting. This in part because of the first round expanding from a 5 game series to a 7 game series in 2003, but also in part because James’ teams actually go farther in the playoffs on average.
When looking at individual contributions to each’s respective team in the playoffs, we can look at effective field goal percentage (eFG%), true shooting percentage (TS%), assist percentage (AST%), rebound percentage (TRB%), steal percentage (STL%), block percentage (BLK%) and usage percentage (USG%). The states for each is as follows (bold indicates who has the advantage):
Jordan: .503 eFG%; .568 TS%; 9.3 TRB%; 28.2 AST%; 2.7 STL%; 1.6 BLK%; 35.6 USG%
James: .528 eFG%; .579 TS%; 12.7 TRB%; 34.9 AST%; 2.3 STL%; 2.0 BLK%; 32.2 USG%
This conveys that James is a more efficient scorer while being responsible for a higher amount of his team’s assists, grabbing more available rebounds and blocking a higher percentage of opponents shots — despite having a lower usage percentage (the amount of plays a player is involved in while on the floor). Jordan only has the edge in percentage of opponent possessions ending in him getting a steal, but not by a large amount. James also has a higher career postseason VORP at 30.8 compared to Jordan’s 24.7 — meaning that in the playoffs James has actually been statistically more valuable to the teams he’s been on compared to Jordan on the Bulls.
Perhaps the greatest notion to dispel is that James can’t perform in the clutch the same way that Jordan did. Looking at the numbers, James actually has a slightly higher percentage on go-ahead shots in the final 5 seconds of a game than Michael Jordan — with a higher shot volume.
Another common method to evaluate someone’s greatness is to judge them at their highest points. When comparing James’ 6 best postseasons in PER, WS/48 and VORP to the best 6 from Jordan (6 for homage to each championship Jordan won), James truly creates distance distance between the two.
When looking at each’s top 6 postseasons for PER, and comparing the average of the 6 to career postseason PER, James’ rating jumps from 28.28 up to an average of 31.85, a 3.57 increase, surpassing Jordan who’s rating moves up to an average of 30.37 from 28.60, a more modest increase of 1.77. When evaluating win shares per 48 minutes in each’s top 6 postseasons, James also leaps Jordan here by moving from .244 all the way to .295. Jordan moves from .255 to .288. When looking at those top 6 statistical postseasons for WS/48, Jordan has 4 championships to go along with those seasons. James only has 2. Ironically, Jordan’s other two championships came with a WS/48 that was lower (.235 and .216) than James’ third and lowest championship WS/48 (.260).
When looking at the VORP of each’s top 6 postseasons, James again leads Jordan in total VORP 17.5 to 16. Jordan’s VORP averages out to 2.67 per postseason while James’ averages out higher at 2.92. James’ lowest postseason VORP in which he also won the championship is 2.7 (2016). Half of Jordan’s titles won were with a VORP lower than this at 2.4. This again shows that James has been statistically more valuable to his championship teams than Jordan was to his. Jordan’s highest postseason VORP is 2.9 (1991), in which he also won a title. James has had 4 postseasons with a VORP at that level or higher, but only has 2 titles to accompany them (James’ highest postseason VORP is 3.4).
All this essentially conveys that LeBron James at his best has been better than Michael Jordan at his best. He doesn’t have the championships to go with these stats primarily because of external factors, not because of his own failings.
One such example is how James had to play the 2015 NBA finals without All-Star caliber teammates Kevin Love, who had his shoulder dislocated by Kelly Olynyk in the first round, and Kyrie Irving, who hurt his knee in a Game 1 loss and did not return to the series. Given that James still took the series to 6 games, it’s hard to imagine that the Cavaliers don’t win their first championship in 2015 were they fully healthy. To compare, Jordan likely wouldn’t have won any select one of his Finals series had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman or Horace Grant went down.
Perhaps there is no better example than the 2017–2019 Golden State Warriors. In 2016 the Warriors created what might be the best team in the history of the NBA by adding Kevin Durant in what was truly an anomaly of free agency due to a seismic salary cap spike. The three years that team spent together saw the three highest team eFG% seasons in NBA history (the fourth being the ‘15-‘16 Warriors). The average eFG% of that three year run with is .565. The average of Jordan’s Bulls is .514. The ‘95-‘96 Bulls, often considered the
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