LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: Who Ya Got?
Prior to Thursday night's Game 5 win over the Boston Celtics, LeBron James made it crystal clear that his pursuit of Michael Jordan's legacy is, in fact, a "personal goal" of his, and it serves as motivation for him.
But playoff scoring is one area in which the King no longer has to pursue the GOAT. Near the end of the third quarter in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 135-102 closeout beatdown, James knocked down a trey and, in doing so, became the NBA's all-time leader in playoff points. With 35 in the game, his 5,995 career points position him eight points clear of his idol.
After Cleveland's epic Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors last season, we entertained the question of whether LeBron was finally better than Michael. After LeBron's Cavs won all but one game en route to their third consecutive trip to the Finals, the conversation has come back to the forefront.
Before we get to the postseason -- where most give Jordan the edge, by virtue of his six rings -- we have to discuss the regular season, which provides us with a much larger sample size.
In a total of 1,072 regular season games, MJ averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 38.3 minutes per contest. On the other end, he contributed 2.3 steals and 0.8 blocks a night, while holding opponents to 103 points per 100 possessions. When you subtract that from an offensive rating of 108, you get a net rating of 15.
As for Bron Bron, he's played in a total 1,061 games, with regular season averages of 27.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks across 38.9 minutes. His offensive rating sits at 116, while his defensive rating is more than respectable, at 103 points allowed per 100.
Give or take a few points, rebounds and assists, the two have been pretty even across the board. Does either separate themselves via value?
His Airness averaged .250 win shares per 48 minutes to the King's .239 per 48. On three occasions, he eclipsed the .300 mark, which LeBron has done so just twice while playing one more season.
The playoffs are where it matters most. Turns out, the numbers there are similar.
In his postseason career, Jordan played more minutes per game (41.8) so it's no surprise that he upped his nightly averages to 33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists. James has averaged 42.1 minutes a game with 28.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per. Again, Jordan takes the scoring, while LeBron holds the advantage in filling the stat sheet elsewhere.
Taken over 100 possessions, though, the gap is nonexistent. On one hand, Jordan posted an offensive rating of 118 to James' 115, but on the other, James earned a defensive rating of 101 to Jordan's 104, giving each a net playoff rating of 14.
For the second time, we turn to value over 48 minutes.
The first thing that stands out is LeBron's 2009 playoffs, where he peaked at .399 win shares per 48. (But remember, he was playing alongside Boobie Gibson and a cast of thousands, so there's that.) Since that time, LBJ has remained steady, coming in between .240 and .290.
MJ's career-best of .333 came during the 1991 playoffs, after which it dipped into the human range for the remainder of his years in Chi-Town. Bear in mind, in '91, he still didn't have the compete trust in his teammates; for a full examination of that dynamic, check out Sam Smith's indispensable book "The Jordan Rules."
By average, Jordan's .255 win shares per 48 provide him with another slim margin (.013) over James' .242.
Ah, the NBA Finals, where the greats get greater, and John Starks doesn't.
Before we get nerdy, what do the averages say?
Same ol', same ol': Jordan outscores James and James out-rebounds and out-assists Jordan. What you don't see, however, is that Jordan was much more efficient in his scoring, with 48.1% shooting from the field and 36.8% from three in 35 Finals contests, versus James' marks of 45.5% and 33.7%.
And then there's Game Score, Basketball Reference's rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game, which confirms that Jordan was just a little bit better. In 40 games, James put up an average score of 21.2, while Jordan tallied an average of 24.5 in his 35 Finals contests.
That could explain the six Finals MVPs sitting in Jordan's trophy case.
And the Winner Is...
When it comes to rings and rings alone, there's no argument -- to this point, MJ has twice as many as LeBron.
"To this point" is the operative phrase there, because James is, y'know, still playing. And if he and his Cavs can take down the mighty Dubs, it would not only be the best team he's beaten, but it would be the best team either of them has sent to Cancun, sans trophy.
How do we know? Basketball Reference's simple rating system (SRS) -- a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule to denominate the points above or below average a team is -- tells us as much. The below table gives us a look at this during Jordan's career.
|1992||Portland Trail Blazers||6.94||4-2||W|
|1991||Los Angeles Lakers||6.73||4-1||W|
And here's how LeBron stacks up.
|2017||Golden State Warriors||11.35||TBD||TBD|
|2016||Golden State Warriors||10.38||4-3||W|
|2015||Golden State Warriors||10.01||2-4||L|
|2014||San Antonio Spurs||8.00||1-4||L|
|2013||San Antonio Spurs||6.67||4-3||W|
|2012||Oklahoma City Thunder||6.44||4-1||W|
|2007||San Antonio Spurs||8.35||0-4||L|
Although James owns a Finals series record of just 3-4 and a win-loss record of 17-23, he has, by the numbers, faced much stiffer competition. His average Finals opponent has been more than one point better than Jordan's. This Finals marks the fifth instance that LeBron has opposed a team better than Mike's toughest foe, that being the 1997 Utah Jazz.
Has LeBron proven that he's better than the GOAT? Not by the numbers, but he's had a more difficult path, so, maybe -- just maybe -- the King is closer to MJ than Bulls fans would care to admit.