Is LeBron James Finally Better Than Michael Jordan?
LeBron James has taken his case as one of the greatest players of all-time to a whole new level.
He just won the third title of his career and his first with Cleveland. He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per contest in the 2015-'16 NBA Finals (leading both teams in all five of those categories in terms of totals), while shooting 49.4% from the field and 37.1% from three-point range.
For his efforts, he was unanimously named the Finals MVP (and honestly, he was so transcendently good that it probably would have still happened even if his Cleveland Cavaliers had lost).
But it wasn't just the numbers that made this title special. To get there, LeBron and the Cavs had to beat an all-time great team in the Warriors -- one fresh off setting the NBA record for wins in a regular season with 73. They had to become only the fourth team ever to come back from a 2-0 series deficit in the Finals to win a title and the first to do so after being down 3-1.
To call this championship improbable would be an understatement.
And by getting this highly unlikely title, LeBron got his redemption for The Decision, accomplished his goals that he set out in The Letter, and brought a professional sports title to the city of Cleveland for the first time in 52 years.
This one title for James is so full of narrative juice that it might count for multiple titles when discussing his legacy.
Which brings us to the inevitable question that often follows such a career-defining achievement: where does LeBron sit on the list of the best basketball players of all-time?
When we talk about the game's greatest, there are many names that permeate the majority of lists: Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, etc. The order these names should be placed in -- if you're into such things -- is and always will be a highly subjective process with no right answer.
LeBron James is only 31 years old and likely has a fair bit of career left ahead of him. It's difficult to say where he will fit when all is said and done, but it is obvious -- especially after what he accomplished last night -- that he already belongs on this list.
We can't say just yet what LeBron's career ceiling is, but it's hard not to entertain the idea that he might be making a play for that top spot. And, while it's hard to find a consensus order for the best players in NBA history, the vast majority of fans and pundits alike will put Michael Jordan as number one with a bullet.
So, can LeBron ever dream of reaching the heights of His Airness?
There's no definitive answer for this right now, but it's interesting to compare where LeBron is now at age 31 and where Jordan was at the same age.
An important caveat to this discussion, though, is that LeBron entered the NBA at age 18, while Jordan started at age 21. There is a huge difference in the number of seasons, games, and minutes played between the two by their age 31 season:
|Category||Michael Jordan||LeBron James|
|Reg. Season Games Played||684||987|
|Reg. Season Minutes||26,510||38,478|
|Playoff Games Played||121||199|
|Total Games Played||805||1,186|
You also have to keep in mind that, of those 10 Jordan seasons, there was one in which he only played 18 games due to injury and another when he only played 17 due to baseball. Meanwhile, LeBron has played close to a full complement of regular season games for each of his 13 seasons, while being part of a somewhat deep to very deep playoff run every year from his third season onward (he's never lost in the first round and has appeared in seven Finals, including the last six straight).
Any comparison of their careers must be viewed with this discrepancy in mind. Of course, if anything, the sheer durability and continual peak of achievement that LeBron has showcased throughout his career to date should only help his case as one of the best to ever play the game.
Either way, do with this what you will:
|Accomplishments by Age 31||Michael Jordan||LeBron James|
|Finals MVP Awards||3||3|
|Points Per Game||32.2||27.2|
|Rebounds Per Game||6.3||7.2|
|Assists Per Game||5.9||6.9|
|Steals Per Game||2.7||1.7|
|Blocks Per Game||1.0||0.8|
|Player Efficiency Rating||29.6||27.7|
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||0.272||0.240|
Listen, we're not here to say that LeBron is better than Michael or that he ever will be. It's just interesting to consider the similarity between their careers at this particular juncture. No one might ever live up to Michael Jordan in terms of greatness on the basketball court, but LeBron is at least knocking on the door. Even with the difference in minutes and games played, the above numbers make that abundantly clear.
One thing that LeBron absolutely has over MJ, though?
|Category||Michael Jordan||LeBron James|
|73-Win Teams Defeated||0||1|
Jordan never had to take down (or even face) an all-time great team like the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Wherever LeBron ultimately lands on the all-time pantheon, that will likely stand as his crowning achievement.