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LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan Is a Real Conversation Now, So Let’s Have It

Comparing the two all-time greats

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the conversation after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals turn once again to the debate over whether LeBron James is as good as Michael Jordan was — or, more precisely, the loud insistence from a certain subset of NBA fans that LeBron certainly isn’t, and the persistent attempts of others to debunk their logic.

LeBron was awful in that game. He scored just 11 points, and none in the fourth quarter, as the Cavaliers let a 21-point lead evaporate. It was embarrassing, especially against a Celtics team without Isaiah Thomas. Jordan never scored fewer than 15 in a postseason game, never blew a 20-point postseason lead, and rarely lost playoff games after the player named "Isiah Thomas" stopped playing.

It’s true that Jordan had never performed so poorly. But it’s also true that Jordan never won 13 consecutive playoff games; he never even made it to 10. LeBron’s Game 3 dud was a blip of inconsistency at the end of a run that rivaled or surpassed the most consistent stretches of Jordan’s career. He’d scored 30 points in eight straight games, tying Jordan’s record, and though LeBron’s game may have been worse than Jordan’s worst, if he’d played well, it would have extended a streak that was as good as or better than Jordan’s best. And wait, since when is Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals the determining factor in the GOAT discussion?

Turning each game of the postseason into an MJ vs. LeBron referendum is dumb. No single game in the middle of an incomplete playoff run could possibly turn the tide in either player’s favor. This was true when LeBron had 11 points; it will be true if he has 111 points in Game 1 of the Finals. (It could be the greatest performance anybody has ever seen, and the next day your Twitter timeline would still be flooded with images of MJ smoking a cigar with his six rings on.) And with the endless wait between the conference finals and the Finals, we got plenty of arguments about this, distracting us from what we should be thinking about: how freakin’ great the basketball between the Warriors and Cavaliers should be.

So let’s settle the score. In this post, we will attempt to provide a comprehensive answer to the MJ vs. LeBron debate, so that we can carry on and enjoy the basketball currently being played.

Rings

Michael Jordan won six championships. (Have you heard?) LeBron has won three. Three is not as many as six.

But of course, LeBron is still playing basketball, whereas MJ is retired. And he’s won three titles in the last five years. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have four rings at 32 years old. MJ didn’t win his fourth ring until he was 33.

But it’s not just that MJ won six titles. It’s that he went 6–0 in the Finals, whereas LeBron is currently 3–4.

Some see this as an argument for Jordan’s postseason clutchness. But it also shows that LeBron has been better at getting to the Finals, whereas Jordan often failed to reach them. This graph compares both players’ finishes in the standings throughout their careers:

Jordan is the best at finishing first, but also had a real knack for finishing somewhere in between ninth and 16th. Jordan never lost in the Finals, but LeBron never lost in the first round.

The answer here is unfinished. For now, James’s history of Finals losses make him look worse than Jordan. But if he finishes his career with six rings and a bunch of Finals losses as well, we shouldn’t celebrate MJ for losing before the Finals so frequently. For now, I think we have to agree: Both players are extremely good at basketball.

Stats

Jordan is almost certainly the greatest scorer ever to play the sport. He led the NBA in scoring 10 times, more than anybody, in 15 seasons. The exceptions: his rookie year, the year he got injured, the year he came back from baseball, and his two years with the Wizards. Basically, he led the NBA in scoring for the entirety of his prime, and it was a lengthy prime. Sometimes he did it by astronomical amounts — in 1986–87, he scored 37.1 points per game when nobody else in the NBA cracked 30. He shot a lot, leading the NBA in usage rate eight times, but was remarkably efficient, finishing his career with a .497 field goal percentage. Nobody in the league’s modern era has shot so frequently and so well.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

James doesn’t compare. He’s led the NBA in scoring only once. His career high is 31.4 points per game, which would be MJ’s seventh-best season. Jordan had 39 career 50-point games; James has 10.

But LeBron isn’t that far off — his career average is 27.1 points per game, as opposed to Jordan’s 30.1. James has been as efficient at shooting as Jordan, with a .501 career field goal percentage even though he’s taken more than twice as many 3s per game as Jordan. James’s effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the worth of 3-pointers) is .536, considerably higher than Jordan’s .509. He also just passed Jordan for the record in all-time playoff points, and will pass Jordan’s career scoring total in the next few seasons, because Jordan started playing in the NBA at an older age and LeBron probably won’t retire as early (or as often) as Jordan.

And James has been exceptional in facets of the game besides scoring. He’s averaged 7.0 assists for his career and averaged 8.7 this year; Jordan averaged only 5.3. James also pulls down a rebound per game more than Jordan, and has had 72 career triple-doubles against Jordan’s 30. LeBron’s lead should expand in the years to come, as James had more triple-doubles this year — 14 — than in any prior season of his career.

Jordan’s unprecedented scoring ability makes it tough to argue that LeBron is statistically superior. But James’s ability to do almost everything else better and more efficiently makes the opposite argument just as difficult. It would be more accurate to say the two are different. Rather than pick one over the other, we should all agree: Both players are extremely good at basketball.

Clutchness

The images of Clutch MJ are impossible to erase — The Shot over Craig Ehlo, his NBA Finals winner over Bryon Russell. He actually had two buzzer-beaters over Russell to win NBA Finals games, and we don’t even talk about the other one.

LeBron hasn’t had an iconic game winner in his career — right now, his famous clutch play is swatting Andre Iguodala in Game 7 last year — but his clutch credentials are arguably on par with MJ’s. He’s actually hit more go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of playoff games on fewer attempts than Jordan. FiveThirtyEight found that James has been the most clutch postseason shooter in its data set, although that dates back to only 2000.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

James has been an absolute menace in Game 7s, winning all four he’s played since 2008: He had 37 to win the 2013 Finals and a 27-point triple-double last year to complete Cleveland’s epic comeback against the Warriors. (A reminder: He became the first player to lead the NBA Finals in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals while playing on the first team to rally back from a 3–1 deficit in the NBA Finals, and he did it against the first team ever to win 73 games in a season.) Jordan never played in a Game 7 in the Finals — because he was so clutch that he didn’t even need to be clutch, I guess — but his 2–1 record in non-Finals Game 7s is identical in percentage to LeBron’s 4–2 record.

Clutch sample sizes are extremely inconclusive, but in big moments, LeBron tends to do really well. As well as Jordan? Tough to say. I think we should just agree: Both are extremely good at basketball.

Quitting the NBA to Play Baseball

This doesn’t have anything to do with basketball, but I just really think we should all talk about the fact that Michael Jordan stopped playing in the NBA during the peak of his career to be a subpar minor league baseball player for a year and a half.

We got very mad at LeBron James for switching basketball teams. Skip Bayless would have an aneurysm on air if LeBron James were to give baseball a shot.

Anyway, back to more important stuff.

Style of Play

LeBron James is taller, faster, stronger, better at shooting, and better at passing than Michael Jordan was.

Are any of those things untrue? It sounds weird to call somebody stronger than Jordan, because so much of his game was based on strength, but LeBron has 50 pounds on him. "Better at shooting" is tough because Jordan was so effective from midrange, but he never shot consistently from 3 the way LeBron has the latter half of his career.

When we think about the two players like that, this whole thing seems stupid. What do we even mean when we’re trying to call someone the Greatest of All Time?

Does it have to do with who is better at basketball? Because I’ve played against players who are bigger, taller, faster, and better at shooting than I am in one-on-one, and it doesn’t go well. Wait, why am I even talking about one-on-one here when LeBron James’s greatest strength is his ability to make his teammates better?

The problem with this debate is that we’re not even really sure what we’re trying to solve for. Hypothetically, we’re looking for some mix of basketball talent, personal achievements, and team achievements.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In reality, both sides are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that the argument is pointless. Presented with facts, everybody will turn to a variable. When LeBron fails, his fans point to the poor quality of his teammates. When LeBron succeeds, Jordan stans point to the perceived weakness of the modern NBA. Soon, we’re playing multidimensional chess, comparing Scottie Pippen to Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving and the 1990s Pistons to the late-2010s Celtics and hoping the goodness or badness of one explains the goodness or badness of the superstar we were talking about a few minutes ago.

We’re having an argument about two different eras of basketball, and what the players from each era mean to us. Personally, I favor the current one. Humans tend to get better at things over time, and that is true of basketball as well. Our training methods are better, enhancing players’ physical capabilities. We’ve realized that jump shooting is the most efficient way to score, and have taught players how to be good at it, challenging defenses like never before.

But my preference doesn’t preclude me from admiring Jordan’s greatness. After all, the growth of the modern NBA is because of Jordan, who expanded the game’s talent pool in America and across the globe by showing the world how awesome he is. Even if I think the NBA is better now, it’s possible to also think that Jordan’s immense greatness in his time is the most incredible thing basketball has ever produced. Being the greatest in one’s era is worthy of praise regardless of opinions about the quality of the era. LeBron fans should acknowledge that about Jordan, and Jordan fans should acknowledge that about LeBron.

The most telling fact about the brilliance of LeBron’s career is that we’re talking about this. Even Jordan’s stanniest stans feel the need to acknowledge Jordan’s greatness by constantly demeaning James. We don’t need to answer the question: They are both brilliant marvels. Comparing the two does a disservice to both without convincing anybody of anything. I suspect we’d all be much happier if we just appreciated their greatness, so that’s what I plan on doing during the NBA Finals, instead of fighting the 1990s.

After all, we need to save our energy. Every second we spend debating LeBron vs. Jordan is a second we should be focusing on humiliating the people who think Kobe Bryant belongs in this conversation.