clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How LeBron Can Build a Case Against Jordan in the GOAT Debate

King James may never be able to best MJ’s championship mark or per-game scoring, but if he’s able to continue to excel in one particular area, he may gain the only argument he needs

Getty Images/Ringer GIF

Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?

Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.

Viewers of the 2011 NBA playoffs might remember a particular basketball-related snippet that aired relentlessly throughout that postseason in a trailer for the raunchy comedy Bad Teacher.

“You’re out of your mind,” Jason Segel’s gym teacher yells at a student in this exchange. “There is no way that LeBron will ever beat Jordan. Nobody will ever beat Jordan, OK?”

“LeBron’s a better rebounder and passer,” the kid shouts back.

Segel’s retort is quick and dismissive: “Call me when LeBron has six championships.”

“Is that your only argument?”

“It’s the only argument I need, Shawn!”

Seven years, as many Finals appearances, and three titles later, LeBron James’s historical standing compared with Michael Jordan’s is still distilled to that same myopic standoff. On some level, though, that narrow thinking is understandable because the reality that the two greats never competed against each other means that comparing their career accomplishments is an eternal challenge. Rather than clash on the court, they dominated their respective eras: Either Jordan or James has featured in more than half the league’s Finals since 1991, when Jordan made his first, and either Jordan or James has appeared on nearly three-quarters of the All-NBA lineups since Jordan entered the league in 1984-85. But they never overlapped: James was born six months after Jordan was drafted and was himself drafted two months after His Airness’s final game.

Comparing their numbers head to head, across eras, adds little clarity to the debate. Jordan has the scoring advantage, with the greatest points-per-game average in league history (James is in a virtual tie with Kevin Durant for fourth place); James, like Bad Teacher’s Shawn says, is a better rebounder and passer, beating Jordan by more than a rebound and assist per game and far exceeding him on a rate basis. Jordan was a consistently better defender, as his nine All-Defensive First Team honors show, but a locked-in James is just as ferocious and would have looked a lot better in recent seasons playing next to All-Defensive team mainstays Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman rather than Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

For Jason Segel’s Jordan stans, those comparisons miss the rhetorical point, as they need only the one argument. Even after James won two rings in Miami, and even after he escaped a 3-1 series deficit to beat the best regular-season team in league history and bring a championship to Cleveland, he’s still just halfway to Jordan’s title total. And even if he wins three more, the comparative goalposts will move, and Jordan will remain ahead of his challenger by virtue of his perfect 6-0 record in the Finals. A clean Finals ledger hasn’t been possible for James since he was 22 and lost in a sweep to the Spurs.

Jordan, for comparison, didn’t reach his first Finals until he was 27; he and James both won their first titles at the same age. Part of the imbalance in Finals records results from James’s tendency to drag overmatched teams into June even when they didn’t particularly belong—the other starters on his first Finals loser were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, and a combination of Larry Hughes, Daniel Gibson, and Eric Snow—while Jordan’s lesser teams lost in earlier rounds. James has forayed consistently further than Jordan into the playoffs, reaching more conference semifinals, conference finals, and NBA Finals than the consensus GOAT.

Postseason Outcomes

Playoff Result Jordan James
Playoff Result Jordan James
Total Seasons 15 14
Reached Playoffs 13 12
Reached Conference Semis 10 12
Reached Conference Finals 8 9
Reached Finals 6 8
Won Title 6 3

Overall, Jordan won 66.5 percent of his playoff games; James has won 66.4 percent of his. That’s a thin enough margin that even one more loss by Jordan or one fewer loss by James would swing the advantage to the latter player. But winning individual playoff games isn’t the goal; winning titles is, and there, Jordan has the incontrovertible advantage. It’s reductive but true.

So a playoff path toward unseating the king is in all likelihood closed off to, well, the King. And, as noted above, the per-game statistical comparisons are sufficiently muddled that James won’t nudge ahead there, either. But he does have one route to establishing potential superiority: his longevity, and the career benchmarks it could yield. Among his multitudinous basketball talents, James’s health might be the most underrated yet consistently important, and it could eventually give his supporters the one argument they need.

In the middle of his 15th season, James still appears in his prime. Jordan’s 15th season—delayed by three years of college plus multiple retirements—was his last. James has played more career games than Jordan, has never suffered a notable injury, and remains on a blistering pace across the statistical board. Which begs two questions: Just how high could his career totals climb? And could those potential numbers be so overwhelming, so absurd compared not only to Jordan’s but to those of every other player who’s worn an NBA uniform, that he could claim the greatest career in league history?

The best way to answer those questions employs the “favorite toy” tool invented by baseball sabermetrician Bill James and rejiggered by John Hollinger to fit a basketball context. It uses a player’s age and established performance level to assess their likelihood of reaching a statistical milestone. For instance, LeBron James entered the All-Star break with 7,961 career assists, already the 12th most in league history. Given that he’s only 33 years old and currently averaging a career high in assists per game, it follows that he’d continue to work his way up the leaderboard, and, indeed, the “favorite toy” formula predicts that he has a 98.5 percent chance of cracking the top 10 (whose current barrier is Andre Miller’s 8,524 assists) by the time his career ends.

This tool is nothing more than a projection system based on past performance, so if the historically indestructible James suffers an injury akin to the severity of Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tear, James’s chance of reaching various targets will plummet. But he is already ahead of pace in a number of categories, and “favorite toy” reveals a remarkable set of possibilities for his ultimate career totals.

First up, points, the most singular expression of basketball dominance and the counting stat in which the 10-time scoring champ Jordan most outstrips James on a per-game basis. Earlier this season, James reached 30,000 points, and though he’s now in seventh on the career scoring list, he is just one or two healthy seasons away from passing Dirk Nowitzki, Wilt Chamberlain, Jordan, and Kobe Bryant for third.

Karl Malone (36,928 points) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) are further away, but with 91.6 percent odds of passing Malone and 69.6 percent odds of passing Abdul-Jabbar, James is still a heavy favorite to exceed their totals and retire as the sport’s all-time leading scorer. He also has essentially a coin-flip chance (48.3 percent) to hit 40,000 points and a not-insignificant chance to hit 45,000 (13.3 percent).

Chart showing LeBron James’s expected career point total

If that graph looks a little funky, it’s because the “favorite toy” formula requires an adjustment at the extremes, and James’s total is so high at such a relatively young age that he breaks it for thousands of points’ worth of calculations. He quite literally has no precedent in these matters.

That pattern extends to the career assists leaderboard, where James already leads Jordan by 2,328 assists and 32 spots on the list. James’s odds of passing all of Rod Strickland, Miller, Gary Payton, Isaiah Thomas, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Mark Jackson, and Steve Nash are north of 80 percent, which would place him behind only John Stockton, Jason Kidd, and potentially Chris Paul (who’s ahead of James by 612 assists and still adding to his total) in the top three or four all-time. Stockton and Kidd have a healthier lead, and, while the former Jazz man is uncatchable with more than 15,000 assists, Kidd’s 12,091 is within James’s distant reach (23.8 percent).

Chart showing LeBron James’s expected career assist total

James’s rebounding future looks less impressive by comparison, if only because he has more historical competition at lofty totals, and “favorite toy” gives him a zero percent chance of cracking the leaderboard’s top 10. He does, though, already lead Jordan by 1,488 rebounds and 64 rungs, and he seems like a reasonable bet to reach the top 25 among all players (35.2 percent) and a solid bet to reach the top five among all non-centers (roughly 50 percent, pending where Nowitzki, currently in fifth place on that list, ends up). (The below graph shows his standing among only non-centers.)

Chart showing LeBron James’s expected career rebound total

That all leads to a rather astonishing combination—which is so unprecedented in basketball history that it requires a cross-sport comparison. Perhaps the most extraordinary fun fact about Barry Bonds’s extraordinarily fun-fact-filled career is that he is the only player in MLB history with at least 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases—and he’s also the only player in MLB history with at least 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases.

A similar standard will soon manifest with James. He is already one of just three players in NBA history—along with Kidd and Robertson—with at least 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists, and by the end of this season, he’ll join Kidd as the only members of the 8,000-8,000 club. The extraordinary part comes next: “Favorite toy” gives James better than a 90 percent chance of becoming the first member of both the 9,000-9,000 and 10,000-10,000 clubs, and better than a 50 percent chance of founding the 11,000-11,000 club.

Would a hypothetical future James who holds the all-time scoring record and ranks in the top 3 in all-time assists and the top 25 in all-time rebounds, and who has inaugurated the inconceivable 40,000-10,000-10,000 club, surpass Jordan?

What if James reaches 42,292 points—10,000 more than Jordan—which “favorite toy” suggests has a 28.4 percent chance of occurring? What if James doubles Jordan’s assists total (43.7 percent chance)? Even his most likely final numbers at this point—39,847 points, 11,071 assists, and 11,130 rebounds—would dwarf Jordan’s totals. And again, consider the absurdity of 39,847 career points representing the average outcome for James at this point.

Maybe the answer is no—maybe James fans shouldn’t call Jason Segel until their man reaches six titles. But with longevity in his corner and potentially a host of astounding numbers to go along with it, the best player since Jordan could build an argument as the best player including Jordan. Much like with the yearly MVP race, the GOAT debate might twist into a semantics debate: Are “best” and “most accomplished” synonymous, and how closely does “greatest player” overlap with “player with the greatest career”? That strain of argument would prove exhausting but would at least represent an evolution in the dispute—and the very fact that it’s a future possibility speaks to what James has already accomplished and how much more room he has to bolster his case.