Tonight Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers resume their title defense in Boston against the top-seeded Boston Celtics. Lebron is in the midst of one of the most impressive Playoff runs in NBA history. In leading the Cavs to a perfect 8-0 record in the first two rounds, Lebron has averaged 34.4 points, 9 rebounds, and 7.1 assists, while shooting 55.7 percent from the floor and 46.8 percent from three. This is not something we would expect to see from a player with 50,000 plus minutes on his body. In fact, we have never seen a player with so many minutes perform at such a high level. Lebron has played more minutes than MJ did in his entire career and is still as dominant as ever. It begs the question, is Lebron already better than Michael Jordan or is that just the recency bias speaking?
Biases are funny things. We all have them and few people are self-aware enough to know which ones they have. They impact our thinking, are often unconscious, and they have a powerful impact on how we view the world. I have come to grips with the fact that I have a bias in believing that Michael Jordan is the greatest player to ever play the game. I look back at those years where he dominated and romanticize just how amazing he was. I made up my mind in 1998 that nobody would ever be able to knock MJ off his perch as the greatest ever. For years, I resisted getting on the Lebron train because of this bias. Knowing that I have this bias going into this analysis, and attempting to look at things objectively, I am going to try to answer the question whether Lebron is already better than Jordan.
The tale of the tape…
Team Success: Slight Edge Jordan
Championships: Jordan 6, Lebron 3
Finals Appearances: Jordan 6, Lebron 7
Team’s Average Win Total: Jordan 51.6, Lebron 52.4
60+ Win Seasons: Jordan 5, Lebron 3
50+ Win Seasons: Jordan 8, Lebron 10
Seasons in the Playoffs: Jordan 13 of 15, Lebron 12 of 14
First Round Series Losses: Jordan 3, Lebron 0
Playoff Series Sweeps: Jordan 9, Lebron 10
Record in Playoff Series: Jordan 28-7, Lebron 29-8
Best Record, Single Playoffs: Jordan’s 1990-91 Bulls 15-2, Lebron’s 2015-16 Cavs 16-5
Olympic Record: Jordan 2 Gold Medals (16-0), Lebron 2 Gold Medals and 1 Bronze (21-3)
Summary: Jordan had a higher peak (6 championships in 8 seasons), but Lebron’s teams have stayed near the top of the league his entire career, including six (likely seven) straight Finals appearances. Time will tell if Lebron will have a “Washington Wizards” experience like Jordan had at the end of his career, but at this point, Lebron has dominated the Eastern Coference for a decade with no signs of letting up. Jordan gets the edge because of the six championships and a higher peak (72-win season and the dominant 15-2 title run), but this one is closer than most people think. Colin Cowherd recently made the argument that Lebron’s Finals wins are more impressive than Jordan’s because Jordan never beat any “great teams.” He sites that Lebron’s championships came over the 73-win Warriors, the dynastic Spurs, and the “three Hall of Famer” OKC team. That may be true, but what Cowherd also fails to point out is that Lebron also had more help than MJ did. Jordan never played on a team with three all-stars. All four of the Heat teams that went to the Finals had three All-Stars. There just weren’t many teams in the 80’s and 90’s that had three All-Stars, so of course MJ beat lesser teams than Lebron, but he did it with less support from other stars. That said, people also forget that in 2016 when the Cavs beat the 73-win Warriors, Lebron was the lone all-star on that team. So, even though Jordan has twice as many Championships, Lebron’s Finals appearances and sustained dominance turns this one into a close call, but I have to give the slight edge to Jordan.
Individual Awards: Edge Jordan
Most Valuable Player Awards: Jordan 5, Lebron 4
Defensive Player of the Year: Jordan 1, Lebron 0
Rookie of the Year: Jordan 1, Lebron 1
Finals MVP Awards: Jordan 6, Lebron 3
Scoring Titles: Jordan 10, Lebron 1
1st Team All-NBA: Jordan 10, Lebron 10
2nd Team All-NBA: Jordan 1, Lebron 2
All-Defensive 1st Team: Jordan 9, Lebron 5
Summary: Jordan’s scoring ability gives him the edge in individual honors. Lebron was consistently in the top 5 in scoring, but won only one scoring title to Jordan’s 10. Jordan’s edge on All-Defensive teams (9 to 5) and MVPs (5 to 4) also push MJ over Lebron when it comes to individual awards. It’s unfortunate for Lebron that the NBA has never given out an award for “Best All-Around Player” or Lebron would have won that for the last decade.
Traditional Stats: Draw
Points Per Game: Jordan 30.1, Lebron 27.1
Rebounds Per Game: Jordan 6.2, Lebron 7.3
Assists Per Game: Jordan 5.3, Lebron 7.0
Steals Per Game: Jordan 2.3, Lebron 1.6
Blocks Per Game: Jordan 0.8, Lebron 0.8
Triple-Doubles: Jordan 10, Lebron 55
50 Point Games: Jordan 31, Lebron 10
Jordan dominates the scoring categories, but Lebron holds healthy leads over MJ in rebounds, assists, and triple-doubles, which indicates that Lebron helps his teams in more ways than just scoring. This one is tricky because MJ has already experienced the end-of-career decline in numbers and we are looking at career per-game averages, so Lebron benefits from not yet experiencing those declining years to draw his number down. Still, the stats are close enough to call this category a draw.
Advanced Stats: Draw
Player Efficiency Rating: Jordan 27.9, Lebron 27.6
Box Plus/Minus: Jordan 8.1, Lebron 9.1
Offensive Rating: Jordan 118, Lebron 116
Defensive Rating: Jordan 103, Lebron 103
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: Jordan .2505, Lebron .2389
Value over Replacement Player: Jordan 104.44, Lebron 115.94
Like traditional stats, the advanced stats are also close, really close. In all-time Player Efficiency Rating, the king of all stats, MJ is first and Lebron is second. In all-time Box Plus/Minus Lebron is number one and MJ is number two. In Value over Replacement Player, Lebron is number one and MJ is number two. These two are clearly among the greatest to ever play the game, but it is too close to call when trying to determine which is better based purely on the stats. This one is a draw.
Shooting Percentages: Slight Edge Lebron
Field Goal Shooting: Jordan 49.7%, Lebron 50.1
Free Throw Shooting: Jordan 83.5%, Lebron 74.0%
Three-Point Shooting: Jordan 32.7%, Lebron 34.2%
Effective Field Goal Percentage: Jordan 50.9%, Lebron 53.6%
Without question Lebron’s greatest weakness in his game is his poor free throw shooting. In fact, of the thirty players ranked by ESPNrank as the Top 10 Point Guards, Top 10 Shooting Guards, and Top 10 Small Forwards, only the 6th ranked Small Forward, Scottie Pippen (70.4 percent), shot worse from the free throw line than Lebron. Had Lebron shot the same percentage on his 8,752 free throw attempts as MJ shot from the free throw line, Lebron would have scored an additional 834 points in his career and added an additional 0.8 points per game to his scoring average. Nevertheless, Lebron is more efficient from the floor than MJ was. Lebron has a slight edge in field goal percentage and three-point percentage, but a significant edge in effective field goal percentage due to how many more threes Lebron shoots than MJ did. MJ’s huge edge in free throw shooting is not enough to overcome Lebron’s efficiency from the floor. Lebron gets the slight edge here.
Clutchness: Edge Jordan
Points Per Game Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan +3.3, Lebron +1.1
Rebounds Per Game Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan +0.2, Lebron +1.5
Assists Per Game Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan +0.4, Lebron -0.2
Field Goal Shooting Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan -1.0%, Lebron -2.0%
3 Point Shooting Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan +0.5%, Lebron -1.4%
Free Throw Shooting Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan -0.7%, Lebron +0.5%
PER Difference (Playoffs to Regular Season): Jordan +0.7, Lebron +0.2
Jordan dominated this category. As good as MJ’s numbers were in the regular season, it is astonishing to see increased Playoff productivity almost across the board. Lebron won only rebounds per game and free throw percentage, but despite Jordan’s decrease in free throw percentage and Lebron’s increase, MJ still shot 7.8 percent better from the line than Lebron did in the Playoffs. MJ also has hit more clutch shots than maybe anyone in history.
Time: Edge Lebron
Regular Season Minutes Played: Jordan 41,011, Lebron 41,272
Playoff Minutes Played: Jordan 7,474, Lebron 8,722
Regular Season Games Played: Jordan 1,039, Lebron 1,061
Playoff Games Played: Jordan 179, Lebron 207
It’s crazy to think that Lebron is still just 32 and he has already played more games and minutes than MJ and that includes MJ’s Wizards days. Where Lebron has played more games and minutes and has not experienced the end-of-career drop off yet, Lebron already has more time at an elite level than MJ ever had. Pretty impressive.
Signature Moments: Edge Jordan
Jordan: Shot on Craig Ehlo, Shot and pose on Bryan Russell, Flu Game, “the shrug”, the switching hands in the air versus the Lakers in 1991 Finals, the double between the legs cross-over on Bird in his 63-point Playoff-record performance, dunk from the free throw line, holding up the fingers after winning championships.
Lebron: Chasedown block on Andre Iguodala, back-to-back 41 point games and a triple-double to comeback from 3-to-1 deficit on Warriors, posterizing dunk on Duncan.
Great players have those great, signature moments and it really is surprising that Lebron’s chase down block was really Lebron’s first real signature play. What took him so long? Just google “Lebron James Signature Moments” and you will see videos of really great plays, like a great rebound and pass in the third quarter of a Finals game against OKC, an amazing block on Tiago Splitter in a Finals game with a 19-point lead, a crazy alley-oop in the second quarter of an East Semi-Finals game against the Celtics, and a buzzer beater to beat Orlando in Game 2 of an early round Playoff series. Lebron has great plays, but they lack in drama and until the chase down block on Iggy, did not happen in the biggest moments. With MJ you had so many signature moments, last second shots, and iconic images. Even Jordan counting his championships on those long, boney fingers became iconic. This one goes to Jordan and it’s not even close.
Intangibles: Edge Jordan
Leadership: Draw. Both lead with their own style and both inspire guys to buy-in to their way of thinking. Both have the “get on my back and I’ll take you there” mentality and it’s tough to say who was better than the other when it comes to leadership.
Finishing Games: Jordan is the greatest closer in the history of the league (with a slight edge over Larry Bird and Jerry West). I remember when he played the Jazz in the Finals, everyone knew he was going to figure out a way to get the ball back, get the last shot, and there was nothing the Jazz could do to stop him. Lebron has the potential to have the edge here, but too often has settled for jump shots when opponents had no answer for him driving to the rim.
Competitive Drive: Jordan. There is no footage of Jordan in the Finals pouting in the corner or completely uninvolved off-screen in Finals games (or any game for that matter). Lebron has perhaps the most obvious on/off switch ever. When he’s on, there is nobody better, but other times he turns off and it’s really obvious.
Ability to Make Others Better: Lebron. Similar to “Leadership” this one is tough to call. I can’t think of a single player that had a “career year” playing next to MJ. Even Scottie Pippen had his best season when MJ was off playing baseball. MJ had players that he played with who later left the Bulls and became all-stars somewhere else or while he was retired (Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong), but I don’t recall any who played there best ball with MJ. Lebron is similar. Teammates seem to have had to sacrifice statistics to play next to him (Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Love). Shooters seem to play off these two well because of how much attention they garner, and Mo Williams is the lone player I can come up with that played his best seasons next to Lebron. Zydrunas Ilgauskas almost made the cut, but his best season was the season before Lebron was drafted. Still, Lebron gets the slight edge here.
Coachable: Jordan. For a while there, Lebron almost got the title of “coach-killer.” David Blatt had led the Cavs to the number one seed in the East, but Lebron didn’t like him, so he was out. Lebron may be the most difficult star to coach in the game today because of his huge ego and basketball IQ (that he openly talked about). Mike Brown is another example of Lebron butting heads with a coach. Whether it’s true or not, Lebron makes it tough on coaches to manage him. Jordan on the other hand, created a great relationship with Phil Jackson based on mutual respect.
“It” Factor: Jordan. Watching Michael Jordan was a magical experience. Not only was he the most artistic aerialist the game has ever seen, but he gave us so many moments to remember. MJ captured the imagination and every kid in the world wanted to be like him. He became a cultural icon and led the league in posters in kids’ bedrooms. Lebron on the other hand is a great player, but he’s the type that often quietly piles up stats. He’s the guy that in the forth quarter you look at the scoreboard and are surprised he has a statline of 25-8-8. He doesn’t always take the big shots, so he doesn’t have as many of those magical moments. I think this is an area that Lebron will never be better than MJ in.
Digging into the two greatest players to ever play the game that I love was a fun exercise. Based on this review, my conclusion is that MJ gave us something very special and he is the Greatest Player of All-Time, but it is only a matter of time before Lebron surpasses MJ. Lebron has accomplished so much and is still relatively young and seemingly still in his prime. If Lebron can somehow find a way to reach the Finals this season and then beat the mighty Warriors, I think he could surpass Jordan this season. If he doesn’t get the Warriors this season, he will add another couple of seasons like the ones we have been enjoying and Lebron will pass MJ then. MJ better enjoy his reign as the GOAT while it lasts because his days of being better than Lebron are numbered.