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Michael Jordan or LeBron James: Who is the Greatest?
by ASA - 05/11/2018
Michael Jordan and LeBron James debate - who's the GOAT?
The current generation is clearly going to argue that LeBron gets the nod, but anyone that's watched the NBA for the past four decades knows it's MJ, and it's not as close as you might think. In the current NBA landscape LeBron is getting rave reviews for his current playoff prowess and rightfully so. His overall numbers have been fantastic and he's hit two game winning shots in the first two rounds. Ironically, those two shots are now tabbed two of his five greatest playoff game winning makes of all time. Those current two game winners actually help in our comparison with MJ and who's the GOAT. Consider the circumstances of those two game winners. The score was tied in the early rounds of the Conference Playoffs and the second game winner came at home, where they were already up 2-0 in the second round series. Let's be honest, you're playing with house money in that moment and the pressure of 'winning' isn't present. In 2013 LeBron hit a meaningful layup against the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals for a 1-point win. In 2015 against the Bulls, LeBron hit a winner in Game 4 of the semi-finals when the score was tied with the Cavs down 2-1 in the series. In 2009 LeBron hit his most meaningful game winner when the Cavs were down 2 and he hit a 3-pointer for a win after the Cavs were down 0-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Let's compare LeBron's top five playoff winners to Michael Jordan's top five playoff winners. 1989, down 1-point to the Cavs, who had beaten the Bulls 6 straight times in the regular season, Jordan buries a jumper for the 1-point win. 1991, Jordan and the Bulls are down 2-points with 3.4 seconds left in the Finals against the Lakers and MJ hits a shot to send the game to OT. A miss and the Bulls are down 2-1 in the series but they eventually win in OT. In the conference semi-finals in 1993, with the score tied, Jordan hits a shot to win game three. In 1997 MJ makes another Finals game winner over Utah in Game 1 of that series. In 1998,with the Bulls trailing by a point, Jordan makes a steal to set up his iconic jumper over Bryon Russell to win Game 6 and his 6th NBA Finals MVP and NBA Championship.
In that comparison if you are a LeBron supporter and suggesting he's more clutch in big moments than MJ, then you should probably re-read what we just wrote. LeBron's biggest shots in the Playoffs have come with games tied and not in the same pressure moments as Michael's. In that comparison we didn't even bring up the fact that Jordan won a National Championship (down 1-point with 18-seconds left) with a game winning shot in college. So who’s more clutch in big moments? Michael Jordan.
Statistically there are some very good arguments between LBJ /MJ when it comes to career stats. LeBron's overall body of work is making that a solid debate, but at the end of the day the era they played in, along with the competition has to be taken into account. In Jordan's career a 'hard foul' by today's standards would be a flagrant two and ejection. Michael took a beating in the playoffs which LeBron could withstand physically, but probably not mentally. Michael had to go through the superior Eastern Conference with the Bad Boys (Pistons), the physical New York Knick, along with the Pacers, Cavs and Orlando Magic with Shaq and Penny. LeBron has played in the weaker Conference his entire career which has dramatically increased his opportunities to win NBA Championships and improve career stats.
Defensive philosophies and the pace of play also have a huge impact on today's scoring numbers. In 1998 when Jordan retired from the Bulls the second time (before coming back to Washington 3-years later) the NBA average points scored per possession was 1.082PPP and the number of possessions per game was 90. In 2018 the current NBA points per possession is 1.098PPP (defenses not as good and hand check rules) along with pace of play numbers, 96.8 possession per game clearly favor today's offensive numbers. With that knowledge in hand, in Michael's final meaningful regular season, he averaged 28.7PPG despite having nearly 10 less possessions per game compared to LeBron's 2018 regular season numbers of 27.5PPG. MJ scored 2,357 points in the regular season in 1998 with 820 less total possessions per game than LeBron's regular season point total of 2,251 this season. In today's NBA the 3-point shot has taken on a whole new meaning which has increased scoring too as the league average for 3-point attempts in 1997-98 was 15 less per game. What proves our point even further that today's scoring numbers are inflated in LeBron's favor is this. Of the top 25 all-time scorers in the NBA, 10 are what we would consider 'modern era' players, which clearly tells us scoring is easier today than it was pre-2000.
LeBron won two championships in South Beach but did it against a watered down Eastern Conference. Michael won three straight titles from the start of the 1990 season through 1993. In that time his Bulls went a combined 185 & 61 or .752 winning percentage during the regular season. In 1990-1993 there were a total of 24 other teams that had won 50+ games during the regular season. In Jordan's second "Three Peat" (1995-1998) his Bulls teams went 72-10, 69-13 and 62-20 and there were 27 teams with 50+ wins in those three years. In 1995-96 there were 4 other teams in the Central Division alone that had 46 or more wins. In the following season the Central had 3 other teams with 50+ wins so the Bulls were getting it done against outstanding competition. LeBron James can't say the same thing when he won his first two championships in Miami. In 2011-12 the Heat won their first championship in the strike shortened season. They beat two good teams in Boston and Chicago from the East to make the Finals. In the ensuing season though, the East had just 1 other team in the Conference that won 50 or more games other than the Heat. In 2015-16 LeBron won his 3rd Ring with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That season the East had two teams, including Cleveland with 50 or more wins. The overall record of the top 8 teams in the East that season was 394-262 for a winning percentage of .600. That same year in the West the eight playoff teams had a combined record of 417-239 or .635% with four teams winning 50+ games. So yes, the level of competition each player had to face has to be accounted for when calculation who’s the greatest of all time.
What further makes this argument is Jordan's career. He retired in 1993 after winning a Championship the previous season and sits out a year plus before coming back to the Bulls in 1994-95. Chicago was 34-31 without him, 12th in offense and 5th in total defense. The Bulls were projected to win 54 games that season. MJ came back, after being out of basketball for 18 months, and led the Bulls to a 13-4 record in their last 17 regular season games. That season the Bulls lost to Orlando with Shaq and Penny in the second round of the playoffs. The very next year Michael leads the Bulls to the all-time winningest record in the NBA with a 72-10 regular season mark. The Bulls were 1st in total offense and total defense that season. His desire to win and be the greatest player every supersedes anything else. He proved it again after he retired for 3 full seasons then came back to average over 20PPG for Washington at the age of 38 and 39. Michael commanded the respect of his teammates and elevated them to a higher level, especially on the defensive end of the court. LeBron can't say the same thing.
The longer LeBron stays in one place the worse those teams get defensively. In 2009-10, before LBJ went to Miami, the Heat were 6th in defensive efficiency ratings. When he left they were 11th. When James went back to Cleveland the Cavs were 18th in defensive efficiency. Now they are 29th or second to last. MJ won 9 first team all-defensive awards and 1 NBA defensive player of the year. James currently has 5 first team all-defensive awards. You can't make an argument on who's the GOAT without talking both ends of the basketball court.
Player Efficiency Ratings. PER takes into account accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative results, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls. The formula adds positive stats and subtracts negative ones through a statistical point value system. The rating for each player is then adjusted to a per-minute basis (PER) so that, for example, substitutes can be compared with starters in playing time debates. It is also adjusted for the team's pace. In the end, one number sums up the players' statistical accomplishments for that season.
Michael Jordan's career PER rating is #1 at 27.91 with LeBron James right below him at 27.7. Even if James should take the number one spot from Jordan, he is still mid-career. As the metric is averaged over the length of a player's entire career a decrease in efficiency later in his career means a player can move down in the ranking. IE; Jordan's PER took a big hit in the final two years of his career when he returned to the game with the Washington Wizards, posting 20.7 and 19.3 PER ratings in his final season, compared to his career high of 31.7. So the stats only guys that argue in LeBron's favor don't really have much to stand on.
Overall there are some great arguments and the debate is great for the NBA but at the end of the day it comes down to this and NBA purists know what I'm talking about. Michael Jordan's defiance to losing is probably the greatest separator of the two players. His desire to win at anything and everything is legendary. He proved it by refusing to lose in six NBA Finals where he also won six MVP's. The list of big name players to never lose a NBA Finals is a short one. Robert Horry 7-0, Scottie Pippen and MJ 6-0, John Havilcek and KC Jones 8-0. Not on the list: Wilt, Jabbar, Magic, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan and many more.
This debate will continue on until LeBron retires and the younger generation will back LeBron, and the older will say Michael. LeBron currently has 3 NBA Championships, thanks in large parts to Ray Allen, who hit the game 6 tying shot against San Antonio AFTER LeBron had missed it in 2013, and another 'Ship thanks to Kyrie Irving's big 3-pointer in Game 7 against the Warriors in 2016.
Let's end this piece with this: Hypothetically, if you had to bet your life on the outcome of one game and you had to pick a team of five Michael Jordan's or five LeBron James who would you pick? That would quickly end this debate in a day as all the LeBron guys would be dead.
For now it's Michael Jordan who never lost a Finals, has all the career stats despite retiring twice before he was physically done. If LeBron can win at least 3 more Championships, the debate might swing the other way.