Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James: Who Has the Edge?

Photo via CavaliersNation.com

 

By Trace Johnson

Sports debating has always been a major topic of conversation among fans all over the world.  And in 2017, the same can be said now more than possibly ever before behind a debate that seemingly increases in intensity on a yearly basis.  The hottest debate in sports is the never-ending comparisons between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, widely considered to be arguably the two greatest players in NBA history.  This debate has no end in sight and the comparisons will probably be around forever between just who is the “G.O.A.T.” between Jordan and James.  But just who has the edge?  Let’s take a closer look.

Michael Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest player in NBA history and has owned that mantra for many years.  In fact, he is probably the most universally-recognized “G.O.A.T” in any sport.  Jordan is held at a mythical level and rightfully so.  But as great as Jordan was, many believe LeBron James is every bit as good as he was and many believe James is already better than Jordan despite being just 32 years old.  James has had a legendary career and still has time to write the closing chapters on that legendary career.  But is he already better than Jordan?

Regular Season

Jordan averaged an NBA-record 30.1 points-per-game over the course of his 15 seasons in the NBA, edging James’ career 27.1 points-per-game.  James does have a slim edge, however, in career field goal percentage with a 50.1 percent to 49.7 percent advantage.  Where James clearly distinguishes himself from Jordan is assists and rebounds with James’ career assists-per-game and rebounds-per-game averages sitting at 7.0 and 7.3 respectively.  Jordan averaged 5.3 assists-per-game over his career along with 6.2 rebounds-per-game.  Keep in mind, however, that James is a forward and Jordan was a guard.  So naturally a forward that outweighs a guard by over 30 pounds will get more rebounds.  James also has a slight edge in 3-point field goal percentage, connecting on 34.2 percent of his career 3-point field goal attempts while Jordan, who shot 2,517 less 3-point field goals, connected on 32.7 percent of his career 3-point field goal attempts.

Jordan has a distinct advantage from the free throw line where he connected on 83.5 percent of his career free throw attempts compared to James’ career 74.0 percent shooting from the free throw line.  Jordan also has the edge in steals where he led the league three times in steals while compiling an average of 2.4 steals-per-game over the course of his career while James has a career average of 1.6 steals-per-game.  Both are deadlocked in career blocks-per-game at 0.8 as well.  Each player has a long list of career achievements that stand up among the greatest in NBA history.

Personal Career Achievements

Jordan has a slight edge in league MVP awards with five compared to James’ four league MVP awards.  James has a slight edge in All-NBA First Team honors with 11 over the course of his career compared to Jordan’s 10.  Jordan is considered one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history having one Defensive Player of the Year award in 1988 as well as making the All-Defensive First Team nine times, four more than James’ five All-Defensive First Team honors and James has yet to win a Defensive Player of the Year award.

Both players have a long track record of All-Star game appearances with Jordan being a 14-time All-Star and James being a 13-time All-Star.  Jordan is also a three-time All-Star game MVP and James is a two-time All-Star game MVP.  Jordan has a staggering 10 scoring titles over the course of his career, significantly more than James’ one scoring title.  Despite this advantage, there’s no denying Jordan as a shooting guard would inevitably take more shots than a pass-first forward in James.  Both players have the two highest player efficiency ratings in NBA history with Jordan owning a slim 27.9 career PER to 27.6 career PER advantage over James.

Playoffs

Both have had tremendous regular season success, but both have had even better playoff success.  Jordan is arguably the greatest performer in NBA playoff history and the numbers back up that premise.  Jordan owns a career postseason average of 33.4 points-per-game compared to James’ career 28.4 playoff points-per-game average.  James has advantages in rebounds and assists-per-game with career playoff averages of 8.9 rebounds-per-game and 6.9 assists-per-game.  In comparison, Jordan’s career playoff averages in rebounds and assists sit at 6.4 and 5.7 respectively.  Jordan has a slim edge in field goal percentage average in the playoffs of 48.7 percent compared to James’ 48.5 percent.  The slim advantages continue for Jordan with career playoff 3-point field goal percentage as well with a 33.2 percent to 33.0 percent advantage over James.  Much like the regular season, Jordan owns a distinct advantage in career playoff free throw shooting over James with an 82.8 percent to 74.2 percent advantage.  James has a slim advantage in career playoff blocks-per-game with 1.0 compared to Jordan’s 0.8, but Jordan rebounds with a slim advantage in career playoff steals-per-game at 2.1 compared to James’ 1.8.

Finals

While it’s seemingly common knowledge at this point, Jordan is 6-0 in NBA Finals appearances in his career with six Finals MVP awards.  This feat could likely never be reached again and when comparing Jordan and James, this seems to be the ultimate go-to stat.  In comparison, James is 3-5 in NBA Finals appearances and has made it to the Finals every season dating back to the 2010-11 season while earning three Finals MVP awards of his own.

Jordan’s Finals career could very well end up being unmatched.  In 35 career NBA Finals games, Jordan owns an NBA-record 33.6 points-per-game, outdoing James’ career 27.7 points-per-game over the course of 45 Finals games.  The trend of assists and rebounds continue to be in the advantage of James as he has a Finals average of 10.1 rebounds-per-game and 7.5 assists-per-game compared to Jordan’s Finals average of 6.0 rebounds-per-game and 6.0 assists-per-game.  Jordan has been more efficient from the field during his Finals career with a 48.1 percent to 46.3 percent advantage in Finals field goal percentage.  Jordan also owns a better Finals 3-point field goal percentage average with a 36.8 to 34.3 percent advantage over James.  Jordan’s free throw percentage advantage over James continues in the Finals with a Finals career average of 80.6 percent compared to James’ 72.5 percent.  James has a slight advantage in career Finals blocks-per-game at 0.9 to 0.7 and both players have the exact same Finals average of 1.8 steals-per-game.  One other advantage Jordan has over James in the Finals is turnovers-per-game where Jordan averaged only 2.4 turnovers-per-game in the Finals while James has averaged 3.9 turnovers-per-game over the course of his Finals career.   Another noteworthy stat that goes in Jordan’s favor is Jordan has only averaged less than 30 points-per-game in a Finals series one time compared to James’ six times averaging less than 30 points-per-game in a Finals series.

Jordan’s and James’ Finals Help

The ultimate argument in favor of Jordan being better than James is comparing the two’s Finals win/loss records.  And while it’s clear 6-0 is better than 3-5, many would argue getting to the Finals more times is a better feat even if that player doesn’t win as many championships.  Many have defended James’ Finals losses by saying he didn’t have enough help to win those championships.  And while that defense is warranted in most cases, numbers show that James has had more help than you might think in the Finals.  James and Jordan have both had the exact same number of instances where a teammate averaged at least 20 points-per-game in a Finals series.  Jordan only had one teammate to accomplish this feat and that was Scottie Pippen who did so four times with the highest average coming in the 1993 Finals at 21.2 points-per-game.  James has also had four examples in which a teammate averaged at least 20 points-per-game in a Finals series.  The first two occasions were courtesy of Dwyane Wade in the 2011 and 2012 Finals with averages of 26.5 points-per-game and 22.6 points-per-game respectively.  The most recent occasions came via Kyrie Irving who averaged 27.1 points-per-game in the 2016 Finals and most recently 29.4 points-per-game in the 2017 Finals.  In addition, James has had a total of 24 teammates to average at least 10 points-per-game throughout the course of his eight Finals appearances.  In comparison, Jordan had a total of 14 teammates to average at least 10 points-per-game throughout the course of his Finals appearances.  While James has played in two more Finals than Jordan, these numbers suggest that he has had at least comparable Finals help to Jordan.  It’s also worth noting that Jordan was the leading scorer in all six of his Finals appearances and outscored the Bulls’ second leading scorer in each of those Finals by an average of 14.5 points-per-game.  James has only been the leading scorer in four of his eight Finals appearances and while being the leading scorer on his team in seven of eight appearances, he outscored his team’s second leading scorer in each of those Finals by an average of 8.9 points-per-game.

Finals Competition

Both players have faced stiff competition in the Finals as well.  In James’ eight Finals appearances, his opponents have a combined 489-151 overall record during the seasons in which they faced James in the Finals, good for a 76.3 winning percentage.  In comparison, Jordan’s opponents had a combined 367-125 overall record during the seasons in which they faced him in the Finals, good for a 74.6 percent winning percentage.  While these averages are both close, most would agree Jordan never faced a team with the firepower of the Golden State Warriors, who James has faced the past three seasons in the Finals.  Many would also argue that Jordan was on better teams than James, but the numbers suggest otherwise.  Excluding his final two seasons in the NBA as a member of the Washington Wizards, Jordan’s Bulls compiled an overall record of 648-336 in his 12 seasons in Chicago, good for a 66 percent winning percentage.  In comparison, when looking at his time with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat, James’ teams have combined for an overall record of 734-395 in his 14 NBA seasons, good for a 65 percent winning percentage.  While James has arguably done more with less than Jordan did, his teams have historically won just as much, percentage wise, as Jordan’s Bulls teams.

Jordan’s Early Playoff Losses

A big argument in favor of James over Jordan is the fact that Jordan had several early losses in the playoffs while James has never lost a first round playoff series in his career.  But to insinuate that Jordan was at fault for his early playoff transgressions would be unfair.  Jordan and the Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 1985 playoffs, got swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1986 playoffs as well as the 1987 playoffs and lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 1988, 1989 and 1990 playoffs.  But those loses certainly weren’t on the shoulders of Jordan.  From the 1985 playoffs up until the 1990 playoffs in which the Bulls never reached the Finals, Jordan averaged 36.1 points-per-game on 48.6 percent shooting from the field, 6.7 rebounds-per-game, 6.6 assists-per-game, 2.5 steals-per-game, 1.0 blocks-per-game and connected on 85 percent of his free throws throughout those six playoff years.  Jordan also was on three teams during that six-year playoff stretch with a sub-.500 record.  So, if anyone holds those losses against Jordan, it would be hypocritical to not hold James’ Finals losses against him.

In addition, the numbers suggest James was on better teams than Jordan was throughout Jordan’s first six years in the NBA without winning a championship.  In each of James’ eight seasons prior to winning his first championship, his teams went a combined 407-249 overall, good for a 62.0 percent winning percentage.  In Jordan’s six seasons prior to winning his first championship, his teams went a combined 260-232 overall, good for a 52.8 percent winning percentage.  Another stat that backs up this premise is during James’ first eight seasons in the league, he played with a total of four all-stars.  In comparison, Jordan only had the luxury of playing with one all-star throughout his first six seasons in the NBA.  And as a whole, James has played with more all-stars over the course of his career than Jordan did.  Teammates of James’ who were all-stars include Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2005, Mo Williams in 2009, Wade in 2011-2014, Chris Bosh in 2011-2014, Irving in 2015 and 2017 and Kevin Love in 2017.  In comparison, Jordan played with only one all-star during his playing time in Chicago and that was Pippen in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1996-1998.  Despite many finding the notion outrageous, it’s not outrageous to say James has played with a very comparable supporting cast to Jordan’s over the years and in some cases, he has had even better supporting casts.

James’ 2011 Finals Blunder

Even though James was not at fault in most of his Finals losses, the 2011 Finals are a definite blemish on his resume.  In his first season with the Miami Heat after leaving Cleveland to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat made it to the Finals to battle the Dallas Mavericks.  Despite going up 2-1 in the series, the Heat went on to lose the next three games and the Mavericks won their first NBA Championship.  James had what many consider to be the biggest superstar meltdown in Finals history.  He averaged just 17.8 points-per-game during the series, good for only third on his team.  But the story wasn’t just his points-per-game average, it was how he seemingly disappeared in the fourth quarter during this series.  In six fourth quarters during this series, James made just seven field goals combined and was disengaged and passive.  There is no denying James has grown from this tremendously, but when comparing James to Jordan in terms of being the greatest player ever, this can’t be erased.

Clutch

In terms of being “clutch,” there is no true way to determine what clutch really is.  In most cases, a clutch scale is totally subjective to meet one’s agenda for a specific player.  Between Jordan and James, there’s no denying Jordan has a better reputation as being a clutch player with his memorable last-second shots and James was considered by many to be one of the most mentally-fragile players in NBA history up until his first championship in 2012.  But in one classification of being clutch, James is neck and neck with Jordan.  In potential go-ahead or game-tying shots taken in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime during a postseason game, Jordan is 9-for-18 in his career, good for 50 percent.  On the other side, James is not far behind at 8-for-19 in those same circumstances in his career, good for 42 percent.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, James is the only player since Jordan that can definitively have a case for being better than Jordan.  But even at that, Jordan still has the edge.  Using the 6-0 vs. 3-5 argument is lazy, but it still is a determining factor in comparing two greats.  Despite how warranted the defense of James’ 3-5 Finals record is, by the same token, you can look at it a different way as well.  One can make the case that without Ray Allen’s clutch 3-pointer at the end of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals and without Warriors forward Draymond Green getting suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, James could very well be 1-7 in the Finals.  Fair or foul, you have to look at it both ways when comparing these two juggernauts.  Jordan has the overall edge in playoff performances and Finals performances while having several more noteworthy career achievements than James has.  James has his advantages over Jordan, there’s no denying that.  He is already an all-time great player and he’s only 32 years old.  In fact, he’s probably already the sure-fire second greatest player in NBA history.  James has several more years to go and can continue to add to his resume and chase Jordan.  But as of right now, Jordan is still better than James.  Wait until James’ career comes to an end and then compare, but it’s not fair to either individual to try and compare the two at this point when James is likely still in his prime.  Just worry about appreciating both players and their greatness because the debate is still Jordan’s to lose and James’ to catch.