LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: The Debate is Over!


I do think Michael Jordan is an all-time great. He's certainly the greatest two guard to ever play the game. But, I'll be candid. I think the reason he gets so much attention has a ton to do with two factors: his amazing marketing and his amazing teams.

Unlike baseball, America's pasttime, basketball took a while to catch on. I'm in the middle of Dr. J's autobiography. Dr. J reinvented basketball. Yet, a 22 point comeback win in the last ABA finals was played before an arena that wasn't sold out with no national television. Magic Johnson, a point guard, managed to replace Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a center to win the finals in his rookie season. This finals was shown on tape delay!

Michael Jordan became the first superstar in the era when the NBA had the reach to make him a household name that transcended the sport. It also helped that he was drafted to a large market, and arguably the best support staff of any NBA star. In short, I feel Jordan gets a lot of credit for things outside of his control, which makes it hard to count them as "individual" accomplishments. Let's review!

Performance

LeBron vs. Michael's Wins Per 48 Minutes by Career Year

The reason Michael Jordan is oft considered the greatest of all time comes down to two things: he has six finals MVPs and five MVPs. Michael won his first title in his 7th season, or as we can see from the chart above, the last year of his peak. In the same year, he won his second MVP award. By his seventh year in the NBA, LeBron had also already made it to a finals and won two MVPs. However, because he had entered the NBA straight out of high school, LeBron had just entered his peak! If we compare years 4-9 of Michael's career with 5-10 of LeBron's, we see Bron's prime stacks up rather strongly with MJ's. And there are a few caveats.

Position

Michael Jordan is the best shooting guard to ever play the game. But the shooting guard position is traditionally the weakest. In fact, Arturo postulates that you don't need a top guard (shooting or point) to win the NBA finals. Thus, Jordan's performance relative to his peers is impressive. LeBron has been a small-forward and power-forward. LeBron's peers are both stronger due to their larger position, and the era he's in.

Count the Ring - Sample Size and Missing Samples

Let's hit this head on. Michael Jordan's absurd finals performances vs. LeBron's less than stellar appearances in the finals certainly seems to give Michael the nod. But there are a few problems with this argument. If we go by age, LeBron James has been to four finals. At this point, Michael had been to one. While LeBron's performances were underwhelming, Michael was completely absent! It's really hard to compare a player's bad finals performance (which followed a great regular season and playoff performance) with no finals performance.

Second, the finals are a small sample size, where a little luck can go along way. In their six finals appearances, the Bulls had 10 games decided by five points or less. The Phoenix Suns actually outscored the Bulls overall! Both the Lakers (Magic and Worthy) and Suns (Cellabos) suffered key injuries at finals time. This is not to take away from the Bulls victories. It's merely to state the playoffs inherently have more randomness built in. And that makes it a harder judge of a player!

Team!

Michael Jordan was drafted by the Bulls. This put him in a large market. Additionally Jerry Kraus was super savvy and helped construct a winning team around Michael. It also turns out he lucked into one of the few coaches that matters. Had Michael's career stopped after his first threepeat, I dare say he'd probably still rank behind Magic in many peoples' minds. The 72 win season, and the second threepeat cemented Jordan's legacy.

The issue is that Jordan was past his peak for this run. In 1996 Jordan was still good, but was below where he'd been in the late 80s and early 90s. And this season was also partially inflated as the NBA shortened the three point line. Jordan shot the best and most he ever had from beyond the arc. The reason the Bulls could perform even better with a weaker Jordan was the return of Scottie Pippen, and the addition of Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, and Ron Harper. All played spectacularly. Jordan was the team's best player, but the 72 wins involved a ton of help.

As a comparison, it would like if LeBron James suddenly gets say Kenneth Faried, a healthy Danilo Gallinari, and a healthy Wade. If LeBron doesn't though, it won't change the fact that his peak rivals Jordan's at a harder position, in a harder era.

Best of All Time

There is something to be said for longevity. If LeBron plays out this season like he's been, and plays another two seasons at top level (I don't count Michael's time on the Wizards) then I'll say there isn't any ambiguity to Bron over Michael. Even without that though, LeBron's top level play and dominance of the league simply cements him as the greatest ever in my book. The only metrics that definitively give the nod to Jordan rely too much on randomness and his team for my liking.

You're probably going to be proven right from a career numbers standpoint. I would also concede that LeBron has more talent.

But... Jordan never lost a Finals series, or was ever taken to a game 7 in any championship run, and was always the deserved Finals MVP. He flat out willed his team to two three-peats in 8 years, beating HOFers like Magic, Drexler, Barkley and Malone. No player will probably ever do this again. He has had much more memorable performances than LeBron on the biggest stage: the three point barrage against the Blazers, the flu game, the amazing last four points in G6 of the 98 Finals, including the steal from Malone and "the shot" over Russell (to name a few). To say he had luck, charm, timing and favourable teammates kinda... glosses over all that? He's always going to be the greatest in my mind because he always rose to the occasion.
Wilt Chamberlain is the real Greatest of All Time
Or maybe Kareem
Big don't get no respect
Based on what I read about Chamberlain, and on my understanding of your model, if full statistics were available for his late career (from the mid sixties) it would probably emerge as the best ever. Probably competing with Bill Russell and Kareem... And Chamberlain shooting in his first years looks average by modern standards but was very good in his era (excluding obviously FTs). But my question is different. Wasn't Magic the best ever (boxscore era) according to WP? How does LeBron compare to him? I agree with many points of this article, but I think the likes of Wilt, Russell, KAJ, Magic, Robertson, Bird should be in any GOAT discussion. Or, from the point of view of this site, at least those of them for which the stats are available. P.S. Gallinari, which is good, would love to be like Kukoc, and this comes from an Italian. Kukoc was really great, in Europe he looked like a taller Croatian Magic, I think he partially didn't fit well to USA basketball (and to the huge change in lifestyle that meant for a Eastern European of his generation to move to US), partially sacrificed for the good of the team, but in USA you saw only part of his potential
Despite the difference in 3-point lines, I don't this era is "harder" than the one in which Jordan played. In Jordan's era, the defensive rules were quite different. The rules permitted defenders to play a much rougher brand of defense then than is permitted now (e.g., hand checking, hard fouls, etc.). IMO, those rules more than offset the 3-point line changes. I don't know if you are old enough to remember the old Detroit Bad Boy days, as well as the Riley-era Knicks & Jordan Rules, but those teams just killed Jordan. In some respects, the evolution of defense to the Thib-style paint-packing semi-zone have offset those changes, but, still, I think they have affected the game more than any other changes.

In the end, the difference between LeBron and Michael will probably be affected more by the culture of basketball in the early 80s for players to go to college and stay in college than anything else. Extrapolate the Wins Produced by Jordan had he gone striaght to the NBA instead of playing at UNC for 3(!) years. I think that makes all the difference.
Also, a nit pick. Jordan's WP48 in year 10 was not .100. It was the null set.
People do realize if you aren't allowed to grab jersey on defense it makes it harder. I get so tired of that argument. Evolution is so slow. 90s are so rough and tough blah blah blah.
If Andrew is saying what I think he is, I agree. In the 90s, there was a ton of hand checking and play on the perimeter was really rough.

But in the 90s in the post, they let the offensive player get a way with a ton of things that you can't do now, and they currently let the defender do a ton of things that you couldn't do then. The back-to-the-basket-post-up game is practically gone from the modern game.

And in his final 3 seasons, Jordan posted up a TON. He lived from that triangle offense post up.
While Jordan did have to contend with hand-checking, we should also be aware that LeBron has to deal with defensive-schemes that are far more difficult then anything Jordan had to face.

Furthermore, the physicality in the 90's seemed to give the offensive player certain advantages as well, especially from the post. I tend to think LeBron would annihilate defenses (even more) if he could use his size/strength to actively clear defenders out (like Jordan did).
Also we should count the Wizard years. Because if he sucked in the NBA his whole career. They find a way for him to make the hall because of his college numbers. So if they count the college career, might as well count the whole NBA career. Im glad you guys brought up the marketing aspect.

In fact, Arturo postulates that you don't need a top guard (shooting or point) to win the NBA finals. Thus, Jordan's performance relative to his peers is impressive. LeBron has been a small-forward and power-forward. LeBron's peers are both stronger due to their larger position, and the era he's in.



I think this seemingly innocuous comment is actually pretty thorny. I'd like to bring up the problematic question of positions vs. roles. You have to have 5 guys on the floor, and the shortest one is almost always the PG, and strictly from the five set positions, no you don't need a great PG to win.

But, I would argue you absolutely must have at least competent players fulfilling the role that PGs typically fill. You have to get the ball up the court without turning it over, sets need to be initiated, someone has to handle and pass the ball in transition and in the half court, and so on.

For Miami, that's been mostly LBJ, even though he's often slated as a SF or PF when you look at lineups.

In the sense of "roles," I'd disagree strongly with Arturo. A team can't function, let alone with a chip, without someone (or multiple someones) playing the roles that PGs traditionally play.

Jordan's Bulls and the triangle offense work without a traditional PG, but that's because Jordan and Pippen (and to a lesser extent, Kukoc) did those things.

It works for the Heat (who also have Wade at SG) because of LBJ.

And while you might be able to find an outlying example here and there, the overwhelming majority of really good teams and NBA champions have somebody doing the point guardy things, even if they don't get a PG next to their name in the box score.
Your conclusion, that LeBron's prime has been better than Jordan's, is entirely plausible -- and, LeBron fan that I am, one with which I'm inclined to agree. But you don't provide an argument!

You're claiming that LeBron's prime has been *better* than Jordan's. All you've shown, though, is that his prime has been roughly comparable to Jordan's in terms of WP48. Your only real attempt at distinguishing LeBron as being better is to say "LeBron's peers are both stronger due to their larger position, and the era he's in." That's an intermediary conclusion that you neither explain nor defend.

I agree with you rejection of the pro-Jordan "count the rings" argument, but refuting a pro-Jordan argument isn't the same as establishing a pro-LeBron argument -- which you have failed to do.
Can you guys filter out posts that have "evolution is so slow" in them?

I agree with Luke here, you're just (correctly) taking a shot at conventional wisdom, not demonstrating that Lebron is actually better than Jordan.

Jordan's 3rd-best WP48 season is better than Lebron's best. Now, how you weight peak performance vs. consistent performance is tricky, but the fact is that Jordan did play 'better' than Lebron ever has (according to this metric).

And while we all know the dangers of small sample size and storytelling, 'Who is the best player ever?' is kind've a storytelling, small-sample question.
Are the the WP48s raw or position adjusted?
Without question Jordan was better. I don't think you guys factored in the three years of college that Jordan attended and also his first retirment .
Without question Jordan was better. I don't think you guys factored in the three years of college that Jordan attended and also his first retirment .
A few quick points on the previous posts:

coxygen - If your argument that failing prior to reaching the finals is superior to reaching the finals and losing I just don't understand your logic. Losing in the ECFs is WORSE than losing in the finals. There is no other way to view it. Advancing farther is better. Claiming that Jordan was 6-0 in finals is absolutist useless because he failed over and over at trying to reach the finals prior to that. If you feel differently please tell me why, but I will always view a team more favorably for advancing to the finals 6 times even if they only win half of them to a team that fails to reach the finals 3 times but wins the other 3 times when they reach it. Part of the reason Magic was so great was how often he got to the finals even if he ONLY won 5 times out of 9. TLDR; Failing to reach the finals is worse than losing in the finals.

Al_S - Individual defenders could do more but so could individual offensive players. The real difference in the league since the rule changes though is allowing zone. This means that those Bulls teams would probably be fine because they relied more on the triangle than on MJ 1v1. Still, playing against zone means your teammates HAVE to be able to hit shots. The Heat lost against the Mavs because Lebron made the right passes (nobody can beat 2v1 or should try to) but his teammates didn't hit the shots. The modern game requires constant movement on both ends of the floor, something MJ never had to deal with.

Hoopdon1 - I completely agree.

brgulker - While I agree with your saying that you need a competent ball carrier I think you are confusing the situation by bringing PG into it at all. Look at the 60's Celtics dynasty, their two top ball handlers after Cousey retired were Havlicek and Russell, neither of which would be considered a guard. The Bulls and the triangle worked because it allowed those capable of handling the ball the ability to do so, positions be damned. The largest problem outside of defense that I have with Wins Produced is that there is a position adjustment - great players do NOT play a position and that has been true for ages. Trying to shoehorn someone into a positional role is just foolish.

Luke - I agree that Dre didn't establish a pro-Lebron argument in this particular piece. I'm would also personally hold off until a bit later in his career to even begin trying to place him.

Sorry for the long post! As a last point relating to the article itself, I still fail to understand how people don't recognize how great those Bulls teams were on top of MJ. They had one of the greatest coaches of all time, they went down just 2 wins in MJ's first retirement season, they should have reached the ECFs that year as well. I mean, that team was stacked at a time when the league expanded a lot. The Bulls were basically the only team that was fully set as that expansion was happening except for the 80's teams that were getting old. Expansion is always overlooked as a factor in dynasties.
@Dodgson: Taking out the retirement and return season as anomalies, MJ reached the finals and won 6 straight titles as the Finals MVP. LeBron has *only* won back-to-back titles/Finals MVPs, and he'll likely put up (insane) numbers for the next four to five years. But by that point, he'd have to have great postseason results to eclipse Jordan, in my mind.

This has nothing to do with Dre's original question, but that's the whole point of this site, right? We all get that stats matter, but the real question is how much? LeBron over Jordan is already a mathematical discussion. But does now (or will it) pass the smell test among fans? I say not yet. (For example, if we're talking GOAT, not many people would rate Magic over Michael despite a 40+ career Wins Produced advantage. He just didn't have the drive/will/teammates/coaches/luck to utterly dominate nearly a decade of basketball like Michael did.)
By some of comments justify the marketing aspect. Perception is deceptive that way.
Assorted thoughts:

- Arguments about the number of rings won or consecutive finals or whatnot essentially boil down to 'LeBron would be the GOAT if he had better teammates'. That might be true in the public consciousness, but really?

- You need a position adjustment of some sort because there are a bunch of 'easy' stats that get racked up by the big men, but have serious diminishing returns. A team can field around 2.5 'bigs' to pack the paint and get rebounds, put backs, etc, but any more than that and they start to fall off. A player's value has to be computed on the margin, and thus how many of those easy stats he's sucking up needs to be taken into account. That doesn't necessarily mean a hard position assignment, but some adjustment for style of game needs to be made.

- Jordan is more standard deviations above the mean than any other player we've ever seen at any position, but he also played the least productive position on the court. Any comparison that tries to reconcile that across positions is going to feel like it undersells just how much better he was than his peers. It's a less extreme case of the Mariano Rivera issue - sure, he was totally dominant for a long time in his role, but how valuable is that compared to the guys who see 3x the playing time?
Thank god someone brought up 1 - expansion and 2 - lack of zone defence. Now I think Jordan is an all time great but don't think he is untouchable like a lot of people. People underrate how good Magic and Bird were and in particular how important they were for the game.
If I'm reading the chart right, Jordan has 3 data points as high or higher than Lebron's best single season. Peak matters as much as performance over the career.
Magic isn't even considered. He would of had six except for the health issue. Ok, Maybe he would of
"Also we should count the Wizard years."

And we should count LeBron's years at 38 and 39 years of age too.
Frankly, the way this chart should be set up is by age, not by career year.
Coxygen - Is your argument then that Jordan's peak (which you are considering to be 6 consecutive years even though it was an 8-year period) was greater than Lebron's and that is it? I would say by similar points in their careers' Lebron has accomplished more but we might just be talking past each other. Winning a championship is a team accomplishment but I think that Lebron has done more with lesser teammates than MJ had done to a similar point in his career. I mean, why count Lebron going to the finals and not winning against him but count MJ failing to reach the finals for years as a positive?
CxEnsign - I realize that there are disparities between the different positions but unless we were to judge on a possession-by-possession basis I think we will mischaracterize a lot of players. I don't have any easy answers for it but I really think it is an issue. For instance, the Great and Terrible Bargnani gets listed as a center or a power-forward but seems to play like a SG on most possessions. Not that it would make him a good player by any stretch of the imagination but unless or until the tracking data can better assign positions, I think we will be over-correcting on some players when a position adjustment is made.
Dodgson: think about a model that looks something like what Ari Caroline did here: http://wagesofwins.com/2013/05/29/rethinking-the-position-adjustment/

That is, instead of looking at what traditional position a coach or commentator assigns a player, you use regression analysis to characterize his game - players who get a ton of blocks and rebounds tend to be bigs, players who shoot 3's and get steals are smalls - and get a per player position adjustment that reflects that player's game.

Using the model Ari proposed, we'd be better served evaluating players like Dirk and Bargnani as slightly bigger small forwards, not power forwards or centers. Also, relevant to the current thread, it posits that LeBron shouldn't be treated as a PF, but a shooting guard...
I remember that piece. I have long felt that Wins Produced is a great metric EXCEPT for how it handles defense and positional adjustments. I think that we can get it even more precise now that the visual tracking data is at least partially available.

As for Lebron, the article actually lists him as a SF which makes sense. His game has always seemed sort of similar to Pippen who ran the point-forward roll in the triangle so well. I still don't understand why the traditional rolls have stuck around in the basketball lexicon for years. SG/SF are frequently the same person on a lot of teams switching on each end depending on what an individual player is good at. I think Duncan is a great example of how a PF/C split doesn't always mean that much. Perhaps they should just count as bigs if that is how they play.
I suspect Wins Produced over-models defense. What I mean is that it tries to pin down the value of a steal or block or rebound explicitly, in terms of possessions, instead of taking the regression constants at face value.

There is a lot that isn't measured on defense, but I'd bet that a lot of what isn't measured on defense correlates strongly with blocks, steals, rebounds, and/or personal fouls. Modeling those explicitly is throwing out some valuable covariance that could help explain defensive outcomes.
> I suspect Wins Produced over-models defines.

Don't "suspect", read! http://wagesofwins.com/how-to-calculate-wins-produced/ (broken right now so try http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:u8npRRXE1jMJ:wagesofwins.com/how-to-calculate-wins-produced/ )

> Step Four: Incorporate team defense and calculate adjusted P48....

> Having identified the team defensive factors, these are allocated across the players according to the minutes the player plays. In other words, we treat defense as a team activity, not an individual action. This approach allows us to differentiate players who play on good and bad defensive teams. But the data limitations prevent us from differentiating between players who are relatively better or worse on an individual team.

Feel free to criticise that specifically.
Er, I have to guess because I don't know what the regression constants of blocks or steals onto point margin are. Wins produced runs a regression of points scored and possessions employed onto point margin, not blocks or steals; instead it makes the argument that a steal is +1 possession, and that blocks lower opponent FG% (from a separate regression).

My speculation is that blocks and steals co-vary with other aspects of defense that are not defined; that is, a player who gets lots of steals may be worth more defensively than just the +possessions from those steals, because the fact they get a ton of steals tells you something valuable about that player's defense in general.

I don't have any criticisms of the team defensive adjustment; it's not a very powerful estimator, but it's an error minimization step that corrects for any team level bias. What's the problem?
@Francesco

The main reason Kukoc not shine as expected was changing his body to nba muscle manner... He should stay like Pippen , lean and fast as was on Olympics duel between them, when in couple of actions Kukoc outplayed and makes Pippen fool, which was not easy as known his defences skills.
@Buttonik. Yes you're right, and what you're saying was common opinion in Italy (were Kukoc played in 91-93) at the time. People may think he didn't shine just because NBA level is harder, but we've seen him playing with Croatia internationally in the mid 90s, and he was good but nothing compared to the Jugoplastika years (those interested may go to youtube and see how good he was... also athletically, he had a couple of FT dunks in dunk contests). This is just my opinion, but if he had been coming from NCAA as a multiple all-American he would not have been suggested/forced to change his body type at age 25. Still I think change of life and war at home had an impact too. Already when playing in Italy he looked a little less magnificent
...WHERE Kukoc played in...
Magic Johnson is the God of Wins Produced. As for "Count the Rings," in 11 full seasons, Magic won 5 championships and went to the NBA Finals *NINE* times.

Essentially, if you had Magic, you were going to the NBA finals, and you had a better than even chance of winning.

If we had the numbers, Russell might give Magic a run for his money, but not Jordan or LeBron.
Where can you find all-time Wins Produced numbers? I only see this season and last season's WP numbers on this site.
First off, only stat geeks care about this kind of nonsense. EVERYTHING....EVERYTHING requires context when comparing greats, especially from the modern era since we HAVE all the stats, the storylines, the accolades, etc.

Lebron is quite possibly the most athletic freak specimen we've ever seen. But he's never reached the level of dominance that Jordan had, let alone Magic or even Bird or Shaq. He doesn't have the consistency or career wins that Duncan and Russell had.

How about we actually wait to see what happens this year before we crown him jack sh*t. Through 10 seasons, his career doesn't even rank even with what Bird did (first 10 seasons, Bird has more MVP shares and more chips, as well as more career wins and Finals appearances).

To me, James is this generations Dr. J. 4 MVP's and 2 chips is on par with what Wilt did, but until he surpasses Bird in both MVP shares AND chips (doubtful at this point b/c I don't see them beating Indiana in the ECF, or Durant in the Finals), he's not even the greatest SF of all time, let alone the GOAT (and to be frank, I don't even think Jordan is the GOAT, I think that belongs to Kareem personally).

Also...Jordan played in a much rougher era, against tougher competition, against straight up better players. Same goes for Isiah, Bird, Magic, Dr. J, and pretty much any player from the golden era.

Lebron is playing in the softest, most benevolent to offensive players era ever. It's not even close. The way he flops, the way he cries to the refs, his collusion with Wade and Bosh to join the Heat - it ALL tarnishes his legacy.

He will never be a TRUE legend b/c of these things. TRUE legends don't flop, they don't collude with another top 5 player and a top 10-15 player to win a chip b/c he couldn't hack it with his original team. That's P*SSY behavior.

It's one thing to leave your team b/c their F.O. isn't getting it done. It's another thing to create an unfair marketplace and take the easy way out rather than EARN your ring like all the other TRUE legends have. And while Jordan never beat a top 10 player in his prime to win a ring, James hasn't even beaten a legitimate top TWENTY player in his prime (don't see Durant finishing higher than 20 all time, Parker is barely top 50...Duncan is old and way beyond his prime).

Point is........CONTEXT MATTERS.
Brent, all the points you presented are purely subjective. Its probably best you don't visit this website as we believe in logic, and factual based analysis to determine a player's worth.
I don't think you should consider Lebron as the GOAT until he proves he can get 6 finals MVPs like Jordan or lead the team to 9 finals like Magic or dominate like Russell, Wilt or Kareem.
I know that this kind of debate will go on forever and this is only my own opinion. I do believe that Lebron is better that Mj. The position and the way he play is far more better than Jordan. Some say that Jordan has more Rings than the King but still stats dont lie, if Lebron continue to play healthy he will surpass Jordan in no time. I can't say that Lebron is the GOAT but I tell you, King always strive for greatness.

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