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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.