Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
Michael Jordan averaged a 28-7-6, made the first of his 14 All-Star appearances in 14 full seasons and finished sixth in the MVP race as a rookie. He broke his foot the following year, so you could argue he did not fully hit his stride until 1986-87, when he averaged 37.1 points per game, but LeBron James averaged a 27-8-6 at the peak of his powers in 2011-12, so let’s just say Jordan was never not in his prime with the Chicago Bulls. Forget his two Washington Wizards seasons for now.
Over a 13-year span from 1984-98 that also included a minor-league baseball career in the midst of a 21-month hiatus from the NBA, Jordan averaged 31.5 points (58.0 true shooting percentage), 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.4 combined blocked and steals in 38.6 minutes per game. He played all 82 games seven times and 78 or more in 11 of those seasons, finishing top-three in MVP voting in all of them, save for his rookie season. The Bulls made the playoffs in each of Jordan’s prime years.
In his prime, Jordan averaged 33.4 points (56.8 true shooting percentage), 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.0 combined blocks and steals in 41.8 minutes over 179 playoff games. His Bulls made the Eastern Conference finals in each of his final eight full seasons, winning titles in the last six of them.
James was impressive as a 19-year-old rookie, but he took his game to the next level in 2004-05, when he averaged a 27-7-7, made the first of his 16 All-Star appearances (and counting) and finished sixth in the MVP race. He has maintained an unprecedented level of consistency ever since.
For 16 seasons from 2004 to now, James has averaged 27.5 points (59.2 true shooting percentage), 7.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 38.3 minutes per game. He played fewer than 75 games just three times — the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign with the Miami Heat, his two-week rest from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and last season’s injury- and tanking-plagued Los Angeles Lakers season. Assuming he will be a finalist for the award this season, James has been a top-five MVP candidate in all but two of his prime seasons and top three in 11 of them.
James missed the playoffs in the first year of his prime and again last season, but never lost in the first round in between. (Jordan lost in the first round in his first three seasons.) He led the Cavaliers and Heat to 10 Eastern Conference finals appearances and nine Finals in a 12-year span, including eight straight from 2011-18. He won rings with the Heat in 2011 and 2012 and the Cavaliers in 2016. His Lakers were on pace to capture the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed when this season stalled.
In his 239 playoff games from 2005-18, James averaged 28.9 points (57.9 true shooting percentage), 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 42 minutes.
At the top of his game, Jordan was a First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defensive selection in each of his nine full seasons from 1987-98. James made both First Teams for a five-year run from 2009-13. You might also cite Jordan’s six rings, six Finals MVPs and five regular-season MVPs as evidence of a greater sustained peak, ignoring his nearly two seasons away from the game, but if we are merely talking prime statistics here, James’ production over the last 16 seasons is greater (evidenced by 282.1 win shares combined in the regular season and playoffs to Jordan’s 244.3).
Pick any of Jordan’s five MVP seasons as his pinnacle, but if we must take one, it comes down to his 1990-91, 1991-92 or 1995-96 campaigns. He was a scoring and NBA champion in all three.
The 1992 or 1996 Bulls were Jordan’s best teams, but he was at his absolute athletic apex in 1991, when he averaged 31.5 points (57.9 true shooting percentage), six rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.7 combined blocks and steals in 37 minutes over 82 games. Jordan was the lone All-Star on the Bulls in 1991, when Scottie Pippen was between his first two of seven All-Star campaigns and Horace Grant was still three years from his lone All-Star appearance. Their top-seeded Bulls finished 61-21.
Jordan upped the ante in the playoffs to 31.1 points (60.0 TS%), 8.4 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 combined blocks and steals in 40.5 minutes per game. Chicago lost just twice in the postseason, alternating sweeps of Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks and Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons with five-game series victories against Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson’s Lakers.
Against L.A. in the Finals, Jordan averaged a 31-7-11 on 61.2 true shooting with 4.2 blocks/steals. He captured the first of his six Finals MVPs on his way to the first of six titles in the next eight years.
James’ pinnacle is easier to pin down. At age 28 in 2012-13, he averaged 26.8 points (64.0 TS%), 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.6 blocks/steals in 37.9 minutes over 76 games. He received all but one of 121 first-place MVP votes. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all perennial All-Stars in Miami, and their top-seeded Heat won 66 games during the regular season, including 27 straight.
In the playoffs, James averaged 25.9 points (58.5 TS%), 8.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.6 blocks/steals in 41.7 minutes. After sweeping a Milwaukee Bucks team led by Monta Ellis in the first round and beating the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in round two, Miami went the distance with Paul George’s Indiana Pacers in the conference finals and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the Finals.
Against San Antonio, James averaged a 25-11-7 on 52.9 true shooting with 3.2 blocks/steals. He won his second of three Finals MVPs en route to three titles in eight straight Finals appearances.
Their advanced statistics at their peaks were almost identical. Both led the NBA in player efficiency rating (31.6 apiece), win shares (Jordan 20.3, James 19.3), box plus-minus (Jordan 12.0, James 11.7) and value over replacement player (Jordan 10.8, James 8.8). Jordan also led the playoffs in PER (32.0), win shares per 48 minutes (.333), BPM (14.6) and VORP (2.9). James was second in the playoffs to Chris Paul in PER (28.1) and WS per 48 (.260) but first in BPM (10.4) and VORP (3.0).
As incredible as James was in that 2012-13 season, Jordan carried a greater burden during his 1991-92 campaign and posted slightly superior numbers in both the regular season and playoffs.
The clutch numbers between Jordan and James are a lot closer than you might think. There are any number of ways to mold clutch statistics in order to fit a narrative, but they are all marginal at best. Some cite James’ five playoff buzzer beaters and his 7-for-15 mark (46.7 percent) on game-winners to Jordan’s three buzzer beaters and 5-for-11 clip (45.5 percent). According to TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott, Jordan was 9-for-18 (50 percent) in the playoffs on shots attempted when tied or trailing by two points or fewer in the final 24 seconds. James is 10-for-25 (40 percent) on the same shots.
Jordan finished 3-1 in only four advance-or-go-home games in his playoff career. He averaged 36.3 points (54.4 TS%), eight rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.8 combined steals and blocks in those games.
LeBron is 6-2 in eight advance-or-go-home games in his playoff career, including two Finals Game 7s, averaging 34.9 points (59.9 TS%), 9.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.6 combined blocks/steals.
James has averaged 28.2 points (55.1 TS%), 10 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.6 combined steals/blocks in 49 games over a remarkable nine Finals appearances, logging with a 3-6 record.
Jordan averaged 33.6 points (55.9 TS%), six rebounds, six assists and 2.4 steals/blocks in 35 games over his six Finals appearances, finishing with a 6-0 record. And there’s the difference.
Jordan never lost a title series, winning Finals MVP each time. Yes, James played (and beat) the dynastic Spurs and Warriors, but Jordan has nothing on his championship résumé comparable to the 2011 Finals, when James cratered against the Dallas Mavericks relative to his greatness. The 2010 Eastern Conference finals were not a shining example of James’ clutch abilities, either.
Throw in the fact that Jordan owns two of the 10 playoff series-winning buzzer beaters in NBA history — “The Shot” in a win-or-go-home first-round Game 5 against Cleveland in 1989 and another to finish off a sweep of the Cavaliers in the 1993 Eastern Conference semifinals — plus the 1998 Finals-winning shot against Utah in his last game with the Bulls, and I’m not sure you want to argue against anyone other than Jordan as the most clutch performer in the history of basketball.
• James: Three-time NBA champion (3x Finals MVP); four-time MVP; 15-time All-NBA selection (12x First Team); six-time All-Defensive selection (5x First Team); 16-time All-Star (3x All-Star Game MVP); 2008 scoring champion; 2004 Rookie of the Year; three-time Olympic medalist (2x gold medalist)
• Jordan: Six-time NBA champion (6x Finals MVP); five-time MVP; 1988 Defensive Player of the Year; 11-time All-NBA selection (10x First Team, 1x Second Team); nine-time All-Defensive First Team selection; 14-time All-Star (3x All-Star Game MVP); 10-time scoring champion; three-time steals leader; two-time dunk contest champion; 1985 Rookie of the Year; two-time Olympic gold medalist
James’ longevity is unfathomable, but if you were to administer truth serum, even he would have to admit that he would take the extra rings and MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year award, two slam-dunk trophies and a decade’s worth of scoring titles over his handful of extra All-NBA selections.
For the culture
The image James has shaped since being declared the second coming as a teenager and entering the NBA out of high school is remarkable, especially after the public-relations disaster that was The Decision and the ensuing “not six” welcoming party after taking his talents to South Beach in 2010.
The I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, a staple of the LeBron James Family Foundation, is a model for all future superstars who want to enact real change in their communities. It is James’ crowning achievement off the court, greater than his increased social and political activism in recent years.
James is also establishing himself as an entertainment mogul. He co-starred in the hit comedy “Trainwreck,” and his production company has launched a number of television and documentary series, including HBO’s “The Shop,” on which he is a regular contributor to the discussion panel.
On the court, James has been a trailblazer for the NBA’s player empowerment era, building himself into the league’s biggest brand as he traveled to and from Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles.
But even James concedes he is chasing “the ghost” of Jordan — a global phenomenon unlike basketball has ever seen again. Jordan is synonymous with competition and winning basketball, and “The Last Dance” documentary is reinforcing how ingrained he still is in the culture decades later. There is no No. 23 in Cleveland or chalk toss at Quicken Loans Arena without Jordan.
LeBron wants to be a billionaire and an NBA owner one day. Jordan is one now. The Jordan Brand is iconic and remains more lucrative for Nike today than James’ lifetime deal with the company. As popular as James is now, it is hard to describe how transcendent Jordan was in his playing days, and he is still dominating the conversation around sports in the middle of a pandemic news cycle.
Michael Jordan is basketball culture.
THE DAGGER: Michael Jordan has the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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