Revisiting Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James: Who’s the GOAT?

Photo Credit: Associated Press

I know, I know. This argument has been beaten to death.  I’ve written about it twice myself: First, back in 2011 after LeBron melted down against the Mavericks, again in 2012 after LeBron won his first championship, again after LeBron said there was a ghost in Chicago he was chasing, and then after the 2016 Finals, in which LeBron’s last three games cemented his legacy as at least a top 10 player of all-time.  But factors such as LeBron’s longevity, a growing generation of basketball fans that never experienced watching Michael Jordan play or never experienced watching him play for the Bulls, the YouTube generation and countless talking heads coronating LeBron James as the king of the NBA all-time makes this argument worth revisiting.

First, let’s just concede this: LeBron James has been incredible this season.  Personally, I think he’s the MVP of the league. I know the narrative points towards James Harden, but have you seen the cast of characters LeBron just led to 50 wins?  His statistics are fantastic: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 54% FG shooting, and…this is year 15, which is unheard of.  LeBron’s season is the highest PER of all-time for players in their 15th season or later and that played at least 300 minutes.  It’s been unbelievable.

Some use this as evidence: Jordan in his 15th season (with the Wizards) was nowhere near this statistical level averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and shooting a low-for-him 44% from the field.  Four things to remember:

  1. Jordan was 39-40 years old this season
  2. It had been 19 years since Jordan joined the NBA (after 3 years of college as well, whereas LeBron came right out of high school)
  3. Jordan’s usage rate was the lowest of his career.  Remember, he was VP of Basketball Operations for the Wizards and EXPECTED to come back to this job after valiantly returning to provide his salary as relief funds for 9/11 (revising history because…why not?) and part of his comeback was teaching these guys how to succeed in the NBA (baptism by fire?).
  4. The Wizards PACE (possessions per 48 minutes) was 88.7.  The lowest in the NBA this year was 94.9 (the Sacramento Kings).  The highest in the NBA in 2002-2003 was 95.4 (also the Sacramento Kings).  It’s safe to say that times have changed.  LeBron’s Cavaliers this year had a PACE of 98.  More possessions = more opportunities to score/assist/rebound/etc.

That’s the one area that never gets brought up in the Jordan/LeBron debates or any statistical comparison for players throughout history: PACE.  The game is much, MUCH faster now than it was in the 90s.  It’s the way eras work.  Look at the differences between the 1977-78, 1987-88, 1997-1998, and 2017-2018 seasons:

  • 1977-78: Highest: 111.4 (Phoenix Suns) Lowest: 101.3 (Houston Rockets)
  • 1987-88: Highest: 105.5 (Denver Nuggets), Lowest: 95.5 (Jordan’s Bulls by the way, when he averaged 35 ppg, 5.5 reb, 5.9 ast, 3.2 stl, 1.6 blk with a usage rate of 34.1%)
  • 1997-1998: Highest: 93.6 (Los Angeles Lakers) Lowest: 87.1 (Orlando Magic, Bulls were 22nd in PACE at 89.0)
  • 2007-2008: Highest: 99.7 (Denver Nuggets) Lowest: 87.3 (Detroit Pistons, LeBron’s Cavs were 24th in PACE at 90.2)
  • 2017-2018: Highest: 100.5 (New Orleans Pelicans) Lowest: 94.9 (Sacramento Kings, Cavaliers were 12th in PACE at 98.0)

The league is just different now.  Maybe Jordan’s era and style of play forced the NBA in a particular direction and it’s returning to normal.  Who knows? PACE can’t be ignored, but shouldn’t be used to downgrade what LeBron has done this season.  It’s incredible!  But given the same opportunity, would we be saying the same thing about Michael Jordan?  When you take LeBron’s stats for this year and decrease them by 9.2% (the difference in this year’s Cavs PACE vs. the 97-98 Bulls), here’s how it would compare to Jordan’s actual 1997-1998 stats:

  • LeBron James (-9.2%): 25 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 3.8 turnovers, 54% FG, 36.7% 3pt, 73.1% FT, 31.6% USG
  • Michael Jordan (actual 1997-1998 stats): 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.3 turnovers, 46.5% FG, 23.8% 3pt, 78.4% FT, 33.7% USG

I included usage rate because it’s worth noting that MJ’s 1997-1998 usage at age 34 is .1% lower than LeBron’s highest season and higher than any other LeBron season, which is incredible to me.  We always talk about the burden LeBron has to carry for his teams, but Jordan was the focal point and everything revolved around him.  His career usage average is 33.3%.  Again, LeBron’s highest individual usage rate in a season was 33.8%.  Just incredible.

Now, what if you took Jordan and increased his 1997-1998 stats by 9.2%?  Here’s the comparison:

  • LeBron James (actual 2017-2018 stats): 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks, 4.2 turnovers, 54% FG, 36.7% 3pt, 73.1% FT, 31.6% USG
  • Michael Jordan (+9.2% from 1997-1998): 31.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.5 turnovers, 46.5% FG, 23.8% 3pt, 78.4% FT, 33.7% USG

Who had the better season?  Maybe still LeBron James?  Maybe Jordan?  It’s a little more difficult to tell.  Jordan was playing without Scottie Pippen for a huge chunk of that season, Rodman had checked out, and his only other help was Toni Kukoc.  Now, if the Bulls were able to time-travel into this era and play in today’s NBA, maybe Phil Jackson has Kerr, Buechler, and Kukoc on the floor more to launch more threes.  Maybe Jordan perfects the three-point shot and uses it as a weapon as well.  Maybe just the space of the three aforementioned guys let’s Jordan get to the rim at ease and increases that field goal percentage (which Phil Jackson once said was the first indicator that MJ was declining – when he wasn’t finishing as well at the rim).  We’ll never know.  These guys have been asked to lead in very different roles: Jordan needed to be the scorer for these Bulls and LeBron has become the defacto point guard for the Cavaliers.  It’s hard to compare.

Also, Jordan never relented on defense.  During Jordan’s career, he was named All-Defensive team nine times (first team every time) including 1997-1998 and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-1988.  In comparison, LeBron James has made All-Defensive team six times (five times first team, once on the second team) and hasn’t been on there since he played in Miami in 2013-2014.  As Jordan declined, he still brought it on defense and this is an area where you can clearly watch LeBron James today and see he’s declined on it.  For the record, I’ve always stated that LeBron is not a great on-ball defender (talking heads wanted to compare him to Scottie Pippen, which is an insult. LeBron was never that level), but LeBron was a great off-ball defender and the greatest play of his career, the block on Andre Iguodala, perhaps captures that.  Likewise, Jordan’s poetic ending before he valiantly returned to boost the country’s morale after 9/11 started with a steal on Karl Malone and then a beautiful jumper to seal a final championship.  To the point of Jordan never relenting on defense, even as he aged, it should be noted that in 1997-1998, he averaged 38.8 minutes per game and played all 82 games for the 9th time in his career (3,181 minutes that season total).  This year, LeBron averaged 36.9 minutes per game (which led the NBA) and played all 82 games for the first time his career (3,026 minutes total for this season).  It’s just remarkable the level of intensity Michael Jordan could bring on both ends of the floor at age 34 and carrying the burden that he did.

None of this is to discredit LeBron James. I’m on record as saying he’s the third best player of all-time with a clear path to surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (longevity will ensure it statistically).  But Michael Jordan is still the greatest of all-time.  He always will be.  But the biggest takeaway you should get from this is stop trying to compare LeBron to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or anyone else.  Enjoy the experience of watching one of the greatest players ever to play the game.  There’s going to be a generation one day that won’t have this experience, just like the generation that never saw Michael Jordan play.  Enjoy what LeBron has been able to do and stop forgetting how great Jordan was.

Romans 5:8

Published by Brandon Pence

Brandon is a husband, a father of five, a former youth pastor, a Christian school principal, tech minister, and the founder/editor of "The Bulls Charge."

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