LeBron vs. MJ: A Statistics-Based Analysis

LeBron James has now scored more points in the postseason than any player in NBA history. Because he just passed Michael Jordan to get the record, and because the internet loves debating Michael vs. LeBron nearly as much as it loves cat pictures, it seems as if the debate about who’s the better player is raging more than ever. As usual, the Jordan fans are yelling “6 ringzz!” from the rooftops while LeBron fans claim that LeBron is the better all-around player. As is my custom, I went into my sports nerd cave (basketball-reference.com) to find the truth. What I found was shocking! (Ok, not really, but I did think it was very interesting. Hyperbolic use of the word “shocking!” is the one thing that the internet likes more than cat pictures).

As a preface, I feel compelled to point out that this entire conversation is premature. LeBron is only 32 years old. Considering how well he has played this year, especially in the playoffs, I wouldn’t be shocked if he puts up five more All-NBA seasons. However, LeBron has played in 14 seasons, 1061 regular season games, and 41,272 regular season minutes, while MJ played in 15 seasons, 1072 regular season games, and 41,011 regular season minutes. Thus, the length of their careers have been almost identical.

Below, I have tables comparing regular season and postseason stats. The player with the better stat will be in bold. Choosing which stats to use is arbitrary, but I’ve tried to use a sufficient variety of stats so we can get a complete picture. I tend to prefer advanced stats, but I included more traditional stats as well. Enough chitchat, let’s get to it.

Regular Season Statistics

Category

LeBron James

Michael Jordan

Points Per Game 27.1

28.3

Rebounds Per Game

7.3 5.9
Assists Per Game 7.0

4.9

Steals Per Game

1.6 2.2
Blocks Per Game 0.8

0.8

Field Goal %

.501 .497
True Shooting % .584

.569

Player Efficiency Rating

27.6 27.9
Offensive Rating 116

118

Defensive Rating

103 103

Win Shares

205.4

214.0

Win Shares/48 Minutes .239

.250

Box +/-

9.1

8.1

Value Over Replacement Player 115.9

104.4

My takeaway: Wow, are those numbers close. LeBron wins six categories, Jordan wins six categories, and two categories are ties. Jordan fans will say that his Wizards years are pulling down his numbers, but don’t forget that LeBron entered the league as a teenager. If you were to remove the first one or two years of LeBron’s career, his numbers would go up.

Let’s look at the postseason. Surely the six time champion and the founding father of clutch will pull away here, right?

Postseason Statistics

Category LeBron James

Michael Jordan

Points Per Game

28.3 33.4
Rebounds Per Game 8.8

6.4

Assists Per Game

6.8 5.7
Steals Per Game 1.8

2.1

Blocks Per Game

1.0 0.9
Field Goal % .483

.487

True Shooting %

.573 .568
Player Efficiency Rating 27.8

28.6

Offensive Rating

115 118
Defensive Rating 101

104

Win Shares

44.9 39.8
Win Shares/48 Minutes .242

.255

Box +/-

10.7 10.1
Value Over Replacement Player 28.6

22.8

Nope. LeBron wins eight categories and Jordan wins six. (To be fair, the Win Shares Category is not a perfect comparison because LeBron has had 33 extra games to accrue win shares. But if you don’t consider that category, LeBron would still lead seven categories to six). But again, look at how similar those stats are. The shooting percentage and true shooting percentage are nearly identical, as is the player efficiency rating, win shares/48 minutes, and box +/-. Really, it comes down to which stats you think are the most meaningful. Do you value scoring more than you value rebounding and passing? Is win shares/48 the better advanced stat, or is it Box +/-?

Looking only at these regular season and postseason statistics, if you were to ask me to choose the better player, my answer would be a giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As much as I love stats, they simply aren’t sufficient to differentiate in this scenario.

So if stats aren’t enough, maybe personal/team awards can be the tiebreaker. Let’s look at their achievements.

Category

LeBron James Michael Jordan
MVPs 4

5

Defensive Player of Year

0 1
All-NBA Selections 13

11

All-Defense Selections

6 9
All-Star Selections 13

14

Jordan clearly has the edge here with more MVPs, more DPOYs, more All-Defense selections, and more All-Star selections. But LeBron is still only 32 years old. What if LeBron brings home two more All-NBA selections and four more All-Star selections? What if LeBron wins another MVP? Jordan won his final MVP at the age of 35, so it isn’t inconceivable. Karl Malone, whose body type is often compared to LeBron’s, won the award just a few short months before his 36th birthday. LeBron may have 3-4 more seasons where he has a legitimate shot at winning the MVP. Everyone knows he’s still the best player in the world. He would just need to decide to take the regular season a bit more seriously and his 5th MVP would be all but guaranteed.

Even if LeBron doesn’t bring home another MVP, a few more All-NBA and All-Star selections seem like a safe bet considering LeBron’s age and durability. Would you rather have an extra MVP award and a DPOY award or four extra All-NBA seasons? In other words, what’s better: (1) one extra MVP season or (2) four extra All-NBA seasons? Again, it comes down to preference and how much you value peak performance versus longevity. I’ll give the slightest of edges to Jordan for the time being, but I have a feeling that I’ll change my mind as long as LeBron can keep up his historic pace for a few more years.

After all that, there’s only one more thing to look at: championships. As everyone knows, Jordan has six and LeBron has three.* Likewise, Jordan has six finals MVPs and LeBron has three.α But here’s the thing that always bothers me about the “ringzz” argument. The Bulls were a legitimately good team even without Jordan. During the 1992-1993 season, Jordan carried the Bulls to a 57-25 regular season record and their third straight championship. Following Jordan’s first retirement from basketball, the Bulls plummeted to 55-27. The year after, with Jordan still playing baseball, the Bulls went 47-35. Even without Jordan, the Chicago Bulls were a team that could win somewhere in the vicinity of 50 games. After LeBron took his talents to Miami, the Cavaliers went from a 61-win team to a 19-win team! And when he headed back to Cleveland, Miami went from a 54-win team to a 37-win team. There is no debate; Jordan had a better surrounding cast than LeBron, even after LeBron formed his Miami “super team”.β If their careers had been switched, would LeBron had won six championships with the Bulls? We’ll never know. But it seems entirely possible considering how talented those Bulls teams were even without Jordan. In fact, LeBron almost assuredly wouldn’t have retired early and the Bulls could’ve competed for the 1994 and 1995 championships as well.

Considering all of the above, if I were forced to choose, I’d probably still go with Jordan for now. But another championship, MVP, or All-NBA selection by LeBron might be enough to change my mind. Regardless of what you think, let’s just enjoy watching LeBron while we have him, because we’ll never see a player quite like him again. Besides, you need to stock up on these memories now so in twenty years from now you can tell your kids how much better the NBA used to be and how the players of the 2030’s never would’ve been able to compete in a league with the likes of LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

 

*Don’t even get me started on the “Jordan is a perfect 6-0 in the finals.” Would you think more highly of LeBron if he were 3-0 in the finals rather than 3-4? Those four finals losses signify the crazy amount of success that LeBron has had against the rest of the Eastern Conference. Would you regard him more highly if he had not carried the 2007 Cavaliers to the finals despite a poor surrounding cast? This is your friendly reminder that the second highest scoring player on that 2007 Cavaliers team was Larry Freaking Hughes.

α Until my dying day, I will argue that LeBron should have won the Finals MVP in 2015 despite losing to the juggernaut Warriors. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving injured, LeBron carried Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavadova, and company to two wins against a budding dynasty. LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists for the series

β As a side note, this is why I always thought that the criticism that LeBron got for leaving Cleveland was unfair. Jordan never had to leave Chicago because he was eventually surrounded by stellar players.

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