Culture of Hoops

Better player in their prime: Michael Jordan or LeBron James?

Image courtesy of cliff1066™/Flickr.

Image courtesy of cliff1066™/Flickr.

Four years ago, this debate would’ve been ridiculous and unheard of. Four years ago, LeBron James wasn’t even close to Michael Jordan status. James was only a part of one NBA Finals, in which he was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. In Jordan’s career, he was six for six in the Finals, including six Finals MVPs for the Chicago Bulls.

Since then, LeBron has been spectacular. He has been to three straight Finals with the Miami Heat, including two championship titles and two Finals MVPs. He has also racked up two regular season MVPs during that stretch. He has emerged as a clear vote for one of the best players to ever step foot on the court. These past four years have really amped the debate over who is the best, but it has come down to either LeBron or Jordan.

LeBron has played a total of 820 games. To make this debate fair, we will look at stats through each player’s first 820 games. This will give us an even playing field when comparing the two players head-to-head. First, we will look at the teams they play/played for and their supporting cast. Second, we will look at their individual accolades. Lastly, we will look at the numbers they have compiled in their first 820 games.

Teams

In order to debate who the greatest basketball player is, you can’t exclusively look at how many championship rings they have. Anybody can lead their team to a championship if they are joined with several future Hall of Famers. Look at Bill Russell, who has more championship rings than he has fingers. With the Boston Celtics, he won 11 titles. Although he has the most championship rings of any former or current NBA player, we wouldn’t say he’s the best player ever because of who he got to play with. (Not to say he’s not good, because he is one of the greats.)

The reason LeBron and Jordan are in this conversation is because they have found a way to elevate the play of their teammates and take them to heights never imagined. The best player Michael Jordan had was Scottie Pippen. Through his first 820 games, the best player LeBron James has had is Dwyane Wade. First, let’s see how good LeBron and Jordan were before they teamed up with these players. Jordan won 47 percent of his games before teaming up with Pippen. James won 61 percent of his games before teaming up with Wade.

Next, let’s take a look at something called win shares. This is a stat that measures how many wins one player is worth to his team. In Jordan’s six years that the Bulls went to the Finals, the Bulls were worth 375.6 win shares. Jordan was worth 109.7 win shares, or 29 percent of the Bulls wins. James has taken his team to the Finals four times and in those years his teams have been worth 202.3 win shares. James was worth 63 win shares, or 31 percent of his teams’ wins.

LeBron wins this category, showing that he has meant more to his teammates than Michael Jordan did to his. He did more with less compared to Jordan when they didn’t have a clear cut second option on the team.

Individual Accolades

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Both LeBron James and Michael Jordan accomplished a lot in their first 820 games. Jordan won four NBA Championships, four NBA Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, eight scoring titles, 10 All-Star selections, eight NBA First Teams, 7 NBA All-Defense teams and one Defensive Player of the Year award. LeBron has won two NBA Championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, 1 scoring title, 10 All-Star selections, seven NBA First Teams, five NBA All-Defense teams and no Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Head-to-head, Michael Jordan did more in his first 820 games. He won six out of the eight categories and tied in the other two. He doubled the amount of rings and Finals MVPs LeBron has and horribly defeats him in number of scoring records. Michael Jordan is the clear winner of this category and you can see why.

Individual Statistics

Now, let’s take a look at each player’s individual statistics through their first 820 games. First up is player efficiency rating. Michael Jordan had a higher rating, 31.1, than LeBron James, 27.8. That is quite a big jump. Next, let’s look at true shooting percentage. LeBron falls short once again, shooting 58 percent compared to Jordan’s 62.7 percent. Now, let’s take a look at total win shares, which we took a quick look at earlier. LeBron has a total of 164.7 win shares for his teams, while Jordan had 203 win shares, defeating LeBron once again.

MJ had a field-goal percentage of 51 percent and LeBron has shot 50 percent. The two players tied when it came to three-point shooting percentage, both scoring 34 percent of their three-pointers. LeBron beats Jordan in rebounds per game, assists per game, points accounted for, and defensive win shares (7.2, 6.9, 42.6, and 50.3, respectively, compared to Jordan’s 6.3, 5.6, 41.9, and 49.8). Jordan took the last of the categories, in points per game, blocks per game, and steals per game. Jordan had 0.9 blocks, 2.6 steals and 31.9 points per game compared to James’ 0.8 blocks, 1.7 steals and 27.6 points per game.

Overall, Jordan defeated James in seven of the 12 categories and tied in one, leaving LeBron with four victories. Although Jordan scored more, James made that up in assists, rebounds, and total points accounted for as well as his defensive effort.

Conclusion

Yes, it’s true that Jordan has been on a number of better teams than LeBron. In addition, Michael Jordan beat LeBron in 15 of the 20 individual categories. Through their first 820 games as a professional, I would give the edge to Jordan, but it’s impossible to say who is better over their career because LeBron hasn’t finished yet. Jordan wears the crown at the moment, but that doesn’t mean LeBron can’t take it from him. He still has a lot of years left and can easily surpass Michael Jordan.

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