Define: Great. How Michael Jordan and LeBron James measure up.

Great

– notably large in size
– remarkable in magnitude, degree or effectiveness
– eminent, distinguished
– chief or preeminent over others
– long, continued
– markedly superior in character or quality
– remarkably skilled

To look at Michael Jordan as anything but The Greatest has for so long seemed like an impossibility. For many in my generation (or younger) that lived outside of the United States, Michael Jordan was a myth only viewable during the Finals and on inspirational documentary videos. He was the winds of change, an untouchable icon. He was Above and Beyond.

LeBron James, though, was the Chosen One. The Kid from Akron, who had it all planned out before he even hit the big time. For many, to see someone come into the league as an 18 year old ready to write his own path was (or is) just too much. Not to mention, the blueprint was already set. How can you be the King, the Greatest, if you aren’t seen as blazing your own path?

Yet here we are, with James racking up milestones left and right, while Jordan can do nothing but watch. While Jordan has mystique and history on his side (not to mention both new and old stats to point out how good he was), James has the benefit of targets to run down and criteria set mapped out as needing to be achieved. Could he really take MJ’s mantle as the Greatest Of All Time? Will he need to defeat the juggernaut Warriors, rallying back from a never-before-done 3-0 hole, to have a chance?

There are so many things to consider when discussing who is greater, so lets look back to some of the definitions of Great to see who comes out on top.

NOTABLY LARGE IN SIZE

MJ – 6’6″, 216Lbs
LBJ – 6’8″, 250Lbs

Obviously, the weight difference is significant here. James is one of the most impressive physical specimens the NBA has ever seen, and it has seen it’s fair share. There is no way Jordan can compete on a pure physique level. MJ, however, became the prototype for what a shooting guard should measure as.

Despite their differences in physical stature, both players have a presence that says “you’re in deep shit tonight”. The spectre of James might not quite have gotten to the peaks that Jordan’s reached, although the Eastern Conference might disagree.

Advantage – James.

REMARKABLE IN MAGNITUDE, DEGREE OR EFFECTIVENESS

There are just so many ways you can look at this. Let’s look at Magnitude:

This is literally a coin flip. On the one hand, James staved off elimination for the 2nd game in a row, with a 40 point double double (for the 2nd game in a row) on the way to the Championship. Jordan, however, dropped a double nickel to put his team up a commanding three games to one.

Lets then look at effectiveness:Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.37.33 pmScreen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.36.05 pm
The gap in PER is a small win to Michael, whilst the TS% goes to James. LeBron rebounds the ball and gets more assists, but Jordan uses the ball more whilst turning it over less. LBJ has a higher Value Over Replacement Player, MJ has more Win Shares per 48 minutes. Both have a net rating of +14.

If we then talk about Degree, the perspective will revert to the first item in the ‘Great’ list, physical stature. Jordan did all of this whilst being an incredible athlete but not a dominant physical force. James has been bullying opposing players since he was a teenager. That is not the fault of LeBron, but there has to be a tiebreaker somewhere.

Advantage – Jordan

EMINENT, DISTINGUISHED

You have The King vs His Airness. You also have Jordan impacting the game so much that players started to follow his lead with fashion – short shorts to long, tight to ‘baggy’. James has distinguished himself as a warrior for the people, speaking out on social injustices and leading the NBA in protesting for those with no voice. Jordan brought the NBA to the forefront of global consciousness and created the platform that James now stands on to champion the people.

Advantage – Jordan.

CHIEF OR PREEMINENT OVER OTHERS

Remember the time when the League was debating who was better out of Kobe and James, and Nike made some amazing commercials to make sure we all joined in the debate? That was nearly 10 years ago! Since then, James has basically been the undisputed best player in the game. Given that, the fact he only has 3 titles is a little hard to comprehend; although if you go back through his former rosters maybe you will understand.

Jordan was also the best player in the League by the time he finished his 5th season in ’89. The NBA, however, wasn’t ready to crown him since he couldn’t get past Isiah Thomas and the Pistons. Once he got his first ring over (aging) Magic and the Lakers, there were no more questions. From there, 6 Championships in 6 attempts.

The crazy thing about James is that he has realistically been the best player in the NBA since 2010 at the very latest, 7 years into his career. But he has failed to win the ‘Chips that Jordan was able to when he finally established himself as the best of the best. Whilst roster composition plays a role in that, it’s not like Chicago had the world’s most stacked roster ever. Luc Longley was the starting C for 3 title teams, and the Bench for the ’98 team was painful to watch at times. No one sees Scott Burrell come off the pine and thinks “damn, there is just not let up with these guys”.

Advantage – Jordan.

LONG, CONTINUED

This is where 2 things work against Jordan. #1, he came into the League as a 21 year old, whereas LeBron entered as an 18 year old with the fluidity of Scottie Pippen trapped inside Karl Malone’s body. #2, Jordan took a 16 month suspension for gambling and possibly other things sabbatical to play baseball and heal his wounded soul after the death of his father. He also suffered the broken foot in year 2, which limited him to 18 games in his second season.

LeBron, however, has been doing his thing non stop for 14 yeas and counting!Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.09.48 pm Like, what the actual fuck? And he’s not done? Jordan was an ironman to be sure, but this is practically unheard of outside of Karl Malone from a durability standpoint.

The thing that separates Jordan is that he took the NBA to a global consciousness only surpassed by Soccer. LeBron has taken that torch (via Kobe Bryant) and continued to build the NBA’s legacy. Even as successful as LeBron’s signature Nike range has been, it’s not close to what Jordan Brand is. Like so many things, MJ is setting the standard for LBJ to follow. But shoes do not make a player greater than another.

Advantage – James.

MARKEDLY SUPERIOR IN CHARACTER OR QUALITY

James instigated this Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.17.42 pm and this Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.18.10 pm On the lighter side, he starred in one of the best Harlem Shake videos that was made. James has created scholarships for kids in need to attend college, given all sorts of gifts to his teammates and has always been viewed as a great teammate and person (the decision special not withstanding, despite the money raised for the Boys and Girls Club).

MJ? Well the perception has certainly changed over the years. He was known as a ruthless competitor, and has somewhat famously stood to the side on potentially controversial topics during his playing career. He was well-known for his preference for selling shoes over stirring the pot. His “Republicans buy sneakers too” line is the crown jewel for people making the argument he has not done enough given his stature.

Despite this, he has done much to enrich the lives of those less fortunate than most. Scoop Jackson wrote a very good piece looking into the intricacies of furthering a cause without being  a vocal leader back in 2014. Over the years, Jordan has been more vocal in his support of social issues, most notably donating $2 million to address police shootings.

It is completely unfair to judge either of these men for what they have or haven’t provided, spoken about or contributed to. But for the purpose of this exercise, James has definitely been more outspoken during their respective playing careers.

Advantage – James.

REMARKABLY SKILLED

Yeah, look. Both of these guys are remarkably skilled. I just spent 30 minutes on YouTube looking through highlights of all the insane things they have done on a basketball court. To say one is more skilled than the other just seems dense and disrespectful.

This should be said though: LeBron plays in a more skillful era. With the NBA allowing zone defences and eliminating hand checking, skill has become increasingly more important in today’s NBA. If you can’t hit 3s at an above average rate, or break down the defence off the bounce to create for yourself and others, or show elite footwork in the post to evade lurking help defenders, or slide your feet to rotate on penetration then sprint out to a close out without fouling, then you really can’t play in this League. When you look at the evolution of the game, you see players repeat themselves, but in an upgraded fashion. From Bob Cousey to Pete Maravich, Dennis Johnson to Gary Payton, Julius Erving to Michael Jordan, George Gervin to Kevin Durant, Elgin Baylor to LeBron James, from Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O’Neal.

Even if you want to get all nerdy and dive into the career advanced stats to determine who was more skilled things aren’t any easier to separate. LBJ has a higher career effective field goal percentage than Jordan, 54.3% compared to 50.9%. Jordan has a lower turnover percentage at 9.3% compared to 12.8%, despite a usage rate 1.8 percentage points higher. LeBron has a higher Value Over Replacement Player score, Michael contributed more Win Shares per 48 minutes.

There are very few players that stand the test of time and can conceivably compete from a skill perspective if they were just dropped in a newer generation. As the game evolves and grows, so do the skills required to compete at the highest level. And while the ’90s wasn’t that long ago, the game has moved forward in leaps and bounds since then. Jordan would be talented enough to be just as good (if not better) in today’s NBA, which is an impressive feat. And for James, you could plonk him down in any era and still marvel at how good he is.

Advantage – Tie.

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 9.54.40 pmRESULT – TIE

And that seems just about right. The thing about Greatness is it can be so subjective. Is Jordan better than James because he spawned a copycat in Kobe Bryant (who came the closest of any to pulling it off)? Is LeBron better than Michael since he has been to 8 NBA finals – including 7 straight – and MJ only managed 6? Should Michael be ranked better because he has a higher playoff scoring average in fewer games played, even though LeBron scored more total points on less shots?

Even the argument about who played better competition is a bit silly. Look at the table below of the highest Playoff PER of their Finals opponents and think about some of the names:

Year Player PER Win Shares Result
1991 Magic Johnson 22.7 3.3 Bulls 4-1
1992 Clyde Drexler 22.8 3.4 Bulls 4-2
1993 Charles Barkley 24.9 4.6 Bulls 4-2
1996 Shawn Kemp 23.6 3.0 Bulls 4-2
1997 John Stockton 22.7 3.1 Bulls 4-2
1998 Karl Malone 24.2 3.0 Bulls 4-2
2007 Tim Duncan 27.4 3.3 Spurs 4-0
2011 Dirk Nowitzki 25.2 3.6 Mavericks 4-2
2012 Kevin Durant 27.5 4.0 Heat 4-1
2013 Tony Parker 21.5 2.4 Heat 4-3
2014 Tim Duncan 21.1 3.2 Spurs 4-1
2015 Stephan Curry 24.5 3.9 Warriors 4-2
2016 Stephan Curry 22.3 1.9 Cavaliers 4-3

Jordan never played against someone with a Playoff PER as high as Duncan or Durant. James never played against someone with a Playoff Win Share total as high as Barkley. Jordan never played against a “best player” with a PER as low as Duncan, or a Win Share total as low as Curry. But all of the names on that list will be Hall Of Famers. There is no tie breaker here.

Once LeBron finishes his career, what it will come down to is narrative. Jordan revolutionised the game. He went 6-6 with all the chips on the table. He created a brand from his own likeness, became a global icon. But James will likely eclipse all of MJ’s total numbers. He has been to 7 straight finals, and 8 (and counting) overall. He has never lost in the First Round of the Playoffs. He will surpass Jordan in total points scored in the Finals. He was the first player to come back from down 3-1 in the Finals, and stares at the challenge of leading his team back from a 3-0 deficit. Jordan was never down entering Game 4 in any of his NBA Finals series. Jordan had home court advantage in 4 of his 6 title runs, LeBron in only 3 of his 8. James forced the winningest regular season team in League history to recruit even more talent just to get past King James.

At the moment, I’m still #TeamJordan. But I no longer think his place on top is safe. It seems more than likely LeBron will finish at worst as 1B to MJ’s 1A, and that in itself is an incredible thing. If he can topple the mighty Warriors this year (couldn’t be less likely, but you never know), that could be the determining factor. Another defeat will singe his credentials, no matter how unfair that might be. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

Until then, let’s all sit back and enjoy how great James is, whilst remembering how great Jordan was.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 9.18.46 pm


Stats courtesy of basketballreference
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3 thoughts on “Define: Great. How Michael Jordan and LeBron James measure up.

  1. This maybe one of the comparison that actually make sense, even you left out some things and i kinda diagree with some of your points its still a great write. I’ve always been thinking why cant there be two GOAT, they don’t play the same either way.

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    • Thanks Marc. It’s a hard topic to navigate without being biased (and I’m still on the MJ train personally) but the way LBJ is heading, it’s gonna be tough to deny him. And this doesn’t even look at KAJ.

      Like

  2. I am torn between the two and will remain that way. They’re simply the two GREATEST beings to grace the NBA circuit. In m y estimation, franchise management might be a factor. MJ didn’t win his 6 by himself, he had a ‘kick-ass’ supporting cast who were CONSISTENT. James on the other hand has to work harder in my estimation because his supporting cast from Cleveland to Miami and back are guys with spectacular reputations and who on their day can turn a game on it’s head. Only they DO NOT ‘turn-up’ on a consistent basis. They blow hot and cold…

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