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The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

The GOAT debate between LeBron vs. Jordan has been ongoing for the last few years. It picked up steam recently with LeBron reaching his 8th straight Finals. I’ve always wanted to do a head-to-head comparison and now that LeBron has finished his 15th season (matches Jordan’s 15 seasons in the league), I thought this was an appropriate time.

Overall Career Statistics

Let’s start with a head-to-head comparison of MJ and LeBron’s basic and advanced career stats. In order to be fair to both players, I did not include MJ’s numbers when he was playing with the Wizards and I left out LeBron’s rookie season. In the case of MJ, he was coming back from a 3-year hiatus and he was playing at age 38 to 40. In the case of LeBron, he entered the NBA straight out of high school, whereas MJ entered the NBA after 3 years at North Carolina. I debated about whether to exclude 2 other seasons from each player but ended up leaving them in for simplicity and since they somewhat canceled each other out:

  • LeBron’s 2nd year: Lebron’s numbers are actually quite good despite being in his age 20 season but he was slightly less efficient relative to the rest of his career (his team also didn’t make the Playoffs).
  • MJ’s 2nd year: MJ broke his foot in the 3rd game. After missing 64 games, he came off the bench for 11 games until finally starting the last 4 games of the season.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Overall, Jordan was a better scorer but he shot at a higher volume. Efficiency is fairly comparable, with the major difference being LeBron shoots more 3s while having a lower FT%. LeBron obviously has better rebounding and assist numbers but he also turns the ball over a bit more. The advanced metrics are somewhat of a toss-up with Jordan having marginally higher PER and WS/48 minutes whereas LeBron has a higher BPM.

Speaking of scoring and efficiency, since ’84-85, Jordan has by far more 40-point games (211) than anyone else and he did it while shooting at least 50% from the field in the majority of those games (84%). The closest player to Jordan is Kobe, but he shot > 50% at a much lower rate.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

To give you a sense of how well LeBron fills the box score, he has 22 games where he recorded a triple double with at least 30 points on > 50% shooting. Westbrook, Magic, and Jordan are next on the list with 18, 11, and 10, respectively. If you only include games of at least 40 points, he has 7 vs. Jordan’s 2.

If you look at the title runs for LeBron and Jordan, they both carried a heavy load. A few highlights: in ’15-16, LeBron did have an elite second option scoring wise, but LeBron led his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. His championships with the Heat were more balanced, but he was still putting up absurd numbers. Jordan’s first 3-peat numbers are pretty flawless with averages of 36/7/8 on 59.1 TS%. He was clearly a more diminished player in his second 3-peat as his numbers were considerably worse relatively speaking. He was much more of a volume scorer at that point, but keep in mind that the league was also entering a low-scoring era with poor shooting percentages on the whole.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Overall Peak Statistics

When we compare individual players, there are 2 ways to evaluate their careers: performance during prime/peak years vs. career longevity. As fans, we often value peak over longevity since longevity can depend on health and injuries. For a regular season comparison, I’ve chosen to compare age 23 to age 29 for both players. In the case of MJ, his age 23 year (3rd season) was the first time he led the regular season in PER and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). He also ended up retiring for the first time after his age 29 season. In the case of LeBron, you could make an argument that he entered his prime at age 21 (3rd season). You could also argue that LeBron’s prime went beyond age 29, but he stopped leading the league (at least in the regular season) in PER, WS/48 minutes, and BPM after age 29. In order for this to be an apples to apples comparison though, we’ll stick to 23 to 29.

The prime years mirror the career numbers in the sense that MJ scored more (although the margin is larger compared to their overall numbers) and LeBron had better rebound and assist numbers – though the assists were slightly more similar. The advanced metrics are basically a wash.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

If you look at playoff numbers during these same years, it follows the same trend, although MJ’s assist numbers are actually slightly better than LeBron here and the scoring difference is even greater. On the whole, MJ’s advanced metrics are better but the difference is marginal.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

To LeBron’s credit, his Playoff numbers from his age 30 to 33 seasons (second CLE stint) are fairly comparable (in some cases better) to his numbers prior to age 30. If you compare age 23 to age 33 (age 34 for MJ), the advanced metrics during the Playoffs flip in LeBron’s favor. This is an 11-year Playoff run comparison for each player. The caveat here is that MJ lost his age 30 season due to retirement and he came back with only 17 games left in the Regular Season for his age 31 season. For LeBron, his numbers are even more remarkable when you consider he has more miles than Jordan because he came straight out of high school and didn’t take time off.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

For what it’s worth, Kevin Pelton wrote an interesting article ranking the top 50 greatest individual postseasons in modern NBA history and put MJ’s 1991 run and LeBron’s 2012 run at #1 and #2, respectively. Overall, Jordan made the list 7 times vs. LeBron’s 8.

Era Dominance

Aside from head-to-head statistical comparisons, another method of evaluating players, particularly those that didn’t play in the same time period, is comparing how much they dominated their own individual eras.

Jordan played 13 seasons with the Bulls, but as I mentioned above, he broke his foot in his second season and he came out of retirement with only 17 games left in ’94-95. In his 11 full seasons with the Bulls, here is what Jordan did:

  • 1st in Regular Season Win Shares 9 times and 2nd during the other 2 seasons (including his rookie year).
  • 1st in Regular Season VORP for 7 consecutive seasons between ’85-86 and ’92-93. Finished in the top 7 the remaining 4 seasons.
  • 1st in Regular Season BPM for 5 seasons. Finished in the top 5 every other year except his last season with the Bulls.

LeBron has played for 15 full seasons, but it’s unfair to include his rookie season since he came out of high school. In the remaining 14 seasons to date, LeBron has finished:

  • 1st in regular season Win Shares 5 times and in the top 6 every other year except ‘14-15.
  • 1st in regular season VORP for 8 consecutive seasons between ’05-06 and ’12-13. Also finished 1st in ’17-18. Finished in the top 5 the remaining 5 seasons.
  • 1st in regular season BPM for 8 seasons including 7 consecutive seasons between ’07-08 and ’13-14. Finished in the top 5 the remaining 6 seasons.

They both had similarly dominant numbers in the Playoffs and they’re 1st or 2nd in Playoff WS/48 minutes and career VORP.

I’m not huge on awards since groupthink and reputation tends to skew things, but Jordan won 5 Regular Season MVPs and finished in the top 3 in MVP shares 5 other times. The only full season with the Bulls where he was outside of the top 3 was his rookie year. LeBron has 4 Regular Season MVPs and finished in the top 5 for MVP shares 9 other times. The only seasons where he was outside of the top 5 were his first two seasons.

Durability

Much has been made of LeBron’s durability and he deserves acclaim for going to the NBA Finals 8 straight times. It’s a remarkable feat to go uninjured for that long while carrying such a heavy load. LeBron has a higher total minute count under his belt compared to Jordan since he’s had a longer career. He’s also averaged 77 games per season (excluding the lockout season). He played all 82 games for the first time in ’17-18. He’s led the league in total minutes played 3 times including this year.

Jordan played roughly the same number of overall minutes per game in the Regular Season and Playoffs. Jordan did lose nearly his entire 2nd season because of a broken foot and he retired and missed all of his age 30 season and nearly all of his age 31 season. However, during the other 11 seasons with the Bulls, Jordan missed a combined 7 games including 8 seasons where he played all 82 games. During his second 3-peat, Jordan played every Regular Season and Playoff game at age 32 to 35. He led the league in minutes played for 3 consecutive seasons between ’86-87 and ’88-89. As an aside, LeBron led the league in minutes played this year with 3026 minutes… Jordan played 3181 in his final season with the Bulls but that was only good for 9th place in ’97-98.

Clutch Factor

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to play-by-play data prior to ’00-01. This means we can’t compare Jordan’s overall clutch stats vs. modern day players. What we can do is compare LeBron to other players since 2000. Generally speaking, clutch time is defined as the last 5 minutes of a game (4th quarter or OT) when the score is within 5 points. I’ve narrowed that down using 2 different sets of criteria: (1) shot to tie or take the lead with 24 seconds left or (2) last 2 minutes of a game (4th or OT) when the score is within 3 points.

Looking at the first set of criteria, LeBron has the most shots made and attempted during the last 2 minutes of a close Playoff game. His shooting percentage is right around the league average and a fairly low percentage of his baskets have been assisted (22%), meaning he’s creating these opportunities himself and/or scoring in isolation. Not too surprising but second on this list is Kobe Bryant, who shot at a similar percentage. The only difference here is that Kobe’s baskets are coming at an even lower percent assisted. In fact, Kobe has one of the lowest percentage of baskets that were assisted which is consistent with the perception that Kobe is a “tough shot” maker. In contrast to guys like Kobe and LeBron, you have players like Ray Allen who made a lot of big shots and at a high percentage but most of these baskets came off specific plays to get them open or within the flow of the offense.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Using the second set of criteria, LeBron again has the most made and attempted shots. LeBron’s shooting percentage in these situations is actually higher than the league average though the sample size is low. I’ve included some notable big-name players for comparison though the list generally mirrors the one above.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Based on the datasets above, it’s fairly clear that not only is LeBron willing to take big shots in the Playoffs, he’s also been fairly effective in the clutch as well. The only caveat is that he’s had few iconic baskets in the NBA Finals. In fact, using the 2 sets of criteria above for the Finals, he’s 0 of 6 on shots to tie or take the lead in the last 24 seconds and 6 of 25 (24%) on shots during the final 2 minutes when the game is within 3 points. As mentioned above, we don’t have comprehensive play-by-play data for the Jordan years. However, ESPN did do a Playoff analysis of Jordan using my 2nd criteria (shot to tie or take the lead in final 24 seconds of the 4th quarter/OT). He went 9/18 (50%) using this criterion.

Overall, Jordan is credited with 28 game-winning shots (including free throws). Seven of these came in the Playoffs and 21 came in the Regular Season (3 with the Wizards). To date, LeBron has 24 game-winning shots, with 8 coming in the Playoffs (none in the Finals).

The only set of play-by-play data we have for Jordan is from the ’01-02 and ’02-03 Regular Seasons. This was during Jordan’s return from a 3-year retirement and at age 38 to 40. Small sample sizes and only 2 seasons, but even at that age, Jordan’s late game shooting was comparable to career averages for modern day elite players.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Aside from clutch moments in late game situations, we can also compare how LeBron and Jordan played in Game 6 and 7s in the Playoffs. I’ll also include Kobe’s numbers for reference because he’s a contemporary perimeter player that has played in a lot of these games. Again, pretty clear here that LeBron has been exceptional in games late in a series and many of these were must-win games for LeBron since his team was down in the series. In contrast, Jordan barely played in any Game 7s and many of his big Game 6s were in situations where his team was already up 3-2.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

If you look at LeBron’s championship teams, they were on the brink of elimination at some point in all 3 runs – down 2-3 to the Celtics and Spurs in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and down 1-3 to the Warriors in 2016. By his standards, LeBron was “mediocre” until his team was 1 game away from elimination in those series. This was especially true in 2013 when he scored less than 20 points in the first 3 games of the series against the Spurs. You could make the argument that most of LeBron’s best games happened when his back was against the wall.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

So, if you look at the overall data, it’s mostly a myth that LeBron shrinks in big moments or games. So why is that the perception? The biggest reason is the 2011 Finals – but that requires a whole section of its own. What else has contributed? Well, as I mentioned above, he’s never hit a game winning shot in the Finals. His most iconic moment in a championship run is probably a defensive play (the block on Iguodala). People will make the “but he’s 3-6” argument which isn’t fair but you could also make a case that he was 2 shots away from being 1-8 in the Finals and those shots came from other players (Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving). In his most dominant Playoff run, he was actually outscored by Kevin Durant in the 2012 Finals – James averaged 28.6 PPG on 55.8 TS% and Durant averaged 30.6 on 65.0 TS%. LeBron was clearly the better player in that series but we tend to value scoring more than total impact. Statistically speaking, he’s been better in his 2nd stint with the Cavs than he was with the Heat in the Playoffs and Finals – which has squashed some of the choking arguments despite losing in 3 of the last 4 Finals. Finally, I think because of LeBron’s size and quickness, we just expect him to be otherworldly in late game situations. Even when he’s making the “right” basketball play, it feels wrong because he can get anywhere on the court that he wants and usually has a mismatch.

Defense

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good defensive metric to judge players, particularly when comparing them across eras. Steals and blocks are an incredibly shallow method when comparing and advanced defense metrics are either flawed or aren’t even available for Jordan. Jordan did win Defensive Player of the Year in ’87-88 and made the All-Defensive First Team 9 times. LeBron has made the All-Defensive First Team 4 times and made the Second Team 2 times. However, as mentioned above, awards and accolades can be deceiving since they rely heavily on reputation. As much as I’d like to rely on stats only, I’m going to be a bit subjective here.

LeBron is clearly the more versatile defender, with the ability to defend PGs to PFs. This versality is incredibly important in today’s game given how often team’s switch on defense. In his prime, he was also a great individual perimeter defender. To this day, people bring up his defense against Derrick Rose in the 2011 Conference Finals. LeBron also only averages 1.8 fouls per game for his career which is absurdly low for a defender of his caliber and his level of activity.

In the case of Jordan, he’s an all-time great individual perimeter defender. He was extremely disruptive in passing lanes and could lock up elite perimeter players when asked. The combination of Jordan and Pippen on the wings was nightmarish. Phil Jackson summed it up well in his book when describing Jordan (he was comparing to Kobe at the time):

No question, Michael was a tougher, more intimidating defender. He could break through virtually any screen and shut down almost any player with his intense, laser-focused style of defense.

A great example was Game 7 of the 1998 Conference Finals when Jordan was switched onto Reggie Miller in the 4th quarter and held him scoreless (Miller had 22 points entering the 4th quarter). The video below is cherry picked highlights but it will give you a sense for what Jordan was capable of on defense.

Overall, I think the difference between the two is mostly a wash and depends on what you prefer and what a team needs. This is probably an oversimplification, but I would say LeBron’s defensive skills are analogous to Draymond Green whereas Jordan’s skills are more analogous to someone like Kawhi Leonard.

Team Success

In the Jordan era (’85-98), a team won 60 or more games 26 times and Jordan-led teams did it 5 times. Jordan-led teams also accounted for the 3 highest win totals during that period (67, 69, and 72). During the LeBron era, 60 or more wins happened 26 times as well, with LeBron-led teams accounting for 3 of them. Interestingly, 2 of those times were before he created a “super team” – they were the ‘08-09 and ’09-10 Cavs. Team success isn’t an ideal metric to compare players head-to-head, but I do think it speaks a little bit to Jordan’s competitiveness and LeBron’s interesting floor and ceiling.

One of the craziest Jordan stats is that he never lost 3 or more consecutive games from November 1990 to the end of his second retirement from the Bulls in 1998. That spanned 500 Regular Season games and 126 Playoff games. Aside from his first retirement period, he only missed 6 total games during that time. As we all know, he went 6-0 in the Finals and none of those series went to Game 7.

As for LeBron, I think it’s reasonable to say that the floor for his teams has been higher than Jordan – he led some of his worst regular season rosters to 62 and 66 regular season wins. He led mediocre rosters (albeit in the East) to the Finals. However, I’d argue the ceiling for his teams has been a bit lower – he’s only won 60+ once in the last 8 years and even that team (’12-13 Heat) needed tremendous luck to avoid losing 2-4 in the Finals to a 58-win Spurs team. The conventional wisdom is that LeBron makes his teammates better but there is some decent evidence that suggests he makes a certain type of player better while making others slightly less valuable. Low-usage role players (e.g., Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance) and spot up shooters (e.g., Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith) tend to be more productive with LeBron while other guys like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, George Hill, and Jae Crowder tend to actually underperform (at least individually) when teamed up with him. On average, “newcomer” performance over the last 4 years was lower for the Cavs than with the Warriors, Rockets, and Durant-era Thunder.

Level of Competition

People in the Jordan camp and ex-players will argue that the league was more physical in the 80s and 90s, but watching film I think this is somewhat exaggerated. There were obviously very physical teams (e.g., Pistons, Knicks) and the penalty for flagrant fouls wasn’t elevated to what it is today until ’90-91 which meant you had harder outlier hits if you drove to the paint in the 80s. The league also had laxer rules around what defenders could do to impede the progress of perimeter players (most notably, hand checking), but this also worked in Jordan’s favor since he was a physical defender. But overall, teams weren’t gunning for your head, and Jordan actually got to the line more than LeBron. I think the subtler difference is that offenses were less ball-screen dominant back in Jordan’s era and spacing was worse, given that teams had fewer shooters and shot fewer 3s. The video below does a great job outlining the “Jordan Rules” and how defenses tried containing Jordan.

On the flip side, the folks in the LeBron camp will say players were generally less athletic in the 80s and 90s and Jordan faced weaker competition out on the perimeter. The second best offensive shooting guard during that time period was Clyde Drexler and the other remaining “wing” scorers were usually small forwards like Dominque Wilkins/Alex English/Bernard King or shooters like Glen Rice/Mitch Richmond/Reggie Miller. You can also look at grainy footage of Jordan dropping 63 on Bird’s Celtics and come away unimpressed by a bunch of “plumbers” trying to guard Jordan. Obviously conditioning and weight training is much better now than it was when Jordan played and you can even see that in Jordan himself – he was fairly skinny throughout his early career with the Bulls. The way I look at it, both players would have adapted to the individual era. Jordan would have shot more 3s if he played today and teams would have likely surrounded him with jump shooters to open up the lane. LeBron would have been a little leaner in the 80s and 90s but he’d still be a dominant athlete and just as unstoppable.

In terms of Playoff competition, MJ played against more teams with 50+ wins and had fewer matchups overall vs. teams with 41 wins or less. I’ve also included Kobe and Duncan for reference since they played in the LeBron era. Overall, there isn’t a significant difference in opponent winning percentage between the players (average opponent win totals ranged from 52 to 54). However, LeBron’s number dips when you only look at his average Eastern Conference opponent (49-33). MJ, Kobe, and Duncan had opponents in conference with an average of 52, 54, and 52 wins, respectively.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

While these numbers may seem marginal, the impact was probably most evident in 2007. One of LeBron’s greatest accomplishments was getting a 50-win Cavs team to the NBA Finals. While the Cavs did have a mediocre roster, LeBron’s road to the Finals included beating 2 teams with a record of 41-41 (Nets and Wizards) – those 2 teams wouldn’t have made the Playoffs in the West (they would have been the #9 and #10 seeds). His win against the Pistons in the Conference Finals (53-29) was nothing short of amazing but to put some perspective here – if we look at the teams strictly by record, the Cavs would have finished 6th in the West. They would have faced the 3rd seeded Spurs in the first round and I think it’s fair to assume that the same team that beat them 4-0 in the NBA Finals would have swept them or beat them fairly convincingly in the first round. Would we think lesser of LeBron had he exited the first round? Or would his legacy ultimately be better off by having fewer losses in the Finals?

Looking at the 9 times LeBron has gotten to the Finals, I’d argue he’s beaten one team in the East that had a chance to win the championship had they represented the East instead of LeBron’s team – the ’11-12 Celtics. In contrast, LeBron’s eventual opponent in the Finals often wasn’t even the best Regular Season team in the West. In cases where it was, there were other teams in the West that had a better record than the best team LeBron beat during the entirety of the Playoffs.

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

This isn’t a huge knock on LeBron – it’s hard to imagine another modern-day player who could have stayed healthy and played at a high level consistently enough to get to the Finals 8 times in a row even playing in the lowly East. The only recent player who comes close is Magic Johnson. Magic got to the Finals 9 times in 12 years (won 5), including a stretch where he got to 7 NBA Finals and 1 Conference Final over a span of 8 years. Jordan won 6 titles in 8 years but he did take over a year and half off in between two 3-peats. In addition, while LeBron has benefited significantly from playing in the East, the Warriors are in the discussion as one of the greatest teams assembled and it goes without saying that they’re better than the best team Jordan had to ever face in the NBA Finals.

Black Marks

Both players have fairly flawless careers but each does have a couple black marks on their resume. In the case of Jordan, the biggest “unknown” about his career is what would have happened if he didn’t retire the first time. We missed out on his age 30 season and nearly lost out on all of his age 31 season. I think the general consensus is that the Bulls would have won the title in ’93-94, given how good the Bulls played without him, but ’94-95 is a little trickier. Jordan returned with 17 games left in the Regular Season and the Bulls were still a Playoff team. After “upsetting” the Hornets in the first round, the Bulls played the Shaq-Penny Magic and lost in 6 games. Despite the long hiatus, Jordan played at a fairly high level in that series, but he did make a handful of mistakes, including in clutch moments. Most notably, a key turnover in Game 1 that cost the Bulls the game. Since this wasn’t really a “complete” season for Jordan, we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt here. However, his retirement does mean that we didn’t get to see him vs. the Hakeem/Drexler Rockets. Missing nearly 2 prime seasons also makes it difficult to compare his career against someone like LeBron. On top of that, his second retirement came after his age 34 season which means we didn’t really get to see him play through his “father time” years, except for those 2 bizarre years with the Wizards when he was 38 to 40. Barring an injury, my guess is LeBron is playing through at least 38.

The other “blemish” on Jordan’s resume is that he went 1-9 in the Playoffs before the Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen/Horace Grant. I don’t put a lot of stock into this since those losses came to a 59-win Bucks team in his rookie season and the other two subsequent losses came against the Boston Celtics. I think all it really tells us is that Jordan’s team “floor” may be a little lower than LeBron since the Bulls finished at the bottom of the Conference in all 3 seasons (although Jordan missed the majority of his second season).

I hinted at it above but the obvious black mark on LeBron’s resume is the 2011 NBA Finals. It’s important to understand why this series was so bizarre. LeBron was posting the following stats during the Eastern Conference Playoffs:

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

Here is what he averaged in the Finals…

The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

The most points he scored in a game in that Finals was 24. He scored less than 20 in 3 games, including an 8-point Game 4. He didn’t have one game where he shot 20 or more times. His average FT attempts went from 9.1 to 3.3. He was the 5th leading scorer and 3rd on his own team in the series. He scored a total of 18 points in 4th quarters including a *combined* 6 points in 4th quarters between Games 2 and 5 (shooting 2/14 from the field). To make matters worse, he was getting torched on defense by Jason Terry. Players have bad shooting games or series, but LeBron completely disappeared for essentially the entire Finals.

Critics will also cite the 3-6 Finals record, but most of the teams/rosters he faced were clearly better. I think the bigger issue is that you can make a fairly easy argument that he should be 2-7 and his overall Finals record is 18-31. He’s also had a major hand in the rosters he’s been stuck with, which may not be an indictment on him as a player but it does have some relevance given that the excuse for his lack of success is a weak supporting cast.

Conclusion

Both players dominated their eras and were great from the moment they were drafted. Neither player has any weaknesses in their game, but relatively speaking, Jordan was the better scorer, individual perimeter defender, and the better clutch scorer. I think Jordan had a marginally higher ceiling in terms of his team performance and I would argue his individual peak was slightly better than LeBron. On the flip side, LeBron is the more “complete” player and a more versatile defender because of his rare combination of size and speed. His team floor has been incredibly high which probably indicates that it’s easier to build a good team around him. While I would argue his peak is lower than Jordan, his overall career is undoubtedly going to be better given his high level of play over a longer period of time. In fact, his “post-peak” is unprecedented in NBA history. He’s played under the biggest magnifying glass in history. Despite the negative perception, he’s been an all-time great in big moments. While for some, LeBron hasn’t done enough to completely erase the impact of the 2011 Finals, he still has another 3 to 5 years (maybe more?) to add to his resume.

Aside from the “substance” of their careers, the preference between Jordan vs. LeBron also comes down to a choice of style preference. LeBron is arguably the most athletic basketball player in NBA history. He’s a one-man offensive system with the ability to score and run an offense. Everything starts with his ability to force his way into the paint and while his “bully ball” isn’t my cup of tea, we’ve never had another perimeter player gifted enough to do what he does on a regular basis. He’s arguably the greatest open court finisher in history and his chase down blocks are some of the best defensive highlights of any player. His strength and vision allow him to make cross court passes that no other player would dare attempt let alone complete successfully.

In the case of Jordan, he was a generational athlete as well, but he also had tremendous footwork and was one of the best players off the ball. While he did have a high usage rate, Jordan’s offense was generally much more quick hitting, with fewer isolations and dribble-heavy sequences. Part of that is the result of the triangle offense, but it’s also a credit to Jordan’s ability to function within an offensive system with good ball movement. While he was more of a volume scorer and averaged fewer assists than LeBron, Jordan wasn’t as ball dominant and offenses with him felt more fluid.

Full disclosure, I was aiming to make a case for Jordan being the clear better player when I began writing this piece as Jordan is my all-time favorite athlete (there may have been some giveaways along the way). However, no matter how hard I slice it, LeBron’s numbers and career are near flawless. If you asked me who I would rather draft to have a 15- to 20-year career? LeBron. If you asked me who I would rather have for a 6-year stretch in their prime? Jordan. If you asked me who I’d rather have in a single, best of 7 series, with each player at his peak? Jordan.

Feature Image design by Oscar Pilch


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AdotSad is a coastal elite living in the California bubble of Orange County. He’s a pharmacist by day and a time waster by night. He is on Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “The GOAT Wars: A Statistical Analysis

  1. I’ll throw in an admittedly unpopular opinion on the topic: Jordan only ever won with Phil Jackson, who really did have a gift for getting superstars and supporting players to accept certain defined roles for the good of the whole. I can’t think of another coach in NBA history that was ever able to do what Jackson did, save Popovich.

    Jordan wasn’t able to translate his talent into the level of winning we remember him by with Lougherly, Albeck, or Collins pre-Jackson, and he wasn’t able to do it with Walker, Hamilton, or Collins (again) post-Jackson. That’s not a knock on him, but I think it suggests that Michael needed Jackson (and a team of players dedicated to played Jackson’s game plan) to be Michael.

    One of the amazing things about LeBron, to me, is that he seems to personally thrive in whatever system you slide him in, and he’s helped teams over-perform (and win championships) in multiple systems with multiple coaches. It’s really amazing, and doesn’t get nearly enough acknowledgement IMHO.

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    • To points, think of it this way: James is one of the few all time greats that isn’t paired with an all time great coach at least at one point in their career. So on top of the numbers, accomplishments, the longevity, the consistent greatness, he also has done it without a key piece most of his peers in the all time greats had with coaching. Closes thing was his years with Riley probably but even that wasn’t a day to day coaching thing.

      I find myself mostly agreeing with Adot’s conclusions: if we use the great Bob Ryan’s “Earth vs Aliens for fate of the world game” scenario I probably want Jordan for his relentless competitive kill mode. But in almost every category, James is or is about to surpass Jordan in all but titles and has been great for a far longer period of time. Hard to argue against that.

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    • It’s an interesting theory though, you could also make the case that Phil only won anything because he lucked into MJ + prime Pippen and then got Shaq/Kobe. Should also be noted that Bulls got to the Conf Finals in 1988-89 without Phil and lost in the same place the following year with Phil. My guess is it was a combination of coach + Pippen/Grant gaining some experience that ultimately put the Bulls over the hump.

      As to your second point, I actually agree and I tried to allude to that with LeBron having a higher “floor” in terms of team success. It is pretty remarkable how successful he’s been from basically his 3rd year onward with different rosters/coaches.

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