Sunday, July 23, 2017
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Who’s the better player … Michael Jordan or LeBron James?

Photo courtesy of Grant Wiley.

I’m sure you’ve all been asked at one point or another – who’s better … Michael Jordan or LeBron James? You may have also seen that LeBron James passed Michael Jordan’s career playoff scoring record in Game 5 of the Cavaliers Celtics Eastern Conference Finals last Thursday. First let’s acknowledge that comparing players from two different eras is always difficult and only brings up more questions. Jordan’s era saw arguably the better defensive effort by teams, better referees, and more varied competition. “Super teams” existed during the Jordan era, but not to the extent of today. For the first few years of his career, LeBron played without a Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving to bolster the offense, and he failed to bring Cleveland a championship during that time. LeBron also has a lower career points per game (27.1 vs Jordan’s 30.1) and has a much lower points per game in his best season (31.4 in 2006 vs Jordan’s 37.1 in 1987). So in terms of pure point contribution, Jordan scored more points per game in an era with much more difficult defense.

As an all around player, Jordan has the edge of winning the defensive player of the year award once, to Lebron’s zero, has been selected to the NBA All-Defensive team 9 times (vs LeBron’s 6 times), and has led the league in steals three times (LeBron has never led the league in steals). In the Jordan era, defense was an art with coaches like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Chuck Daly leading the helm. Great defense started with the centers protecting the paint, grabbing rebounds, and transitioning from offense to defense quickly. In my opinion (and this is an entirely new discussion) NBA centers were much better in the 90s than they are today. They had better basketball IQs, were more athletic, and weren’t just the super tall guys who liked to shoot threes. Today, more coaches are using their guards as the defensive captains. This isn’t a poor technique, but with fewer guards playing hard defense consistently (ahem James Harden), it’s only fair to say that Jordan played in a more difficult time to score. What’s interesting to note, though, in the fourteen seasons that LeBron has played, the average points per game by year in the NBA is 99.27 (Jordan’s fifteen season career witnessed an average 104.32 points per game). Perhaps this makes the defensive statistic a less convincing argument as to who’s better.

Across the board stats, Jordan only has LeBron beat in points per game, as James has a better career rebounds and assists average, and both have a career 0.8 blocks per game. Age is always an important factor to consider, however. Jordan first entered the NBA in 1984 after playing three seasons at UNC. Lebron chose not to attend college and went straight to the NBA, adding an extra three years of professional basketball before Jordan played one. Michael Jordan also retired to play baseball in 1993, missing the 1994-95 season before returning to the NBA in 95. He retired a second time in 1998, before joining the Washington Wizards for two season from 2001-2003. For one of the greatest basketball players in the world, I think only Jordan can only be jealous of Brett Favre’s un-retiring streak. Because of these bizarre retirement stints, Jordan missed key years of his prime and would most likely have surpassed Kareem Abdul Jabbar in career points had he played a continuous career. MJ played until he was 40 years old, so at 32, LeBron most likely has the better chance of breaking that record seeing as he’s only 9,600 points off Kareem’s record.

Playoff success is one of the most important points when comparing greats. There’s a reason Tom Brady is recognized as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time – he’s won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback. In terms of Jordan vs Lebron, MJ has the edge here. Jordan was a perfect six for six in NBA Finals appearances, and also was the NBA Finals MVP each time. With LeBron leading the Cavs to the finals this season, he’s appearing in the NBA Finals for the eighth time (and seventh season in a row). That being said, LeBron only has three rings to show for his eight appearances.

With all these statistics to consider, the players that each guy had on his team, the time period they played in, and the what if’s of each one’s career, picking a definite better player is honestly too hard. Right now, I’d say that Michael Jordan was the better player. He had an advantage with Phil Jackson as his head coach almost every season, but he was nearly unbeatable. Ask me five years from now? LeBron James. Why? Well, he’ll probably have won two or three more NBA rings by then and have passed Kareem’s career scoring record. I also think LeBron’s just the better athlete, and at 6’8″, he can just shoot just as well as any guard while is equally dominant in the paint as any forward. He’s a better all around player, and while he’s been a part of super teams in his career, Jordan also had his Scottie Pippens and Dennis Rodmans, and Horace Grants. LeBron faced more super teams and beat more super teams than Jordan. Only time will tell who’s the better player, but I can see LeBron playing into his early forties while still maintaining his dominance throughout the league.