Sports debates start and end with two names; Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Both extraordinary athletes with years of dominance in their respective eras. Both labeled the greatest basketball ever, depending on who you ask. It’s one of the most complex and opinion-based arguments out there. Who truly wins the Lebron vs Jordan debate? Who is the greatest basketball player the NBA has ever seen? Let’s take a closer look at the ever so coveted debate and truly determine who wins the Lebron vs Jordan battle.
The Great Debate: Lebron vs Jordan
Both Lebron James and Michael Jordan have had many accomplishments in their respective careers. Let’s take a closer look at the biggest league accomplishments for each player.
All-Defense: James 6x / Jordan 9x
All-NBA: James 15x / Jordan 11x
Scoring Titles: James 1x / Jordan 10x
MVPs: James 4x / Jordan 5x
Finals MVPs: James 3x /Jordan 6x
At first glance, it’s evident who has the advantage. MJ beats Lebron in every category aside from All-NBA appearances, and everyone in their right mind knows Jordan would’ve added a couple more to that total if he had not been absent from the game. Not to mention, the scoring title gap is downright embarrassing for James. Even if Lebron fans would like to give James the benefit of the doubt and say All-Defense is bound to be handed over to him eventually, it still doesn’t change the fact that Lebron will have needed 16/17/18 seasons to achieve what Jordan did in 13 (full) seasons. Not only does MJ check off more achievement boxes, but he’s also done it in significantly less time.
Achievements: Michael Jordan
Generally, statistics are not the entire story surrounding any said player. However, that’s not to say they aren’t very important. Let’s take a look at both Michael Jordan and Lebron James’ statistical per game stats.
PPG: James 27.1 / Jordan 30.1
APG: James 7.4 / Jordan 5.3
RPG: James 7.4 / Jordan 6.2
FG %: James 50.4% / Jordan 49.7 %
PER (Efficiency): James 27.5 / Jordan 27.9
Both players have had phenomenal careers on both ends of the floor. It isn’t listed above, but both Jordan and James rank high on defensive win shares as well. James’ Miami Heat days were some of his best on the defensive end, while Jordan saw his ability grow once he got his feet wet in the NBA.
Both players are scoring machines but in different ways. James relies a bit more on his interior scoring, while Jordan’s mid-range game is some of the best the game has ever seen. In the modern era, the three-ball has become increasingly used around the league, while Jordan’s 80s-90s era of basketball feature little of it. Jordan had nine seasons above 30 points per game, while Lebron had just one (MVP year). However, Lebron has been more efficient with his shots, even if it is slight. To be fair, Lebron has been a statistically below-average three-point shooter and that gap of FG % would likely be higher if the three-point numbers were evened out between the eras. Both rebounding and assists go to Lebron James, another nod at his ability to play nearly every aspect of the game to an elite level.
This is truly the closest category and one that sparks the most debate among Jordan vs. Lebron arguments. However, the closer you look at more advanced analytics, the more Jordan becomes the clearer choice.
Jordan leads Lebron in PER, win shares per 48 minutes (regular season and playoffs), and box score +/-, which deals with players’ total contributions on the court. Jordan has to lead the league in scoring 10 times to Lebron’s one. An efficiency argument isn’t valid, because Jordan still shot roughly the same as Lebron did throughout his career. Lebron James has struggled to keep his defensive win shares above three for the past few years, while Jordan had only four full seasons with that number below five.
Superficial numbers may point you towards Lebron at first, but looking more in-depth at what makes a basketball player so good, will tell you otherwise.
Statistics: Michael Jordan
Another extremely important topic when discussing who is the greatest of all time. Let’s start with Lebron.
Lebron James has totaled a finals’ record of 3-6, losing to the 2007 Spurs, 2011 Mavericks, 2014 Spurs, 2015 Warriors, 2017 Warriors, and the 2018 Warriors. His biggest ring is almost unanimously his 2016 victory, in which he defeated the Warriors in seven games after falling down 3-1 in the series. I think it’s important to investigate each series, rather than just looking at superficial numbers. Although Lebron’s finals record is abysmal for a “G.O.A.T”, let’s not forget some crucial details.
In 2015, Lebron lost Kyrie Irving for nearly all of the series, leaving him with Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith to help him defeat the 67-win Warriors. Not an ideal situation. Two years later, Lebron would face off against one of the most talented rosters ever, comprised of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. His 34 points on 52% was astounding, but is overlooked because of his loss that year. Many times, Jordan fans love to look at James’ finals record and laugh. But, they neglect to acknowledge some of the unforeseen situations James was put in, situations Jordan never experienced. Speaking of Jordan, let’s look at his winning resume.
Jordan is most famous for his 6-0 finals record, beating a number of great teams including the Stockton/Malone Jazz, Barkley Suns, and the Magic Lakers. There isn’t much of an argument against Jordan, unless you discuss winning outside of the finals. But even then, there is major hypocrisy going on with Lebron fans. Some would argue that Jordan’s lack of success at the beginning of his career should not be overlooked. But, while the struggles Jordan had in the early part of his career are fairly comparable to Lebron, the competition is extraordinarily different.
To sum it up, winning hasn’t been a staple of Lebron’s career like it is for Michael Jordan. MJ’s 6-0 finals record is one of the greatest accomplishments any NBA player could even dream of, let along complete. Although tougher opponents and injuries do provide Lebron with a bit of leeway, Jordan still overpowers him in winning, no matter how you spin it.
Winning: Michael Jordan
A simple yet important trait for nearly every great player to have is longevity. There truly isn’t much to say about this one.
Lebron James is now on his 17th season in the league and doesn’t really show any signs of stopping. He will break the 20-season mark and may even go years past that. James has yet to face a significant injury in his career, aside from his lower body issues he suffered last season. He’s been an extremely durable and talented player for nearly two decades.
Michael Jordan played just 13 full seasons in the NBA. His baseball stint and multiple retirement phases had him missing over 4 seasons in the mid and late 90s. Not to mention, Jordan missed nearly his entire season in 1985-86, due to an injury he suffered.
There really isn’t much to debate here. Lebron James has been at the top of the NBA ladder for over 15 years now and there’s no doubt he’ll be there for at least a couple of more. Although Jordan may have had an argument without his “mini-retirements”, There’s no telling what made him take time off from the game. Either way, Lebron may be the most durable player this game has ever seen.
Longevity: Lebron James
Lebron vs Jordan Wrap-up
Will there ever be an answer to this Lebron vs Jordan debate? No. But, you can’t ignore the facts.
I generally consider myself an open mind when it comes to a Lebron James/Michael Jordan debate. But, the numbers just simply give Jordan too much of an advantage for there to be any true debate. Many times Lebron fans will use physical attributes and athletic ability to push their notion that James is better. But, that doesn’t indicate a better player necessarily and I think Lebron fans fail to recognize that.
Both of these players should be showered in greatness for the rest of their lives, but only one should take the crown of the “G.O.A.T”, and his name is Michael Jordan.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images