Having sat and considered the issue of whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the "better" player for some time, I think it is time to just decide. If you look at the last two Blog entries below, you will see that I have come up with 10 arguments for each guy and against the other. If
So why does Michael Jordan come out ahead in April of 2018, just as he did in April of 2015 (when James was 4th, behind Kareem and Wilt). Well, I first have to say that it is a very difficult decision. I would say that it has become sort of a 51-49% debate where some very compelling arguments can be made on each side. I believe the best arguments on behalf of LeBron are that he has played longer, has more All-NBA First-team selections, and is a more versatile player. I believe a very good argument could be made that if you basically picked a lineup and a head coach out of a hat but first had to choose LeBron or Jordan, you'd choose LeBron. He can do more with less.
Two things that really come through as you review the stats of each guy is that they are tremendously dominant in their era, and they are really in a class by themselves. After LeBron picks up his 12th All-NBA First-Team award in a couple weeks, he will have 186.3 Win Shares as a First-Team All-NBA player. Jordan had 186.7 Win Shares as First-Team All-NBA player ("FTAN"). https://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/tiny.fcgi?id=jLo5V James will have a Win Shares per 48 in that time period (as a FTAN) of around .260. Jordan was .283. Want to get even weirder? Jordan has 725 blocks, LeBron will have 723 blocks.
The two men's playoff careers are within a millimeter of one another. Again, James has played longer, so he has the advantage in counting stats and in gross Win Shares and VORP. Jordan enjoys an edge in playoff WS/48 of .255 to .246. If it is a valid thing to do to divide VORP by games played, James contributes .138 value per playoff game while Jordan is at .127. Virtually any playoff efficiency stats you can find, the leader is either James or Jordan. The two men absolutely DOMINATE any search for a stat that shows great playoff performance. If you look for some combination of stats that show playoff greatness, you will find that of the top 50+ such seasons, generally Jordan and James each has 8-10 and the next best guy has like 4.
I would argue that James and Jordan are virtually identical as playoff performers, with James perhaps statistically better by maybe 1%. So why would Jordan be #1 and James #2?
1) You cannot ignore the #1 Jordan argument, which is that Jordan played in the Finals 6 times and was the best player in the Finals 6 times and won 6 titles. In fact, he was the #1 offensive AND defensive player for his team (and better than anyone on the other team) 6 straight times. If you review ALL of the greatest players of all-time, you cannot say that about Wilt or Kareem or Duncan or Magic or Russell or Shaq or Bird or West or Oscar. Can you say that about LeBron? He was not the best player on the floor in 2007 or 2011 and he was great but a loser in 2014, 2015 and 2017. This is a very unique claim that Michael has as a player. It certainly counts for a lot.
2) On a regular season basis, Jordan was a better and more consistent player than James. Not by a lot, but by some. He basically is a .250 WS/48 player and LeBron is a .240 player. Basically Jordan is 4% better. Their absolute peak season is roughly the same (.322) but if you line up the raw Win Shares you will see that Jordan's Win Shares per season are superior to LeBron's for 11 seasons in a row
Best Year #1 +.9
Best Year #11 -- +.3
Then James wins the last 4 seasons by a lot because Jordan has 4 crap seasons.
This is also evident when you search for seasons where guys had a lot of "Very Good" or "Great" games measured by Game Score. Jordan has the 6 best seasons for 22.5 or greater Game Scores http://bkref.com/tiny/ogk4l. He has the 5 best seasons for 30.0 or greater Game Scores http://bkref.com/tiny/VyAAv He had a season where he had 80 (!!!) Game Scores over 15 -- http://bkref.com/tiny/pK3X4 He has 4 of the top 5 of those seasons, and 5 of the top 10.
What this tells you is that Michael was frigging relentless. It is consistent with the talking point that he is an assassin who takes things personally and LeBron is more of an entertainer.
There is certainly nothing wrong with being an entertainer, but it does get reflected in your regular season stats. If I am going to criticize other players (like Shaq) for failing to give 100% full-out effort in the regular season, I have to acknowledge that James had years where he was capable of doing more (as is reflected in his playoff efforts) and he did not do so. In fact, one thing that is proof of this fact is that LeBron this year (15th season, age 33) had 69 Game Scores above 15 (his 4th most) and 51 Game Scores above 22.5 (his most ever). He was capable of that level of play for many years, but his concentration level went up this year.
3) Similar to #2 above, Jordan was a more productive and more relentless defender throughout his career. James is as good of a defender, but he has gone long stretches in his career where his effort on that end of the court did not reach his potential. That is reflected in his 5 all-D awards to Michael's 9. James has been a far better playoff defender in the playoffs (6 seasons of DRtg 101 or less, 3 such regular seasons).
4) Finally, while one could argue that this cuts both ways, Jordan has those two pretty crappy seasons in D.C. He played 5,000 minutes in D.C., roughly 1/8 of his career. He was NOT very good. He put up under 10 WS in 2 seasons combined. He had a WS/48 for the two years of roughly .087. He reduced his WS/48 from .274 for his career to .250.
It was a terrible decision. Jordan's gross raw numbers didn't go up enough to really justify the decline in his per minute numbers. Those two years (again, around 12% of his career) give us a distorted view of how good he was in his 13 seasons as a Bull. He was roughly 13-14% better in the regular season for WS/48 as a Bull versus LeBron for LeBron's career.
Now, could we say the same thing about LeBron's playing when he was 19-20 years old and ramping up as a player? Sure. But it really harms Jordan as a player to review his 41,000 minutes and not at least acknowledge that he was really stupid for playing that last 8,000 minutes and those minutes do not fairly reflect his value as a player and they bring his advanced stats, his shooting stats, and even his scoring stats to a point more unfavorable to LeBron's than they should be.
So, that's it. I should say in closing that this Blog entry perhaps credits Michael too greatly and diminishes LeBron unnecessarily. Certainly the argument could be made that James' teams were benefitted by him saving something for the post-season and that many of Jordan's relentless Game Score seasons resulted in little or no team success in the playoffs. But the point of this entry is to select someone and explain why. Therefore, the result is that Jordan's strengths and James' weaknesses have to be presented and argued in Michael's favor. Michael Jordan is still #1.
#2 Greatest Player, 2018 Edition - LeBron James
#1 Greatest Player, 2018 Edition -- Michael Jordan.
We will come back and evaluate again in 2021.