LeBron vs. Jordan: Is There a Comparison Yet?

LeBron JamesLeBron James has just captured his 2nd NBA Championship in as many years, and has secured himself a place as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And he even did so by overcoming the “Winner of Game 3 wins the series 92% of the time” odds.

With the victory, there is a 99% chance the “LeBron is a choker and can’t win the big one” narrative is dead and gone (I say 99% because I’ll never underestimate the ability of Skip Bayless to find a new way to beat a dead horse). But that means that there is another narrative that is going to start being thrown around.

Is LeBron James better than basketball’s greatest player of all time….Michael Jordan?

Six championships, 10 time NBA scoring champion, never lost in the finals, multiple game winning shots, scored 38 points while he had the flu…..the list of Michael Jordan’s accomplishments goes on and on. A comparison of LeBron to Jordan is almost unfair. Actually, it is unfair! To simply say “Get back to me when LeBron has 6 championships” is a lazy and flawed argument. Jordan had his entire career to compile all those championships. At 28 years old, LeBron is only partway though his. In fact, do you know how many NBA Championships Jordan had at 28? Just one! So to accurately compare the two players, I figure we need to do one of the following:

  • Obtain a time machine to travel into the future and see what LeBron does between now and the end of his basketball career.
  • See what Jordan had done when he was at the same point in his career as LeBron is now.

I did spend some time looking for a time machine, but I wasn’t able to locate one. So it looks like we’re going to have to go with the second option.

Because both players came into the NBA at different ages, I’m not going to use what Jordan had done by the time he was 28. Instead, I’m going to use the number of seasons they’ve been in the league. LeBron has been in the NBA for 10 seasons, so I’m only going to look at what Jordan did in his first 10 seasons.

Round 1: How far did you lead your team?

Let’s start by seeing how far each player went in the playoffs throughout their first 10 seasons. We’ll use Minitab to make a pie chart to display the results. You can get the data here to follow along, and grab the free trial of our statistical software if you don't already have it.

Pie Chart

After 10 seasons, Jordan had only 3 of his 6 championships under his belt. Michael actually started his career with 3 straight first round exits and a mere one playoff win. His next three years all included playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons (once in the 2nd round and twice in the Eastern Conference Finals). The last “non-championship” season was in 1995, after his first 3 championships. He returned from retirement with 17 games left in the season and immediately led the Bulls on a 13-4 run going into the playoffs. But they lost to the Orlando Magic in the 2nd round.    

As for LeBron, his pie chart has something on it that Michael never did: a season without a playoff appearance. In fact, LeBron didn’t make the playoffs his first two seasons in the league. LeBron does have more NBA Finals appearances, but he failed to win two of those. Losing in the Finals is also something Jordan never did.

Overall, Jordan doesn’t have as big of an advantage as one might expect here. But he does have one more championship and 0 seasons where he missed the playoffs. Round 1 goes to Jordan.

Round 2: Who can score more points?

You can’t win unless you score more points than the other team, so let’s look at the scoring averages for each player. I’m sticking to only playoff games, since that is where legacies are made. I also used points per 36 minutes, so that overtime games don’t cloud the results. Here is a time series plot of how each player performed in the playoffs as their careers progressed. (LeBron missed the playoffs his first two seasons, which is why he has two fewer observations.)

Time Series Plot

Jordan clearly looks like the better player here. His rookie season beats out all but 3 of LeBron’s seasons. And LeBron has never been able to top Jordan when they were at similar points in their career.

Another interesting thing to note is that after his first two seasons, Jordan pretty consistently scored about 30 points per 36 minutes in the playoffs. Meanwhile, LeBron is all over the place. That inconsistency is part of the reason he got so much criticism in the past. People expect great players to be great all the time. And if they’re not, well, just ask LeBron James what it was like to be him 2 seasons ago.

Round 2 goes to Jordan.

Round 3: How efficient were you?

How many points you score doesn’t always tell the entire story. If you score 37 points, but it takes you 50 shots to do so, then it really isn’t all that impressive. You didn’t have a great game, you just shot the ball a lot. Plus only looking at scoring doesn’t account for rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers, etc. So I’m going to use a stat called the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). It’s a measure of per-minute production standardized so that the league average is 15. It accounts for both how efficient a player scores, and how they do in the “non-scoring” aspects of the game. It’s the best statistic we have to determine who the best all-around player is. So let’s see who is better! Again, I’m only using playoff games.

Time Series Plot

Jordan isn’t as dominant as he was in the previous plot, but he still looks like the winner. Michael’s least efficient playoff performance still beats half of LeBron’s. And at similar points in their career Jordan wins 5 of the 8 seasons.

But James does have the most efficient playoff performance of either player. It was the 2009 playoffs, when he led Cleveland to the Eastern Conference Finals only to be upset by the Orlando Magic. In those playoffs, James had three 40-point games and never scored fewer than 25 points. And he did it all while shooting over 50%. Plus, in an elimination game against Orlando he had a triple double and staved off elimination for the Cavs (at least for one game). But after a playoff performance that far exceeded anything Jordan did, LeBron started to get stuck with the “unclutch” label. Sports media everybody!

But still, Jordan has the slight edge here.

Round 4: Can LeBron at least win the regular season?

So far we’ve only looked at what each player has done in the postseason. But it would be mistake to completely ignore the huge sample of games in the regular season, so let’s look at each player’s PER in the regular season.

Time Series Plot

You can clearly see how both players improved in the first few seasons of their career. But Jordan started out playing much better early in his career than LeBron. Then both players followed similar paths after their first 5 seasons. And yes, Jordan has a dip in season 10, but that was when he returned from retirement for 17 regular season games after not playing basketball for 2 years. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that data point.

Considering Jordan wins 7 of the 10 seasons and came into the league playing at a much higher level, he wins yet another round.

Conclusion: It’s really, really hard to be like Mike

LeBron James is definitely one of the best players ever to play the game. But this statistical analysis shows how hard it is to match what Michael Jordan did. And keep in mind that after his 10th season, all Jordan did was win three more titles in a row. LeBron is young enough that he is more than capable of matching that feat. But even if he does, he’ll be hard pressed to do it with the same efficiency that Jordan did.

So at this point in his career, LeBron doesn’t quite measure up to Michael Jordan, and it’s doubtful he ever will. But that doesn’t take away from how great LeBron really is. While he may not be the greatest player of all time, he’s currently the greatest player in the world. So instead of expecting him to live up to unreasonable expectations, we should just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Photograph "Lbjheat" by Keith Allison.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0.


Name: Local D • Monday, June 24, 2013

Great piece. However, I think comparing what each had done at the same AGE is the better way to do it. Lebron averaged 21 PPG in the NBA his 1st year out of high school. MJ averaged 13 a game in COLLEGE his 1st year out of high school. One is definitely more impressive than the other. Lebron has the edge when you compare what each had done by 28 yrs. old.

Name: Laerte • Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Greate post. I did the analysis in another way. In the date found in nba.com, I’ve compared MJ (Michael Jordan) and LJ (LeBron James) regarding them performance trough the years (points per season by year). I’ve exclude the MJ seasons 1985-86 (injured) and 1994-95 (retired). The target is to compare the number of points, not the victories or playoffs qualified..

Minitab shows, that MJ season points decrease with the years (and its age), with a p-value

Name: Kevin • Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thank you both for reading. I agree that there are multiple angles to look at this from. I should have thrown in a round comparing them at similar ages.

And speaking of ages, LeBron is by far the most impressive 19 year old to ever play in the NBA. He might be the most impressive 19 year old athlete ever. But comparing points per 36 minutes at similar ages, I still think Jordan wins overall. LeBron wins ages 19 and 20 (since Jordan wasn't in the league at that age) and the two actually tie at age 21. But then Jordan wins every year after that. In fact, LeBron's best year after age 21 doesn't even beat Jordan's worst.

And Jordan's points did decrease as his career went along, especially when he got into his 30s. So it'll be interesting to see how long LeBron can play at the top of his game before it starts to deteriorate too. If he can keep it up into his 30s, that "Not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4" doesn't sound much like a joke anymore.

Name: Chris R. • Saturday, June 29, 2013

Great article. But the reason I hate using the scoring arguments in the MJ vs Lebron debates is because MJ was a scorer, period. That's what he did, and the data doesn't represent how many 45 point games he had with 2 rebounds and 1 assist.

It also doesn't take into consideration things like when Lebron scores 30 points it typically comes really close to a triple double on a nightly basis. It also doesn't take into consideration that Lebron is a facilitator and has no interest in trying to score 40 points per game but does anyone really doubt that he could if he wanted to?

He's not like Jordan or Kobe. He just isn't a scorer at heart. He likes to get everyone involved and get his within the flow of the game but if he truly wanted to he could average 40 points a game in the regular season with how good his jump shot has evolved and nobody can still stop him from driving.

Prime example: In the 92-93 season Jordan attempted over 2,000 field goals. So of course he averaged 32.6 ppg with that volume of attempts.

Now in 2011-2012 Lebron attempted 1100 shots, and he averaged 30.3 ppg. Now what's more impressive? What would Lebron have averaged with an additional 900 shots for a high efficiency inside shooter?

All of this is too often forgotten in the discussion too many times, so it'll always seem unfair and looking at stats alone will never give the whole story. As it is, Lebron will go down as one of the best players in the history of the game so I'm fine with that. These next 5 years will really position him on the all time ranks because they are his prime dominant years so if he can get 2 more in 5 I think he'll be in the top 5 of all-time.

Name: Kevin • Monday, July 1, 2013

I agree that simply using scoring doesn't tell the entire story. That's why I used a statistic called the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for the last two plots.

PER accounts for a lot more than just scoring. It takes into account positive accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative ones, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls.

In the 92-93 regular season, Jordan had a PER of 29.7. In 2011-12 beat him with LeBron a PER of 30.7. So you see that PER does reward a player for being efficient with his shots, not just scoring a lot.

Although PER isn't perfect (a single stat rarely is) it's the best statistic we have that measures how efficient a player is in all aspects of the game. So I do think from a statistical perspective it's as fair of a comparison as we can get.

Name: Casey • Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jordan was just a scorer? how about the most lockdown defensive player of all time. there are 4 NBA seasons where a player had 200 steals and 100 blocks, Jordan has 2 of them(Pippen and Olajawon are the others. Lebron has never had 200 steals or 100 blocks. case closed.

Name: Kevin • Friday, July 12, 2013

Of course Jordan was more than just a scorer. That's why after looking at scoring, I switched to the Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

PER accounts for a lot more than just scoring. It takes into account positive accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative ones, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls.

And of course Jordan's PER was consistently higher than LeBron's, showing that he is the more complete player.

Name: herb • Thursday, July 18, 2013

jordan scored because he had 2 score,, he had 2 carry the offence and be 1st team defense his entire career ... lebron left cleveland because he couldnt handle that burden ...

Name: bawler • Thursday, July 18, 2013

One way to look at it is age. Lebron was doing more in the NBA than mike was in college at age 19. Also lebron has more rings MVPS ECT than mike did at age 28. Both teams needed superstars to help win, both teams lost when a superstar played with them. (Mike with pippen first year, lebron with wade first year). But the issue with years in the league is your comparing a 19 year old with a 21 year old, seems a tad unfair? There really isn't a best way to do this though because also take into account stats like AST and REB, those are very important. they started such different times.

Name: Yasser hussein • Wednesday, November 13, 2013

m23--he was good player but when you talk about king lebron ,,,omg hes unique and he is the best player ever in NBA

Name: John • Sunday, December 1, 2013

Nice article. I agree with most of the commentors, stats don't tell the full story. It is also unfair to include only stats that favor the player that is clearly preferred by the author. LeBron has twice as many triple doubles as Jordan, and his career is only half over. You also fail to show that Jordan was a turnover machine; he led the league in turnovers twice. You give the the PER way too much credit and expect your audience to take your word as to its accuracy in displaying a player's worth. I suggest you use PIE, the NBA considers it the most useful stat in gauging a players worth on the court; the stat is even used to predict the league MVP. I just don't think PER reflects a players worth as much as it does their "efficiency." It is no secret that LJ has a higher FG%; it is no secret that LJ is a better 3 point shooter; it is no secret that LJ averages more blocks, rebounds, and assists than MJ. Your confidence in the PER is outrageous and clearly unbased, I don't believe you even understand it. The only arguments for Jordan are points and championships, both of which are very subjective in debate, and are heavily influenced by the conditions of the league at the time. If you believe that you have made some sort of break through in the LeBron versus Jordan debate, you are sorely mistaken.

Name: BryanP • Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Get your facts straight John. LeBron is the turnover machine. MJ only avgd 2.7 TOs compared to LeBrons 3.3 on career stats.

Name: Eduardo • Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I think anyone that saw MJ's shows in the 90's, think he's the GOAT. He was simply unstoppable. The whole world knew he was going to shoot the ball, still the opposition couldn't handle him. Lebron is great, I have a lot of fun watching his games, but he never got me out of my seat like Jordan did.

Name: Ryan • Friday, February 7, 2014

Comparing these two incredible athletes by age is not the best. LeBron has had more time in the NBA and Jordan had an injury lost season.

Comparing by the first 10 years is even an advantage to LeBron since Jordan basically has 2 seasons where he didn't play the complete season (injury and return from retirement). One area that hasn't been discussed so far is durability. Jordan played the full 82 game schedule 5 times in his first 10 seasons whereas LeBron has never once accomplished that. LeBron may be the better rebounder, but I would rather take Jordan's 2.5 Steals/game and 1.0 Block/game in his first 10 seasons to the rebounding.

My bottom line comparison is always this hypothetical situation. If you're coaching a team that's playing in Game 7 of the Finals for all the marbles, and you get to draft ONE player, who's your guy? Jordan or LeBron?

It was MJ's heart and soul that separated him from the elite players. It was that killer instinct. That's what people seem to forget. I heard it best when someone said, "you'd have to rip Michael's heart out and and drag him off the floor to beat him." Whereas, we've seen LeBron crumble twice in the Finals and have to be saved by Ray Allen in Game 6 of 2013 to get his second ring. When LeBron took that game-tying three just a few seconds before Ray, he missed. A lucky bounce fell in the Heat's favor and a clutch Ray Allen knocked it down.

LeBron may go down someday as the best all-around statistical phenomenon the NBA has ever seen. However, Oscar Robertson had insane statistical numbers, but no one puts him in the GOAT conversation. LeBron is still missing that one ingredient necessary to be the GOAT: the undeniable soul of a champion.

Name: darcanjhell • Sunday, March 16, 2014

With all the talk about LeBron James‘ current run of five straight games of 30 points at the 70% clip and how it may be the best stretch of games in NBA history – some may have forgotten Michael Jordan‘s insane run of triple-doubles during the 1988-89 season.

In an experimental move by head coach Doug Collins, the Bulls moved Jordan to point guard for part of the season and as only Jordan can, he responded with 10 triples doubles in 11 games.

Jordan didn't want to be viewed exclusively as a scorer. His defensive skills were as sharp, if not as flashy, and he became the first player in NBA history to win Defensive Player of the Year and MVP awards in the same year when he did it in 1988. He's one of the all-time leaders in steals and set records for a guard with blocked shots.

Hope this will help to enlighten some fans there for the comparison.

Name: Ercan Sabancı • Saturday, August 9, 2014

What ever it takes lebron will have more points, assits, rebounds than Mj because he has passion and power to do!

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