The King vs His Air-ness. LBJ vs MJ. Sounds like a heavyweight fight. It’s actually the most triggering event in NBA history; the LeBron vs Jordan debate. Of all the players that have ever tried to establish themselves as the GOAT, none have been more dominant players than LeBron James and Michael Jordan. One is regarded as the undisputed and unquestioned GOAT pre-2018, the other has been so dominant for so long that he has earned his spot in the conversation. This is a 3-part series in which I am going to do my best to tackle this debate and use every resource available.
In this debate, I will not be including anything off the court that these two have done; good or bad. This means clothing/shoe branding, movie roles, rumored gambling scandals, etc. will be null and void points in this argument. This debate is strictly basketball; stats, performances, competition, etc. Throughout this debate, I am going to often address certain things that each fan base will cry out whenever a point is made for/against their guy; Jordan retiring twice, LeBron/Jordan not having any help, LeBron/Jordan didn’t play against anybody good, etc.
To start this debate, I might as well begin with the individual statistics: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. These are numbers controlled completely by individual play; “6-0 in the Finals” will not be brought up here Jordan fans. Sorry, not sorry. The banners in Chicago say “Chicago Bulls” in big font, not Michael Jordan; it’s a team achievement.
Fans of basketball know how these two players can dominate a game by putting the ball in the hoop. Both are incredible athletes. Both are gifted with scoring ability. And yet, they do it in different ways. Jordan’s shooting motion appears more fluid while James’ motion seems more rigid and stiff. And when attacking the rim, if they aren’t posterizing some poor soul with a highlight reel dunk, they’re able to finish difficult shots, but again in different ways; Jordan’s finishing looks smooth and silky while James’ unquestionable strength and size allow him to put enough space between him and the defender to finish a shot at the rim. But which player was the better scorer?
At the current rate, LeBron James will pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. Jordan currently has 32,292 while LeBron has 31,038. I hear you Jordan die-hards: “Jordan didn’t play 2 seasons because of baseball! He totally would have more!” Fair enough. After looking at Jordan’s per game averages through the first three-peat and second three-peat seasons, his per game scoring average can be assumed to be about 30 ppg. Let’s do some math.
Jordan played 17 games in the 1994-95 season making his way back but was clearly rusty as he averaged about 26 ppg in that span. So, for the 1993-94 and 94-95 seasons, I am going to assume he would’ve played about 80 of the 82 games in each season; his games per season fluctuated between 78 and 82 in seasons leading up to the 93-94 season. After some quick math (30 x 160), theoretically, Jordan would have added approximately 4,800 points to his career total. That still would not make Jordan the all-time leader in points scored at about 37,000; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would still be the leader at 38,387.
Jordan also missed the next three seasons after the second three-peat due to retirement. While we can assume his per game scoring average slope for each season had he not retired, it’s a little more difficult to project Jordan’s games per season during that span as he got older and grew more injury prone; it is astounding, however, that he played the entire 82 game season during his final year with the Washington Wizards. It is safe to say that had Jordan not retired at all until 2003, Jordan would be pretty close to Kareem’s tally by the end of his career.
LeBron James, at 33 years old, is currently 7th on the all-time scoring list behind Dirk Nowitzki (who is amazingly enough still playing). Should he retire at the same age Jordan did (39), LeBron would have to average about 1,125 points a season to reach Kareem; that’s about 15 points per game across an 82 game season (assuming he plays every game). Having averaged between 25 and 30 points per game during his prime, LeBron is capable of topping Kareem and, in theory, Jordan in the scoring department, barring any injury.
A major difference between these two titans of basketball in regards to scoring is their efficiency. Jordan averaged 49.7% from the field for his career on an average of 22.9 shots taken per game. James averaged 50.4% from the field on 19.6 shots taken per game. So for every shot James took, Jordan took three more. Speaking of three…
From the three-point line, Jordan once shot 42.7% in an 82 game season, a feat James has not been able to hit yet (James’ current highest season percentage is 40.6%). However, across their entire careers, James holds the higher career average at 34.4% while Jordan is at 32.7%. The argument for Jordan here would be that the three-point shot wasn’t as utilized or important in the 80s and 90s as it is today.
Jordan’s deep range season averages were below 32% for 11 of his 14 full seasons. Jordan often fluctuated between 15% and 30% from deep; his first 5 seasons, he shot below 28% from downtown. James’ lowest season three-point average was in his rookie season of 29%; James has yet to average below 30% since. While James has attempted plenty more three-pointers, it remains that he is more efficient from deep than Jordan; clearly, Jordan knew it was not his biggest strength.
Probably the biggest critique of James’ scoring game is his free throw shooting. James, for his career, has averaged 73.9% at the charity stripe; his highest percentage for a season was 78% in the 2008-09 season. Meanwhile, Jordan only averaged sub-80% for a season twice out of his 15 seasons; Jordan averaged 83.5% for his career from the free throw line.
James has the higher career true shooting percentage of 58.6% while Jordan is at 56.9%. James’ highest season TS% came in 2012-13 with 64.9%; Jordan’s highest was 60.6% in 1989-90.
At 33-years-old, James is the all-time leader in points scored in the postseason. With more postseasons to come for James, it’s safe to say he will put plenty of distance between him and second place on the all-time playoff scoring list; Michael Jordan. Both of these players got their first playoff experience at age 21, but the one thing James has over Jordan in the playoffs is that he never got knocked out in the first round. Similarly, Jordan can say he’s never had to play a Game 7 in the Finals. The point remains, James has carried the offensive load for his teams as well if not better than Jordan has, and that’s just on scoring. I haven’t even gotten to their overall game yet.
Once again, Jordan die-hards, I hear you: “two seasons missed because of baseball!” To adjust his career playoff points total would require me to know how many games he would have played, not if he would’ve made it to the Finals those postseasons. And as much as we’d all like to believe he would’ve won those Finals to make it eight straight, there really is no way of knowing how the playoff picture would’ve looked for both conferences and if Houston would’ve still been in the Finals both those years having faced Jordan’s Bulls during the season; we also don’t know how Jordan’s teams would’ve fared against Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets.
It is safe to assume Jordan would’ve made it to at least the conference finals those postseasons playing somewhere between 16 and 22 games averaging 30-35 points a game based on his first three-peat runs; much more difficult to say how many points Jordan could’ve added to his playoff tally. For the sake of the argument, we’ll say he would’ve played 19 games each postseason averaging 32.5 points per game. That comes out to around 618 points added to Jordan’s playoff points total of around 6,600. James would still be the current leader at 6,911.
It is worth noting that Jordan averaged more points per game in his postseason career with 33.4 (James a respectable 28.9). James simply hadn’t been knocked out in the first round his first 3 postseasons and therefore had longer postseasons than Jordan. In the Finals, however, Jordan averaged five more points than LeBron throughout their Finals career; Jordan’s 33.5 > James’ 28.3. Jordan also shot at a higher percentage (MJ’s 48.5% > LBJ’s 47.9%). As we also know, James has been to three more Finals, which leaves him with a larger sample size than Jordan.
To keep the sample size even and compare them at their best, I can take away James’ three lowest Finals scoring averages; 25.3 points against the Spurs (2013), 17.8 points against the Maericks (2011), and 22 points against the Spurs (2007). James would then have averaged 31.7 points in the Finals at 50.4% shooting; that is including his 39.8% shooting in the 2015 Finals against the Warriors.
These scoring outputs by both of these players would help earn them Finals MVP for every year they helped their team to a championship win. However, when it comes to scoring, Jordan is the more reliable option when it counts and the numbers show. But as we should also know, there’s more to basketball than just scoring.
I decided to cover the other remaining major stats in one section because if anyone has ever debated this topic before, they should already know. Numbers favor LeBron James. While Jordan tries to drop 40 points every night, LeBron tries to drop 25 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds every night. Jordan wasn’t known for stat-stuffing the box score. And with almost identical PER (MJ: 27.9; LBJ: 27.7), it pretty much comes down to the other major statistics.
James is currently 11th all-time in assists, while Jordan is 44th all-time. LeBron James: 59th all-time in rebounds; Michael Jordan: 126th all-time. James isn’t far behind Jordan in career blocks and will surely pass him up this upcoming season (Jordan: 893; James: 888). James has an advantage in almost every major statistical category.
The category Jordan has a noticeable edge over James is in the steals category; Jordan is 3rd all-time while LeBron is 16th by a good margin. For LeBron to catch Jordan in that category, and assuming James would play 82 games per season, he would have to average 1.3 steals per game until he’s 39 (the age Jordan retired). In fact, that is where the overall game debate gets interesting.
Jordan has won Defensive Player of the Year (DPotY) honors. James has not. Jordan has been named to NBA All-Defensive Teams nine times, LeBron James has been named to six. While I find it debatable that James was robbed of DPotY honors in 2012-13, the fact remains that Jordan, across an 82 game season, did not ease up on the defensive side of the ball.
In recent memory, LeBron James has been seen giving minimal, or not his best, effort on defense with the mindset of saving his energy for the postseason. DPotY is almost always given to the league leader in blocks (usually a center), so it is impressive when a non-center who doesn’t lead the league in blocks receives this award, as Jordan did.
Postseason Overall Game
As for their postseason play, their averages are very similar to their career regular season averages. The only noticeable differences to be seen are that Jordan averaged three more points while James averaged almost two more rebounds in the playoffs. Other than that, their stats are mostly the same. During the Finals, both Jordan and James would average another rebound more than their postseason averages; their other Finals’ stats are consistent with their postseason stats across the board as well.
Given all the important data I have just laid out, I can safely say Jordan was the better scorer. This comes as no surprise as Jordan’s game was predicated on volume of shots rather than efficiency. James’ high IQ tells him to take the most efficient shot for him; he knows his game and won’t compromise his team with a selfish play. While James is often the best scoring option on his team, his Magic Johnson-like mentality of getting his teammates involved prevents him from being a volume shooter.
With all that being said, LeBron James still has at least four more years of NBA basketball ahead of him to climb the all-time lists. James’ size, skill, athleticism and talent make him the most well-equipped individual to have ever played the game of basketball. And the numbers haven’t lied. As far as an all-around game goes, LeBron James is the better player… according to the numbers.