“He won 6 rings! He beat a 73 win team! He played in a different era!” The list goes on and on with arguments from fans debating who the greatest of all time (GOAT) is. Nobody is questioning if Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the two best players in NBA history. What everyone wants to know is, who is the better player?
I don’t want to hear about the rings. Basketball is a team sport. Teams are made up of players. This debate is about who is the best player is at the end of the day. Who do you want to run your team? Who is going to make their team better? Who is the greatest player of all time?
Stats aren’t going to tell the whole story here. The two players played in different environments, different time periods, different situations. There’s no way to simply line up the stats and see who came out on top. Taking a combination of stats, game tape, and understanding, we will take a deeper look into who the better player really is. But enough blabbering from me, let’s get to it.
As everyone knows, LeBron James is an absolute freak of nature. At 6’8” 250 lbs, LeBron out-muscles and out-bodies smaller players almost every play. LeBron uses all of his dazzling 7’0” wingspan on both sides of the ball. Despite being 250 lbs, LeBron has deceptive speed and simply drives past defenders who are big enough to match up with his size.
There’s no scarier sight than seeing LeBron come down the court in transition with a full head of steam. LeBron’s battering-ram style of play is a perfect complement to his insane body. LeBron treats his body like a temple. Despite the punishing hits he has endured, he has only played less than 70 games twice, the lowest being 62 games. An unreal combination of size, athleticism, and power, it’s an absolute testament to the generational player LeBron is.
While LeBron’s is a godly athlete, Jordan was a phenomenal athlete in his own right. At 6’6” 216 lbs with a 6’11” wingspan, Jordan had tremendous size for the shooting guard position. Jordan was a speed demon if there ever was one. He terrified teams with his tantalizing combination of speed, quickness, and agility. Factor in his jaw-dropping 48 inch vertical (highest in NBA history), and yeah, he was a freak athlete. You may have heard the nickname, ‘His Airness.’
This sprouted from his ridiculous 0.92 second hang time. Jordan seemed to stay in the air for an eternity. Much like LeBron, Jordan’s physical profile is a perfect compliment to his playing style. Jordan had the athleticism to move without the ball and get to his spots. Or he could simply decide to attack the basket at will. Unfortunately for Jordan, he did not have the same durability that LeBron possesses. Jordan sustained multiple long-term injuries and did not have the same longevity that LeBron has. This, however, does not take away from Jordan’s fabulous physical profile, which is very underrated in this debate.
Here is where it gets interesting. Jordan is widely considered the greatest scorer of all time, while this may be true, LeBron carries mouth watering scoring ability on his own. LeBron is undoubtedly the greatest finisher of all time. Although he has the ability to take the ball to the rim every play, LeBron still possesses a very strong mid-range game, especially from the post. Starting out with 2-point shooting, the numbers tell an interesting story. Mr. James has shot 54.7 2P% on his 15.5 2PAs for a total of 17.0 PPG. That 54.7 2P% actually outweighs Jordan’s 51.0%. It’s easy to conclude that LeBron is easily the more efficient one within in 3 point arc.
The other side of the coin is Jordan’s 21.2 2PAs for 21.6 PPG. Jordan took on a larger workload inside the arc. Much like LeBron, Jordan loved to attack the rim, using his insane athleticism to finish through contact at a prodigious rate. Jordan loved the mid-range, especially in the post where he dusted opponents 1 on 1 time and time again. While LeBron is more efficient in the 2-point range, Jordan got more buckets in that area. Jordan averaged 5.8 more 2PA, which explains the drop in 2P%. Jordan’s used his athleticism on one-dribble pull ups to hit tough shots time and time again. While LeBron is the more efficient one inside the arc, Jordan was able to create shots and knock them down at a more prodigious rate.
Now we step to 3 point shooting. There’s really no contest here, LeBron James is easily the better 3-point shooter. While James is by no metric considered a knock down 3-point shooter, he has always been solid behind the arc and at times has even shown the ability to hit from serious range. LeBron’s 34.4 3P% on 4.1 3PA severely outweighs Jordan’s 32.7 3P% on 1.7 3PA. And let’s not forget, Jordan received the benefit of playing with a (2 feet) shorter 3-point line during 2 of his seasons. No question here about who is better…moving on!
LeBron James is an artist at getting to the free throw line. Well not an artist, more like a raging rhino. LeBron bullies through contact getting to the line at will, showcased by his elite 8.1 FTAs. When he gets there he shoots at a solid, but unspectacular 73.9 FT%. The thought of LeBron heading straight to the rack terrifies opposing teams. They are forced to either foul him or simply let him dunk.
What you may be surprised by is that Jordan averaged 8.2 FTA, which barely edged out LeBron’s 8.1 FTA. Jordan hit his freebies at a much healthier 83.5 FT%. While LeBron got to the free throw line at will, Jordan was just as adept at getting to the charity stripe. Jordan relentlessly attacked the basket. He used his unworldly athleticism to get to the rim and finish at the basket or get fouled. Numbers don’t lie, well sometimes they do, but in this case, it’s clear, Jordan has the advantage at the free throw stripe.
After breaking down each aspect of scoring, the main question remains. Who is the better scorer? Efficiency is fantastic. LeBron’s efficiency over the years speaks volumes to the type of all-around player he is. Unfortunately, efficiency in itself doesn’t make you a better scorer.
Michael Jordan got buckets. Jordan could score at will, as he averaged 30.1 PPG for his career, a whole 2.9 PPG higher than LeBron’s 27.2 PPG. However, those 2.9 PPG took a whole extra 3.3 FGA. While the bump in FG% between the two players is not too significant, you see the major difference in effective field goal percentage (eFG%). LeBron boosts a 54.0 eFG% which towers over Jordan’s 50.9 eFG%.
Yeah so, what does it all mean? Starting with eFG%, LeBron’s 3 ball prowess is valued more heavily, showing how LeBron took less efficient shots (3 pointers) and shot a more efficient rate than Jordan. Jordan dropped insane PPG totals season after season. The qualitative argument is simple, Jordan took more shots and scored more points.
LeBron has been one to get his teammates involved and be as much a playmaker as a scorer. There is a legitimate argument to be made that if LeBron took on a scoring role as Jordan did, he would average the same scoring numbers. But don’t just take my word for it, take a look at some of LeBron’s playoff runs you see what he can do with an increased workload.
Take a look at the comparisons and you see exactly what I’m talking about. When the shot attempts increase, LeBron responds with flying colors. The points per game spike at a prodigious rate while his efficiency remains intact. While Jordan may have put up ridiculous scoring numbers, LeBron would be able to replicate that with the same amount of FGA.
There’s almost no contest as to who the better passer is. LeBron James is one of the greatest passers of all time. He is debatably the best passer in the NBA right now and is without a doubt the best passing forward all of time. What makes James indispensable is his cross courting passing. He has the strength to make impossible passes across the court that most players simply can’t make. LeBron’s career 7.2 APG mark does not tell the whole story.
There’s an argument to be made that if he focused on being more of a playmaker than a scorer he would average 10.0+ APG every season. The one thing nobody can take away from LeBron is his basketball IQ. A student of the game, James always makes the smart play.
Do not be fooled, however. Jordan was a very solid passer in his own right. Jordan averaged a solid 5.3 APG. He used his fantastic basketball IQ to hit open teammates when he would be doubled teamed by defenders. And as everyone knows, he picked up that double quite often. Jordan was never anywhere close to LeBron as a passer but was still more than capable.
King James is nightly threat to go off for a triple-double. Points, assists, and rebounds. Yeah, rebounds. That thing where someone grabs the ball when someone else misses, LeBron was pretty good at that. He has a career hold of 7.4 RPG and once again there is a case to be made that if LeBron played center he would average 10.0+ RPG.
LeBron out muscles players and pulls down rebounds at a prodigious rate. The rebounds are especially helpful because once he grabs a rebound he is fantastic at making outlet passes or simply pushing the ball in transition using his point forward skills.
Wanna hear something crazy? Michael Jordan averaged more offensive rebounds per game than LeBron. No, seriously. Jordan’s 1.6 ORPG out hashed LeBron’s 1.2 ORPG. Jordan’s rebounding prowess goes very underrated. He averaged a very solid 6.2 RPG for his career. Jordan used his length and eye-popping jumping ability to grab rebounds at a solid rate.
LeBron has slid into the power forward and at times center position. As a result, he has had to rebound over larger players than Jordan ever had to. While it is close, LeBron gets the edge as the better rebounder due to that fact alone.
Here is where it gets a little tricky. In his prime, King James was the best defender in the NBA. He had the ability to lock down any player in the league. While LeBron has struggled the last few years with his defense, he always seems to return to an elite level in the playoffs. LeBron has the versatility to defend all 5 positions in the NBA in addition to being a fantastic help defender.
The most important characteristic of LeBron’s defense is his role as the defensive captain. While on the court, he sends out assignments, directs his players, and acts as the main communicator, this greatly boosts the production of his defense.
‘His Airness’ was scary on defense. Jordan would absolutely lock up any player at his position one on one and effectively render the player useless. Jordan used his combination of IQ, length, and lateral quickness to keep his man in front of him as well pile up steals in a hurry as evident by his career 2.3 SPG mark. In case you were wondering, Jordan ranks 3rd in all-time steals.
While Jordan has a case as a better one on one defender, but LeBron gets the slight edge in this category. As the Golden State Warriors have shown, help defense is the best way to play. Despite having weak links in their defense, they still end up at the top almost every year in defensive efficiency due to their fantastic help defense and employing defensive captain Draymond Green out there.
Having LeBron James on your team does not only give you a versatile lockdown defender but gives you that defensive captain that will boost your defense as a whole.
Players can put up huge numbers all season, but in the end, it comes down to if the stars perform big, in big moments. Sufficeth to say, LeBron goes hard in clutch time. In LeBron’s career, he has played in 21 elimination games. In those games, LeBron has put up averages of 34.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, and 7.5 APG on 48.9 FG%. If LeBron goes down, he goes down swinging.
In big moments LeBron comes out aggressive and ready to win. He also plays almost every minute averaging a serious 45.1 MPG in those elimination games. LeBron hits big shots in the clutch and has only seemed to get stronger in that regard as time has gone on.
Deciding between Jordan and LeBron in the clutch is like asking, “should I should drive a Porsche or a Maserati?” Michael Jordan could easily be the most clutch player of all time. Jordan averaged a staggering 31.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 7.0 APG on 44.5 FG% in game 7s. Jordan stepped up big when his team needed it the most. He had a killer instinct that put the fear of god into opposing players’ hearts. If the game was on the line, you knew Jordan was ready to hit the game-winning shot.
If you asked me a few years ago, it was easy. “MJ is the most clutch player of all time,” I would say. But the numbers speak for themselves, LeBron puts up enormous games when it counts and hit big shots when they were needed. LeBron has not lost a game 7 since 2008. LeBron has made this aspect tough, he steps up in the clutch putting himself in the same tier as MJ.
This is one of LeBron’s most important traits. Leadership is one of the most underrated facets of basketball. LeBron is a natural born leader. Off the court LeBron rallies his team together, motivating his team in the huddle and in the locker room with his powerful words. On the court, LeBron directs his players and puts them in ideal roles to maximize efficiency.
LeBron’s leadership boosts the overall productivity of his team on both sides of the ball. J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, Chris Anderson. The list goes on and on of players that went from nothing to impact players while playing with LeBron James. LeBron is one of the best leaders in NBA history and has shown its effect year after year.
Michael Jordan was a leader in the truest sense of the word. He was the best player and statistical leader of the Chicago Bulls. His elite play opened up opportunities and elevated the production of his teammates. Jordan was not the same vocal leader that LeBron is, but his hard work, competitive spirit, and incredible talent allowed him to lead by example.
It’s quite obvious to everyone, LeBron is the better leader of the two. Having LeBron on your team is equivalent to having one of the best coaches out there on the court with you. The difference is someone isn’t just telling you what to do, but rather showing you. LeBron’s leadership may be the crux of this argument, as this has elevated his teams to a whole new level, something Jordan could not do the same to the same effect.
Lebron James: 14x All-Star, 1x Scoring Champion, 3x NBA Champion,14x All-NBA, 6x All-Defensive Team, 04’ All-Rookie Team, 04’ ROY, 3x All-Star MVP, 3x Finals MVP, 4x MVP.
Michael Jordan: 14x All-Star, 10x Scoring Champion, 3x Steals Champion, 6x NBA Champ, 11x All-NBA, 9x All-Defensive Team, 85’ All-Rookie Team, 85’ ROY, 3x All-Star MVP, 1x DPOY, 6x Finals MVP, 5x MVP.
This is one of the toughest debates in sports history for a reason. Michael Jordan was considered the greatest basketball player in history for a majority of the 21st century, but LeBron has certainly made his mark.
Simply lining up the accolades and stats will not tell you who the better player is. Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals while LeBron holds a pedestrian 3-6 record. As I said before, basketball is a team sport. While LeBron has constantly put his best foot forward, his team has let him down. LeBron has played in the Finals with three of the worst supporting casts in NBA history. Those three teams that would not have even sniffed the playoffs without the bonafide superstar.
What is constantly overlooked is that LeBron has made the NBA Finals in 8 consecutive seasons. That in itself is quite an impressive mark. It has come to the point that everyone takes LeBron getting to the Finals for granted. LeBron James is the only player that you can put on any team in the NBA and automatically consider them title contenders. That speaks volumes to not only how good he is, but the caliber of his impact on his teams.
These are two players that played in two different eras. While Michael Jordan played in an era with much more hand checking and tough physical play, I believe LeBron had it tougher. LeBron has been playing in the era of spacing and help defense. Floor spacing and shooting are invaluable nowadays, teams place 4 and sometimes 5 three point shooters on the floor.
As a result, teams often have smaller lineups and counter the height on defense by doubling and playing tremendous help defense. While LeBron has had the benefit of playing with tremendous floor spacing, he has also felt the effects of constant double, triple teams. This is something Jordan did not burden himself with so heavily.
To me it’s clear. When asking who the better player is, there’s only one right choice. LeBron James outweighs Michael Jordan in such crucial aspects. LeBron’s all-around play and strong leadership fit the bill. I am not saying because LeBron is better all-around he is a better player. I truly believe if LeBron got the shot attempts Jordan did he would be putting up the same ridiculous scoring totals.
LeBron’s leadership and ability to elevate his team absolutely surpasses Jordan’s. The most astonishing thing that nobody seems to take into consideration is LeBron’s longevity. Despite his advanced age (33), LeBron has only seemed to get better year after year, never getting hurt and playing at an elite level every night. LeBron has seemingly learned from his mistakes as well. He plays with more maturity and poise and does not the same mistakes he did when he was younger.
The question comes down to who the G.O.A.T is. Who would you rather have on your team?
I will have one King James.