I’m here to make the case that Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan.  Viewing history through logic and data vs the skewed rosy lenses left behind from fans’ emotional journeys.  This piece is a tad lengthy but if you really want to get to the bottom of this debate, it is worth the read.

Warning:  If you still think the GOAT argument does not revolve around these two players, this level of rationality will only confuse and upset you.  You may be past the point of saving.

Quick agenda:

  • Ring Metric Commentary:  Before diving head first into the LBJ-MJ debate, need to start with a quick math lesson
  • The Numbers:  We will take a journey though the most accurate, yet still 80/20, individual stats comparison between the two greats
  • Outside the Numbers:  We bring the comparison full circle by adding in factors not covered by the stats comparison
    • Awards that matter
    • The power of offensive and defensive versatility
    • What athleticism brings to the conversation
    • The 90s NBA vs today’s league
    • Coach and supporting cast impact

I. Ring Metric Commentary

Apologies in advance but this piece needed to start with a quick statistics chat.  Pull through it, I have faith in you.

Math is great because it takes opinions out of the equation.  In high school English you can ace a paper you think is average and get a sub par grade on one you think is your best paper ever, while in math the right answer cannot be argued.  It is one of the few areas of certainty we have in this world and making a mockery of it is all too common.

This leads me to the ring metric and the absurd weight the media and fans place on it.  I’m not saying you cannot use it, but to have it be the end all be all, to have it be the metric, for me to hear statements on TV like, “LBJ won’t be better than MJ unless he gets the same number of rings”…it drives me to the brink of insanity.  Some are able to see the obvious examples of its flaws, e.g. the general consensus that MJ was better than Bill Russell and Robert Horry, the fact that Barkley never won a Championship, etc… but overall too few realize the dynamics of a TEAM GAME and all the variables that contribute to success in the postseason.

It’s already difficult to compare players.  That is something that will have statistical flaws no matter what…but the key is to use metrics that are most tied to what you are measuring and the least influenced by irrelevant nonsense.  Can we please not have the primary metric in the GOAT debate be the one that is most exposed to the ~11 other players on a player’s team, their offensive capabilities/fit, their ability to defend individually and as a unit, their health, the strength of the head coach and support staff (e.g. the effectiveness of competitive research, formulation of winning game plans, effectiveness of in-game calls/maneuvers, etc.), and the shrewdness of management in working the Draft, executing trades, etc?  That's actually being too generous, let's go ahead and multiple all of those variables by four for each of the four teams faced in the Playoffs...how well those things are clicking for opponents also influences postseason success.  I won't bash the metric much further, but just know the regular season/all the teams outside of the playoffs also influences flossing that jewelry...overall point is the ring metric simply has too many contributing variables to be the metric in crowning an individual player…go ahead and use it but mind how big of a role it plays…there is no way it should be used more so than individual stats and awards, that is a mathematical fact my friends.

 II. The Numbers

I believe I’ve heard both Chuck and Shaq say, “Analytics shmanalytics”.  Kenny you seem to have a little more sense than those two, help your boys out.

Stats are an imperfect description of in-game occurrences.  They have their deficiencies (e.g. the value of a defensive rim protector scaring opponents from attacking the paint may not show up well in stats) and that is why they need to be compensated with qualitative commentary, but they do speak to some of the most critical aspects of the game (scoring, rebounding, assisting, yada yada).  In breaking down the game of basketball, using the numbers as a base and adding subjective color on top is as good as it gets folks.  Analytics can consider heaps of data over time vs. Chuck relying on his limited memory/processing power and internal bias to arrive at conclusions. 

With that, let’s use a data-driven approach to initiate and ground the LBJ-MJ debate.  My analysis is 80/20 in some respects, i.e. some shortcuts were taken to save on time if the value in taking the analysis further was minimal.  After establishing the data cornerstone I will discuss the value that sits outside of the numbers…cool Chuck?

One struggle we have in comparing players is assigning value to stats that are not points.  If someone averages 26 points per game (ppg) and 12 assists (apg), while someone else averages 35ppg and 5apg, who created more value?  How valuable is an assist vs. a point? 

The first step of my analysis translates all of the key stats (points, rebounds, assists, turnovers, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage) into points using play by play data (leveraging 2012-13 data from basketballreference.com...ideally you would use data from all of the seasons MJ and Lebron played, but one season of data should work well enough for these assumptions).  This involves calculating how many points the other metrics were worth on average and then applying their worth in points to a player's 'per game' stats...this allows you to add up all of their stats into one 'points per game' metric, which I shall call TFppg or Total Factor Points Per Game (e.g. if a player averages 10 points and 5 rebounds per game and rebounds are worth 1 point, then that player would average 15 TFppg).

Point value of rebounds:  I calculated how many points a rebound led to on average, i.e. how many points on average were scored in the play directly after a rebound.  I found rebounds were worth ~0.67 points, because out of ~131K rebounds, ~89K led to no points right after, ~3K led to one point (foul shot), ~31K led to two points (foul shots or 2 pointers), and ~7K led to three points, for a weighted average of ~0.67 points per rebound.  If we give half of the credit of the ~0.67 points to the rebounder and half to the person who scored the subsequent point(s), this leaves 1 rebound being worth ~0.33 points.

Point value of steals:  ~12K steals led to no points, ~7K led to two points, and ~1K led to three points…leaving a weighted average of ~0.85 points per steal.  If we give half of the credit of the ~0.85 points to the stealer and half to the person who scored the subsequent point(s), this leaves 1 steal being worth ~0.42 points.

You get the idea here.  I'll put the rest of the methodology at the end.  Field goal % and free throw % may be worth a look as they are the more confusing stats to work with...in short I treated missed shots as lost scoring opportunities (if a player is more inefficient, he wastes more possessions that may have generated points otherwise).  Drops in shooting percentages equate to negative points per game and affect Lebron and MJ in equal fashion, which is most important as at the end we will be simply comparing one total to the other.

Okay now to put the TFppg metric to use!  I’m only comparing 12 seasons of Lebron’s stats (2003-04 to 2014-15) to 12 seasons of Jordan’s stats (1984-85 to 1996-97) as it is important to exclude Jordan’s latter years to ensure an apples to apples comparison.

Lebron’s TFppg clocks in at 26.5 and Jordan’s at 28.1, a ~1.6 ppg differential.  Fortunately the 1.6ppg can be taken literally with this methodology…this says that MJ scored or led to a little less than one more basket per game compared to LBJ.

 Created by - Ariaya Haile | Data from www.basketballreference.com

Created by - Ariaya Haile | Data from www.basketballreference.com

Let’s now shed light on the realm outside of the numbers, where in totality Lebron eliminates MJ's razor thing lead.


III. Outside the Numbers

a) Awards that matter

To be clear, that matter refers not to the prestige of a certain award but to the usefulness of it in the context of this debate.  Here we look at individual awards that make the most statistical sense to tie in, i.e. are not too tainted (relatively) by too many underlying variables (relates to everything I said about the ring metric...another more incognito example would be the NBA finals MVP, which is contingent on winning the championship...perfect illustration of its flaws would be Lebron losing this award in 2015 after a historic performance). 

These awards are:  MVP, All-NBA selections, All-Defensive selections, and DPOY (scoring titles not included as it overlaps with TFppg and only considers scoring vs the portfolio of work).

12 seasons in:

  • Each had 4 MVPs
  • MJ had 9 All-NBA first team selections and 1 second team selection vs. Lebron’s 9 All-NBA first team selections and 2 second team selections
  • MJ had 8 All-Defensive first team selections vs. Lebron’s 5 first team selections and 1 second team selection.  MJ also won DPOY once.

They are equal in MVPs, Lebron has a slight edge in All-NBA team selections, and MJ has a definitive edge in All-Defensive team selections and DPOY.

Enjoy this last MJ plus, it is about to get 'real Lebron, real fast'.

b) The power of offensive and defensive versatility

Let’s start with defensive versatility value.

MJ was an excellent defender, one of the best perimeter defenders we have ever seen.  He won DPOY for a reason.  You cannot undermine his defensive prowess.

However Lebron is no slouch…he’s been second in voting twice for DPOY and it is ludicrous that he has not snagged the award at least once, if not twice…  Sticking to the players that one can guard, MJ lovers will at least have to admit that LBJ and MJ are comparable.  Even if you say MJ was better, you cannot sit here and say he was wayyyy better.   Now, what if I agreed with you?

I probably do…I think.  But note the distinction above, sticking to the players that one can guard.  When versatility is considered, the story actually flip flops.  Versatility actually represents my biggest criticism of the DPOY award...I don't think it is accounted for nearly enough.  Even if you say MJ is marginally better at the positions he guards, if you want to assign a DPOY and evaluate a player’s season long body of work, you have to look at how much defensive value they added, the whole season.  And that means every single game.  Let’s say MJ can stick to PGs and SGs like white on rice, what happens when they play a team where the best player is at the 4?  You can congratulate him for shutting down a player that was not the focal point of the offense...but you can actually put LBJ at the 4.

Lebron can play shut-down defense PG to PF, allow me remind you what he did to MVP D Rose in the playoffs crunch time, the same D Rose that was giving people the business...and can defend the 5 reasonably well, though is rarely asked to.  There are simply more games where he can be deployed to the best player…LBJ can arguably have double the number of games in a season vs MJ where his defensive value is allocated to the most pressing need.  That does not matter?  Come on now.  

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Zimbio

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Zimbio

Offensive versatility value.

There should be little argument here so I’ll try to keep it short, but that does not make it less important…this is actually one of LBJ’s bigger selling points.

1 through 5 on defense, check.  1 through 5 on offense, check.

LBJ is versatile enough to switch up his offensive style and position on the fly depending on what the defense gives him.  He can play the 4 down on the block, he can run the point and pass his a** off.  He can be that gung-ho scoring threat or the playmaker MJ could never be.  He quite literally can do almost everything well.

His offensive style and big-man PG abilities make all of the players around him better…this impact on the contributions of other players needs to factor into the influencer’s stat line.  People often cite him as the superstar any other superstar would love to play with…the shrewd CEO that delegates work efficiently and effectively.  There’s a reason why LBJ has done more with less.

All hail King Toggle…he can be MJ one day, Magic the next day, and Barkley in the post the day after.  In taking his injured Cavs to the Finals this past year, you could argue that he turned on all of the toggles at once, dropping 35.8 ppg, 8.8 apg, and 13.3 rpg like some superhuman Magic/MJ/Barkley hybrid.

c) What athleticism brings to the table

It’s not this simple but let’s say there are 3 components in being a great individual basketball player…skill, IQ, and athleticism.  LBJ and MJ are comparable in skill and for what MJ lacks in IQ relative to Lebron, he makes up in sheer will power.  That leaves athleticism.

Athleticism is one of MJ’s most underrated attributes.  There’s another reason outside of pure hard work and dedication that a man could rise from being cut in high school, to the throne.  The man was a freak of nature.  It is rarely discussed, but some of the greats will allude to it…Barkley talks about how much stronger MJ was than his counterparts...Isiah has mentioned it:

“In my era, we hadn't seen an athlete quite like Michael Jordan. He jumped higher than everyone else. He was a little faster than everyone else and he was just the best athlete.”

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - The Sports Daily

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - The Sports Daily

Lebron in all his greatness, IQ and all, would not be the player he is today without the athletic gap he maintains vs the field.  His combination of size, strength and speed is simply unmatched…MJ had a similar edge vs his competition and similarly would not be the same player without that edge.  They may have still become all-time greats…but I question the supreme dominance.

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.cavstheblog.com

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.cavstheblog.com

Despite holding similar edges, Jordan in all his athletic glory simply cannot match the athleticism we are witnessing from Lebron…the man came built naturally out of high school like a 10 year vet.  Lebron is a step above the rest, even in a league where exercise and nutrition is broken down to an exact science more than ever…vertical leaps are higher, body fat is lower…the athletes in today’s league are damn near society’s first whiff at the singularity…whether it’s Westbrook speeding from end to end or Blake Griffin catching a lob from CP3.

MJ was ahead of his time…he naturally had the juice.  Backing down and blowing past weaker and slower defenders, rising above the defense with his ridiculous vertical and hang time...the guy could juggle the ball in mid-air while contemplating the meaning of life.  Players like John Starks, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Joe Dumars, etc…they didn’t…well…they didn't have that same juice.  They didn't have that strength and lateral quickness.  Even with hand checking MJ was too big, too fast, too strong…

But in today’s league MJ would not have that same level of separation from the rest of the pack…he would not be able use his athletic dominance to the same degree.  Put Lebron into the 90s context and we would have witnessed an unprecedented gap in athleticism…I would have loved to see Dumars out and Lebron James in, sticking MJ…6’8 250/260lbs LBJ vs 6’6 215lbs MJ...try to back that solid wall down Your Airness.

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Time Magazine

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Time Magazine

d) The 90s NBA vs today’s league

We danced around this topic in the last section…let’s approach it head on.

The league is more competitive today due to the sport’s popularity growth, the increase in sophistication of offensive and defensive schemes, the scientific approach to athleticism, and the early start of today’s player development.

The only argument I hear for the 90s being more competitive is the relaxed foul calling.  Apparently it was a tougher league…you could hand check, you could back people down more aggressively, you could box out more physically.  So MJ would tear today’s league up while Lebron would be less effective in the 90s, right?

Anybody that grew up playing street ball has a good understanding of what happens when fouls are not called…that’s some ‘lax foul calling for your a**.  Anybody who grew up playing street ball also knows that the second you end up playing against the swole guy that might have just got out of prison, the lack of foul calling gives them an advantage.  It actually allows less skillful but stronger players to impact the game more so than they otherwise would have.  They can use their strength to bully people on both ends, fouling on defense, boxing out too physically, backing smaller guys down and using their right arm to clear space with swipes and push offs, all while yelling “Weight Room”.  Playing the game the right way actually evens the playing field.

The fact that a) ‘lax foul calling helps physically gifted players and b) people use that as an argument against Lebron, just boggles my mind.  Can you imagine Lebron in a league where fouls are called less frequently?  Can you imagine him avoiding offensive foul calls when he backs someone down too hard in the paint?  Or him being able to box out more physically?  Give him the ability to foul while defending?  You think the hand checking of the 90s would stop Lebron from scoring at will?

Lebron with his strength and athleticism would go to work in the 90s.  But MJ’s push off against Bryon Russell to hit the Game 6 game winner vs. the Jazz, in today’s league, might have been an offensive foul.

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Sports Illustrated

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - Sports Illustrated

Any who, moving on from fouls:

i) Today’s game is turning more into a chess match.  For every bit of toughness lost in today’s defensive schemes, the bump in sophistication has compensated.  Another time drain discussin this…I think most agree that the strategy component of the game has made it a tougher environment to succeed, offensively and defensively.  Let’s just go ahead and loop in the growth of overly scientific exercise and nutrition plans here as well...overall game complexity has been on the up and up.

ii) The players are more skilled as a result of the growth in game popularity and early player development.  The greater the popularity of the game, the more kids that grow up playing and thus the talent pool the NBA has to choose from grows in size.  There was likely a huge difference in the number of kids playing the game of basketball when Michael was a child vs when Lebron was a child, with Michael’s impact on the game’s popularity actually being a key driver.  With more numbers, there are more chances for freak athletics, insane hand-eye coordination, crazy ball handling…pick whatever attribute you want to consider.  Combine this with the influence of today’s AAU where kids are training like pros before they can do multiplication…you are bound to have shooters like Steph Curry, ball handlers like Kyrie, and players that are the height of centers with handles like a guard…KD anyone?  Today’s players are simply more talented because they train earlier and there are more of them.

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.ballislife.com

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.ballislife.com

To see proof of the numbers game, where the growth in the pool of people to pull from increases the average talent level of the set of people pulled… think about the point guard position today.  Why is it that that position the most competitive?  The fact that you can be a shorter individual and succeed at that role, allows more of the general population to be effective in that role, making the pool of people to pull from much more expansive.  With more people competing for the same number of slots, you will have a higher number of talented players vs the positions with smaller pools…hell some centers don’t start playing basketball until they’re in high school.

Add to this the fact that MJ’s championship reign coincided with serious NBA expansion, with 6 teams being added over that time frame.  That means fewer great players would on average, be on each team.

 c) Coach and supporting cast impact

Lebron took a Cavs team to the finals which featured Mo Williams as the second best player.  His recent trip to the finals is self-explanatory.  D Wade was great, but was not the man he once was nursing those old a** knees, he certainly was not Scottie in his prime…for the record I actually think D Wade in his prime was better than Pippen, but he was not during LBJ’s tenure in South Beach.  Spo is a Riley student and did a heck of a job, but he is not the most winningest coach in NBA history…I don’t want to even get into Mike Brown and David Blatt.

 Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.ballislife.com

Used by - Ariaya Haile | Source - www.ballislife.com

It is generally agreed that Lebron has done more with less, so we again run into a section that can remain short.

HOWEVER, I do want to briefly touch on the imbalance between props given to coaches and props given to players.  You need great players to win, but the credit is simply not spread fairly enough.  Coaches can create and change entire team dynamics…coaches can actually be the primary cog in a successful post season run.  Greg Popovich is clearly the shining example, but there are other obvious examples...hell Pop's protégé Mike Budenholzer literally took an after-thought team to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

In summary:

Based on TFppg, MJ has Lebron by a hair, a little less than one basket per game of value.  He also enjoys more defensive accolades.  However, Lebron has the slight edge overall factoring in his offensive versatility and the impact of his style of play on the players around him, his defensive versatility and the relative lack of consideration for this versatility in defensive awards, his freakish athleticism that trumps even that of MJ, the fact that his athleticism is actually conducive to the physical play of the 90s, the overall upgrade in athleticism, game play sophistication, and talent in today’s league vs the 90s, the league expansion impact on average talent per team during MJ’s run, and Lebron’s relatively weaker supporting casts.  All of those elements, in my opinion, are worth more than one basket.

- Ariaya Haile

Random add-on:  Everyone please stop saying MJ is 6 for 6 in the Finals.  Eventually we’ll realize that that is a made up stat.  You are adding in an arbitrary conditions; why should a player be penalized for making it to the east-west showdown?  The funny thing is, had MJ made it to the Finals in 1990 and lost, historically he would have actually accomplished more, but it would have ruined his ‘6 for 6’ imaginary metric, which sounds so powerful when the Skips of the world say it.  If you play a season of basketball and do not make it to the Finals or win a championship, your record is not perfect.

Rest of TFppg methodology:

Point value of assists:  ~42K assists led to a 2 pointer being made and ~16K assists led to a 3 pointer being made, for a weighted average of ~2.27 points per assist.  If we split the credit between the shooter and the assistor, the assistor would generate, or the assist is worth, on average ~1.14 points.

Point value of turnovers:  ~27K turnovers led to no points for the opposing team, 95 of them led to one point, ~11K led to two points, and ~2K led to three points…leaving a weighted average of ~0.67 points lost per turnover.  If we give half of the credit of the ~0.67 points to the person who turned the ball over and half to the player on the other team that scored the subsequent point(s), one turnover would have an average cost of ~0.33 points (this lowers a player’s TFppg).

Point value of blocks:  I assumed that each block saves those potential points from being scored.  First looking just generally at shot totals (no blocks considered yet), there were ~78K 2 pointers and ~18K 3 pointers made, so on average ~2.19 points were scored per shot (excluding foul shots).   I assumed that for a blocked shot, had it not been blocked, it would have gone in 46% of the time (the average field goal % since 1980).  So a block stops, or is worth, ~1.02 points on average (2.19 points X 46%).

Point value of field goal % and free throw %:  These were a little tougher to handle.  My approach treats a drop in field goal percentage as a lost scoring opportunity.  If a player is more inefficient, he will waste more possessions which could have been used to generate points from another player.  So there needs to be a points cost for every drop in percentage point.  Let’s use a real example to explain my math.  If a player scores ~17 ppg (excluding foul shots) with a field goal percentage of ~42%, had his field goal percentage been 100% he would have scored ~40 ppg.  If you take the 23ppg that that player left on the table from misses and multiply it by the average field goal % in the NBA since 1980 (46%), you arrive at ~10.7ppg of opportunity lost due to misses…which assumes that had he passed it to a teammate, that teammate would have made it 46% of the time.  This would be a negative addition to a player’s TFppg.  I did the same thing for free throws…if a player scores ~4.4 ppg in foul shots with a free throw percentage of ~75%, he left ~1.5 points on the table from misses…multiply that by the average league free throw % since 1980 (75%) you arrive at ~1.08 ppg of opportunity lost due to misses.  Now lowering a players’ TFppg like this may seem unfair, but it is only important that it lowers both players’ numbers in the same way, as you are comparing one player’s TFppg to the other’s.