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Prepare for a lukewarm take in a hot-take world: There really isn’t a wrong answer in the debate over LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
By the time he’s done, few, if any, will be able to touch LeBron’s longevity argument. He’s already the only player in NBA history with 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. You have to drop the qualifiers all the way down to 30,000, 7,000 and 6,300 to add Kobe.
On the other hand, Jordan’s nearly unparalleled statistical resume is backed by a 6-0 Finals record in an era that included Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Clyde Drexler, just to name a few.
Both had immense cultural impacts on the game and the world. Both were the best players in basketball for over a decade. Both have legitimate claims to the throne.
But, spoiler alert, that didn’t prevent us from picking one for Bleacher Report’s All-Time Player Rankings: NBA’s Top 50 Revealed.
Putting MJ at No. 1 there deserved a more thorough explanation, especially in the wake of fans choosing LeBron in three separate blind polls.
The first featured career regular-season numbers:
Then, the decision was between the 10-year peaks of each:
And finally, the playoff numbers of LeBron and Jordan were pitted against each other:
As has been the case with every “A vs. B” article this summer, the polls aren’t enough to make the call. Instead, we’ll look at each in five categories: scoring, shooting, playmaking, defense and accolades.
So, now that the table is set, it’s time to dig in to this series’ grand finale; the biggest either/or in basketball…
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Michael Jordan’s 30.12 points per game is the highest career scoring average of all time, barely edging out the 30.07 points per game Wilt Chamberlain posted in an era when the game was played at a much faster pace.
And, as pointed out by Thinking Basketball’s Ben Taylor, Jordan played at a time when the rules governing defensive players allowed more contact. And not just a little more contact:
Hand checks, flat-out grabbing players off the ball. The game was much more physical in Jordan’s day. But none of that could slow him down. He led the NBA in scoring in 10 seasons, including seven straight from 1986-87 to 1992-93.
When Taylor adjusted all seasons across history for pace and playing time, Jordan claimed four of the top 10 scoring averages (James Harden‘s 2018-19 was first). No one else in the top 10 made more than one appearance.
Oh, and he did all this prior to the popularization of the three-pointer. He dominated from two-point range like a big man:
“There are 6 seasons in NBA history in which a player took 100 or fewer 3PA, had a .600+ TS% & had a 30+ USG%.
“3 of those seasons belong to Karl Malone (6’9″), Yao Ming (7’6″) & Shaquille O’Neal (7’1”).
“The other 3 belong to Michael Jordan.”
“I have the greatest respect for Michael,” Larry Bird said in a career retrospective the league produced for Jordan. “You know, just watching him dribble up that court and looking you right in the eye and not knowing what he’s going to do is the scariest thing you’ ever want to be involved in.”
Jordan struck that fear into the hearts and minds of countless defenders over the years, and with a staggering level of consistency.
In the playoffs and regular season combined, Jordan totaled 671 30-point games, over 100 more than second-place Wilt’s 557. Perhaps even more impressive, 671 is over half of Jordan’s total of 1,251 games.
If you lower the threshold to 20-point games, Jordan’s 1,099 rank fifth. That’s behind LeBron’s 1,207, but Jordan got to 20 in 87.8 percent of the NBA games he played. LeBron’s mark there is 84.0 percent.
Jordan also holds a comfortable lead over LeBron in relative points per game (a player’s average minus the league average for the time): plus-18.83 to plus-16.21.
And finally, there’s individual offensive rating, a metric developed by Dean Oliver.
“Individual offensive rating is the number of points produced by a player per hundred total individual possessions,” Oliver wrote, per Basketball Reference. “In other words, ‘How many points is a player likely to generate when he tries?'”
MJ edges LeBron there in the regular season (118 to 116), 10-year peaks (121 to 119) and the playoffs (118 to 116).
LeBron is undoubtedly one of the greatest scorers of all time. One might even argue that his superior efficiency (he holds the relative true shooting percentage in each of the comparisons found in the blind polls) should earn him this category.
But, beyond the numbers and context already provided, LeBron never dominated the league as a scorer the way Jordan did.
Ten scoring titles to one is quite a gap.
LeBron 0, MJ 1
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There is no way to know how much different Jordan’s game might have been had he developed in this era. It stands to reason that he would have taken more threes. He likely would’ve spent more time working on that aspect of his game.
But all we have is the data available to us, and LeBron has some decent leads there.
Beyond just having a better career two-point percentage (54.8 to 51.0) and three-point percentage (34.3 to 32.7), LeBron also has seven seasons in which he was over 35.0 percent from deep. Jordan has four such seasons, and that came on significantly lower volume.
LeBron’s career three-point attempt rate (percentage of attempts that came from downtown) of 21.4 is significantly higher than Jordan’s career-high 15.7.
Now, there are some who would argue free-throw percentage is a better indicator of pure shooting than threes. Jordan leads there, 83.5 to 73.6. And Jordan certainly hit his fair share of mid-rangers, but this category goes to LeBron.
LeBron 1, MJ 1
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Following a 2018 playoff game, LeBron said, “I think my passing’s right up there with Earvin [Johnson],” per CelticsBlog’s Greg Brueck-Cassoli.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s 11.19 assists per game is the best career average of all time. While LeBron may not have that kind of volume as a creator, his comment really isn’t outlandish.
At 6’8″, he can survey the floor in a way few others can. And his unselfishness led to thousands of assists on plays when he might have been able to score. He’s been particularly effective as a kick-out passer, finding three-point shooters along the perimeter when he drags entire defenses into the paint with him.
“It was something I knew I had when I first started playing the game of basketball,” LeBron said, per the Washington Post‘s Ben Gollive