I’m not asking which player was greater—certainly right now that distinction still goes to Jordan—but how well does the level at which King James is currently holding court stack up against the days when Jordan ruled over the league?
Because the whole, “How can you compare anyone to Jordan?” question is so sensitive, let me share a little of my basketball biography.
I’d just gotten back from living in England, and we were visiting an old college friend of my dad’s in New Jersey. I was two months shy of my 10th birthday and had started to get into sports while living overseas. I was a big Wimbledon fan and soccer fan.
That’s when I saw my first NBA game ever.
Suddenly my love for things like tennis and golf were forgotten. They had nothing on this sport, because this man, “Dr. J.” as they called him, was doing things that were not humanly possible. Take that, Six Million Dollar Man!
I immersed myself in the game, reading history and biographies, watching every game I could and memorizing stats. Any guesses who my favorite player was?
When Michael Jordan came along, the comparisons to Erving came with him. I immediately didn’t like him. “How dare you compare him to Erving,” I would shout at the TV. “He hasn’t done anything!”
As I watched, though, it was impossible not to be enthralled with what Jordan did. He captured the league and the world in a way no one had ever done. He was all the greatest aspects of past and present stars in one package.
He was absolutely entertaining, with all the thrills of Erving. But he was more than just a show.
He was the undisputed best player in the league on a dynasty, which is rarer than you might think.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson vied for the title of best player in the league, and their respective teams similarly contested for the best team in the league. Bill Russell won 11 championships and five MVPs but was more in the “best player on the best team” category of MVP than the best player in the league. Wilt Chamberlain was putting up far more dominant numbers.
Chamberlain might have had the stats, but Russell won the majority of the titles because of superior defense, a better supporting cast and the commitment to utilizing that cast.
Jordan managed to put the best of all these things together. He had Chamberlain's statistical dominance, Russell’s rings, and unlike Bird and Johnson, he had no equal. The only rival Jordan had was Jordan, and whether he could keep himself interested in dominating the league.
It was something we never thought we’d see again, but now LeBron James is putting all those things together as well. He’s imposing his will on the league, and he’s on the best team in the league.
I raise my personal history because I’ve been here before, having a personal attachment to a player, only to see someone being compared to him who hasn’t yet achieved what that player achieved.
It’s important to not dismiss a player of the present out of hand. Because James hasn’t accomplished what Jordan did, it doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t.
But where does he stand now?
In the history of the NBA, only two players have won the regular-season MVP and the NBA Finals MVP in the same season in consecutive years: Jordan and James. They are in exclusive company.
Their career stats are comparable, too. According to the Play Index at Basketball-Reference, they are the only two players in the history of the NBA who have career averages of 25 points, five assists and six rebounds while making 49 percent of their career shots.
So that brings up the “at-this-point” conversation. The problem with any year-by-year comparison is that while it’s not quite comparing “apples and oranges,” it is a bit like comparing “tangerines and oranges.” Their careers are slightly offset. James came in as an 18-year old out of high school; Jordan entered as a 21-year-old out of college.
Because Jordan had the benefit of age and three years of experience in college, comparing what they did by years of their career gives him a certain advantage. Because James entered the NBA four years younger, comparing what they accomplished by age gives James the advantage.
What can be done is to compare what they’ve done at the most dominant years of their careers, in their primes, which for both of them covers the ages 26 to 29. It also reflects the years when they received the appropriate coach and supporting cast to win the NBA championship.
First, let’s look at their raw stats.
Jordan has the edge in scoring, 31.9 to 26.7, but James has the edge on the rest of his game with a combined total of 16.9 per game in the other four major statistical categories to Jordan’s 15.8. That’s not enough to say that James is more dominant now than Jordan was then, but it’s close enough to validate the conversation.
Let’s look at their shooting percentages.
The percentages even things out a bit. Jordan may have better scoring totals, but James has been historically efficient with his shots. In fact, this year, his true shooting percentage (a shooting percentage which takes into account two-point shots, three-point shots and free-throw attempts) is 68.1 percent, the highest in history for a player with a usage percentage (the percent of possessions a player uses while on the court) over 25 percent.
By comparison, Jordan’s career high is just 61.4 percent.
On the other hand, Jordan played mostly under a different set of rules, as I discuss in detail here. It’s easier for James to be efficient now than it was for Jordan then.
But those rules also impact the pace of the game, slowing it down and lowering James' accrued numbers slightly.
Player efficiency rating (PER) which is a minute and pace-adjusted kind of “catch-all” which includes total numbers, pace and efficiency, helps. James has a PER of 29.8 over the span, Jordan 30.1. Jordan has a very slight edge, but hardly one which separates him from James.
If there’s any gap between the players, we’ll have to find it in the postseason. First, here’s their total stats for the playoffs.
Here Jordan has a decisive edge. It is phenomenal that in the postseason he averaged 34.3 points per game over a four-year span. But his advantage isn’t just in scoring, Jordan has more assists as well, a fact which might be surprising. He also had more steals and averaged the same number of blocks.
The only place where James has the advantage is in rebounding.
But does James hold up his advantage in efficiency?
Not quite. While Jordan has a slight edge in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, James has a slightly higher effective field-goal percentage because he takes more three-point attempts. The difference isn’t very dramatic anywhere though, and the true shooting is a negligible difference in favor of Jordan.
And in the postseason, James has a PER of 27.5 compared to Jordan’s 30.0, which marks a telling difference.
In their primes in the postseason, Jordan has a distinct advantage. But how about the NBA Finals?
Jordan is better in everything but rebounds and owns a commanding 10-point lead in scoring. He also has a shockingly large lead in assists.
Looking at efficiency, Jordan now separates himself from James.
Here, Jordan has an advantage across the board. Probably most surprising is that Jordan has a huge edge in three-point percentage. (There may be some who suppose this is a result of the shorter three-point shot in the mid-90s, but the NBA didn’t move up the line until the next season, 1994, and moved it back in ‘97.)
What always separated Jordan from the rest of the world was that he was able to elevate his game as the stakes grew higher. This shows in his finals performances.
James has shown a similar ability, but not to the same degree.
And while there's no PER for the NBA Finals (because there's not league-wide pace with just two teams), there is a "Game Score," which is similar. Jordan's average in the finals is 27.4 to James' 19.9.
Both players have reached what you might call, “Yeah, but” status.
There was a friend of mine who was a huge Phoenix Suns fan. When the Suns landed Charles Barkley in a trade, he was constantly explaining why the Suns were going to eventually win the title. And every time he argued, I would just respond, “Yeah, but Michael Jordan.” Eventually my argument proved to be more valid.
I’ve found myself on the other end of that argument as a Bulls fan having to contend with, "Yeah, but LeBron James."
"Yeah but," players are rare. There may be one of them playing at any given time, and years could go by without them.
There are three players I’ve seen in my lifetime who fit that description: Jordan, James and Shaquille O’Neal. Only two of those were players you wanted to have the ball in their hands with the game on the line. (No, Shaq, you are not one of the two.)
James has earned an enormous amount of respect, and in the last two seasons in particular, he has established himself as a player you want handling the ball in the biggest moments of the biggest games.
As great as he’s been, though, Jordan still had a level of dominance he hasn't touched in the playoffs, and especially in the finals. James might be able to hover in the regular-season stratosphere with Jordan, but he still has to climb higher to reach the postseason and finals level exhibited by Jordan at his peak.