Why LeBron James Will Never Be Michael Jordan, and That's OK

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2012

Photo from Melrose.com
Photo from Melrose.com

The latest player to be compared to Michael Jordan is LeBron James. There are some passing similarities, but let's be clear: LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan, and really, that's OK. No one else will be either. 

Michael Jordan is on another level than James for five reasons:

  1. He had better individual success.
  2. He had better team success.
  3. He did this even though the rules favored James.
  4. He had a bigger impact on the game and the league.
  5. He did so against greater competition.

Statistically they have a lot in common. They are arguably two of the most well-rounded players to ever play the game. In fact, two players in NBA history have totaled 19,000 points, 4,000 boards, 3,500 assists, 1,000 steals and 500 blocks in their first nine seasons—James and Jordan. 

They have the two best player efficiency ratings by any non-centers through their first nine years in the league. Jordan’s is 29.8, and James’ is 27.2.  Jordan’s is the best in NBA history overall. James’ is fifth best.

When you compare their specific numbers, there is a reason to compare. They are actually comparable:

Player

G

MP

FG%

FT%

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS

LeBron James

689

39.9

.483

.746

7.2

6.9

1.7

0.8

3.3

27.6

Michael Jordan

684

38.8

.514

.845

6.3

5.9

2.7

1.0

3.0

32.2

James has an advantage in rebounding and assists. Jordan has a better field-goal percentage, a better free-throw percentage and has more steals, blocks and points as well as fewer turnovers. Clearly, Jordan has an edge over James statistically, but it’s not a huge difference like it would be against anyone else. 

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When you look at the advanced stats, it's a similar story:

Player

PER

TS%

eFG%

TRB%

AST%

USG%

ORtg

DRtg

WS

LeBron James

27.2

.569

.516

10.5

34.1

31.8

115

102

133.3

Michael Jordan

29.6

.586

.523

9.5

26.6

33.5

121

103

150.0

Once again, James has an edge in total rebound percentage and assist percentage, but Jordan leads in almost every other category. One thing worth noting is that James has a better defensive rating, but league-wide scoring was slightly higher during Jordan’s first five years than James'.

During James' first nine years, the average team scored about 106.5 points per 100 possessions. During Jordan’s, it was about 108 points per game. The same is true in the other direction. Jordan’s edge in offensive rating is actually overstated by a raw look at the numbers.

Still when you look at the net rating (Offensive Rating-Defensive Rating), James was “only” a plus-13 per 100 possessions while he was on the court compared to Jordan’s plus-18. Among players with at least 10,000 points scored through their first nine years, Jordan’s is the second-best net rating in history. James’ is ninth.

Statistically, while Jordan has a solid edge, it’s not enough to make such a strong statement that James will “never” be Michael Jordan.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 05:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat drives in the first quarter against Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on June 5, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, F
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

But let’s be perfectly clear. LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan.

The second argument is the easiest to make, that Jordan had greater team success. While some like to point out that Jordan didn’t win his first ring until he was the age that James is right now, that ignores that Jordan went to college.

You can't compare age; you have to compare years in the league. 

By his ninth season Jordan won three rings. Now in his ninth season James is still seeking his first.

One thing that Jordan had through nine seasons that James still lacks is jewelry. Granted, there is time for James to change things and win not six, not seven and so on, but for now the reality is that Jordan won six and James has won none.

In the last couple of years, there has become a growing trend of the next generation of basketball fans who want to chide those of us who watched Jordan play and suggest that he’s not as great as we say he is.

Let me be clear here. He was absolutely every bit as great as we say he was. No athlete I’ve seen in my 36 years of watching sports (not counting the 10 years I spent before that not really understanding them) matches Jordan in terms of greatness.

Jordan was to basketball what Mozart was to music. His genius was on such a level that it simply cannot and will not ever be duplicated.

He changed the way the game was played and the way that people wanted the game to be played. He turned the league from a big-man’s league into a wings’ league. He made the great perimeter player more valuable than the great paint player.

When you compare him to the most dominant center in the history of the game statistically speaking, you see a remarkable distinction. Wilt Chamberlain was “a man among boys,” as they say. However, the NBA changed the rules, widening the lanes to limit his effectiveness.

By contrast, the league wanted to produce more “Jordans,” so it changed the rules to make it easier to “Be Like Mike,” making it illegal to hand-check players, prevent defensive players from camping out in the lane, prevent defenders from using their forearms when opponents were facing the basket and so on.

Today’s rules are far easier than those of the 90s for perimeter players. That’s not just talk; it’s evident in the pattern that has emerged. Since 2005, because of the rule changes there has been a shift in the perimeter players being the most important part of the game, and the most statistically dominant.

While I don’t wish to rehash all the details in this article, I’ve previously established this in great detail here. What makes Jordan’s success so extraordinary is that he actually put up better numbers than James even though the rules are in James' favor.

My previous research establishes that in the present era there is an increase in the number of unassisted field goals, an increase in the number of 50-point games and 20-point games among perimeter players and a corresponding decrease in the number of both among big men.  

Along with that, there has been a shift in the perception of importance, as MVPs are now becoming the domain of wing players who penetrate where they used to belong to bigs. Seven of the last eight MVPs have gone to guards or small forwards. They've won eight of the last 12. 

In the previous 46 years, guards and small forwards had won 13, with six of those going to Jordan. It's hard to argue that there has not been a difference in the way the game is being played, or the impact the rule changes have had. 

What is amazing is that Jordan was doing those things while the rules still favored the big men. James is doing it while the rules favor the perimeter players.

So, while James has done almost as much as Jordan, he’s done so while the rules favored him. Even with the rules in his favor, what James has done is extraordinary but what Jordan did was beyond extraordinary.

Remember that James played in an era of internet, YouTube and League Pass as well. It’s much easier for the nation to follow his exploits than Jordan’s. Yes, Jordan had SportsCenter, but that was about it.

The amount of coverage that James has greatly exceeds that of what was available to Jordan, yet the celebrity Jordan had surpassed that of what James has. I recall hearing a radio news report once which had Jordan as the single-most recognizable face in the world, just beating out Mickey Mouse.

My point is that the degree of impact that Jordan had on the NBA was such that it’s almost impossible to fathom it now. Jordan was arguably the biggest celebrity ever at his height. 

It has occurred to me that lost amid all the criticism of “The Decision” is the fact that there was even a “The Decision” to criticize in the first place. It says a lot about LeBron James and his impact on the game that ESPN would give him an hour to tell where he was signing and spend the entire day before and after discussing what the decision would be and was.

Jordan’s impact on the game was greater, though. The ratings establish that. Jordan’s Bulls have the four highest-rated finals series in NBA history. His first game back following his initial comeback was the highest-rated regular season game in history, scoring a 10.1. 

The lowest-rated finals series the Bulls had with Jordan was a 14.2. Last year’s Heat scored an 8.2 in their loss to the Mavericks. The Spurs' sweep of Cleveland in 2004 was the lowest-rated finals in NBA history.

Both in terms of effect on the game and popularity, Jordan reached levels that James has never touched. Jordan’s impact on the game so greatly exceeds that of James that there really is no comparison, and James is arguably the most marketable player the game has right now.

Finally, I’d like to address a myth that Jordan had “no competition.” In reality his dominance came in the greatest era the NBA has ever seen.

Jordan shared at least three seasons with many of the league's greatest players, though there are many different ways to define that. After considering a few different ideas for how to define greatest players of all time, I came to the conclusion that I will never give it as much thought as Bill Simmons of Grantland.com and the author of The Book of Basketball.

Simmons ranks the top 96 players of all time, and has a “pyramid” ranking structure. I chose to use his rankings for the purpose of this article for a couple of reasons. First, Simmons is not me, so that gives me a semblance of objectivity.

Second, Simmons probably knows more about basketball than 99.9999 percent of all basketball fans (including me, I confess without shame). He knows and understands the stats as well as watching an unseemly number of games, both past and present. His rankings are well-rounded. 

Third, he’s given way more thought to his rankings than probably any human being alive. After spending a thousand or so hours in his initial rankings, he’s repeatedly re-visited them and adjusted them based on both critical advice as well as changing history.

The fan who reads the rankings and not the explanations will say "what about" and then follow it up with a very basic argument. That's the logical equivalent of arguing with Albert Einstein over the definition of "energy." I'm almost positive that whatever you're thinking, he's already thought of. 

For the purpose of this article, that suffices. I wanted to see which player has played with more “great” players in history. We could quibble over whether certain players should be moved up or down, but it wouldn't change the big picture. 

I reviewed Simmons' top 50 players, taking note of who played with James, who played with Jordan and where they ranked. Jordan played against 23 of the 50 greatest players in NBA history compared to James who has played against only 10. The average rank of the greatest players Jordan played against is 23.83 compared to the average rank of James' opponents at 27.90.

Now, allow me to say that there are some arguments in James' favor. 

The fact is that Jordan has an inherent advantage here in that his career is complete already. Therefore, he’s not going to add any new players on his list and the rankings aren’t likely to climb much (although there are a few who are still active).

James, on the other hand, is still playing, so he can add more opponents to his list and those opponents can still climb higher. Furthermore, anyone who can climb on Jordan’s list (i.e. Bryant, Duncan etc.) will also climb on James' list.

There are also some players that will probably be added onto James' list, such as Kevin Durant and possibly Derrick Rose, as well as other players whose names we don’t even know yet. Those names being added on are going to knock off the names on Jordan’s list.

At the very least, it’s likely that Worthy won’t stay at No. 50 for long, so once someone passes him up, Jordan's list will get a bit smaller. But will six more names work their way up into the top 50? That seems unlikely. That’s how many it would take to knock of two names from Jordan’s list. So while that does need to be considered, it's a limited argument. 

Depending on how things shake out, it would appear that James' list would have to extend by about 10 more names to surpass Jordan in terms of “greatest players played with.” Even if James played another decade and every year one player was added onto his list, he would only tie Jordan.

Even when accounting for the inherent advantages Jordan has, it’s unlikely that he can catch Jordan in terms of greats played with as a gauge of the era he played in.

What all of this means is that Jordan not only had more individual success, but he also had more team success. He didn’t just win, either; he did so carrying the league on his back in a way that was completely unprecedented in league history and arguably in the history of all professional sports.

On top of all that, he did so when the rules were working against his style of play, and he did it with nearly half of the greatest players in league history playing against him. His remarkable and unparalleled success came in the golden era of the NBA.

That’s why James will never be Jordan. To be fair, neither will Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade or anyone else.

Jordan had more talent. He had the numbers of LeBron James, the intensity and killer instinct of Kobe Bryant, the ability to carry a team of Tim Duncan, the popularity of Derrick Rose and the clutch factor of Kevin Durant.

James will never be Jordan, but don’t let that take away from who James is. Vivaldi may not have been Mozart, but that doesn’t make his own music any less beautiful. Maybe it’s time for the world to stop worrying over who the next Jordan is and just start appreciating who there is. There’s no shame in being Vivaldi.