What makes this milestone unique is not that LeBron reached it. Third place on this list has felt like an inevitability for James for years, and leapfrogging Kobe Bryant will almost certainly happen next season. It's who LeBron passed for fourth that's most interesting.
Jordan, in the minds of many, is still the greatest of all time. He'll never be caught. And there is no number of accomplishments, milestones or records that will change their minds. He went 6-for-6 in the NBA Finals, and there was an unquantifiable air of competitiveness and dominance from Jordan that lends itself to his mythical status today.
James, meanwhile, is in the throes of perhaps his most trying season to date. He's on track to miss the postseason for the first time since 2005. Barring a miraculous turnaround, we'll have an NBA Finals without LeBron for the first time since 2010. Think about that. For nearly a decade, he was a fixture in basketball's biggest series.
Now, he's the subject of social media lowlight reels that rack up loads (in some cases, thousands) of retweets. A season this disappointing, under the bright lights of Hollywood and in 2019's hyperactive internet culture, has not done James any favors in the GOAT debate.
Heck, as recently as last month, I deemed Jordan the GOAT (greatest of all time) and James the BOAT (best of all time). It's that close. If ever there was a 1A/1B situation, this is it.
But Wednesday's milestone calls for a deeper, more objective dive into the debate. However you feel about numbers, they're our only source of unbiased evidence. Sure, any player comparison should entertain the eye test, but it should always be backed up by the data.
So let's dive into it.
The Points Leaderboard
Jordan got his 32,292 career points in 1,072 games. It took James 1,190 games to pass him. MJ averaged more points per game, per minute and per team possession, according to Basketball Reference.
But LeBron's game was never totally about scoring (though he's fifth all-time in career scoring average). Slow and steady wins this race because he spent so many possessions throughout his career finding teammates.
Over the course of his career, James has averaged 25.3 points per 36 minutes (before Wednesday's game). If you add that to his points generated by assists per game, though, you get 41.0.
Unfortunately, we don't have access to the play-by-play data that gives us points generated by assists in Jordan's era, but we can estimate.
Over his career, he averaged 4.9 assists per 36 minutes. His teams had a combined three-point-attempt rate of .098. Factoring in the lower conversion rate from downtown (34.4 percent during Jordan's career, compared to 35.7 percent during LeBron's), that means a little less than 0.5 of those assists were for threes.
We can add an estimate of 10.3 points generated by assists to 28.3 points per 36 minutes. Of course, those 38.6 points fall short of James' 41.0.
What's more, the points LeBron did score came on a better True Shooting Percentage (TS%). Here again, though, we face some era-related difficulties.
Over the course of Jordan's career, the league-average TS% was 53.2. Jordan's was 56.9, giving him a 3.7-point buffer between himself and the competition. During LeBron's career, the average TS% is 54.0, 4.7 shy of his 58.7.
So, yes, Jordan scored individually at a higher rate than James. But that doesn't account for LeBron's edge in efficiency or what he does as a playmaker.
Of course, a late-career drop-off could hurt those rate numbers, as MJ's days with the Washington Wizards did to his, but every game LeBron plays adds to his strongest argument: longevity.
LeBron's Marathon of a Career
James missed 17 games this season with an injury, plus one more for rest. Prior to this campaign, he'd missed an average of 4.7 games per regular season.
Add in the playoffs, and the only players who've logged more total minutes than James' 55,988 are Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd. If you limit that search to include only players' first 16 seasons, LeBron is first.
Oh, and he's logged another 1,000-plus minutes with Team USA for international play, according to RealGM.
The workload LeBron has carried, and the length for which he's carried it, is unreal. Another sports legend, Tiger Woods, almost seemed awestruck while explaining it in 2018:
"What LeBron has done for what, 15 seasons now, is just remarkable," Woods said.
And it's not just the minutes he's played. It's what he's done with them. He's first all-time in career Wins Over Replacement Player with 348.0 (WORP is Value Over Replacement Player multiplied by 2.7, according to Basketball Reference). The gap between his WORP and second-place MJ's 281.9 is roughly equivalent to the gap between Jordan and ninth-place Larry Bird at 215.2.
The gap is about as wide in playoff Wins Over Replacement Player as well. And it's there where many of LeBron's detractors cry loudest.
Jordan is 6-0 in NBA Finals. James is 3-6. I'm sure that isn't news to you.
But James' streak of eight straight Finals appearances blows Jordan's three away. His playoff game record of 156-83 (.653) isn't far off the pace of Jordan's 119-60 (.665). And, perhaps most compelling, LeBron did what he did in the playoffs with significantly less help.
In the years James went to the Finals, his teams' No. 2 players produced a total of 93.1 Wins Over Replacement Player, compared to his 259.6, a staggering difference of 166.5. In the years Jordan went to the Finals, he produced 165.5 Wins Over Replacement Player. Scottie Pippen put up 120.8 in those years. The distance between LeBron and his help was greater than Jordan's total.
And, finally, the teams LeBron played in the Finals were better. Simple Rating System (SRS), tracked by Basketball Reference, combines a team's point differential and strength of schedule into one number. The average SRS of Jordan's Finals opponents was 6.84. The average SRS of LeBron's Finals opponents was 7.93. The Golden State Warriors alone were at 9.38 over the last four years.
LeBron's All-Around Game
Like Woods said, it's a combination of longevity and greatness that makes LeBron so different from anyone else in NBA history.
Wins Over Replacement Player endeavors to put all a player's contributions into one number, but there's another stat that demonstrates just how well-rounded LeBron's game is.
Over his career, both regular season and playoffs, LeBron has had 668 total games in which he scored at least 25 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists. Oscar Robertson is in second place on that list with 489 25-5-5 games. Jordan's 392 is third. The 668 from LeBron is 46.8 percent of the total games he's played, while Jordan's 392 25-5-5 games make up 31.3 percent of his total.
And when LeBron's all-around numbers were put next to Jordan's in a blind-taste-test-style comparison, the former won in a landslide:
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
I started with 128 players and used blind comparisons in a single-elimination tournament all the way to this final matchup between LeBron James and Michael Jordan. LeBron was the winner. Check the results from all seven rounds (WITH NAMES) here! https://t.co/o2BJw3ctO4 https://t.co/9Xs42mmn31
As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote:
"James' versatility has just won me over. I've seen him thrive in too many areas for too long now, refusing to concede defeat and ensuring total domination over an entire half of the NBA regardless of who suits up alongside him. And as he continues to win the unwinnable battle against Father Time, even setting a career high in assists per game during his age-33 season, he's swaying a larger and larger swath of the basketball-watching population."
That was written during the 2017-18 season. We have nearly another year of accumulated stats to pile on.
Although he's finally starting to show some signs of age, especially on defense, LeBron is still averaging 27 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists. He's 34. Can you imagine nitpicking those numbers at that age from anyone else?
James is held to what may be an unreachable standard. Statistically, though, he's already passed Jordan.