B/R Top 50 NBA All-Time Finale: Who Is the Greatest Player Ever, MJ or LeBron?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2019

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 6:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls looks on against the Charlotte Hornets on May 6, 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1998 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

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...

     

Scoring

CHICAGO - JUNE 16:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls posts up against Kevin Johnson #7 of the Phoenix Suns in Game Four of the 1993 NBA Finals on June 16, 1993 at the Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois.  The Bulls won 111-105.  NOTE TO USER: User
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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

       

Shooting

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 4: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots three point basket against the LA Clippers on March 4, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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

     

Playmaking

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 12: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks to pass the ball against the Golden State Warriors on December 12, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

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 Golliver. "...to see things develop before they actually develop. Then it was on me to put the ball on time, on target."

And put it on target he has.

LeBron's 10th all-time in total career assists, trailing only legendary point guards  John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, Magic, Oscar Robertson, Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas and Gary Payton.

He's also second all-time (behind Magic again) in career assist percentage for a 6'8"-plus player.

And his 1,186 career games (playoffs and regular season combined) with at least five assists trail only Stockton's 1,548 and Kidd's 1,350.

Jordan, meanwhile, is probably underrated as a passer. He's 30th on that five-assist game list, and his career average of 5.3 is more than respectable. He also dished a career-high 8.0 dimes in the 1988-89 season.

But there's just no way to put MJ in the same league as LeBron as a passer. Perhaps Jordan might have averaged more if he'd been asked to do so, but LeBron appears to possess a bit more of that point guard gene, which helped him build the resume of an all-time great passer, regardless of position.

LeBron 2, MJ 1

      

Defense

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 12:  Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to make a play while Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls defends during Game Five of the 1991 NBA Finals on June 12, 1991 at the Forum in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER:
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In the playoffs and regular season combined, Michael Jordan had a whopping 514 games with at least three steals. Stockton (611) is the only player with more. Add a block to the equation and Jordan trails only Hakeem Olajuwon.

Of course, box-score stats aren't everything when it comes to defense. In fact, they barely scratch the surface. But FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris once examined how impactful a single steal can be on a single game.

After running a regression to gauge the value of each major box-score number, Morris wrote, "...this pretty much means a steal is 'worth' as much as nine points."

He explained further:

"To put it more precisely: A marginal steal is weighted nine times more heavily when predicting a player's impact than a marginal point.

"For example, a player who averages 16 points and two steals per game is predicted (assuming all else is equal) to have a similar impact on his team's success as one who averages 25 points but only one steal. If these players were on different teams and were both injured at the same time, we would expect their teams to have similar decreases in performance (on average)."

LeBron's provided plenty of value on the defensive end, as well. He's 16th all-time in career steals and set to enter the top 100 in blocks this season.

And perhaps his biggest argument here is defensive rebounding. He's 21st all-time there, and his per-game average of 6.2 is nearly 25 percent better than MJ's 4.7.

His combination of all three contributes to his 1.9-to-1.2 edge in defensive box plus/minus. But catch-all metrics need context, especially DBPM.

Basketball Reference's Daniel Myers explained:

"Blocks, steals, and rebounds, along with minutes and what little information offensive numbers yield about defensive performance are all that is available. Such critical components of defense as positioning, communication, and the other factors that make Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan elite on defense can't be captured, unfortunately.

"What does this mean? Box Plus/Minus is good at measuring offense and solid overall, but the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered definitive. Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don't hesitate to discount them when a player is well known as a good or bad defender."

Analysts in the media and analytics departments around the league are working to find better ways to measure defense in the NBA, but for now, it remains one of the last bastions for the "eye test" crowd.

And when looking at the balance of their careers, Jordan received a lot more deposits from that crowd.

Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. And he made nine All-Defensive teams. LeBron was All-Defensive six times, and that portion of his career appears to be long gone.

"At age 34, Michael Jordan made 1st-team all-NBA defensive team," Fox Sports' Skip Bayless tweeted in 2018. "At age 33 this season LeBron finished 309th in the NBA in defensive win shares and his team finished 29th in defense, second to last."

There was a stretch when LeBron was one of the game's best defenders, but he was never considered the best. And his defensive peak was shorter than Jordan's.

LeBron 2, MJ 2

     

Accolades

NORTHBROOK, UNITED STATES:  Former NBA great Bill Russell (L) hands Michael Jordan (R) of the Chicago Bulls his fifth Maurice Podoloff Most Valuable Player Trophy for the 1997-98 season 18 May, at a press conference at the Sheraton North Shore Hotel in No
JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

LeBron James is a 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Defensive selection, four-time MVP, three-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and one-time scoring champ.

Hall of Famer Jordan was a 14-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA selection, 10-time scoring champ, nine-time All-Defensive selection, five-time MVP and one-time Defensive Player of the Year.

His career 8.115 MVP shares rank first all-time, ahead of LeBron's second-place 8.067.

And most importantly, Jordan was a six-time champion. And he won Finals MVP for each of the six Finals in which he appeared.

It feels fitting that a comparison this excruciatingly close would come down to a tiebreaker. And despite LeBron's lead in All-Star and All-NBA nods, Jordan's titles, All-Defensive selections, Defensive Player of the Year and double-digit scoring crowns give him the win.

LeBron 2, MJ 3

     

Who Ya Got?

Again, there truly isn't a wrong answer to this question.

LeBron's longevity and dominance over the game's most talented era are compelling points. His influence on the ongoing positionless revolution has to be considered.

He faced better teams in the Finals. The average SRS (simple rating system combines strength of schedule and point differential) of Jordan's Finals opponents was 6.84. The average SRS of LeBron's Finals opponents was 7.93. The latter had to face the vengeful 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs and the dynastic Golden State Warriors.

Jordan may have had a better teammate in Scottie Pippen than anyone LeBron was paired with (though there's an argument for the first couple of years he was with Dwyane Wade).

And oh, LeBron's still an active player. There's time for more winning. And his leads in numbers like career value over replacement player and playoff value over replacement player might look more ridiculous than Stockton's assist record by the time he's done.

But, having said all that, the feeling of inevitability that accompanied Jordan for about a decade, when combined with his six titles, has him at No. 1 for this particular writer.

It's ironic, after this avalanche of statistics, that it comes down to an intangible.  

Related

    Heat Suspending Dion Waiters for 'Conduct Detrimental to Team'

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Heat Suspending Dion Waiters for 'Conduct Detrimental to Team'

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Lakers Rule Out Kyle Kuzma (Foot) for Opener

    Kuzma will miss Lakers' season opener vs. Clippers

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Lakers Rule Out Kyle Kuzma (Foot) for Opener

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Pascal Siakam Gets 4-Year Max Deal

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: Pascal Siakam Gets 4-Year Max Deal

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Jazz Extend Quin Snyder

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: Jazz Extend Quin Snyder

    Mike Chiari
    via Bleacher Report