With the sporting world brought to a standstill by a global pandemic, the definitive Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance has became must watch television for sports fans, myself included. It kept us glued to our screens and invoked nostalgic memories of a simpler time, when we could marvel at the athletic accomplishments of our favorite players, and get into prolonged arguments about who is the GOAT.
Player comparisons within a sport like basketball are difficult given the variety of different roles, schemes, and contexts that affect a player’s output. That said, such comparisons are an integral part of the fan experience and the renewed spotlight on MJ brought on by the documentary serves as good a reason as any to have the discussion. So before we start, let me get this one of the way….the last dance showed why MJ was amazing and maybe even the GOAT, but he isn’t a better basketball player than Lebron James.
The argument for why Lebron James is a better (though not necessarily greater) player than Michael Jordan is at its core quite simple. He has dominated a more skilled and talented era of basketball. Jordan has Lebron beaten in overall influence and cultural impact, but as far as simple basketball? It’s Lebron.
Lebron is playing in a more skilled and sophisticated era
Comparisons across eras are often tricky given the drastic changes in rules and styles of play. However, in sports like most human endeavors, the arc of history bends towards progress. The NBA today and that Lebron has played in for most of his career is the most talented and skilled its ever been. Just look at the talent pool. During a seven year period in the heart of Michael Jordan’s prime (between 1988-1995) the NBA added six new teams thereby diluting its talent pool for the sake of expansion. Coaches and players alike from former Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, to stars like Larry Bird and Charles Barkley echoed these sentiments during this period. The NBA was also a primarily American phenomenon. The 95/96 NBA season had just 24 non-American players on opening night rosters across all league teams. The 2019/2020 season had more than four times as many with 108. This surge in international players has been driven by a surge in basketball development and participation in places like Europe, Australia, and Canada. Hence, far from a dilution, the league now has the largest talent pool it has ever had, spanning the entire globe.
Added to the greater talent pool are massive improvements in technology, nutrition, sports science, and athletic training methods. Today’s NBA teams have wearable technology that allows them to track everything from heart rates, to joint movements and even speed of acceleration. Such data enables training staff to come up with more sophisticated and specialized training regimens to facilitate peak performance. There have also been major improvements in injury treatment with the level of recovery from injuries like ACL tears having increased ten fold. Notably, the benefits of technology go beyond mere physicality. Teams now have shooting technology to help optimize the arc on players shots as well as player tracking technology that helps coaches optimize offensive and defensive strategies against specific opponents. Teams are even using sophisticated data science techniques like Bayesian Networks to help pick their best lineups.
We see the aggregate benefits of all of these improvements with modern day players being better ball handlers, better shooters (as measured by average 3 points %) and better playmakers (as measured by advanced stat box creation) than their counterparts 25 years ago. Even defenses, despite what you have heard about the famed hand checking of the 90’s, are much more sophisticated today. The removal of the illegal defense rule which required teams play man on man defense except in the case of strong double teams, has allowed the best defensive minds in the game to flourish and develop more innovative defensive schemes (like Tom Thibodeaus strong side zone) that can only be beaten via passing and ball movement. The development of such schemes is the very reason many of the great scorers of the 90’s including Michael Jordan himself felt that zone defenses made it harder to score not easier. It’s therefore a testament to the drastic improvement in shooting skills in the NBA that we have seen increases in scoring in recent years as opposed to an indictment of its defenses.
Lebron is this era’s most dominant player
Lebron has undoubtedly been this era’s most dominant player. He has demonstrated an unprecedented combination of efficient scoring, creative ability, and defensive versatility. He is currently third all-time in scoring and well on his way to finishing as the NBA’s leading scorer despite being a pass first player. He is ahead of Michael Jordan in scoring despite having taken about 1,200 fewer shots (which speaks to his superior scoring efficiency). With regards to passing, he is eighth all time in assists and will almost certainly be in the top 5 when all is said and done. No other player in NBA history is top ten in both scoring and assists and the King is hardly done. If cumulative stats aren’t your cup of tea, we can look at per game production. Through 2019 (his last fully completed season), Lebron’s average number of points + points generated by assist per 36 minutes was 41. MJs figure was 38.6.
Lebron is this era’s most dominant player
“But it’s not just about points and assists” you say, it’s about winning. Agreed, and when we look at individual contribution to winning (as opposed to just counting rings) as measured by Wins Above Replacement Player, Lebron wins here as well. He’s first all time in both regular season wins above replacement and playoff wins above replacement. His actual individual contribution to winning has been greater. Why does he have less rings then you ask? Well, because basketball is a team sport and Lebron’s help was significantly less. In the years that Lebron went to the finals for instance, his team’s second best players put up 93.1 wins above replacement as compared with his 259.6. Meanwhile for Jordan, Scottie Pippen put up 120.8 as compared to Jordans 165.5. Ergo, the gap between MJ’s help and Lebron’s was significant. Lebron’s finals competition was also much better. Basketball Reference’s simple rating system SRS (which combines a team’s strength of schedule and point differential into one number) had Lebron’s finals opponents rated on average at 7.93 (with the Warriors being a whopping 9.38) while MJ’s was 6.84.
Lebron is more clutch than Jordan
What about the mythical clutch gene? You know, that assassin mentality that caused MJ to be unstoppable in high leverage moments? Well, if it does exist, then LeBron is more blessed with it than any other player that has ever played. A 2015 analysis of player performances in “clutch time” (defined as the last five minutes of playoff games) that looked at overall efficiency, output including points and assists, and volume of involvement had Lebron as number one all time. No one has made more game tying or go ahead shots in the playoffs in the last 24 seconds than Lebron. Lebron has also hit more playoff buzzer beaters on better efficiency than Jordan.
Lebron is a more versatile defender than Michael Jordan
Defensively, Lebron also has an advantage. While it’s true that in recent seasons Lebron’s defensive contributions have waned, at his peak he had unmatched defensive versatility and is one of the few players in NBA history that could truly guard all five positions. Jordan was a great perimeter defender but was limited by size in the amount of positions he could guard. Despite him winning DPOY in the 1988 season, his smaller size and lesser versatility caused his defensive impact as measured by the gold standard of advanced stats player impact plus minus, (PIPM), to lag behind Lebron’s in their peak season’s, +2.3 vs +3.5.
Putting up comparable or better stats against a league that has improved significantly strongly suggests Lebron is the flat out better player. Stats, while important, aren’t the crux of the argument as it’s more about the enduring nature of human progress than anything else.
Jordan vs Lebron : The final verdict
When you really think about it, Lebron James should be better than Jordan. In succeeding him, Lebron had the benefit of being able to witness Jordan’s entire career and build upon his skill set. Hence, him being significantly bigger and stronger with comparable speed, better passing, and a better basketball IQ makes sense. While denizens of every era regard theirs as the greatest, the truth is that every era builds upon the greatness of the previous one. That’s not a knock on Michael Jordan as without him breaking new ground (in terms of aggressive perimeter play and playing above the rim) there would no LeBron. But don’t get it twisted, Lebron is the king.
By Don Aholu
Don Aholu is an Ottawa-based data scientist and economist