LBJ v. MJ: The GOAT Debate

I wanted to wait a little bit before writing about the NBA Finals but I couldn’t avoid the obvious question that has already been written about ad nauseam:  Is LeBron the GOAT now?

I hate this question primarily because debates about who the greatest player of all-time is are both subjective and depend on how you define your terms.  What is greatness?  Is it peak value?  Is it career value?  Is it success relative to peers?  Does it involve magically teleporting the players into 2020 and seeing how they do in the current NBA?  There are so many different ways to view the issue that arguments can be made for quite a few retired players: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Michael Jordan (a few others are also in the conversation too but we have to stop somewhere).

There are so many variables at play and it’s very hard to compare centers to perimeter players, when the rules were more favorable low post-oriented at one time and are much more perimeter oriented today.  To that end, I don’t want to go down the separate rabbit hole of figuring out the best center of ever (I think its Kareem but, again, reasonable minds can differ on that point).  So, let’s limit the inquiry to non-centers. 

Bird and Magic were amazing but they had shorter careers.  Most answers lead you back to MJ as the GOAT.  He had a great long career, crazy peak stats dominance, an unblemished Finals run, and dozens of legendary moments in the playoffs.  Jordan’s resume is pretty much perfect under most analyses.  There are some tremendously silly arguments against MJ that I won’t link to because they seem to be made in bad faith to get attention (sample dumb argument: a young Jordan on bad teams was swept by the Celtics in the playoffs in 1985-86 and 1986-87, therefore, Larry Bird is better). 

LeBron James’ claim to the GOAT title is based on the fact that he is really great and he has played more games than Jordan.  LBJ has numerous titles now and has already played more career games than MJ.  As to MJ’s lack of playoff failures, LBJ’s counter has to be: (a) peak Jordan did lose a few series (he struggled with the Pistons in the late 1980s and lost to Orlando in 1994-95) and (b) LBJ has had some tougher competition and/or if MJ had not taken a few years off, he likely would’ve lost a few times at some point in the 1990s.

Before we take a position in the argument, let’s see how they compare in advanced stats.  We fully acknowledge that advanced stats do not resolve the debate but they should be considered as a factor in guiding our decisions.  Having said that, here’s what we have:

-Jordan: 1,072 games, 27.9 PER, 214.0 WS, .250 WS/48, 9.2 BPM, 116.1 VORP

-LeBron: 1,265 games, 27.5 PER, 236.4 WS, .234 WS/48, 8.9 BPM, 133.7 VORP

LBJ has played more games and done so at a very high level but Jordan is slightly better and this includes his two forgettable seasons with the Wizards as a past-his-prime vet.  If you take those two years out and compare MJ and LBJ through age-35, here’s how the data looks:

-Jordan: 930 games, 29.1 PER, 204.5 WS, .274 WS/48, 10.2 BPM, 110.6 VORP

 -LeBron: 1,265 games, 27.5 PER, 236.4 WS, .234 WS/48, 8.9 BPM, 133.7 VORP

Whoa.  MJ’s advanced numbers are even better and he racked them in a much more defensive-friendly environment.  LBJ still has the longevity numbers but Jordan was ridiculous.

Now let’s see how their playoff advanced stats compare:

-Jordan playoffs: 179 games, 28.6 PER, 39.8 WS, .255 WS/48, 11.1 BPM, 24.7 VORP

-LeBron playoffs: 260 games, 28.4 PER, 55.3 WS, .245 WS/48, 10.2 BPM, 33.2 VORP

These are also pretty close but MJ, again, appears to be the slightly better player. 

This is where MJ’s refusal to lose in the 1990s makes a difference.  I hate to use NBA Finals records as a significant factor in ranking most players because quality of competition and teammates also matter but, when you rank the-best-of-the-best, it does have relevance because the best players usually do win in the NBA.  When comparing two nearly perfect items, these little differences take on more significance.

LeBron has had some supernatural moments (notably beating a vastly superior 2015-16 Warrior team) but Jordan was basically supernatural at all times in the playoffs. He did have some random bad playoff games in that stretch but he was almost always the best player on the court. 

Hell, even MJ’s famous bad Game 3 versus the Knicks in the 1993 Playoffs wasn’t as bad as we remember.  Several people have talked about that game as the Knicks blowing their shot to beat the king because he had a terrible shooting game.  But look more closely, Jordan was still dominating the game and was a positive force…yes, he shot 3-18 but he had 8 boards, 11 assists, and 22 points because he shot 16-17 from the line.  Think about it…Jordan shot putridly from the field and still scored more than a point per shot attempt and was dominant in other phases of the game.  That’s fairly amazing.  (MJ actually had a higher game score in Game 3 than he did in the first two games in New York that series).  By contrast, LeBron has had a few playoff moments where he seemed less engaged (relative to Jordan) notably against the Celtics in 2009-10 and in the Finals against the Mavs in 2010-11. 

One could argue that MJ never had to face a legendarily great team in the NBA Finals while Bird and Magic had to play each other and LeBron had the Spurs and the Warriors. This point is a bit overstated.  MJ never played anyone as good as the Curry Warriors but the rest of the teams he played were quite good (and better than the 2010-11 Mavs).   We looked at the Bulls’ rivals and they were actually pretty good too.  The Bulls never played anyone as good as the Warriors but the rest of the teams they played were comparable to the rest of LBJ’s rivals.  It’s fair to assume that MJ could’ve beaten the Warriors in, at least, one of four tries like James did.

Let’s also return to the counter-argument noted above against MJ, namely that Jordan was not perfect.  He lost to the Pistons in 1988-89 and 1989-90 and to the Magic in 1994-95 and might’ve lost in 1993-94 had he not retired.  Jordan was at his peak in 1987-88, 1988-89, and 1989-90 but his Bulls were not that good at the time:

-1987-88 Bulls: They went 50-32 with a decent 3.76 SRS.  The only other player with a positive BPM was Sam Vincent (0.6) and second-highest VORP was Charles Oakley/Dave Corzine at 1.0.  They lost to a 54-28 Pistons team with a 5.46 SRS.

-1988-89 Bulls: They went 47-35 with a 2.13 SRS.  Scottie Pippen was the second best player but he wasn’t that good yet (0.4 BPM, 1.5 VORP).  They lost to a 63-19 Pistons team with a 6.24 SRS.

-1989-90 Bulls: They went 55-27 but with a more pedestrian 2.74 SRS.  Pippen was better (1.8 BPM, 3.0 VORP) but not the Hall of Famers we would see the next season.  Detroit, again, was clearly better (59-23 with 5.41 SRS).

The Bulls were never better than those Pistons teams and MJ’s second best players were, maybe, slightly above-average.  The second Pippen became the Pippen we remember, the Bulls destroyed the Pistons.  As for the loss to the Magic in 1994-95, MJ had just returned from retirement and was clearly not ready to play a good team.  Jordan swept the same team the next season.  MJ has the upper hand on Detroit and Orlando overall by virtue of his convincing wins when both teams were closer to the height of their powers (I’m aware Detroit and Orlando had some valid injury/age excuses during their sweeps). 

Yes, it’s possible that Jordan would’ve lost in the playoffs in either 1993-94 or 1994-95 if he had never retired (in fact I think it’s likely he would’ve lost at least one series) but a loss or two those seasons does very little to dent MJ’s spotless run in the 1990s. If he had gone 6-2 or 7-1 in the NBA Finals, he still has an aura of success that is hard to quibble contest and a better playoff record than LBJ.

In short, LeBron has a compelling argument that his career value exceeds Jordan’s career.   Jordan’s peak appears slightly better and his playoff success is something James doesn’t quite have.  The other way of looking at the GOAT question is to ask which player would beat the other in a playoff series.  It’s hard to imagine that a team led by peak Jordan would lose more often to a team led by peak LeBron if their supporting casts were close in talent, even under 2020 rules.  This is more a subjective feel than science but MJ’s stats, history, and drive are pretty much unmatched.  Credit LeBron for having a really strong case for GOAT but I still prefer Jordan by a hair overall.