Michael Jordan transcended basketball during his playing career. He performed at a level that none of his athletic peers could match despite all of them ascending to superstardom during the Golden Age of basketball. He changed the landscape of basketball making it more exciting and more profitable than it has ever been. Jordan changed the sport of basketball from a televised pickup game played under the rim into the complex and high-flying competition that it is today with his excellence on the court and savvy off it. No basketball player has been mildly comparable in the sheer impact that he has had on the game until now. Many athletes like Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson have advanced the league with their individual style and tough play in games. But, no one had come close to the full impact of Jordan until the 2015-2016 NBA season. With his championship season that culminated in him beating the team with the best regular season in NBA history, LeBron James has proven to be equally above his peers in basketball. He has finally accomplished enough in the record books to feasibly challenge His Airness for his title of greatest basketball player of all-time with his phenomenal play in the Finals. But, who is better? Is the hyper-athletic guard who dominated basketball at its height with awesome scoring displays and proved that teams could win championships without a talented big man the best player of all-time? Or is the wunderkind who stepped into the league straight out of high school and dominated his peers with size and all-around play better? This is a hypothetical one-on-one matchup between two of the greatest basketball players that have ever played in the National Basketball Association. For this exercise, both players are in the prime of their NBA careers and are in full health. There is also an assumption that the overall level of athleticism of the players in both eras, the level of competition, and the players’ consequent statistics are all equal. 20 points today is equal to 20 points 20 years ago, and a player of a past era would be equally effective against a player of this era. For example, if Magic Johnson faced Chris Paul in an one-on-one battle, Chris Paul would be substantially quicker than Magic because he is substantially quicker than his peers, not because athletes today are generally quicker today than they were in the eighties. Magic would also be considerably stronger than Paul because he was larger and stronger than the players in his era that would compare physically to Paul, not because the play was more physical in Magic’s time. In essence, both Michael Jordan’s and LeBron James’ skills are being measured against the competition in their respective times, and then compared to each other. James and Jordan will be assessed in several different categories pertinent to their basketball prowess. Their physical gifts and individual skill sets will be broken down into size, athleticism, basketball skill, statistics, intangibles, and overall impact on the game of basketball.
Size consists of height, length, and weight, and each subcategory gives an individual distinct physical advantages. Height and length are related, however some players play bigger than their size because they have longer extremities and some athletes play smaller than their size because they have shorter limbs than their peers. Weight is related to overall strength, an athletic advantage, because larger players are able to move smaller players into positions where they are less effective. Both Jordan and James had good size relative to their opponents. Jordan was a big guard in the 80s and 90s, and he utilized his length and explosiveness to attack the rim against players that were much taller than him. LeBron is the size of some smaller NBA centers, and used his bulk to bully smaller defenders in the post and on drives to the goal.
Michael Jordan 6’6″, Wingspan 6’11.5″, Standing Reach 8’9.25″, Weight 215
LeBron James 6’8″, Wingspan 7’0.25″, Standing Reach 8’10.25″, Weight 260
LeBron James has an advantage in height. 2 inches of height provides a little more room for a scorer to get shots off against tight defense. However, the length is negligible. Though Michael Jordan is two inches shorter than LeBron James (and he is rumored to be closer to 6’4 than 6’6″) his standing reach is only one inch shorter than LeBron’s, so his arm length is probably substantially longer. LeBron has a decided advantage in weight, and he learned to use his body when he entered his prime. Jordan is giving up 45 lbs. to James, and the combination of him being a little shorter and a lot lighter would be an obstacle for him on defense. LeBron has learned to use his body well with his back to the basket. He would have a decided advantage using his size.
Size and athleticism are the natural gifts of any athlete, and athleticism is measured through strength, speed, quickness, leaping ability, and overall explosiveness. Many of these measurables have concrete statistics from the combine, however there are some displays of natural ability like explosiveness that can only be measured in game in comparison to other players. Strength is literally how strong each player is when compared to their peers. In this exercise, strength is measured by how well these players were able to control defenders with their bodyweight and get positioning on the court. Speed is how fast the athletes were from baseline to baseline, but quickness is how swiftly and fluidly they move one short spot on the court to another localized place. Leaping ability is simply how high each player could jump and how it applied to their game on the basketball court. And, explosiveness is how well they put together all these traits. An explosive player always looks stronger, faster, quicker, and higher off the ground than their opponents.
Michael Jordan 48″
LeBron James 44″
Michael Jordan jumped 4 inches higher than LeBron James from a standstill, and that translated into an even bigger difference on the court. Jordan challenged and dunked over every big man of his era despite giving up more than 6 inches to most of them. And, even though he was a guard with good touch on his jumpshot, he used his jumping ability to score easy buckets around the basket. Though James has elite jumping ability in comparison to his peers, he could not match Jordan in pure leaping. James’ jumping tops out with his head about 4 inches above the rim, but Jordan could get his head at least 6 inches above it and with his long arms, his leaping ability was superior to anyone in NBA history.
LeBron carries this category with ease. Though Michael Jordan was strong for his position and could move his defenders to the spots on the court that he wanted them, he was never so much stronger than all his opponents that coaches were forced to guard him with post players in feeble attempts to match his size and strength. LeBron James is regularly guarded with the most agile post players of opposing teams because he is too big and strong for small forwards in the league. He has become equally as unstoppable in the post as Jordan despite not being as polished.
Both Jordan and James have remarkable speed for men their size. They are spectacular on the break and able to outrun most defenders with or without the basketball. LeBron James and Michael Jordan have elite speed for their positions and for their size.
Both LeBron James and Michael Jordan have elite quickness, too. LeBron moves phenomenally for a man his size. In Jordan’s era, a man the size of LeBron would be a plodding big man who never moved more than ten feet from the basket. But his quickness allows him to play at the top of the key on offense to create the space he needs to get by defenders, and affords him the luxury of guarding multiple positions on defense. However, Jordan was one of the quickest players in league history, especially when you consider his size. His movement from one spot on the court to another close spot was unmatched at his position. He also had more lateral quickness than James which made him a better on-ball defender. Like James, Jordan could guard multiple positions on the basketball court.
This category comes down to the eye test. Who looks more physically gifted against their competition? Neither James nor Jordan had any players in their era that compared favorably to them, and both players seemed like men playing against boys when faced with competition. Both players came into the league competing at a high level, and were athletically better than nearly everyone that they faced. They are powerful and graceful players who used their physical gifts to exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries. Jordan played almost exclusively above the rim at the beginning of his career, and then expanded his game to the high post moving around the floor and continuing to leap over defenders. The more experienced Jordan became, the more he relied on his jumper in unison with his athleticism. When he entered the league, James only played with his face to the basket and relied on getting by defenders with his speed, but he learned to play in the post and use leverage to move through defenses as his game progressed. Michael Jordan and LeBron James played different styles of basketball, but both were equally effective in using their physical talents.
Numbers do not lie, and both Jordan and LeBron have assembled some gaudy statistics over their careers. But, one has to look inside the numbers to fully understand the impact of each of these player’s on their teams and their impact on league history.
|Side-by-Side Statistical Comparison||Michael Jordan||LeBron James|
|Career Points Per Game Avg.||30.1 PPG.||27.1 PPG.|
|Career Rebounds Per Game Avg.||6.2 RPG.||7.2 RPG|
|Career Assists Per Game Avg.||5.3 APG.||6.9 APG.|
|Career Steals Per Game Avg.||2.3 SPG.||1.7 SPG.|
|Career Blocks Per Gam Avg.||0.8 BPG.||0.8 BPG.|
|Career Field Goal Pct.||.497||.498|
|Career Three Point Pct.||.327||.340|
|Career Playoffs Points Per Game Avg.||33.4 PPG.||28.0 PPG.|
|Career Playoffs Rebounds Per Game Avg.||6.4 RPG.||8.8 RPG.|
|Career Playoffs Assists Per Game Avg.||5.7 APG.||6.8 APG.|
|Career Playoffs Steals Per Game Avg.||2.1 SPG||1.8 SPG.|
|Career Playoffs Blocks Per Game Avg.||0.9 BPG.||0.9 BPG.|
|Career Playoffs Field Goal Pct.||.487||.478|
|Career Playoffs Three Point Pct.||.332||.321|
|Career Playoffs Free Throw Pct.||.828||.746|
The numbers bely that Michael Jordan was a more effective and more efficient scorer than LeBron James, though James is a talented scorer too. Jordan’s career scoring average is well above James’ and only one-one hundredth of a percentage point separates their field goal percentage. When you take into consideration that these numbers already include Jordan’s declining years (specifically his two years in Washington), you can assume that Jordan will eventually have considerably better percentages than LeBron from the field. James’ averages will inevitably decline as he gets older, though his career totals will eventually surpass Jordan in nearly every category. The stats also suggest that James is a better rebounder and a more willing passer than Jordan. Jordan is more explosive than LeBron as evidenced by his higher average in steals. And, though people think that LeBron blocks more shots as a wing than anyone else in NBA history, his numbers and Jordan’s numbers are identical in the regular season and the playoffs.
|Side-to-Side Comparison Awards and Accomplishments||Michael Jordan||LeBron James|
|NBA Finals Appearances||6||7|
|NBA Finals MVP Awards||6||3|
|Rookie of the Year||1||1|
|Regular Season MVP Awards||5||4|
|Defensive Player of the Year||1||0|
|All-Defensive First Team||9||5|
|All-NBA First Team||10||10|
|All-Star Game MVP Award||3||2|
Michael Jordan was easily more decorated than LeBron James in the awards category. He has one more regular season Most Valuable Player award, three more Finals MVPs, two extra All-Star appearances, 9 more scoring titles, and an extra All-Star MVP award. Jordan dwarfs LeBron on the defensive side of the ball too. He has 3 steals titles to zero for LeBron, he won Defensive Player of the Year which LeBron has never done, and Jordan was selected to more NBA All-Defensive teams and more NBA All-Defensive first teams. Individual awards do not tell us much about either individual that we do not already know. Both Michael Jordan and LeBron James are exceptional athletes and exceptional basketball players. However, the awards do tell us how much better than their peers that both players were.
Scoring the basketball really consists of two specific skills, a player’s ability to shoot the basketball and their ability and understanding of how to get a good shot. How good any basketball player is at scoring comes down to their efficiency at making shots and their scoring prowess. LeBron James usually gets the shots that he wants on the basketball court. He uses his size to push defenders under the rim in the post even though his actual post moves seem a little rudimentary. LeBron scores with a jump hook or a little push shot after making contact on the block. He can score in traffic or on the break. Out on the floor, he faces up and probes defenses until he gets his defender on his hip. He either scores or creates for his teammates once the defenders are there. The only weakness that he has in his offensive game is his jumper. When his feet are set, James is good shooter from midrange out to three, and he gets a lot of shots from the free throw line extended because defenses would rather him shoot than penetrate. But, when he drifts on shots rather than jumping up and down, or when he presses, his percentages go down. Michael Jordan, on the other hand, has as complete of an offensive game as anyone in NBA history. He scores from all levels of the floor just like LeBron, but he always gets the shot that he wants. Defenses could not force Jordan to shoot jump shots because he was deadly taking jumpers. They could not force him into help because he could out jump the big men at the rim. In fact, defenses could not force Jordan to do anything. He moved his defenders where he wanted them on the court. He created space for space with jab steps. He lost defenders with his immaculate footwork. And, when all else failed he used his great athleticism to drop in dunks or layups at the rim, score short shots in the paint, or to take his patented fade away.
Any player’s ball handling skills come down to how flashy they are with the basketball and how effectively that skill is used when they are creating a shot. So, the first question is do both players possess all the basic ball-handling skills? And, yes they absolutely do. Both players can crossover, dribble between their legs, dribble behind their backs, and keep the basketball away from defenders. Both Jordan and James can face the basket and blow by defenders, create space for shots with their backs to the basket, and use misdirection to get a first step on their opponents. The second question is which player utilizes their dribble more effectively to get into the painted area of the basketball court? That question is a little more difficult to answer because their styles are so different. LeBron’s style is more of a bullying type of basketball. He has a little more flair in his initial move to get an opposing player on his hip, but then he uses his strength to score while shielding the defender with his size. In the post, he gets good positioning and physically pushes defenders into the spots he wants them on the court with his lower body. It is not always pretty, but it is very effective. Jordan played completely different on the court. Though he used his strength when he was in the air, Jordan utilized quickness and calculated movements to move his defenders in most situations. He would fake jump shots and explode towards the paint. He used his pivot and a series of ball-fakes better than almost anyone in history. LeBron is more forceful in his face-up game, but Jordan is more succinct in his movement. Both are effective and any difference in the application of their skills is negligible.
Statistics like plus/minus ratio attempt to quantify the value of players to their teams, however the only real value in the stat is that it may show which combinations of athletes play well together, particularly on the defensive end of the court. But, defense can only be clearly measured by observing how a player operates within the concept of their team defense and in situational individual defense. By focusing in on a athlete, you can observe how often they gamble on defense, which compromises their team defense, and you get to see if they can dominate an offensive player when left in one-on-one situations. Both Jordan and James are extremely effective on the defensive end of the court. They are both versatile defenders who can defend against multiple positions. LeBron can feasibly guard 3-4 positions on any given night, and Jordan could guard 3. They are both sound within their defensive schemes and talented defenders individually. However, their teams’ defensive schemes highlighted their individual strengths. The Chicago Bulls ran a hard man-to-man defense with help defense principles, and the Cleveland Cavaliers run more of a match zone which has man-to-man principles. Jordan excelled in one-on-one coverage because of his length and explosiveness, and he was a far better individual defender than LeBron. He played on-ball and disrupted offenses by stopping the player who was initiating the play from seeing his passing lanes and being able to drive unimpeded. In team defense, he helped well on the weak side playing passing lanes and converting steals into quick scoring opportunities. However, within the scheme that his team runs, James was a better team defender than Jordan. Jordan was great in help situations and on-ball possessions, but James’ size and strength clog the middle and stops opposing wings from turning the corner and attacking the middle of the defense. Having him on the floor is like having an extra big man. He is a tangible obstacle for offensive players who want to attack the rim, and he is quick enough laterally to keep up with the quickest NBA guards. Having Jordan on defense meant that there were trapping opportunities all over the court. They play defense differently, but are equally effective.
Some skills can not be measured in plain numbers. Statistics miss valuable information about players that have no numerical measurement. They miss how often an athlete makes the correct basketball play on the court, they miss the expression of a player’s leadership skills, and they miss many other personal skills that a player displays consistently. The intangibles are what make players special, and Jordan and LeBron are immensely talented, special players. LeBron James is the consummate teammate despite generally being the best scorer on his team. He is always willing to pass the basketball almost to his detriment. His understanding of the game is unrivaled amongst his contemporaries, and he has a real feel for the game of basketball. Jordan possesses a competitiveness that has not been matched in sports. His desire to win games is evident when you watch him play. He literally shot himself and his teams into games when they were losing, and he constantly made the plays that his squad needed in crucial situations. His willingness to take and make difficult shots in the most pressure-filled moments fuels his legend. He is the consummate winner. Both of these guys, made a lot of plays that never showed their full impact in the stat books. For instance, Jordan hit 25 game-winners in his career with 24 of them coming in the last 10 seconds of the game, 8 of them coming at the buzzer, and 3 coming in the playoffs. LeBron has had 8 game-winners with 3 postseason shots. On the stat sheet, each of those shots are only worth two points, but those shots were literally the difference between winning and losing. Both of these players made numerous deflections on defense that disrupted opposing offenses that will never be seen in the record books. Jordan and James’ careers are defined by intangibles.
As physically talented as he is, LeBron James has not done enough to surpass Michael Jordan as the best player in National Basketball Association history. He could be the best athlete to reach basketball’s pinnacle, however Jordan was too good at too many things to be beaten. Jordan was more explosive, a more willing and more skilled scorer, more decorated, and a better winner. Jordan never lost in the Finals. He won three consecutive NBA championships twice. He was the most dominant scoring force that the NBA had seen since Wilt Chamberlain. LeBron is special, and he may eventually catch Jordan if he continues to win championships, but Michael Jordan is still the best basketball player that ever lived.