No, Basketball Fans, LeBron James is Not Better than Michael Jordan

To begin with I will state something that should not be necessary but often is.  Just because I am saying that LeBron James is not better than Michael Jordan I am not saying that he is no good at all.  Even the harshest LeBron critics would still easily put him in the top 10 players of all time.  So with that out of the way, I would like to explain to the world why LeBron James is not a better basketball player than Michael Jordan was.

Let’s start with some objective metrics.  Two metrics that have gained some traction recently are win shares and player efficiency rating.  Of the two I prefer win shares for a couple of reasons.  Win shares attempts to take all meaningful stats, including defensive stats and rebounding to calculate a player’s contribution to winning basketball games.  Also, win share algorithms can be checked with historical data to see how well they actually predict team wins.  The win share metric has been checked with decades of historical data and has proven to accurately predict season team wins based on player statistics to within an average error of 2.74 wins in an 82 game schedule.  This gives the metric pretty good credibility.

Player efficiency rating is a good metric for measuring offensive production which includes the factors of 3-point shooting, 2-point shooting, and free throw shooting to arrive at the efficiency rating.

Now is a reasonable time to make such comparisons as LeBron James has played in one more NBA season than Michael Jordan did, and because the comparisons between the two appear to be heating up.  So what do the objective metrics say?  Well it is not so good for LeBron.  For career win shares per 48 minutes in the NBA, the all time leaders are (per basketball reference):

1. Michael Jordan* .2505
2. Chris Paul .2504
3. David Robinson* .2502
4. Wilt Chamberlain* .2480
5. Neil Johnston* .2413
6. LeBron James .2389
7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* .2284
8. Magic Johnson* .2249
9. Kevin Durant .2189
10. Charles Barkley* .2163

As you can see, Michael Jordan has the best career numbers, just narrowly over Chris Paul.  LeBron James is clear down in number 6.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is number 7, but his career stats suffer per 48 minutes since he played many years past his prime – more on that later.

As far as player efficiency goes, the story is a little different, per basketball reference:

1. Michael Jordan* 27.91
2. LeBron James 27.61
3. Shaquille O’Neal* 26.43
4. David Robinson* 26.18
5. Wilt Chamberlain* 26.13
6. Chris Paul 25.72
7. Bob Pettit* 25.35
8. Kevin Durant 25.24
9. Neil Johnston* 24.69
10. Charles Barkley* 24.63

So for the offense stats Lebron comes out a bit better at #2, but still looking up at Jordan.  So as far as these respected metrics go, Michael Jordan is objectively the better of the two players.  Is there any objective metric that has James ahead of Jordan?  If so, I have not seen it.

How about championships?  Usually I would not put much stock in this comparison, since championships are a team accomplishment.  I would never say that Will Perdue was a better forward than Karl Malone in spite of the number of championships the two players have (or do not have).  But in the case of comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan, I think this is a fair comparison since both players were the undisputed leaders on their teams, and spent so much time with the ball in their hands.   Additionally, LeBron James has so shamelessly left teams, to arrange to be on a ‘stacked’ team, to improve his chances of winning championships, something Jordan did not do.  And James has done this twice.  Ironically it is James that comes up short in the championship count.  This could be even further magnified since Jordan quit basketball for two years during his prime to give baseball a try.  Jordan won 3 championships in a row before this retirement, and 3 more in a row after returning.  There seems to be a good chance he would have had 8 straight championships had he stayed – something LeBron is not even close to doing.

And lastly, I want to give my own eyeball test some expression.  I am old enough to have watched both players.  And while Lebron does have the edge in rebounds and assists – which I can appreciate, Jordan was better at nearly everything else.  But perhaps nothing is more striking to me that Jordan’s ability to create mid-range shots for himself, and make them with astonishing regularity, regardless of what the defense does.  Jordan carried his teams to victories on several occasions with just such a shot.  LeBron has no such mid-range game, and has far to often disappeared down the stretch of important games.

So, no, basketball fans, LeBron James is not a better basketball player than Michael Jordan, and is therefore not the best basketball player in history.  That honor goes to – Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

When one looks at the win shares per 48 minutes for individual seasons, 3 of the best 4 seasons in history belong to Kareem.  And when one considers that Kareem only lost one game in his 4 year college career, to add to a remarkable NBA career, most everyone is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the best basketball player of all time.  It is neither LeBron nor Michael.  It is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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1 Response to “No, Basketball Fans, LeBron James is Not Better than Michael Jordan”


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