NBA: LeBron James Is On Michael Jordan’s Level

Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports /

Media and fans often spend so much time comparing — and discounting — current great NBA players vs. past legends that true appreciation for the feats of the present becomes lost. It’s time to re-adjust this mindset. LeBron James is one of the six or seven greatest players in the history of the NBA, and is already on Michael Jordan‘s level in ways many choose not to absorb.

When factoring in great players of any era you have to take into account a myriad of circumstances: the player’s coach/coaches, strength of the players’ opponents in NBA Finals appearances, strength of their own supporting staff, athleticism of those he/she faced in their era, longevity of career, front office realities, injuries, among other factors.

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So why, when media members and fans do the inevitable comparisons between James and Jordan is their go-to move always rings and stats?

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The answer is actually fairly simple: it’s a lazy and easy way to make a strong argument as both a broadcaster and a fan. This doesn’t make the arguments correct however.

One can take both the rings and stats arguments and flip them on their head to easily demonstrate James is on pace to be on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA players and closer to Jordan than widely thought already and will surpass him in several areas.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, which is rooted in pre-playoff projections, spells out that James’ teams should have made four NBA Finals appearances and won two. Thus, LeBron hasn’t under-achieved by losing four times in the Finals, he’s actually over-achieved by getting poor teams to two more Finals than he should have.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s ELO rating James’ teams were favored to win only two of his Finals appearances, while Jordan’s teams were favored to win four of his six — and a logical man could have told you then they should have (and did) win all six.

In James’ four NBA Finals losses he had three of the worst eight supporting casts around him as measured by ESPN’s Statistical Plus/Minus of his surrounding teammates through the conference finals of each season over the last 31 years. In his two Finals losses with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James had two of the worst three supporting casts over the last 31 seasons.

Meanwhile, each of Jordan’s Finals teams rank among the best over that same 31-year-span, as well as all-time.

To date, in James’ 12 seasons his teams have only missed the playoffs twice. In Jordan’s 15 seasons his teams also missed the playoffs only twice. Both have missed being an All-Star only one time in their respective careers.

James has four regular season MVPs to Jordan’s five; and James has already matched Jordan’s 11 All-NBA teams with what figures to be at least another four to five years left in his body.

Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

What about stats?

Jordan is, and will always be, the better scorer as compared to James (career average 2.8 points per game higher than James). In fact, Jordan may go down as the best wing scorer in the history of the NBA. That said, you might be surprised at how close James is in career scoring to Jordan, and there are things that James does do better than Jordan.

In regular season play Jordan scored 32,292 points to James’ 24,913. A disparity of just 7,379 points with James at only 30 years of age. If LeBron maintains his current mean average of 2,076 points per season, he’ll surpass Jordan in all-time scoring at age 34. Further, James is only 967 career playoff points behind Jordan so he’s likely to pass Jordan in this category by age 32 according to yearly averages.

James has both out-assisted and out-rebounded Jordan on a per game basis — 6.9 to 5.3 assists and 7.1 to 6.2 rebounds per respectively. That adds up to — in three fewer regular seasons — an assist advantage for James over Jordan of 6,302 to 5,633, with James only trailing Jordan’s career rebound total by 170 boards to date.

In the playoffs, the advantage for James over Jordan in rebounds swells to 8.8 to 6.4 rebounds per game, while James still averages one more assist per game than Jordan. James is also the better three-point shooter at 34.2 percent to Jordan’s 32.7 percent, while their career field goal percentages almost mirror each other with James at 49.6 percent to Jordan’s 49.7.

Looking at the overall pure athleticism of the competition each faces/faced, there’s no doubt James plays in a more athletically gifted and skilled league overall than Jordan did. James also figures to play at least another five years, if not more. His game lends itself to adapting much better in some areas than Jordan’s ever did as well.

Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

Jordan got very strong at the end of his career but is limited by his size as compared to James, so the rebounding disparity should only swell. Further, although Jordan averaged over five assists per game, he was always, until the very end, a score-first guy.

As James ages and his teammates around him improve via hefty spending, he’ll transition his game to be an even better teammate. Expect to see James finish well above Jordan in both of these areas because he is the better player in these categories vs. Jordan.

Lastly, the coaching comparisons are laughable. Jordan was coached by arguably the best head coach in the history of the NBA, while James has muddled through coaches like Mike Brown and David Blatt.

To say this doesn’t play at least a small factor in team and NBA Finals success when comparing the two as players, would be shameful.

Long story short, you’re witnessing an absolute legend. Enjoy it while you can, and don’t wait until it’s over to give the man the credit he is due.

Will Reeve is a contributing writer for HoopsHabit, you can follow him on Twitter @WillReeveJr or connect with him on Facebook here.

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