I was going to begin this as a MJ vs. Kobe vs. LBJ comparison, but Kobe’s numbers just weren’t terribly interesting. MJ vs. LBJ, however, is very interesting. This analysis includes the first 12 years of both careers. I won’t be including playoff stats in this analysis, though I will touch on them when appropriate.
Note on my background: I’ve been a rabid NBA fan since the late ’80s, however, I was 9 years old in 1990. I have gone back and watched a lot of the 90’s Bulls in recent years, so I am remembering this with better eyes than my teenage brain.
I’m going to go stat by stat (or group by group) and will be considering the context of the era and their teams. Obviously I could have a bias, being a Bulls fan, but I’d like to think I’m going to be objective.
MJ (age 21-33): 848 games (984 possible), 837 starts, 32,706 minutes
LBJ (age 18-30): 911 games (968 possible*), 910 starts, 35,769 minutes
* – due to 2011 lockout
LBJ’s health throughout his career is remarkable, and it shows here. If you include playoff games, LeBron started 20 more of those than Jordan as well. All told, Lebron played more than an entire season, 83 games, than Jordan has. However, Jordan did play three years of college as well, but we’re looking at NBA stats here. All told, it’s important to remember that LBJ has 63 more regular season games than Jordan after 12 years. Not a monumental difference, but notable.
MJ: .509 FG%, .340 3P% (1544 attempted), .524 2P%, .523 eFG%, .584 TS%, .843 FT% (7394 attempted)
LBJ: .496 FG%, .342 3P% (3671 attempted), .535 2P%, .531 eFG%, .581 TS%, .745 FT% (7730 attempted)
These are overall similar numbers, though there are two notable differences: LBJ’s much higher 3P attempts, and MJ’s higher FT%. The 3P difference can probably be chalked up to era, as the three-point shot was less emphasized back then. Jordan was just simply a better free-throw shooter as well, so no groundbreaking findings here.
The surprise is that LBJ’s numbers stand up as well as they do. We often consider MJ the best scorer ever without much more thought, though LBJ’s numbers do really stand up. Much of this is due to the extra emphasis on the three-pointer, but LeBron is also one of the few athletes in NBA history who was as effective (if not a tiny bit more) than Jordan was at driving in the lane.
MJ: 4729, 5.6/game
LBJ: 6301, 6.9/game
LBJ’s vision and passing acumen are often lauded, and the stats bear it out. MJ was certainly no slouch, but LBJ clearly gets the edge here. MJ was a very good passer, LBJ is easily the best passing non-point guard in history, and on par with other hall-of-fame point guards.
MJ: 5361 rebounds (6.3/game), 3944 DRB, 1417 ORB
LBJ: 6502 rebounds (7.1/game), 5421 DRB, 1081 ORB
It’s not surprising that LBJ has the rebounding edge, but it’s very interesting that MJ had 50% more offensive rebounds. ORBs are largely recognized as more difficult and valuable. This is likely a product of the triangle offense, but also that MJ relished tip-ins and rebounding his own shot a bit more than most.
MJ: 2165 steals (2.6/game), 783 blocks (0.9/game)
LBJ: 1553 steals (1.7/game), 724 blocks (0.8/game)
The steals are the obvious difference. However, I do think there are three things at play here: MJ wasn’t always guarding the best opposing wing (that was usually Pippen’s duty), MJ played in an era where steals were a bit easier to get due to NBA rules, and MJ gambled a bit more for steals than LBJ does. Regardless of that, ~600 more steals is a huge deal (especially when you consider the large intrinsic value of a steal, which often becomes a 4-point swing), and is a testament to Jordan’s fast hands and tenacity. The fact that he outpaces LBJ’s blocks is also impressive and a bit surprising.
MJ: 2404 (2.8/game)
LBJ: 3067 (3.4/game)
This discrepancy could be easily explained by the fact that LBJ had the ball in his hands more (since he effectively played point guard a lot), but MJ’s usage rate is higher as well (33.5 vs. 31.7), so this is actually a pretty meaningful difference. Add that to the fact that Jordan played in an era that was harder for ball handlers (just like when we mentioned MJ’s steal numbers), and this is pretty impressive and meaningful.
I won’t bother analyzing other stats, as the above are the most meaningful differences.
The other important things to consider when comparing these two are their team situations, other era-specific differences, and the simple fact that they are very different players.
Jordan and LeBron both played on mediocre teams in their early years, but through 12 years Jordan had played with elite teammates for a couple more years than LeBron had. Pippen is arguably better than any teammate LeBron has ever had (Wade is the only debatable one), and LeBron didn’t really have even good teammates until he went to the Heat.
We’ve already covered differences in their respective eras concerning three-point attempts and defense, but it’s also important to note that defenses are different now in more ways than the ability to defense ball handlers. Zone defenses and theories are commonplace now, and that has made things harder for iso-type play. The league’s best offenses back in Jordan’s day were simply the teams with the best offensive stars (and their amount of them), while now the league’s best offenses are the ones with the best scheme and players that fit it. Players like Danny Green and Mike Miller would have been afterthoughts in the 90s, while they are much-revered as essential cogs in their respective offenses nowadays. This is due more to the way offense is played, rather than heightened media attention.
Finally, these are just two different players. Jordan’s game was predicated on finesse and tough shot-making on offense, while LBJ looked to pass more and used his size to bully his way in the post and in the lane. Both were tenacious defenders, both among the best wing defenders of all time. However, Jordan was one of NBA history’s greatest pickpockets, while LeBron could defend almost every position.
I think what it comes back to is that it’s still pretty difficult to compare these two, based on position, era, and expectation. Gun-to-head, I still take MJ, but the margin is smaller than many would care to admit. MJ’s playoff numbers are a sight to behold, but a second look shows that his efficiency is actually a tad worse than during the regular season (which is the typical effect when raising usage rate).
I think the biggest thing I took out of this was that LBJ probably doesn’t get enough credit for being as good a scorer as he is, and that Jordan probably doesn’t get enough credit for being as good a defender as he was.