Jordan vs. LeBron- Separating the G.O.A.T From the S.H.E.E.P.

The Greatest Debate of All Time

The term G.O.A.T. refers to the “greatest player of all time”, and has become a vernacular in the sports-sphere over the past decade. With every G.O.A.T. comes many S.H.E.E.P. The term S.H.E.E.P., terribly coined by yours truly, means that a player is “silly he even envisions perfection”. Yes, this was a poor attempt at word play for a cheap bovidae joke, but it makes for a hell of a title so I am sticking to it!

Every sport has their respective G.O.A.T. That being said, the greatest player in NBA history is undoubtedly the most contentious disagreement of all. Oftentimes you will find passionate NBA fans resorting to insulting each other’s intelligence when discussing this subject. I fell in love with the NBA when I was 10 years old. Since that point, I have heard more people thrown into the G.O.A.T. discussion than Russell Westbrook’s shooting percentage. Hearing arguments for the likes of Kobe (R.I.P.), Kareem, Wilt, LeBron, Jordan, and many more, it became apparent that everyone has a different set of standards when evaluating their G.O.A.T. I came to realize that the only way to fairly evaluate who is truly the G.O.A.T. is to pit the players against each other in a gauntlet of equitable criteria (meaning applicable across generations). These criteria (in no particular order) include accolades, statistics, success, longevity/durability, and assistance.

After comparing the players using these criteria, the list narrows down to two players. It will not come as a surprise to anybody that those players happened to be Michael Jordan and LeBron James. This debate brings a lot of names to the forefront, but one way or another it always seems to come down to these two. Due to the recent release of Michael Jordan’s 10-part documentary, The Last Dance, there has been a definite pendulum swing in the public eye in favor of Michael Jordan. This article will attempt to eliminate any sort of biases that may exist in an effort to separate the S.H.E.E.P. from the G.O.A.T, and shed some light on the greatest debate of all time.

Accolades

Michael Jordan Accolades LeBron James
5 MVP 4
6 Finals MVP 3
10 Scoring Titles 1
11 All-NBA Teams 15
9 All-NBA Defensive Teams 6
1 Defensive Player of The Year 0
14 All-Star Appearances 16

When it comes to individual accomplishments, one must not fall into the trap of ignoring a later category, longevity. When you take into account that Jordan sustained a serious injury early on in his career, and retired from the game in his prime twice, he only played a total of 13 seasons as opposed to LeBron’s 17 (and counting). That is by no means a knock on James, but again, longevity is a category in itself. With that said, there should be an asterisk next to the categories where LeBron just barely edges out Jordan.

Jordan only beats LeBron out in MVPs by one, but again, it is all the more impressive when you take into account Jordan has played significantly less time. Mike doubles James’ Finals MVP count, he has 10 times as many scoring titles, three more All-NBA defensive teams, and a defensive player of the year as the cherry on top. I left the college awards off due to the fact that LeBron bypassed college to go straight to the league. This does not discount the fact that Jordan was a two-time All-American, and one-time college player of the year. 

Verdict: Michael Jordan

Statistics

Michael Jordan Basic Statistics (per-game) LeBron James
30.1 Points 27.1
5.3 Assists 7.4
6.2 Rebounds 7.4
2.3 Steals 1.6
0.83 Blocks 0.76
49.7% Field Goal % 50.4%
32.7% Three-Point % 34.4%
83.5% Free Throw % 73.5%
2.7 Turnovers 3.5

On the surface, Jordan beats out LeBron in 5 of the 9 basic statistical categories. What is even more dumbfounding is that when you seek below the surface and add context to these statistics, the margin between the two of them gets even larger!

Before we delve deeper, one must acknowledge the fact that certain positions are more inclined to rack up certain statistics based on their positional roles. This means that the only way to properly analyze a player’s basic statistics, such as those listed above, is to compare them relative to the statistics of other players at their position. 

Michael Jordan Rank Among Positions LeBron James
1st Points 2nd
4th Assists 1st
3rd Rebounds 12th
3rd Steals 9th
3rd Blocks 17th
9th Field Goal % 17th
N/A Three-Point % N/A
34th Free Throw % 107th
N/A Turnovers N/A

This statistical contextualization swings that 5-4 advantage to a whopping 6-1 advantage (with the omission of three-point % and turnovers), both favoring Jordan. When judging these players in relation to the positions they played, Jordan is not only near the top in every category, but he is relatively better in every category with the exception of assists. 

If you think it is ridiculous to compare them relative to their position rather than to each other, let me offer some advanced statistics to further show Jordan’s statistical dominance.

Michael Jordan Advanced Statistics LeBron James
27.9* PER (Reg. Sea.) 27.5
28.6* PER (Playoffs) 28.3
.2505* Win Shares (Reg. Sea.) .2345
.2553* Win Shares (Playoffs) .2436
9.22* Box Score +/- (Reg. Sea.) 8.94
11.14* Box Score +/- (Playoffs) 10.16
.1083* VORP Per-Game (Reg. Sea.) .1059
.1382* VORP Per-Game (Playoffs) .1289
19* Top-100 Game Scores 3

*=highest all time

Not only does Jordan beat out LeBron in all nine of the advanced statistics I could find, but he ranks first among all players in NBA history in every single one of them. Advanced statistics do not care about position or time played. All they care about is telling you who is objectively better!

In addition, when you look at a statistic like PER where the gap between the two seems to be small, it is worth noting that LeBron has not begun to decline yet. Jordan had two seasons of his career where he was fresh off retirement, and one of them was at age 40. All things considered, it is a miracle Jordan still leads in that category. The margin will no doubt widen when LeBron exits his prime.

Verdict: Michael Jordan

Success

Michael Jordan Success Statistics LeBron James
6-0 Finals Series Record 3-6
24-11 Finals Games Record 18-31
61.2 Finals Opponent’s Average Wins 60.8

In the finals, LeBron has been swept twice, and won just one game twice as well. The die-hard LeBron fans will chalk that up to the tough competition he had to face in teams like the Warriors and the Spurs. That faulty logic seems to backfire easily when you see that the teams Jordan faced in the finals averaged more wins than the teams LeBron faced. The only reason we do not hold the Jazz or the Suns in the same high esteem is because Jordan kept them from ever making names for themselves. 

LeBron fans also love to hold Jordan’s early career playoff losses to teams like the Bad Boy Pistons and the Celtics against him. A collective belief among those fans is that “losing in the finals is better than losing in the first round.” Although this is likely true, it is important to know that LeBron played almost his entire career in a weak Eastern conference where he never faced any stiff competition. Compare that to Jordan who had to face off against Bird’s Celtics and Zeke’s Pistons early on in his career. Then Ewing’s Knicks, Shaq’s Magic, and Miller’s Pacers in the latter part of his career.

LeBron James beating that 73-9 Warriors team was one of the single greatest sports moments I have ever witnessed in my entire life. Whether or not Jordan would have beaten that team is a conversation for another time. However, the reason Jordan never faced a team like that in the finals is because Jordan’s Bulls were always that team! Like the Warriors, Jordan’s Bulls were consistently logging 60-70+ win seasons. Nonetheless, the Warriors were still unable to three-peat, where the Bulls did twice. LeBron has never achieved any of those things. You can say it is because LeBron had less help, butwe will talk about that later. 

Verdict: Michael Jordan

Longevity/Durability

Michael Jordan Longevity/Durability  LeBron James
15 Seasons Played 17
10 Prime Seasons (subjective) 16
11 Played 82 Games 2
3 Injuries+Impromptu Retirements 1

LeBron has been able to extend his prime further than any player we have ever seen in the history of the league. It is unprecedented how long he has been able to sustain such a high level of play with minimal damage to his body. 

LeBron has played more seasons total, and more seasons in his prime than Jordan. Jordan has played more full seasons than LeBron, but that is primarily due to today’s culture of load management. James has shown that when he has to play all 82, he is more than capable.

Jordan is a very durable player. Like LeBron, he has only sustained one major injury over the course of his career. Nevertheless, Jordan did retire twice in his prime where LeBron is in his 17th straight year and counting.

Verdict: LeBron James

Assistance

Michael Jordan Assistance LeBron James
1 All-Star Teammates 5
1 Phil Jacksons 0
1 Jerry Krauses 0
1 Jerry Reinsdorfs 0

I did not include the Hall of Famers played with on this table for two reasons. One being that LeBron is still playing. The other being that both of them are likely the catalyst for their teammates being or eventually being in the Hall of Fame. 

Jordan only played with one All-Star (Scottie Pippen), but that is hardly anything to make a point about. Especially since B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant made appearances during Jordan’s first hiatus. It can be argued that LeBron’s All-Stars include more All-NBA caliber talent, but seeing as how he played more significant time without them than with them, it is a fraudulent argument.

The biggest factor in Jordan’s assistance (aside from Scottie Pippen) was most definitely the Bulls organization from the top down. Their owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, is one of the greatest owners in sports history. Reinsdorf was the primary reason for the team’s preemptive breakup, but you cannot disregard the major role he played in its construction as well. Jerry Krause, the general manager, always had the ability to surround Michael with the players he needed to succeed either through the draft, through free agency, or via trade. As portrayed in The Last Dance, Krause was used as the scapegoat for the team’s deconstruction. Unfortunately, he is not alive to defend himself so we will never know for sure the role he played. Phil Jackson is the single greatest coach in the history of the NBA, winning 11 NBA championships coaching both the Bulls and the Lakers. When Jackson arrived, he taught Jordan a different way to play the game with the triangle offense. This new style of play shifted Jordan from a stat monster, to a team oriented winner, who also filled up the stat sheet. In comparison, LeBron has played under less than competent front offices, and bad coaching with the exception of Eric Spoelstra throughout the course of his career.

Verdict: LeBron James

The Wrap-Up

After carefully evaluating the main quantifiable criteria, Jordan beats out LeBron 3-2. If you swing one of those categories LeBron’s way, he leads, but in my opinion, the categories in which Jordan wins are significantly more telling and important. That gives Jordan the decisive victory, therefore making him the G.O.A.T, and LeBron the S.H.E.E.P. 

LeBron James is the most phenomenal player I have ever seen play the game of basketball, but that is because I never had the privilege of watching Jordan live. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to be a LeBron guy. It was not until after digging deeper where I realized that Jordan is the guy, and by a rather big margin. 

I had a whole other criteria I was going to write about called “The Eye Test.” I decided to ditch that category given that it is not quantifiable, and it is heavily subjective. Yes, LeBron is bigger, stronger, faster, and is a freak of nature like we have never seen before. However, those attributes are irrelevant when comparing basketball players, to some extent. You can be the biggest, fastest, strongest man on planet earth, but it does not mean you are inherently the greatest player of all time. If that were the case, Wilt Chamberlain would be the G.O.A.T. far and away. Instead, one must look at the criteria listed here to make that all-important distinction, and the criteria points to Michael Jordan.

The G.O.A.T.- Michael Jordan

The S.H.E.E.P.- LeBron James

 

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