Two Stars of National Basketball Association: LeBron James and Michael Jordan

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When LeBron James entered the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the 2003 draft, sports analysts and fanatics have touted him as the next great talent, and predicted a potential surpassing of Michael Jordan as the greatest to ever play the game. Strait out of Highschool LeBron’s career has been incredibly successful, and yet he still has many harsh critics saying that he is overrated, and that nothing he can do will cause him to ever be considered the greatest of all time. However, when applying research related to statistical analysis and other factors, there does appear to be a strong argument that James is well on his way to surpassing his idol, Michael Jordan.
First when discussing who the greatest of all time is we need to look at statistics . If LeBron James is significantly worse statistically than Michael Jordan, then the argument is over and there is no need to continue. He cannot surpass him. This, however, is not the case. In fact, the statistics show that these two are close in most statistical categories. Posnanski (2016) says, “We must acknowledge from the start that there is no easy statistical answer to the question of MJ vs. LeBron” (p. 1). He goes on to say, “the advanced numbers look like so: Win Shares: Jordan: 214 James: 192.5, Value Over Replacement Player: James: 108.6 Jordan: 104.4, Player Efficiency Rating Jordan: 27.9 (first all time) James: 27.7 (second all-time)” (Posnanski, 2016, p. 1). Posnanski ends up concluding that really there is no way to produce a clear answer on which of the two is better statistically because they appear to be in such a dead heat. He says that making an argument for or against LeBron merely based on statistics is, “like trying to make the statistical argument on why blue is a better color than red” (Posnanski, 2016, p. 1).

Williams and Williams (2016) made the case that the two players are very different and outdo each other in different categories. In this article, charts are used to diagram this. The charts indicate that although Michael Jordan’s average over the first 10 years of his career is slightly higher than LeBron James’, “LJ was more consistent in his first 10 years with respect to points compared with MJ because LJ standard deviation for points is lower than MJ” (Williams, 2016, p. 1). Their tables also show Jordan outperforms James in steals, but that James pulled down significantly more rebounds (Williams and Williams, 2016). The two players outdo each other in different statistics but in the end, it appears hard to determine whether one of them is clearly superior based strictly on these charts.

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Bender (2015), of SportingNews.com, really sums up how hard it is to get a good perception of who has a statistical edge. Bender stresses that these players played in different eras, and that this must be considered. He says, “Jordan won all those championships during an era that is perceived as more physical, while James thrives in an era where a NBA record 55,137 3-pointers were jacked up in the 2014-15 season. James could have dominated during Jordan’s time, and Jordan could have dominated the current NBA landscape. It is a wash” (Bender, 2015 p. 1).

So how then can these players be compared since they are so close? Mertz et. al. (2016) produced a statistical model to compare players and develop a ranking system. The algorithm they developed used points per game (PPG), rebounds per game (RPG), assists per game (APG), win shares per 48 minutes (WSPER48), and number of NBA championships won (CHMPS). Point values were assigned to each of these categories and results were tabulated. When looking at the results, researchers found that PPG, RPG, APG and CHMPS were all good predictors for who would perform better but surprisingly, WSPER48 did not really seem to yield conclusive results. These findings were then used to produce a top 150 list which ended up ranking Jordan ahead of James (Mertz et. al., 2016).

As of the 2017-2018 season, LeBron James is in his 15th season which now equals the total amount of seasons that Michael Jordan played in the NBA throughout his career. This may seem like it makes comparison easier. In a certain sense, it does, but it is also a lot more complicated because of the difference in eras, and Michael Jordan’s two retirements, not to mention the fact that Jordan got three years of college to develop while James came into the NBA raw and straight out of high school as a wide-eyed, 18-yearold. Nevertheless, these fifteen seasons of statistics, awards, and accomplishments are worth looking at, and can help us somewhat with comparing these two legends. Land of Basketball’s website has a helpful breakdown of the comparison. They have each been to the All-Star Game 14 out 15 years, Jordan has gone to the playoffs 13 times to LeBron’s 12. Jordan has won the Most Valuable Player award 5 times to LeBron’s 4, and was all NBA First Team 11 times to LeBron’s 10 (Land of Basketball, 2017). All this seems to point to a slight advantage to Jordan, which is true, but when we stop and consider that LeBron has seven more years before being the age Jordan was when he retired for the last time, the outlook changes. Even if James only plays five more years, which surely is on the low end of his potential, he appears likely blow by all these numbers. All of this being considered, if Jordan does have a statistical edge, it is a very 7 slight one, and LeBron seems to be closing the gap. Statistically, he may not be there yet, but James potentially has close to a decade of playing time left, and if he continues performing anywhere close to his play currently, there is a very good chance he could undisputedly end up surpassing Jordan for the title of greatest of all times.

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