Five Things Everyone Should Think About When Comparing LeBron to Jordan

I love comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan as much as anyone does, but before we have this conversation, there are five things that everyone should keep in mind:


Number 1 – The myth of mileage

The whole big argument over how LeBron and Jordan won championships at the same age, but LeBron James took more seasons to do it… etc., etc.,

It’s a completely stupid argument. Everyone’s body is different; everyone comes into the league at different times of their lives, and retires at different times. Just for reference, of the top 16 retired players (according to my own ranking), the average career length was 15.8 seasons with a standard deviation of 2.3. The average age of retiring was 37.1 years old with a standard deviation of 1.70.

If you want to talk minutes, including playoffs, the average really good NBA player plays 48857.4 minutes in their career, which computes to around 16.6 regular seasons of 82 games, playing 36 minutes a game. Keep in mind this number include playoffs, which makes the average higher than the average career length.

What does this tell us? It tells us that LeBron James will be around for a while barring injury, and he could squeeze in a few extra years, maybe retire a little early. People need to stop worrying about the numbers ‘age’ and ‘seasons’ when comparing these two basketball legends. Throughout history guys have come into the league at different ages, and throughout history some guys have been able to squeeze out late years better than others. Modern medicine may also play a huge factor, as we see the sustained dominance from guys like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.


Number 2 – Recency bias 

This will be particularly relevant probably ten years down the line. Right now we are fortunate enough to have so many people that will be able to remember the entirety of both Jordan and LeBron’s careers, but that number will shrink. Eventually the voices of the media will be more relatable to guys like me: people who have watched LeBron’s whole career, but barely followed basketball in Jordan’s playing prime.

Besides that, LeBron James is on TV today. He constantly gets to wow us whenever the Heat play, and keep building his case to become the greatest of all time. Michael Jordan’s career achievements can’t be built on anymore, and if Jordan says that he is and always will be better than LeBron, he just sounds like a grumpy bitter old man. Oh, but he already does that.


Number 3 – Completely different playing styles

Michael Jordan will forever be known for his amazing ability to score, his killer instinct and mental toughness, his power to just come alive and rise above everyone else on the basketball court. He always just found a way to put the ball in the basket. He also did everything else on the court well… for a guard.

LeBron James may not even be half the scorer that Jordan was, but he does so many other things well, and not just limited to the scope of a perimeter player. LeBron James is a good interior defender. He is an able shot-blocker. He is now shooting 3s at an incredible clip. His passing and court vision is as good as any point guard in the league’.

You can’t compare apples to oranges. It’s unfair to bring the scoring title argument against LeBron because he’s not the scorer the way Jordan is. It’s dumb to use LeBron being a triple double threat as an argument for him over Jordan. They are just two different players.


Number 4 – Precedence

Kind of building towards the different players… Michael Jordan set the precedent. 6 rings, 6 Finals MVPs, 5 MVPs, scoring titles, perennial All-Star selection, All-NBA defense, and even transcend basketball as a celebrity and an athlete.

For so long, the media has played up Kobe Bryant trying to follow that same path. It’s hard not to because they are such similar players, but everyone has a different path to greatness. Legends like Magic and Bird just happened to land on the league’s most storied franchises with stacked teams of Hall-of-Famers.

Because of Jordan, people think of the world’s greatest NBA player as someone who can score like him. People give arguments like “until LeBron James can close games like Michael Jordan I won’t consider him the greatest of all time,” or things like that. If LeBron James came before Michael Jordan, people may say things like “Jordan can’t guard 5 positions like LeBron does” or “Jordan can score, but he just doesn’t have that all-around threat that LeBron did.”

This also builds into my final point…


Number 5 – There is no viable metric to measure greatness.

MVPs? Kareem has beat Jordan. Rings? Bill Russell laughs. PER? It’s close to an all encompassing statistic for basketball, but it has a lot of flaws. This is when you start throwing in excuses. Russell played in a certain era. Kareem played in a certain era. Should we make a league difficulty adjusted Championship measurement?

Also think about the championships that were affected because of one game. If Jordan didn’t play the legendary flu game, Jazz might have taken a championship, and Michael would have five rings. Does one case of the flu affect Jordan’s entire legacy? Think about if Dwyane Wade did not go crazy in Game 3 of the 2006 finals to stop the Mavs from taking a 3-0 lead. If Dirk Nowitzki had two championship rings right now, I’m sure some people would consider him greater than Kevin Garnett all-time.

With basketball, there is no viable metric to measure greatness. Sometimes you just have to ‘know’ someone is better than someone else, rather than trying to count all their awards then try to make a conclusion based on that.

And that is the last word.

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter – @giordun and the site @LastWordOnSport.

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Lebron Photo Credit: Keith Allison via photopin cc

Jordan Photo Credit: Lipofsky Wiki Commons