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Lebron vs. Jordan Competition

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

(Citations at the end) (Per Tonoy Sengupta)

(Citations at End)

Considering the restraints of comparing players and teams across generations, oftentimes, especially on television, we see the quality of argument muddled down by personal preferences towards a certain era, team, or type of player. The debate between Michael Jordan and Lebron James on who the greatest player of all time (GOAT) perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon played out in barber shops, podcasts, and other places throughout the world. However, the purpose of this article is not to answer the question of who the GOAT is. That is a complicated subject matter that encompasses many external factors that stretch beyond being a great basketball player. The intent of this article is to properly quantify and compare the level of competition that Jordan and Lebron faced in the playoffs during their runs of dominating the NBA. Through my research I hope to answer the question of who faced tougher competition during their playoff runs. In addition, I plan to highlight the importance of context when examining the accomplishments of both players. I used a 10 year time period to collect data on the opponents that Jordan and Lebron faced during their respective playoff runs. I believe that a decade provides an adequate amount of time to examine the trends in both players’ level of competition, capture the peak of both players’ careers, and include when both players won their respective NBA championships. (prior to Lebron winning the 2020 NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers, footnote). Michael Jordan’s 10 year time period spans the 1988 NBA playoffs - 1998 NBA playoffs (does not include 1994 when Jordan retired from the league, footnote). This range incorporates all 6 of Jordan’s NBA championships, and many of the high leverage playoff games that he participated in. For Lebron James, the 2009 NBA playoffs - 2018 NBA playoffs is the 10 year time period that I examined. This window creates a dataset of playoff opponents that can be juxtaposed to Jordan’s. For Lebron, this encompasses his run to 8 straight NBA finals, including 3 titles won within that time span. (does not include his recent title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, footnote). The Elo Rating provides a way to objectively measure the strength of NBA teams across different time periods. It is a statistic used by fivethirtyeight (for a more in depth explanation refer to https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-we-calculate-nba-elo-ratings/). It measures the strength by game-by-game results in which the rating of a team increases based on wins. It is a zero sum statistic, so if team X gains 30 elo rating points, team Y losses 30 elo rating points. This statistic takes into account margin of victory, opponent strength and upsets. It follows then that the elo rating of the opponents that Jordan and Lebron faced was one measure that I used to properly quantify and juxtapose the competition of each player. It should be noted that according to fivethirtyeight an average team has an elo rating of 1500, a playoff bound team has a rating of 1600, a title contender has a rating of 1700, and an all time great team has a rating of 1800. These designations help to provide more context to the elo rating and opponent strength of the competition Jordan and Lebron faced. Jordan’s opponents had a median elo rating of 1619, and a range of 1427 to 1788. On the other hand, Lebron’s opponents had a median elo rating of 1581, and a range that extended from 1426 to 1846. Based on the elo rating, it is apparent that during both great’s respective years of dominance, a typical Jordan opponent was better than a Lebron opponent, while the floor of Jordan and Lebron opponents were nearly identical. When investigating the data, it is quite apparent that the floor of this range occurred for opponents that Jordan and Lebron faced in the first round, oftentimes against teams that narrowly made the playoffs, but would not be playoff caliber teams in the Western Conference. This includes but is not limited to the 1991 New York Knicks or the 2013 Milwaukee Bucks. The median elo rating of Lebron opponents being lower than Jordan opponents can be partly explained by Lebron facing weaker competition in the earlier phases of his playoff dominance than Jordan. When investigating more that explanation comes to life when one considers that during those 10 years, Lebron was a Top 2 seed 90 percent of the time, whereas Jordan was a Top 2 seed 60 percent of the time. This provides further evidence that Jordan had to get past tougher competition within the Eastern Conference relative to Lebron who benefited from a higher seeding. In addition, upon further research I was able to identify another trend.

Exploring the Data


The zero designates Eastern Conference opponents, and the 1 designates opponents in the NBA Finals. I found that while the median opponent that Lebron faced in the Eastern Conference playoffs was lower than that of Jordan, the median elo rating in the NBA Finals was higher for Lebron opponents.This illuminates that the typical Lebron opponent in the NBA finals was stronger. In fact, the range of elo rating for Jordan opponents in the NBA finals extended from 1649 to 1748, whereas the range of Lebron opponents in the NBA finals extended from 1711 to 1846. The 1997 Utah Jazz had an elo rating of 1748, and where Jordan’s toughest opponent in his 6 trips to the finals. That 97 Utah team would have been Lebron’s 4th toughest opponent in the finals. In addition, Lebron faced two teams (2015 Warriors, 2017 Warriors) with Elo ratings above 1800, which fivethirtyeight designated for all time great teams. So while the competition of Jordan has the edge throughout the Eastern Conference, it is indisputable that he did not face teams of the caliber that Lebron faced in the NBA finals. The simple statistic of team wins is another metric that I used to properly quantify the level of competition that Jordan and Lebron faced. Even though team wins is a statistic that is swayed by era and other confounding factors of when the player played, it also presents another standard comparison when examining the competition level faced by these all time great players. (Book mark, the 2011-2012 season was shortened due to a league lockout.). A common assertion often made is that the Eastern Conference during Jordan’s time was substantially stronger than that of Lebron’s. The elo rating as one metric illuminates some truth to that assertion given that a typical Jordan opponent was slightly better than a Lebron opponent. However, when examining the numbers, the top 4 seeds from 1988 - 1998 had a win percentage of 67.74%. This is in juxtaposition to a win percentage of 66.14% during Lebron’s run from 2009-2018. So while that is a common stance, when examining the numbers, it shows that there was only a 1.6% percentage difference or a 55 win team versus a 54 win team, only a slight difference. It is important to note that I considered the top 4 seeds because aside from the 1995 Houston Rockets, a non top 4 seed did not make the NBA finals during both communicated timelines. In the NBA Finals, the win percentage of Jordan opponents was 74.59%, in comparison to 76.41% for Lebron opponents. There a 1.82% percentage difference or a 61 win team to a 63 win team. This is further evidence to the NBA Finals opponents of Lebron being better than the NBA Final opponents of Jordan. The elo rating and team wins are consistent in providing evidence that the quality of opponents that Jordan faced in the Eastern Conference playoffs was slightly stronger than the quality of opponents that Lebron encountered. On the other hand, the metrics of elo rating and team wins are also consistent in showing that the competition Lebron faced in the NBA finals was stronger than that of Jordan. In addition, the gap between opponent strength in the NBA finals is something that outweighed the gap that persisted amongst Eastern Conference playoff opponents. There are many explanations that can be provided for such numbers such as the weakness of the second tier of the Eastern Conference during Lebron’s reign or even the fact that he was a top 2 seed 90% of the time. Also, the strength of Jordan teams early on, and Jordan being a lower seed that subjected him to stronger opponents early on such as in his 1989 playoff run. Nonetheless, these numbers help to provide reputable evidence about the competition both greats encountered relative to one another during their reigns of NBA supremacy. The strength of opponents that both players have encountered is one of the many variables that drives the debate between who the GOAT is. Being someone who is partial to Lebron in the GOAT debate, context is of the utmost importance when considering his 4-6 NBA finals record relative to Michael Jordan’s 6-0. Lebron has had a plethora of historic playoff performances in the NBA finals that have not translated into series wins. For example, in 2017, James averaged a triple double in the Cleveland Cavaliers series against the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, that grandeur performance produced one win in that series. The context in this situation would be that Lebron went up against a team who the year before won a historic 73 games, and then signed Kevin Durant, one of the most skilled players in basketball history. Thus, regardless of how immortal Lebron played in 2017, the Cavaliers were simply overmatched to the Warriors. The context provided for Lebron’s 2017 NBA finals loss is often negligent when debating the greatness, or simply the ring count, of Lebron versus Michael Jordan. I believe that by investigating and quantifying the strength of the teams these historic entities have faced, it can illuminate a clearer picture as to why there may be this discrepancy in NBA finals won between the too as well as answer a commonly cited point of contention when discussing these two great players and their respective levels of competition.

Citation:

  • Sengupta, Tony. “LeBron James Can Be This Team’s Michael Jordan!’: NBA Community Uncovers a Shocking Similarity between the Current Lakers Roster, and the 1998 Champions Bulls Team.” The Sports Rush , Oct. 2021, https://thesportsrush.com/nba-news-lebron-james-can-be-this-teams-michael-jordan-nba-community-uncovers-a-shocking-similarity-between-the-current-lakers-roster-and-the-1998-champions-bulls-team/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2021.

  • NateSilver538. “The Complete History of the NBA.” FiveThirtyEight, 7 Dec. 2015, https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/complete-history-of-the-nba/#bucks.




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