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Friday, May 27, 2011
MJ vs. LeBron: What the stats say

By Tom Haberstroh

James and Jordan
Getty Images
How does the 26-year-old LeBron James stack up with the 26-year-old Michael Jordan?

Scottie Pippen joined ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on Friday and did what has been done a million times since LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One" back in 2002:

He compared LeBron to Michael.

But Pippen also did what has been done maybe only once: he said LeBron may be better.

Key word: may.

The exact quote:
Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play in the game, but I may go as far as to say that LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he's so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved and you have to be on your P's and Q's on defense because no guy on the basketball court is not a threat to score when LeBron James is out there.


It's interesting to hear Jordan's longtime teammate say that the reason LeBron may be superior is that "he keeps everybody involved."

Is Pippen right?

Is Jordan a better scorer than LeBron? Probably. Is LeBron a better distributor? Probably. Does that make LeBron a better player than Jordan?

Now, that's where we need some help.

Let's put Pippen's assertion to the test.

If we're doing an honest evaluation, we need to grade LeBron and Jordan on the same age curve. Let's compare LeBron's statistical profile to Jordan's statistical profile through their age-26 season.


Here, we see that LeBron and Jordan are similar ballplayers in the sense that they score a lot points, they grab rebounds and distribute the ball. Jordan looks to be the superior scorer. He scores more points per game and scores more efficiently, with 3-pointers being the only shooting area in which Jordan doesn't have a leg up on James.

And depending on how you look at it, Jordan was the better shot creator, or he was a bigger ball hog. Jordan shot 23.4 field goal attempts per game and used more possessions while on the floor (USG tells us his usage rate, which is the estimated percentage of team possessions used either via field goal attempt, free throw attempt or turnover).

In the playoffs, Jordan asserted himself more than LeBron. Jordan raised his usage rate to 35.5 percent while LeBron's role grew only marginally in the playoffs (from 31.8 percent to 32.1 percent). But the fact Jordan remained efficient while taking more responsibility indicates that he was creating good shots as opposed to hijacking the offense for himself.

But if we use assists as a measuring stick, LeBron is the better passer at this point. Both LeBron's assists per game and his assist rate (as a percentage of total possessions) rank superior to Jordan's. That's not a total surprise, but the gap is smaller than one might think in the playoffs on a per-game level (7.0 to 6.7).

Overall? Looks like Jordan has him beat through age-26. While it's not the end-all-be-all, Jordan's player efficiency rating (PER) is decidedly better. Using other all-in-one metrics like win shares, we find a similar story: Jordan was overall more valuable according to these catch-all measures.

Forget earlier in their career, is LeBron better than Jordan was at 26 years old?

Let's take a look:


Here, we see a similar story: Jordan's better, and more of a scorer. Statistically, it's worth noting that LeBron's numbers are warped because of his star teammates this season. If, for example, we use LeBron's 2009-10 season as a comparison, it actually looks quite favorable compared to Jordan. But then we're just jumping around all over the place.

One of the big takeaways here is that Jordan did not have to share the ball with Pippen. Or at least, not nearly to the same degree that James has to share with Dwyane Wade ... and then add Chris Bosh to that mix.

When Jordan was in the playoffs during his age-26 season in 1989-1990, he took 26.6 field goal attempts per game. Scottie Pippen that playoffs? 14.0 shots per game. Horace Grant didn't take even 10 shots per game. By comparison, Wade and Bosh have taken 17.7 and 13.3 shots per game, respectively.

So when we compare Jordan and James at age 26, we have to be cognizant of their surroundings and contexts. Additionally, Jordan played in a time when it was more physical for perimeter players because there was no hand-checking rule. So there's that, too, and it's no small thing.

When we look at the assists, Jordan actually has the upper hand when he was in the playoffs. So at this moment, after watching LeBron here in the playoffs, Scottie Pippen is claiming that LeBron may be the better distributor and a better creator for his teammates when, in fact, Jordan at this age was dropping more dimes than LeBron in the playoffs. Of course, James was tallying more assists in Cleveland during the playoffs when he had the ball in his hands almost exclusively. So that's worth keeping in mind.

Another way to look at this would be to compare how LeBron's teammates fare on and off the court with LeBron, and then see what Jordan's teammates looked like. If Jordan racked up assists and made his teammates play better, then he has a solid case that he was just as good of a distributor as LeBron is right now. Unfortunately, we don't have that data at the moment, but the stat geeks out there would love to get their hands on some on-court/off-court data to tease out some of the subtle aspects of the game.

In the end, Pippen's right: LeBron may be the greatest player ever to play the game. His story isn't over yet. He has the size, the athleticism and the tools to get there. But statistically, Jordan is the better scorer and the passing gap isn't great enough to say that LeBron matches Jordan at this juncture in their basketball lifetimes.

They're both great.

The thing is, LeBron has completely overhauled his reputation in a matter of weeks.

We're learning now that as soon as we think we have a handle on James, he decides to write his own chapter in history.

It's worth keeping in mind that Jordan didn't win his first title until his was 28 years old.

LeBron is 26 years old now.

What will be his next chapter?