Posted by Jonah Gardner on June 2, 2016
Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals will be a big occasion. Of course, they'll all be big occasions, since they will determine who the NBA Champion is. But Game 2 will be especially momentous, because -- barring injury, suspension, or an abrupt announcement from Adam Silver that this year's Finals will last one game -- it will be the 35th of LeBron James' Finals' career, matching Michael Jordan's total.
As a human being on the Internet, you are no doubt aware of the fact that LeBron and MJ experienced different degrees of success in their time in the NBA Finals. MJ went 24-11 in his 35 games, winning all 6 titles that he played for. LeBron, on the other hand, is 13-20 in Finals games and 2-4 in series.
Their records speak for themselves, but that's also a pretty surface-level way of looking at it. LeBron was swept in 2007, but that team's second best player, by Win Shares, was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a far cry from the Jordan's Hall-of-Fame sidekick Scottie Pippen. Should he get extra credit for that? Or what about last season, when the LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers won two games against the Golden State Warriors with Timofey Mozgov as their second best player due to injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving?
In other words, despite the record, can one build a case that LeBron actually has been more accomplished, on an individual level, than MJ in the Finals? Let's dig a little deeper into the numbers.
First of all, here's how the two compare in terms of raw counting stats:
It's no surprise that MJ has a sizable lead in points or that LeBron has the edge in rebounds and assists. Prefer per game numbers? LeBron averaged 26.4 points per game, 6.9 assists per game, and 9.6 rebounds per game. For Jordan, those numbers are 33.6 PPG, 6.0 APG, and 6.0 RPG.
Either way you slice it, those are some epic numbers, but let's put them into context. Only one player has ever averaged a 33/6/6 over the course of a full season and, no surprise, it was Jordan himself. In the 1989-90 NBA season, MJ put up 33.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG, and 6.3 APG. Even more impressively, he did it playing only 39 minutes per game, as opposed to the 43 he would average in the Finals for his career. LeBron's 26/9/6 line is only slightly more common; it's happened eight times in NBA history, including three by Larry Bird and four by Oscar Robertson.
However, perhaps the most impressive thing about Jordan's scoring isn't the scoring itself; it's the efficiency. Despite the fact that he averaged over four more field goal attempts per game than James (26 vs 22), Michael actually shot better. His Finals effective field goal percentage was .504 and his true shooting percentage was .559. LeBron, on the other hand, has a career eFG% of .483 and his TS% is just .527. That's despite the fact that LeBron has been the more efficient shooter over the total course of his career.
It's difficult to appreciate just how good MJ's scoring in the Finals was just by looking at the numbers, but another look at regular season numbers shows how rare this kind of high-volume, high-efficiency shooting is. In addition to his efficiency, Jordan took a lot of shots; his career Finals usage rate was 36.1%. In NBA history, only one player, 2008-09 Dwyane Wade, has paired a USG% over 36 with an eFG% over 50.
But what LeBron lacks in scoring, he makes up in other facets of the game. LeBron's career Finals rebound percentage is 13.4 and his assist percentage is 33.4. In other words, he has grabbed 13.4% of all available rebounds when on the floor (including 22.1% of defensive boards) and assisted on 33% of all made field goals. The latter is especially impressive and goes toward making up for LeBron's slight weakness as a shooter. While his USG% has been 32.2%, four points under Jordan's, his AST% is four points higher. LeBron may be a slightly less efficient scorer, but he recognizes that and shifts those possessions into (possibly) higher percentage shots for his teammates.
If you add their USG% and AST% together, you get remarkably similar numbers: 65.6% for Jordan and 65.7% for James. Although they're not scaled the same, the point remains that LeBron and MJ shared similar offensive burdens, but took slightly different approaches. In keeping with their personas, LeBron looked for a better shot more often while, for Jordan, firing away usually was the best shot. But it's not entirely fair to knock LeBron for his slight lack of scoring without noting that he more than made up for it as a playmaker.
Then there's the question of their opponents. While it's true that players can only play the teams in front of them, it's also a fact that LeBron has faced more difficult competition in the Finals than MJ did. Using Simple Rating System, a measure of team strength, LeBron's Finals opponents have been, on average, 7.31 points stronger than the average NBA team. In contrast, MJ's had an average SRS of 6.84.
However, the difference goes beyond a simple average of the opponents. LeBron faced three teams (2007 Spurs, 2014 Spurs, and 2015 Warriors) that were better than the toughest team MJ had to play (the 1997 Jazz). All three of those teams had an SRS over eight; MJ only faced one team with an SRS that high in his entire playoff career and that team, the 1986 Celtics, swept him.
If you exclude the three juggernauts, LeBron's 2-1 record against the same level of competition as MJ looks a little better. On the down side, the one in that record, the 2011 Mavericks, had the lowest SRS of any team that either player faced in the Finals.
Perhaps more than anything else, that series represents the single biggest hurdle to making any pro-LeBron case. James averaged 17.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 6.8 APG in that series, getting outscored by four players including Chris Bosh and Jason Terry. His turnover percentage swelled to 19.5% and his rebounding percentage was down to 10.6%.
What about advanced stats? While I didn't calculate it, Win Shares will almost certainly favor Jordan, since he has a lot more wins to draw from. However, for these purposes, Box Plus/Minus may provide a better comparison. BPM uses all of a player's box score stats to measure how many points per 100 possessions above average a player was.
For their careers, LeBron's BPM is better than Jordan's, in both the regular season and playoffs. In fact, LeBron is the career leader in BPM in both. However, Basketball-Reference doesn't publish a Finals-only BPM, so I went ahead and calculated it for both MJ and LeBron. Well, kind of.
See, in order to get the final component in BPM, a team adjustment, I'd have had to calculate it for every player they played with in the Finals. So what you're about to see is the raw BPM, and for a much smaller sample size than what we usually use for that stat. It can't be compared to anyone else's BPM and it's not official, but it's a good way to compare the two head-to-head. I should also note that for the league 3-point attempt rate, I used the regular season figure, instead of a Finals-only number like I used for the other inputs. So let's call this stat BPMish.
Enough stalling. Doing the math, LeBron's Finals raw BPMish is 13.6, while Jordan's is 14.4. Even excluding team context and the final score as much as possible, MJ looks like the better player. But it's closer than you thought, right?
So let's return to the question in the headline. By team success, raw numbers, and advanced stats, the case is pretty clear: Michael Jordan was the better player than LeBron James in the NBA Finals. However, is the gap as lopsided as their MJ's 4-ring advantage would indicate? Considering how close LeBron's individual production has been to MJ's, and given that it's come against a higher caliber of opponent, it seems clear that King James deserves more credit than he gets.
It's also important to keep in mind that LeBron's far from finished. MJ was 35 when he won his final title; James is 31 and on a team that is positively loaded in talent in a conference without a clear challenger to the throne.
Now, as LeBron is on the cusp of passing Jordan in games played in the Finals, he is also preparing for his most difficult challenge yet. The Golden State Warriors will be the toughest team LeBron has ever faced in an NBA Finals and they're just four wins away from being able to make an argument that they, not Jordan's 1996 Chicago Bulls, are the best team of all time.
It will take a Jordan-esque effort to overcome them. Fortunately, that's something LeBron is more than capable of giving.