In relatively quiet NBA times, like when the favorites in both conferences are streaking through the season, with little debate about who will be left standing when the league pares down in the playoffs, there’s always room for a Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James argument to fill a sports talk segment.
So it was, then, that when Scottie Pippen joined Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on ESPN’s “First Take,” that moderator Molly Qerim posed this question: “How close is LeBron to catching Jordan?”
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Pippen. “He’s right there. He probably will never catch him in terms of MVP, but in terms of statistics, LeBron is right there. And when you look across the board, not just scoring — check his assists, check his rebounds — he’s probably ahead of Jordan.”
Smith reacts with his usual bluster, and Kellerman wants his pound of flesh, too. This is, after all, Jordan’s partner in crime en route to the 6-0 Finals record that we all hold over LeBron’s head every time this debate arises. Oh, and it arises — maybe not always this early in the NBA season, but often, perhaps never more so than when James eclipsed Jordan’s all-time playoff scoring record last season and entered the 2017 Finals with a chance to slay the Golden State Warriors dragon a second time.
It is, of course, a question with no correct answer and one James himself struggles with, wavering between distancing himself from comparisons to conceding, “My motivation is the ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” Yet, it represents one of sports’ great attractions — the barstool debate — and even LeBron’s closest friends can’t help but wonder as he reaches seven straight Finals.
This is why it makes such great talk-show fodder. But when you really listen to what Pippen said, he’s not making any outlandish statements, certainly not the one Stephen A. and Max thought they heard.
Parse it down, and Pippen merely said LeBron was “probably ahead of Jordan” … “in terms of statistics” … “across the board,” and it’s almost impossible to argue otherwise at this point:
• Jordan (15 seasons, 1,072 games): 30.1 points (49.7 field goal percentage, 32.7 3-point percentage, 83.5 free-throw percentage), 6,2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.1 combined steals and blocks per game.
• LeBron (15 seasons, 1,089 games): 27.2 points (50.3 field goal percentage, 34.4 3-point percentage, 74.0 free-throw percentage), 7.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.4 combined steals and blocks per game.
Statistically speaking, LeBron is the more efficient scorer, superior rebounder and better passer. Now, we can argue until the cows come home about whether Jordan’s body of NBA work would have been even more impressive had he not played three seasons at the University of North Carolina and sat out another four years in his thirties, or whether LeBron’s résumé might look different had he not joined joined forces with other future Hall of Fame talents in pursuit of his championships. But, based purely on stats, whenever James calls it a career, his numbers will dwarf those that Jordan put up in Chicago.
But there’s one number that LeBron will never live down — those six Finals MVPs in six appearances — which is why Pippen added this caveat on James, “He probably will never catch him in terms of MVP.” So, we still don’t have our answer, the debate rages on, and we’ll probably revisit again some slow day.
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