Why the Michael Jordan-LeBron James Finals debate is more nuanced that it seems

Rob Schaefer
NBC Sports Chicago

Central to the Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate is the number six.

Six NBA titles for Jordan - and in six tries. Six NBA Finals losses for James, against only three victories.

On its face, any debate of whom is greater starts (and usually ends) there. But is there more nuance to James' Finals record - when held up against Jordan's - worth considering?

NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh thinks so. In fact, in a recent column he argued that the verdict is far from out on who the GOAT truly is, and that will remain the case until James finishes his career, which is currently paused in the middle of Year 17. 

Jordan played 15 seasons before leaving the game for good - 13 with the Bulls, and two with the Wizards. Here's how the two stack up in select advanced metrics highlighted by Haberstroh:

 

Career Win Shares

Career VORP

Championships added (adjusted for league quality

Michael Jordan

253.8 (5th all-time)

116.1 (2nd)

4.28

LeBron James

287.1 (2nd all-time)

133.2 (1st)

4.66

Haberstroh acknowledged the flimsiness of catch-all statistics such as these as the ultimate barometer of a player's greatness. And with 246 more games (and counting) amassed than Jordan between the regular season and playoffs, it's natural that James would see an edge in cumulative career statistics such as Win Shares or VORP. 

(In fact, break down each by average win shares by season, and Jordan holds a 16.92-16.89 edge, a hair-thin margin. But availability is an ability, and James' longevity, injury aversion and extended, multi-faceted prime are foundational to GOAT argument.)

What James isn't likely to ever get the edge in his rings; from age 36 on, he would have to double his title count to do so, and in a league as talented at the top as it's been in recent memory. If or whenever the 2019-20 season resumes, James' Lakers sit atop the Western Conference - and just three games back of the Bucks for the league's best record - but a path to a chip that could feature matchups with the James Harden and Russell Wesbtrook-led Rockets, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers and Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks. That's no sure ring.

So, say James ends his career with four titles - give or take - but with a losing record in the Finals. Is that something we should hold against him?

In this vein, Haberstroh is quick to point out that both James and Jordan have appeared in 13 postseasons, but Jordan failed to reach the Finals in his trips more often than he made them. James, meanwhile, has finished in the final two in nine out of 13 of his playoff seasons. That is truly a staggering feat

But context is important here. Break down Jordan's flamed-out playoff runs one-by-one and explanations (not necessarily excuses) crop up for nearly every one. In his second and third years, his Bulls crossed paths with the 1986 and 1987 Celtics - all-time great squads. In years four through six, they fell to the Bad Boy Pistons back-to-back-to-back at the peak of their powers. Hardly anything to hold against him. His seventh and final playoff defeat came at the hands of the Orlando Magic in 1995, after returning from his first retirement and still outfitted in a baseball player's physique. His first came to the Milwaukee Bucks (granted, in a first-round sweep) in his rookie year.

None of those defeats carry that same sting as, for example, James' Finals defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, when he averaged 17.8 points and four turnovers per game in a series the Miami Heat's then freshly-minted Big 3 squandered a 2-1 lead in. But the sum of James' Finals opponents undoubtedly exceeds Jordan's, a point that often gets forgotten in flippant "3-6" arguments.

Here's a breakdown of each's Finals opposition, sorted by Net Rating (concept inspired by this brilliant piece from Mike Prada in Five Thirty Eight, which goes eight layers deeper on all the points hit in here):

Year

Player

Finals Opponent

Wins (reg season)

Net Rating

Result

2016-17

LBJ

GSW

67

+11.6

L - 1-4

2015-16

LBJ

GSW

73

+10.7

W - 4-3

2014-2015

LBJ

GSW

67

+10.2

L - 2-4

1996-97

MJ

UTA

64

+9.6

W - 4-2

2006-07

LBJ

SAS

58

+9.3

L - 0-4

1995-96

MJ

SEA

64

+8.2

W - 4-2

2013-14

LBJ

SAS

62

+8.1

L - 1-4

1997-98

MJ

UTA

62

+7.3

W - 4-2

1991-92

MJ

POR

57

+7.2

W - 4-2

1990-91

MJ

LAL

58

+7.1

W - 4-1

2012-13

LBJ

SAS

58

+6.7

W - 4-3

1992-93

MJ

PHO

62

+6.6

W - 4-2

2011-12

LBJ

OKC

47*

+6.6

W - 4-1

2017-18

LBJ

GSW

58

+6.0

L - 0-4

2010-11

LBJ

DAL

57

+4.7

L - 2-4

*in a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder went 47-19 in 66 regular season games - a 58-win pace extrapolated to an 82-game slate

Based on that table (which means purely statistically speaking), James faced the three toughest Finals opponents of the two in the '15, '16 and '17 Warriors, and the three weakest in the '11 Mavericks, '12 Thunder and '18 Warriors (an obvious instance where the numbers and eyes don't line up). James beat the toughest foe in the '16 Warriors, but fell to the flimsiest in the '11 Mavericks. That, at least, passes the sniff test.

And this isn't revisionist history, either. As Haberstroh notes, James' teams were favorites in just two of the nine Finals he played in (2011, 2013), and he split them. Jordan's were favored in all six. 

There's something to be said for being the pillar of the best team year-in-year out, which Jordan was from 1991-1998, with the exception of spells impacted by his first retirement. Once he won, he didn't stop winning. And Jordan's Eastern Conference path was undoubtedly more contentious than James' - especially in the latter's second stint with the Cavaliers.

But, come on. We remember those mid-2000s Cavaliers teams. Kevin Love didn't play a minute in the 2015 Finals; Kyrie Irving played 44 before fracturing his kneecap and missing the remainder of the series. Those Warriors squads have cases on the short-list of greatest of all-time (and I'll be damned if the 2014 Spurs don't, too).

This is in no way a definitive argument for James over Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. But on this one crucial point - each's performances in the NBA Finals - James' side deserves a tad more nuance.

 


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Why the Michael Jordan-LeBron James Finals debate is more nuanced that it seems originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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