The G. O. A. T. Chronicles Series 1.1 Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James: The Competition

The G. O. A. T. Chronicles Series 1.1 Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James: The Competition

MJ vs LBJ 

SportsFluent isn’t the first to try and tackle this topic and we certainly won’t be the last.  When you try to start analyzing the MJ vs LBJ debate, you quickly begin to realize that as Rabbit Holes go, this one can get extremely large and muddy.  

  • 10 combined championships 
  • 10 combined playoff MVP’s 
  • 9 combined regular season MVPs
  • Lots of sneakers and jerseys sold

There is plenty to dive into when it comes to Michael vs LeBron.  Some of the things we will want to focus on include:

  • Individual accolades and championships
  • Traditional and advanced stat comparisons (Including Defence)
  • Teammates and coaches
  • Longevity and winning 
  • Eye test and peer reviews

However, before we jump into all of that, let’s lay some context by analyzing and comparing the eras in which each player dominated.

One of the pro Jordan arguments suggests that scoring during the 80’s and 90’s was much more difficult than what LeBron and his peers face today.  The increased usage of the 3 point shot in today’s game, the rule changes implemented in the 90’s preventing hand-checking all point towards increased scoring in LeBron’s era, vs MJ’s era.  

Let’s analyze the scoring and trends across the NBA during each player’s career.

1984-85 – 2002-03

A lot of us will remember the very famous 1984 draft.  Hakeem Olajuwon went 1st.  Michael Jordan went 3rd and of course Sam Bowie went 2nd overall to the Trail Blazers, who may have been blazing something other than a trail just before that pick.  

Jordan’s first year in the NBA was the 1984-85 season.  Over the next 19 years, Jordan would play in 15 regular seasons, retiring in 1993 for almost 2 years, retiring again in 1998 (this time for 3 years) before playing his final 2 seasons in Washington and then retiring for good after the 2002-2003 season.

Using Basketball-Reference.com as our stats bible, we can see that in 1984-85, Jordan’s first year in the league, the average points scored by a team that year was 110.8 / game or 221.6 combined points / game.

Over the next decade, despite having one of the greatest scorers in league history, the average points per game declined rapidly in the NBA.  In fact, in 1995-96, the average points per game by a single team dipped under 100 points (99.5 pts / game).  That is a drop of 22 points per game over 11 years.  

YearTotal PTS / Game3 PT Shots / GameTotal Shots / GameMJ PTS & Assists
1986 – 87 219.86.2177.637.1 / 4.6
1991-92210.615.2174.630.1 / 6.1
1995-9619932160.430.4 / 4.3
1997-98191.225.4159.428.7 / 3.5

A few things that jump out from the above chart is how scoring was constantly declining during Jordan’s career despite how the 3 point shot was becoming increasingly more popular during the same time.  

The chart above shows how in an 11 year span during MJ’s career, there were 18 fewer shots being attempted per game.  Teams were obviously deciding to take more 3 point shots each game, but they were also clearly slowing down their offensive game plan to do this.

From an overall scoring standpoint you see almost 20 more 3 point shots being attempted per game by the end of Jordan’s career, but at the same time there are 20 fewer shots being attempted per game.  The increase of 3 point shots is not able to compensate for the large decline in total shots per game.   

2003-04 – Present

King James was selected 1st overall in the 2003 draft.  And if you are willing to stretch the definition of irony just a little, then we can say ironically the 2003 draft, just like MJ’s draft, is also remembered for who went second overall that year.  LBJ was a pretty decent pick at 1 by Cleveland, the next 4 picks in order were; 

2nd – Darko Milicic (Detroit)  (Career – 6 pts, 0.9 assist, 4.2 rebounds)

3rd – Carmelo Anthony (Denver)

4th – Chris Bosh (Toronto) 

5th – Dwayne Wade (Miami)

When LeBron entered the NBA in 2003-2004, NBA scoring had dropped even lower than what MJ ever saw in his career.  2003-04 had an average of 186.8 points scored per game.  That is almost 25 fewer points per game compared to MJ’s first year in the league.   

The 186.8 was a rock bottom number for points per NBA game and since that year it has climbed significantly, topping out in 2019-20 at 223.6 PTS / game.  The 223.6 points per game are only 2 points higher than 1984-85 but they are an insane 36.8 points per game higher than LBJ’s first year in the league.

YearTotal PTS / Game3 PT Shots / GameTotal Shots / GameLBJ PTS & Assists
2005-061943215831.4 / 6.6
2007-08199.836.216330 / 7.2
2013-142024316627.1 / 6.3
2017-18212.65817227.5 / 9.1

LBJ’s chart above shows us pretty clearly why scoring has jumped by over 36 points during his time in the league.  Not only were teams attempting 14 more shots per game in 2017, compared to his 2005 season, but teams were also taking 26 more 3 point shots per game.  

I am far from a statistical genius, but if you increase total shots per game and increase total 3 point shots per game, then I would suggest you have created a recipe for increased scoring.

Rules and Game Changes;

Another interesting aspect worth looking at are the rule changes implemented  during the 1994-95 season by the NBA.  After a decade of decreased scoring per game, it is obvious the league wanted to correct that trend.

In 1994-95, the NBA implemented some significant rule changes, it would appear most of them were implemented to make it easier for offenses to score.  

Rules Changes:

THREE-POINT LINE: The three-point line has been shortened from its previous distance of 22 feet in the corners extending to 23 feet 9 inches at the top of the key, to a uniform distance of 22 feet all around the basket. Also, players fouled while in the act of shooting a three-point attempt shall get three free throws instead of two.

HAND-CHECKING: Referees have been told to vigorously enforce the hand-checking rule this season. Hand-checking — in which a defender impedes the dribbler’s progress by placing his hand on the offensive player’s hip — will be eliminated from the end line in the backcourt to the opposite foul line. While drastically increasing the number of fouls called early in the season, enforcing the rule should provide offensive players with greater freedom of movement and subsequently, more scoring.

OTHER RULES: Technical fouls have been increased to $500 each; previously, fines were $100 for the first technical foul and $150 for a second. — Any player escalating a fight by leaving the bench will be automatically suspended for a minimum of one game and fined a maximum of $20,000, in addition to losing 1/82nd of his salary for each game he is suspended. — Any player who commits two flagrant fouls in one game will be ejected. — The second or more of back-to-back timeouts when the ball is not inbounded will be limited to 45 seconds.

The rule changes being pushed through in 94-95 show us that the NBA obviously wanted to find a way to increase scoring again. Making it easier and more rewarding to shoot a 3 pointer and making it tougher to defend in one on one situations by eliminating a lot of the hand-checking are obvious advantages for an offense.  

I also wonder what kind of impact the rules directed at curbing some of the violence within the sport had on scoring and overall style of play in the league.  

  • Increased fines for flagrant fouls
  • Suspensions for leaving the bench to fight
  • Ejection after two flagrant fouls in a game

These rules all seem so obvious and easy to accept 25+ years later, but in 1994 they didn’t yet exist. 

You wonder how the Bad Boy Pistons or Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason and those physical Knicks teams would treat MJ when games started to get out of hand.  Beating Oakley by 20 points doesn’t seem like a good time when he has 5 flagrant fouls to use at his discretion.  

I don’t have the metrics for this article to prove it, but the majority opinion is that the game was much more physical during MJ’s era, (especially in the late 80’s) compared to what LBJ has faced.  Is it fair to draw a conclusion that a more physical game makes it more difficult to score, at least when trying to score close to the basket?  

Maybe…

That said, there is nothing about LeBrons size, frame or game to suggest that he wouldn’t have dominated as well during a more physical era.  We only bring up these rule changes to help show the contrast between the two different era’s we are comparing.

I think my biggest takeaway in writing this section was getting an understanding of how both players have played during some very big scoring peaks and valleys within their own careers and how different those peak scoring years looked.

Jordan entered the league during a time when scoring was very comparable to what it is today.  However, the average NBA game in 2017 saw teams take 50 more 3 point shots per game in comparison to 1986-87.  

50 more 3 point shots per game today, compared to when Jordan was in his scoring prime.  That is a huge difference.

For our next article on the MJ vs LBJ debate, we will continue to examine and compare the era each player dominated.  We will examine some of the other great players that MJ and LBJ had to go up against and we will study some of the elite teams that each player has faced during their career.

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