The G. O. A. T. Chronicles Series 1.2 Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James: The Competition

The G. O. A. T. Chronicles Series 1.2 Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James: The Competition

MJ vs LBJ Part II

Previously in this debate we compared league wide scoring averages MJ and LeBron played through during their careers.  We were able to get an understanding of how shot attempts per game (Game Tempo or Pace), plus the rise of the 3 point shot impacted the overall league wide scoring.  

(you can find Part 1 here – https://www.sportsfluent.com/category/goat/)

We were able to see that both MJ and LeBron played during era’s where there were huge point scoring variations at different times in their career.

I would like to continue to compare the era each player dominated, by looking at some of the great players and great teams both Jordan and LeBron faced.

Great Players by Decade

During my research I have come across some really interesting work already published on this very topic.  One piece I would like to use for our comparison is an article written by Brad Callas, where he tries to answer the question; Which NBA decade would assemble the best team?

Although this specific topic doesn’t really help us solve the MJ vs LBJ debate, it does provide some context into the great players and teams that MJ and LBJ have had to go up against.  Plus, getting a chance to revisit these names and players is always fun.

You can read Brad’s article in its entirety right here.

https://medium.com/@bradcallas/which-nba-era-would-assemble-the-best-team-6134b826dc82

Specifically for this piece, I would like to focus on Brad’s work comparing the 1990’s (Jordan’s prime) vs the 2010 era – which is of course LBJ’s prime.

These are the teams and players Brad selected to represent each decade.

1990s — (Starters): Stockton, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, Hakeem; (Reserves): Malone, Robinson, Dumars, Rodman

2010s — (Starters): Paul, Wade, Durant, LeBron, Dwight; (Reserves): Curry, ‘Melo, Blake, Kawhi

Obviously there is no doubt that talent can be found up and down both rosters, if there was one name that jumps out to me as a little out of place, it would be Dwight Howard, but maybe I need to go back and revisit Howards great career.  

The question we want to ask right now – which all-decade team would win this best of 7 series and according to Brad, the answer looks like this; 

“If it’s a close game in crunch-time, expect the ’90s to trot-out Stockton-Jordan-Pippen-Barkley-Hakeem; with team-’10s deploying Paul-Durant-Kawhi-LeBron-Dwight. This gives them a slight advantage, by exploiting Barkley’s sub-par defense in having to guard Kawhi.

When it comes down to it, though, the ’90s have an endless inventory of perimeter defenders to counter the length of the ’10s. While team-’10s can insert ‘Melo or Kawhi alongside its LeBron-Durant tandem, the ’90s team benefits in not only possessing a two-headed monster (Jordan-Pippen) that can overwhelm this duo’s scoring, but in having two athletic clamp-down defenders (Rodman/Robinson) that would play Melo and Kawhi to a draw. 

This alone is enough to give the ’90s the upper-hand.”

OK, so Callas is on record as declaring the 1990’s all-decade team is actually the better team.  Can we then suggest that if Jordan’s all-decade team would beat LeBron’s  all-decade team, that Jordan had to play against superior talent?  

That feels like a stretch and  I don’t think it would be a fair argument to make.  

When you consider that two of Jordan’s key teammates during the Bulls dynasty runs (Pippen and Rodman) both made the 90’s all-decade team, I think the takeaway here is that MJ might have had a little bit more of a supporting cast on his way to 6 Championships in comparison to LBJ.  

Obviously LeBron and Dwayne Wade were a formidable pairing in Miami, but you are not going to see Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love or Chris Bosh on any all-decade teams.

Great Teams by Decade;

Another really interesting area to dive into when comparing MJ and LBJ is understanding their competition and some of the great teams each player faced during their careers.

If you haven’t had the chance to check out the website, NBAMATH.com and read through their work on adjusted team ratings and their all-time list of the greatest teams in NBA history, then I strongly suggest you check out their great work, which can be found here;  https://nbamath.com/adjusted-team-ratings/

In the words of NBAMATH.com

Team rating is a metric that averages era-adjusted offensive and defensive scores, such that a team rating of exactly 100 indicates that a squad was perfectly average—whether by being perfectly average on both ends or by being as bad on one as it was good on the other.

Here is an example of how NBAMATH.com can use their algorithms  to evaluate teams from 2 different eras.

Let’s take two teams with some of the best effective field-goal percentages of all time—the 1998-99 Houston Rockets (50.6 eFG%) and the 1983-84 Los Angeles Lakers (53.6). In a vacuum, the Lakers are clearly superior, but they also had the luxury of playing during a time in which it was far easier to shoot a higher percentage. The Rockets played during a lockout-shortened season that produced a remarkably low league average of 46.6 and was sandwiched between two campaigns at 47.8.

When we adjust for the eras, the Rockets (108.58 adjusted eFG%) jump ahead of the Lakers (108.28). Given the ever-changing context of the NBA, they were the better shooting team, even if the Lakers were more efficient on a surface level.

Now that we have our source to help us evaluate the great teams of each decade, let’s find out who NBAMATH.com rates as their 15 best teams of all time.

TeamYearRecordNotes
Bulls199672-10Beat Sonics for Championship in 6 games
Bulls199769-13Beat Jazz for Championship in 6 games
Bucks 197163-19Lost Western Finals in 6 to Lakers
Celtics200866-16Beat Lakers for Championship in 6 games.  (Beat LBJ’s Cav’s in Eastern Semi-Final)
Spurs201667-15Lost in Western Semi-Finals to Thunder
Lakers197269-13Beat Knicks for Championship in 6 games
Warriors201767-15Beat Cavs (LBJ) for Championship in 5 games
Bucks197263-19Lost Western Finals to Lakers
Bulls199267-15Beat Blazers for Championship in 6 games (insert Jordan shoulder shrug here!)
Warriors201673-9Lost Championship to Cavs (LBJ) in 7 games
Warriors201567-15Beat Cavs (LBJ) for Championship in 6 games
Cavaliers200966-16Lost East Final to Magic.  (Vegas odds that year had their total wins O/U at 47.5)
Thunder201360-22Lost Western Semi’s to Grizzlies 
Spurs199937-13Beat Knicks for Championship in 5 games (MJ had just retired)
Sonics199463-19Lost to Denver in 1st round

Ok, there is a lot to unpack with that list.  Here are a few things that jump out to me;

Jordan and his Bulls made the list 3 times, including the top 2 spots, in comparison to LeBron, who only played on one of the 15 greatest teams of all time.  (According to NBAMATH.com) 

Does that speak to Jordan’s greatness and his ability to elevate a team on his own?  Or does that speak to MJ’s supporting cast, and Bulls GM Jerry Krause giving MJ better pieces to play with?  It definitely looks to be an advantage towards MJ when trying to answer the G.O.A.T debate.

The only other team from the Bulls dominant era to make this list are the Seattle SuperSonics from 1994.  The 1997 Utah Jazz were ranked 19th on the list and they lost the Finals to MJ and the Bulls in 6 games that year.

As mentioned above, an LBJ team only made the Top 15 list one time and that team was upset by the Magic in the playoffs.  An interesting note on that 2009 Cavs team, the Vegas Over/Under for wins that year for the Cavs was 47.5.  They ended up winning 66 games, blowing away the Over.  

Is that a product of an underrated great team that came together that year, or did LBJ carry an average Cavs team to a lot more wins then they deserved?  Without researching more specifically on the ‘09 Cavs, I’m not sure where the credit for their 66 wins belongs.

Another interesting note is there are 6 teams on the list who LBJ has had to compete against during his prime.  The 2008 Celtics knocked LBJ out of the playoffs on their way to winning it all.  The 2017 and 2015 Warriors beat LBJ in the finals and of course, LBJ and his Cavs exacted a little bit of revenge with a huge upset over the Warriors in 2016.

Having to face 4 of the greatest teams of all time in the playoffs seems like a little bit of bad luck for LeBron and his supporters.  LBJ is 1-3 vs all time great teams from our list.  

MJ never faced a Top 15 all-time team during his run although as mentioned above the ‘97 Utah Jazz were ranked 19th all-time 

My takeaways from Part II of this debate are this;

  • Jordan’s Bulls are ranked higher as all-time great teams than any of Lebron’s teams.  The Jordan-led Bulls from ‘96 and ‘97 are ranked as the two greatest teams of all time.  This has to be considered advantage MJ (in my opinion)
  • The competition LBJ had to go up against, at least in NBA Finals,  appears superior to some of the great teams of the ‘90s Jordan faced.  LBJ lost to the 2008 Celtics and had the unenviable task of facing the Warriors dynasty in the finals 3 consecutive years.
  • LBJ faced 4 of the top 15 ranked teams of all time in the playoffs, MJ didn’t have competition that ranked as high on NBAMATH.com’s website.
  • It is always fun to go back in time and look at some of the great names from past eras.  On paper the great names from the ‘90s look to have a slight advantage over the great players from the 2010 decade.

For our next chapter in the NBA G.O.A.T debate, we will do a deep dive into the awards and accolades each player won during their basketball careers.

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