Even before LeBron James played his first NBA game in October 2003, his worship of Michael Jordan was clearly evident. From choosing Jordan’s number, references to His Airness as “Black Jesus,” and making suggestions that Jordan’s number should be retired league-wide, James made it clear that attaining a similar stature was his focus.
With James now considered by many to be the best player in the NBA—if not the entire planet—the inevitable comparisons between the two demand a closer analysis of their two careers. Therefore, we’ll compare his production with Jordan’s numbers through the latter’s first 11 seasons, which is the point at which James is currently situated.
Two major differences in their careers immediately pop up. For one, James came straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, while Jordan spent three years with the North Carolina Tar Heels, winning the national title as a freshman—by hitting the winning shot. Thus, you have a 29-year-old James matched up against the 33-year-old version of Jordan.
The other is that James’ 11 seasons have gone by with no abrupt retirement announcement to pursue a brief career in baseball, as Jordan did in October 1993. Stepping away from the game no doubt saved some wear-and-tear on Jordan’s body, and there was virtually no evidence of any rust upon his return.
In comparing the two, Jordan was coming off his fourth championship with the Chicago Bulls at the same point in his career, with two more on the immediate horizon. In those six trips to the Finals, Jordan’s teams never lost.
James’ teams have actually gotten to the final round five times, but only captured the prize on two occasions. In addition, last year, his Miami Heat team narrowly avoided being eliminated in Game Six, taking advantage of some late-game heroics by Ray Allen—a potential addition to this year’s Cavalier team.
Jordan missed the bulk of his second season with the Bulls after breaking his foot after just three games. That absence has faded from people’s memories since he made it back for the final 15 regular season contests, then averaged over 43 points a game in a brief playoff series against the eventual champion Boston Celtics. The most memorable of those performances was his 63-point effort in a Game 2 overtime loss.
James has never suffered any major injury, with most of his absences in the lineup related to sitting out meaningless late-season games in both Cleveland and Miami. Those items account for the 76-game advantage in his favor—nearly an entire season.
When it comes to scoring, both players have obviously been integral to their team’s lineups, with Jordan averaging nearly 32 points per game, compared to James’s 27.5 total.
While their difference in overall field goal percentage is negligible, James was much more prolific with his long-range shooting, connecting on nearly 700 more three-pointers while launching over two thousand more attempts from downtown.
As far as rebounds are concerned, James has a clear edge by over 1,200 boards. However, there is a distinct difference in the way each approached the duty. Jordan actually has close to 300 more offensive rebounds, while James’ prowess on the defensive side is clearly evident with an advantage of nearly 1,500 boards.
Given the memory of James swatting away countless shots from behind, it’s somewhat surprising to find that Jordan actually has more blocked shots, holding a 64-block advantage despite the aforementioned 76-game difference.
Steals are another area in which Jordan holds a strong lead, with a 40-percent difference in the numbers in the Hall of Famer’s favor. Of course, that aggressiveness is why Jordan also has a less-desirable 600+ advantage when it comes to personal fouls.
One criticism of James has been that he’s been too willing to dish the ball to a teammate rather than take a shot, especially in crunch time. That’s a debatable concept, but James does have a clear lead over Jordan in this area, averaging better than one assist more per game over their respective careers.
Jordan’s numbers from the charity stripe show him hitting his free throws at better than 84 percent, compared to James, who is at nearly 75 percent. During his career, James’ best season at the line came in 2008-09, when he connected 78 percent of the time.
Finally, even the greatest turn the ball over at times, but Jordan holds the advantage here, with 500 fewer errors. Those numbers may simply be a byproduct of James’ penchant for getting the ball to teammates, but are no doubt ammunition for those who dismiss the possibility of Jordan’s status as the greatest player ever being threatened.
Of course, there are still plenty of older people who dimiss talk of Jordan himself being the greatest. Those individuals note that Bill Russell, who was given that designation in 1981, was the centerpiece of a Boston Celtic dynasty that won 11 NBA championships.
Regardless of where one stands on this issue, it’s clear right now that Jordan still has a clear advantage over James when comparisons are made. However, the shifting sands of what constitutes the greatest can change a great deal over the next four years.
The bottom line is simply this: if in 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won multiple NBA titles, then leads in certain statistical categories for Jordan become much less significant. That’s because today’s world focuses on the here and now, and the burning image in people’s minds will be LeBron James holding the Larry O’Brien trophy, not what happened two decades ago.