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Michael Jordan Faced Better Competition Than LeBron James

As we watch Michael Jordan vanquish each of his contemporaries in ESPN’s “The Last Dance” — which wraps up with its final two episodes on Sunday — it’s hard not to imagine the best of today’s game lacing up against them. What if LeBron James had played against these guys?

The tone of that question goes one of two ways. If you believe the late 1980s and early 1990s were the golden era of the NBA, you’re asking it derisively. LeBron against the REAL MEN of Jordan’s era? No chance. If you aren’t that nostalgic, you’re asking it gleefully. LeBron against those basketball Neanderthals? It’s about to get ugly for them.

Unless there’s a secret time travel portal out there, we can’t test either hypothesis. The best we can do is measure the relative strength of the teams that Jordan and James faced in their many playoff runs. We’ll use net rating, or the difference between each team’s points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. That data can’t settle the MJ-LeBron debate entirely, but it can give us insight into whose roads to victory were tougher – albeit with some caveats.

Jordan faced a tougher playoff path

Average wins and net rating* for teams led by Michael Jordan and LeBron James and their playoff opponents, 1984-85 through 2018-19 seasons

Average wins Average Net Rating
Player Own Team Playoff Opp. Own Team Playoff Opp.
Michael Jordan 58.38 53.54 7.29 4.58
LeBron James 55.44 51.77 5.34 3.97

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The average team Jordan faced in his 37 playoff series posted a regular-season net rating of +4.58, which translates into somewhere between 53 and 54 wins using a Pythagorean win percentage calculator. The average team LeBron faced in his 45 (and counting) series posted a regular-season net rating of +3.97, which roughly equates to a 52-win team. (The difference shrinks when removing Jordan’s three first-round playoff defeats to much superior opponents, but it still exists.)

That’s not a massive difference, but it is a material one. To put it in LeBronian terms, it’s only a bit less than the difference between the 2013 Pacers team that pushed LeBron’s Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals (+4.5 net rating) and the 2016 Hawks squad that James’s Cavaliers swept mercilessly in the second round (+3.7 net rating).

The gap widens when considering only series victories. Jordan’s average playoff victim went 52-30 in the regular season with a net rating of +4.06. LeBron’s, on the other hand, went just 49-33 with a net rating of +2.82. That’s the difference between the 1992 Knicks, one of two teams to extend Chicago to seven games during Jordan’s title runs,1 and the 2017 Celtics, who fell meekly to LeBron’s Cavs in five despite possessing home-court advantage.

This doesn’t mean that MJ’s opponents would beat LeBron’s if they were to play head-to-head. But it does show that Jordan’s victims were generally better in the specific season they faced the Bulls.

So why does MJ come out on top? There are two obvious reasons. One is that Jordan’s teams were much better than LeBron’s. Jordan’s Bulls averaged more than 58 wins a season with a net rating of +7.29, while James’s average club won 55 games. Jordan’s Bulls were also the Vegas betting favorite in 91 percent of their series beginning in 1988, the first year those odds are available,2 compared with just 76 percent for LeBron’s. You’ll never believe this, but better teams tend to win more in the playoffs than worse teams.

Were Jordan’s teams better because Jordan is that much better than LeBron individually? Maybe. Were they better because Jordan had teammates that fit better alongside him? Maybe. It likely helped Jordan that he stayed with one franchise that built around him throughout his playoff career, as opposed to James, who hopped around from Cleveland, to Miami and back to Cleveland. But even LeBron’s Heat teams that were supposedly loaded with stars had a lower average net rating than the Bulls did over Jordan’s entire tenure.

The second obvious reason explains why LeBron both got to the NBA Finals more often and lost more often once there. Yes, the East really was stronger in MJ’s day.

The East was better when Jordan ruled it

Average wins, losses, Simple Rating System strength and net ratings* of the seven other Eastern Conference playoff teams during the playoff runs of Michael Jordan and LeBron James

Other Eastern Conference playoff teams
Wins Losses SRS Net rating
Michael Jordan
1985-1998 (no 1994) 48.80 33.20 2.68 2.76
1985-1993 (Bulls) 48.39 33.61 2.55 2.54
1995-1998 (Bulls) 49.71 32.29 2.95 3.24
LeBron James
2006-2018 47.28 34.70 1.81 2.37
2006-2010 (Cavs) 47.26 34.74 2.11 2.60
2011-2014 (Heat) 47.20 34.73 1.68 2.45
2015-2018 (Cavs) 47.39 34.61 1.56 2.00

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Wins in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season were prorated for an 82-game season.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The average East playoff team in Jordan’s era was much better than the average East playoff team in LeBron’s, even though Jordan’s Bulls were also better than LeBron’s Cavs and Heat. If anything, this table undersells the difficult East that Jordan (usually) defeated. Jordan’s average Eastern Conference finals opponent was nearly a point better in net rating than James’s.

The flip side is that James’s NBA Finals opponents were much tougher than Jordan’s. MJ never faced a finals foe as dominant as the 2015, 2016 and 2017 Warriors and only once bested a team better than the Spurs that swept James’s upstart Cavaliers in 2007. But James also faced four of the five worst finals opponents of the bunch, at least based on regular-season net rating.

LeBron faced the Finals’ best … and lost to the worst

NBA Finals teams and opponents of Michael Jordan and LeBron James by regular-season net rating* and wins

Wins Net Rating
Year Champ? Team Opponent Team Opp. Team Opp.
2017 Cavaliers Warriors 51 67 3.3 11.6
2016 Cavaliers Warriors 57 73 6.4 10.7
2015 Cavaliers Warriors 53 67 4.8 10.2
1997 Bulls Jazz 69 64 12.0 9.6
2007 Cavaliers Spurs 50 58 4.2 9.3
1996 Bulls SuperSonics 72 64 13.4 8.2
2014 Heat Spurs 54 62 5.1 8.1
1998 Bulls Jazz 62 62 7.9 7.3
1992 Bulls Trail Blazers 67 57 11.0 7.2
1991 Bulls Lakers 61 58 9.4 7.1
2013 Heat Spurs 66 58 8.6 6.7
2012 Heat Thunder 57 58 6.4 6.6
1993 Bulls Suns 57 62 6.8 6.6
2018 Cavaliers Warriors 50 58 1.0 6.0
2011 Heat Mavericks 58 57 8.2 4.7

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Wins in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season were prorated for an 82-game season.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

There are two silver linings for LeBron defenders:

James had the best overall playoff series victory of the two: The 2015-16 Warriors had a net rating of +10.7, more than a point higher than the toughest team Jordan beat. In fact, James has three of the five most impressive victories by this measure, though Jordan occupies 11 of the next 13 spots on the list.

LeBron had the most impressive playoff series win

Top 15 playoff series won by LeBron James or Michael Jordan by regular-season net rating* of opponent

Wins Net rating
Year Round Team Opponent Team Opp. Team. Opp.
2016 4 Cavaliers Warriors 57 73 6.4 10.7
1997 4 Bulls Jazz 69 64 12.0 9.6
1996 4 Bulls SuperSonics 72 64 13.4 8.2
2011 3 Heat Bulls 58 62 8.2 8.0
2018 2 Cavaliers Raptors 50 59 1.0 7.9
1989 1 Bulls Cavaliers 47 57 1.4 7.7
1998 4 Bulls Jazz 62 62 7.9 7.3
1992 4 Bulls Trail Blazers 67 57 11.0 7.2
1991 4 Bulls Lakers 61 58 9.4 7.1
1998 3 Bulls Pacers 62 58 7.9 6.8
1993 2 Bulls Cavaliers 57 54 6.8 6.7
2013 4 Heat Spurs 66 58 8.6 6.7
1993 4 Bulls Suns 57 62 6.8 6.6
2012 4 Heat Thunder 57 58 6.4 6.6
1993 3 Bulls Knicks 57 60 6.8 6.4

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Wins in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season were prorated for an 82-game season.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

LeBron’s teams outperformed their regular-season benchmarks more than Jordan’s teams in the playoffs: Jordan’s playoff series followed a familiar script –- he won when he had the better regular-season team and lost when he didn’t. James, on the other hand, more often won with a worse team than Jordan, or at least came closer than expected.

To calculate this, I found the net rating for each series the two stars played. Then I subtracted the regular-season net rating differential between their team and their playoff opponent. A high positive number suggests that James or Jordan “overachieved” with their series result. A high negative number suggests the opposite.

Look at all the times LeBron’s teams pop up at the top of the list.

LeBron’s teams have overperformed more …

NBA playoff series for teams led by Michael Jordan or LeBron James with the biggest positive difference between the series net rating* and the regular-season ratings gap between the two teams

Net Rating
Year Round Win? Team Opponent Reg. season Diff. Team’s Playoff Series Series vs. season Diff.
2018 2 Cavaliers Raptors -6.9 15.1 +22.0
2017 3 Cavaliers Celtics +0.5 21.4 +20.9
2017 2 Cavaliers Raptors -1.2 15.8 +17.0
2016 3 Cavaliers Raptors +1.6 17.3 +15.7
2015 3 Cavaliers Hawks -1.0 14.3 +15.3
2009 2 Cavaliers Hawks +8.3 22.2 +13.9
1996 1 Bulls Heat +11.9 25.7 +13.8
2012 1 Heat Knicks +3.0 16.3 +13.3
2008 2 Cavaliers Celtics -11.7 1.3 +13.0
1991 1 Bulls Knicks +9.6 21.9 +12.3
1996 3 Bulls Magic +7.4 19.6 +12.2
2016 2 Cavaliers Hawks +2.7 13.8 +11.1
1993 1 Bulls Hawks +7.7 18.0 +10.3
1990 2 Bulls 76ers -1.8 8.3 +10.1
1993 2 Bulls Cavaliers +0.1 10.0 +9.9

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The flip side is that he also lost more often — or came closer to losing than expected — with better teams.

… and also underperformed more than Jordan’s

NBA playoff series for teams led by Michael Jordan or LeBron James with the biggest negative difference between the series net rating* and the regular-season ratings gap between the two teams

Net Rating
Year Round Win? Team Opponent Reg. season Diff. Team’s Playoff Series Series vs. season Diff.
2014 4 Heat Spurs -3.0 -16.0 -13.0
2018 4 Cavaliers Warriors -5.0 -16.1 -11.1
1988 2 Bulls Pistons -1.7 -10.7 -9.0
2010 2 Cavaliers Celtics +3.2 -5.8 -9.0
2011 4 Heat Mavericks +3.5 -2.8 -6.3
2018 1 Cavaliers Pacers -0.4 -6.3 -5.9
2009 3 Cavaliers Magic +2.7 -2.7 -5.4
1996 2 Bulls Knicks +10.9 7.0 -3.9
1997 1 Bulls Bullets +10.3 6.9 -3.4
1987 1 Bulls Celtics -5.7 -9.0 -3.3
1992 3 Bulls Cavaliers +5.3 2.1 -3.2
2007 2 Cavaliers Nets +5.1 1.9 -3.2
2013 4 Heat Spurs +1.9 -0.8 -2.7
2015 4 Cavaliers Warriors -5.4 -7.7 -2.3
1992 2 Bulls Knicks +6.9 4.7 -2.2

*Net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

This method is a bit misleading because James’s later teams had a tendency to conserve energy in the regular season. Still, James ripping apart his toughest East opponents instead of just beating them is a feather in his cap. James turned it on more in the playoffs than Jordan — at least by this method.

(Makes you wonder how the same star who pushed the great 2008 Celtics to seven with a horrid supporting cast could also lose decisively to a Spurs team in 2014 that was closer to his team’s equal than the final series margin would suggest, as well as fall to three teams from 2009 to 2011 that were worse than his.)

Otherwise, though, Jordan did in fact face tougher opposition than LeBron. This alone shouldn’t settle the debate over who’s the GOAT, but it at least gives Jordan backers more supporting evidence to use.

Footnotes

  1. The other was the 1998 Pacers.

  2. Though the Bulls were likely to be underdogs in their first three playoff series with Jordan.

Mike Prada is an NBA writer and editor who watches way more basketball than is healthy. His work has appeared at SB Nation since 2006, and he writes the Prada’s Pictures newsletter.

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