Don’t look now, but LeBron James is submitting the greatest individual NBA season since the Big Dipper was averaging 50 points and the Big O was averaging a triple-double.
Actually, maybe you should look.
Because for the first time in over a decade, the title of GOAT is officially up for grabs.
For the past fifteen years, Michael Jordan has sat comfortably atop the zenith of basketball greatness.
By almost any measure, Jordan comes out on top. He was statistically superior to Bird, won more rings than Magic, and had a peak that was simply better than Kobe Bryant’s or anyone else’s.
That last point has been the deciding factor in any and all arguments:
- Bill Russell won more rings, but he also played on super-stacked teams in a league that was much smaller and simply incomparable to today’s game.
- Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson put up great numbers on lousy teams that seldom won anything.
- Jerry West was a perennial bridesmaid sitting at the title table.
Maybe you could say that Jordan won his rings against inferior competition than Bird and Magic dealt with in the 80s, but he was, by any measurement, better than they were at their peaks.
The only real argument to be made for anyone other than Jordan was a some convoluted scenario in which you were a GM and you were choosing to take 20 years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as opposed to 15 years of Jordan – three of which (either due to injury or age) couldn’t really be considered to be “Jordan-esque.” Still, this argument lacked panache because again, Kareem at his peak was a soft big man with an unstoppable sky-hook, whereas Michael dominated every aspect of a game and had a “will” that was unmatchable.
Even avowed Kobe-lovers like myself have to cede the “peak” argument. I firmly believe that Kobe Bryant’s apex was at least 95% as good as Jordan’s; but still, he comes up short in the only argument that truly matters to most people.
In short, for any player to even enter into the Jordan argument, he has to submit a period of play that is comparable to Jordan’s peak. A quick look at any of the previous players’ best years clearly proved that nobody has ever come all that close.
That is, of course, until we get to LeBron.
Now, obviously, no definitive judgment can be made as of yet.
In order for LeBron to even be compared with Jordan, he will need to win at least three more rings (many people will probably say he has to win at least six, but let’s just agree that no argument will come close with only one title). In order to even have the argument, at some point somebody needs to submit a season or two that’s on level with what Air Jordan did.
Since 1970, six NBA players have posted an average PER of over 30 for an entire season: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwayne Wade, and Tracy McGrady. Those six players have combined to reach the feat a total of thirteen times with Jordan and LeBron being the only two players to hit it more than twice.
Granted, PER isn’t a perfect stat. But it’s also not one of those randomly created sabermetric stats that old-school basketball fans tend to hate. Instead, it combines all of your important stats into one number that you can use to grade a player’s overall game.
LeBron is on pace to reach 30 for the fourth time this season, a feat that would match Jordan’s all-time record. This season in particular, Lebron has been dominant compared to his peers, with no other player besides Kevin Durant even breaking 26.
(It might be relevant to point out that Kobe Bryant’s greatest single season doesn’t crack the top fifty of all time. This, among other reasons, is why nobody ever takes the Kobe vs. Jordan argument all that seriously.)
From 1987 to 1991, Michael Jordan was other-worldly, posting PERs of 30 or higher in four consecutive seasons. Over the course of his entire pre-baseball career, two specific seasons shone brightest, even when compared to the greatness he was contributing on a yearly basis – 1988-89 and 1992-93.
Statistically, the ’89 season was a little better, as he averaged a staggering 32.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists while submitting a PER of 31.13. Unfortunately, he would be unable to get over the hump in Detroit for another two seasons.
Four years later though, in 1993, Jordan submitted his most complete season in terms of all-around numbers and utter destruction of the league. It was in this season that he averaged 33, 7, and 6 en route to destroying Charles Barkley in the NBA Finals.
Most people consider the 1992-93 vintage of Jordan to be him at the absolute peak of his powers. In a year and a half, he sandwiched two rings over two of his biggest rivals (Drexler and Barkley) around a demolition of the rest of the world in the 1992 Olympics. It was at the Olympics where he clearly proved himself to be the best player on a team full of all-time greats. While he didn’t lead the team in scoring (that would be Barkley), he did lead the team in every other way.
What’s so compelling is that you could easily make the case that today’s version of LeBron is at the exact same point of his career as 1993 Michael Jordan.
Statistically, 2009 may have been a little more impressive as LeBron averaged 28, 8, and 7 while submitting a PER of 31.7. Unfortunately, he was unable to get over the championship hump for another three seasons. But four years later, LeBron could cap off 2013 with two rings sandwiched around a much more difficult Olympic Gold Medal.
Most people consider that version of LeBron James to be the best we have seen yet.
It was LeBron at the Olympics who clearly demonstrated that he was a man among boys. While he didn’t lead the team in scoring (that would be Durant, a small forward from the other conference just like Barkley), he did lead the team in every other way and hit the absolute biggest shots for the United States the few times victory was in doubt.
Comparing the statistically freaky seasons that Jordan and LeBron submitted 20 years apart in 1989 and 2009 is reasonably interesting.
Jordan averaged more points, rebounds, and assists than LeBron, but he needed a few more minutes and shots per game to do so. Interestingly enough, LeBron’s PER was actually slightly higher – and we will find out why in a minute.
It’s the comparison of Jordan and LeBron in 1993 and 2013 that is far more intriguing. Ironically, Barkley beat Jordan out for the MVP award in 1993 under the always defensible logic of, “I’m tired of voting for so-and-so, let’s give it to someone else for a change.” If Durant beats LeBron out for the award this year, the comparisons will only get creepier…and if LeBron proceeds to dismantle Durant in the Finals? This is real Twilight Zone stuff…
If both of those seasons represent the highest possible level of play by either player, then there is no question – LeBron in 2013 is better than Jordan in 1993 in every measurable way.
Michael Jordan in 1993 was a physical specimen. At 6’6” and 220 pounds, he dwarfed most opposing shooting guards in size and stature.
When other SGs did match his size, like Dan Majerlie in the NBA Finals, the athletic mismatch was almost a joke. Sure, Majerlie was a good athlete, but he was no match for MJ, and it’s no wonder Jordan averaged 41 points per game in the Finals.
LeBron James in 2013 is simply not human.
While the exact measurements of LeBron have been the source of debate for years, most cautiously estimate him to be about 6’8” and 265 pounds.
Jordan was a specimen, but LeBron is a freak.
Even the most ardent Jordan supporter would admit that physically, LeBron is on a different level.
’93 Jordan scored more than ’13 LeBron, but was he a better scorer? Absolutely not.
For one, LeBron is far more efficient than Jordan was. One reason this is so impressive and surprising is that 1993 Michael Jordan was one of the most efficient scorers we had ever seen. Jordan shot almost 50% from the field and had one of his best seasons from behind the arc, shooting 35% from deep.
However, two things swing the argument in favor of LeBron: efficiency and difficulty.
The efficiency argument is simple. 2013 LeBron is shooting seven fewer shots a game than ’93 Jordan while shooting a much higher percentage. LeBron is shooting a staggering 56% from the field and a Steve Nash-like 42% from beyond the arc. He is the only non-big man or point guard in the top 21 in the league of field goal percentage. In that same list, Kevin Durant is the only guy in the top fifty that comes anywhere close to taking the same number of shots.
The difficulty argument will be tougher for me because of the false ideas that most basketball fans have in their minds about how the game has changed over the years.
The common narrative is that Jordan scored in an era that was much more difficult to score in than it is today. In Jordan’s day, defenders could hand check, the game was more physical, and we all remember how rough those series were with New York and Detroit.
The problem is that this narrative is simply untrue.
Take the following:
- In 1988, every single team but one averaged more than 100 points per game. Twelve of the 22 (more than half) averaged at least 108 points per game.
- In 1989, every team except for the expansion Miami Heat averaged 100 per game. Fourteen of the 25 averaged at least 108.
- In 1990, every team except for the expansion Timberwolves averaged 100 per game. Twelve teams, again, averaged 108 points per game.
- From ’91 to ’93, there were never more than three teams in the league that averaged less than 100 points per game.
Now compare that with recent trends:
- In 2000, seven of the twenty-nine teams averaged 100 points per game. No team averaged more than 105.
- From 2001 to 2005, no more than four of the 29 teams averaged 100 points per game in a single season. No team averaged more than 105.
- From 2005 to 2007, the Nash Suns broke the mold a little bit with their scoring explosion. They never averaged more than 110 points in a season though…and would have finished outside the top five in many of the early 90s seasons.
- Last season, only three teams broke the 100 point threshold.
As much as you may want to claim it was immensely harder to score in Jordan’s era, that’s simply untrue. The athletes today are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than they were in Jordan’s day. In Jordan’s prime, there may have been three guys in the entire league that could match his athleticism – and one of them, Scottie Pippen, was on his own team!
Today, every team has two or three guys that are as big, fast, and athletic as Jordan. Of course, some of these guys can’t walk and chew gum at the same time (I’m looking at you, Al-Farouq Aminu), but they sure do have the potential of playing much better individual defense than Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle – two guys that guarded Michael Jordan in three of his six NBA Finals appearances.
Further than the athleticism though…
The defensive systems in place today are much better than they were twenty years ago.
There is a reason why only nine players are averaging 20 points per game this season. In 2003, that number was 26. In 1989, that number was 27.
Defenses today are built to stop great individual scorers.
Every team puts an extra guy on the ball-side of the court to limit great individual players. Defenses are practically begging offensive players to make the skip pass and move the ball quickly. Wing defenders now crowd the ball while the entire rest of the defense crowds the lane.
Defenses are better, players are more athletic, and scoring is down. Not only is scoring down, but field goal percentage is down as well.
Here are some more crazy numbers for you, showcasing how field goal percentages have fallen on an almost yearly basis since Jordan’s prime:
- 1985 – 49.1%
- 1987 – 48.0%
- 1989 – 47.7%
- 1991 – 47.4%
- 1993 – 47.2%
- 1994 – 46.6%
- 1996 – 46.2%
- 1998 – 45.0%
- 1999 – 43.7% (Lockout Year)
- 2001 – 44.3%
- 2003 – 44.2%
- 2004 – 43.9%
- 2012 – 44.8% (Lockout Year)
- 2013 – 44.9%
To sum up, in a league that is much better defensively, that is built to stop individual scorers, and that causes nearly everyone to shoot a poorer percentage from the field, LeBron is scoring nearly as much in a much more efficient manner than Michael Jordan was in 1993.
2013 LeBron is averaging almost a rebound and a half more per game than 1993 Michael Jordan. But you might be thinking that with the poorer overall shooting league-wide, LeBron has more opportunities to rebound than Jordan did. I actually thought this too, and tried to give Jordan the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately, because of the much slower pace of today’s game, teams on average pull down a whole rebound less a game in 2013 than they did in 1993, even with the poorer shooting.
Of course, LeBron’s team relies much more heavily on him for rebounds than the 1993 Bulls relied on Jordan, but their career averages aren’t that close. LeBron pulls down 2.5 more a game than Jordan did. LeBron also pulled down 3 more rebounds per game than Jordan did during their Olympic campaigns.
No matter how you slice it, LeBron is a better rebounder than Jordan was. Maybe this is unfair to Jordan since they play different positions – still, he comes up short to LeBron in yet another category.
Once again, LeBron leads Jordan in flat out numbers, but a deeper look into the era’s style of play that each player played in tilts the scale further in favor of LeBron.
Teams in 1993 took almost four shots more per game than teams do in 2013, and if you will remember from a previous point, teams shot a higher percentage on those shots than they do today. But a look at each player’s specific team makes LeBron even more impressive.
The Heat actually play pretty slowly by today’s standards, and because they get to the foul line so much (where you can’t get assists), Miami only takes 78.5 shots per game. The ’93 Bulls on the other hand ran up and down the floor firing 87.8 shots per game.
So basically, every single game, LeBron has almost ten fewer chances to get an assist than 1993 Michael Jordan had. And in those ten fewer chances, his team is shooting a lower percentage.
Despite all of this, LeBron is averaging almost an assist and a half more than Jordan did.
Once you consider the fact that LeBron takes 7 fewer shots a game than ’93 Jordan, making him slightly less “ball-hoggy,” LeBron wins this category going away.
This is the one category where you might think Jordan has the edge. After all, he averaged an entire steal more per game and nearly equals the taller, more physically impressive LeBron in blocks. However, shear numbers once again don’t tell the whole story.
While team defense is much better today, it was actually much easier to compile individual defensive numbers in the early 90s when hand-checking was allowed.
In 1993, 11 players in the NBA averaged at least two steals per game. In 2013, that number stands at four. The ball-handlers, in general, are much better today as well.
It’s not uncommon to have stretch-fours or massive wings that can handle the ball comfortably and bring it up and down the floor. In Jordan’s day, the point guard held a much higher responsibility to handle the ball at all times. Because of the improved ball handling, turnovers are down from 15.9 to 14.2 a game around the league.
But even this doesn’t tell the whole defensive story between the two players.
In 1993, Jordan was rarely asked to shoulder a huge load defensively. It was Scottie Pippen who would hound the other team’s best player for 48 minutes while Jordan was free to more or less play “free safety” and jump into passing lanes all over the court.
LeBron, on the other hand, not only consistently guards the other team’s best wing player, but he also routinely guards opposing power forwards down low on the block. LeBron is able to guard more positions than Jordan ever could, and he is the only player we’ve seen since Magic that can literally play every single position on the floor.
All in all, LeBron is more of a Swiss Army Knife on defense than Jordan ever could be.
This summer, LeBron switched over on Pau Gasol when Team USA had no answer for him. A few plays later, he was picking Jose Calderon’s pocket on the perimeter, all the while terrifying Spain as he covered more floor than one could even think was possible.
Chalk it all up and ask yourself this: if you could only have one defender for one possession, regardless of who had the ball, would you rather take 2013 LeBron or 1993 Jordan? Most of us would take LeBron, clinching the category for him once and for all.
Naturally, too many people will think this entire article is meaningless speculation. After all, the season isn’t even over yet, and we aren’t allowed to make judgments until we have crowned a champion.
Please don’t fall into this trap.
For one reason or another, basketball has become a consequentialist’s best friend: if a team wins it all, that automatically means its best player achieved greatness, and vice versa.
This is simply untrue and disrespectful to the teamwork and chemistry it takes to win in basketball.
The way we evaluate basketball is fundamentally broken. I have spent countless hours over the last two weeks researching and diving into LeBron’s and MJ’s best seasons; and yet, I felt I had to wait for the conclusion of today’s Heat/Lakers game to officially submit this post …. as if one regular season loss against an LA team with its back against the wall would undo any or all of what LeBron has accomplished this season.
But be honest, had the Heat lost today wouldn’t you be reading this entire article a little differently?
That’s unfair, irrational, and quite simply disrespectful to the game of basketball. If LeBron and the Heat lose to a bigger, deeper, and younger OKC team this June, that should have no effect on how we measure this season.
Whether he’s scoring, distributing, rebounding, or terrorizing offenses, LeBron is doing something nobody ever thought was possible: he’s out-Jordaning Michael Jordan.
There is no need to hold your breath and reserve judgment until June. Now is the time to take notice.
LeBron has reached an all-time level.