Why the Michael Jordan-LeBron James Finals debate is more nuanced that it seems

Why the Michael Jordan-LeBron James Finals debate is more nuanced that it seems

Central to the Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate is the number six.

Six NBA titles for Jordan — and in six tries. Six NBA Finals losses for James, against only three victories.

On its face, any debate of whom is greater starts (and usually ends) there. But is there more nuance to James’ Finals record — when held up against Jordan’s — worth considering?

NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh thinks so. In fact, in a recent column he argued that the verdict is far from out on who the GOAT truly is, and that will remain the case until James finishes his career, which is currently paused in the middle of Year 17. 

Jordan played 15 seasons before leaving the game for good — 13 with the Bulls, and two with the Wizards. Here’s how the two stack up in select advanced metrics highlighted by Haberstroh:

  Career Win Shares Career VORP Championships added (adjusted for league quality
Michael Jordan 253.8 (5th all-time) 116.1 (2nd) 4.28
LeBron James 287.1 (2nd all-time) 133.2 (1st) 4.66

Haberstroh acknowledged the flimsiness of catch-all statistics such as these as the ultimate barometer of a player’s greatness. And with 246 more games (and counting) amassed than Jordan between the regular season and playoffs, it’s natural that James would see an edge in cumulative career statistics such as Win Shares or VORP. 

(In fact, break down each by average win shares by season, and Jordan holds a 16.92-16.89 edge, a hair-thin margin. But availability is an ability, and James’ longevity, injury aversion and extended, multi-faceted prime are foundational to GOAT argument.)

What James isn’t likely to ever get the edge in his rings; from age 36 on, he would have to double his title count to do so, and in a league as talented at the top as it's been in recent memory. If or whenever the 2019-20 season resumes, James’ Lakers sit atop the Western Conference — and just three games back of the Bucks for the league’s best record — but a path to a chip that could feature matchups with the James Harden and Russell Wesbtrook-led Rockets, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. That's no sure ring.

So, say James ends his career with four titles — give or take — but with a losing record in the Finals. Is that something we should hold against him?

In this vein, Haberstroh is quick to point out that both James and Jordan have appeared in 13 postseasons, but Jordan failed to reach the Finals in his trips more often than he made them. James, meanwhile, has finished in the final two in nine out of 13 of his playoff seasons. That is truly a staggering feat

But context is important here. Break down Jordan’s flamed-out playoff runs one-by-one and explanations (not necessarily excuses) crop up for nearly every one. In his second and third years, his Bulls crossed paths with the 1986 and 1987 Celtics — all-time great squads. In years four through six, they fell to the Bad Boy Pistons back-to-back-to-back at the peak of their powers. Hardly anything to hold against him. His seventh and final playoff defeat came at the hands of the Orlando Magic in 1995, after returning from his first retirement and still outfitted in a baseball player’s physique. His first came to the Milwaukee Bucks (granted, in a first-round sweep) in his rookie year.

None of those defeats carry that same sting as, for example, James’ Finals defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, when he averaged 17.8 points and four turnovers per game in a series the Miami Heat’s then freshly-minted Big 3 squandered a 2-1 lead in. But the sum of James’ Finals opponents undoubtedly exceeds Jordan’s, a point that often gets forgotten in flippant "3-6" arguments.

Here’s a breakdown of each’s Finals opposition, sorted by Net Rating (concept inspired by this brilliant piece from Mike Prada in Five Thirty Eight, which goes eight layers deeper on all the points hit in here):

Year Player Finals Opponent Wins (reg season) Net Rating Result
2016-17 LBJ GSW 67 +11.6 L - 1-4
2015-16 LBJ GSW 73 +10.7 W - 4-3
2014-2015 LBJ GSW 67 +10.2 L - 2-4
1996-97 MJ UTA 64 +9.6 W - 4-2
2006-07 LBJ SAS 58 +9.3 L - 0-4
1995-96 MJ SEA 64 +8.2 W - 4-2
2013-14 LBJ SAS 62 +8.1 L - 1-4
1997-98 MJ UTA 62 +7.3 W - 4-2
1991-92 MJ POR 57 +7.2 W - 4-2
1990-91 MJ LAL 58 +7.1 W - 4-1
2012-13 LBJ SAS 58 +6.7 W - 4-3
1992-93 MJ PHO 62 +6.6 W - 4-2
2011-12 LBJ OKC 47* +6.6 W - 4-1
2017-18 LBJ GSW 58 +6.0 L - 0-4
2010-11 LBJ DAL 57 +4.7 L - 2-4

*in a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder went 47-19 in 66 regular season games — a 58-win pace extrapolated to an 82-game slate

Based on that table (which means purely statistically speaking), James faced the three toughest Finals opponents of the two in the ’15, ’16 and ’17 Warriors, and the three weakest in the ’11 Mavericks, ’12 Thunder and ’18 Warriors (an obvious instance where the numbers and eyes don’t line up). James beat the toughest foe in the ’16 Warriors, but fell to the flimsiest in the ’11 Mavericks. That, at least, passes the sniff test.

And this isn’t revisionist history, either. As Haberstroh notes, James’ teams were favorites in just two of the nine Finals he played in (2011, 2013), and he split them. Jordan’s were favored in all six. 

There’s something to be said for being the pillar of the best team year-in-year out, which Jordan was from 1991-1998, with the exception of spells impacted by his first retirement. Once he won, he didn't stop winning. And Jordan’s Eastern Conference path was undoubtedly more contentious than James’ — especially in the latter's second stint with the Cavaliers.

But, come on. We remember those mid-2000s Cavaliers teams. Kevin Love didn’t play a minute in the 2015 Finals; Kyrie Irving played 44 before fracturing his kneecap and missing the remainder of the series. Those Warriors squads have cases on the short-list of greatest of all-time (and I’ll be damned if the 2014 Spurs don’t, too).

This is in no way a definitive argument for James over Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. But on this one crucial point — each’s performances in the NBA Finals — James’ side deserves a tad more nuance.


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NBCA, Adam Silver speak out following George Floyd’s death and recent protests

NBCA, Adam Silver speak out following George Floyd’s death and recent protests

The National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA hereafter) and commissioner Adam Silver recently joined the chorus of voices speaking out in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

A statement from the NBCA, signed by 33 coaches and almost 180 assistant coaches, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports:


The statement pinpoints “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism” as “shameful, inhuman and intolerable.”

And their call for “positive change” will reportedly be followed by some action. The NBCA has also formed a “committee on racial injustice and reform to pursue solutions within NBA cities”  Wojnarowski reports, which will be comprised of at least Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, David Fizdale, Stan Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, JB Bickerstaff and Quin Snyder.

Already, many in the NBA community have acted to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death. Stephen Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie demonstrated with many in Minneapolis. Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to lead a peaceful march in Atlanta that also featured Malcolm Brogdon. Lonnie Walker aided in clean-up efforts after a night of protests in San Antonio. The list goes on from there.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote in an internal memo to NBA employees obtained by ESPN that he was “heartened” by those “speaking out to demand justice, urging peaceful protest and working for meaningful change.” Silver also called for introspection and promised the NBA will “continue its efforts to promote inclusion and bridge divides through collective action, civic engagement, candid dialogue and support for organizations working towards justice and equality.” He expressed condolences to the Floyd family, outrage over the wrongful deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and an obligation to not ignore the issues of “racism, police brutality and racial injustice.”

As of this writing, 26 of 30 NBA teams have issued statements on Floyd’s passing, either as entities or through organization spokespeople, ranging from executives to coaches. Hopefully, the words of many lead to action — and that action to appreciable change.

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Dennis Rodman asks looters to stop, protest George Floyd killing peacefully

USA Today

Dennis Rodman asks looters to stop, protest George Floyd killing peacefully

Dennis Rodman isn’t sugarcoating things as he calls on looters to stop the destruction across the country, and protest peacefully.

“Please, please understand we have to live together,” Rodman said in a video on TMZ. “We’re human beings. We’re not f---ing animals, we’re human beings.”

Rodman likened the protests going on today to the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and said younger generations may not have a full appreciation for how things spiraled out of control back then.

“It’s a bad situation and I think we should all understand the fact that there’s a new generation,” Rodman said in the video. “People my age all knew about the Rodney King thing, and things start to happen, people looting, setting fires, damaging people’s homes, businesses and stuff like that. Now we have this incident.

“I think someone needs to come out and say, ‘Hey guys, why are we looting? Why are we stealing? Why are we creating more issues, more problems, stuff like that?’”

Rodman elaborated that he believes these latest protests across the nation are a symptom of a larger problem, and that the country needs to address the underlying issues.

“Let’s get to the head of what’s really going on,” Rodman said. “This is a bad, bad situation. If you’re going to protest, protest in the right way. You don’t have to go and burn down things, steal things… and stuff like that.

“We’ve got enough issues with the COVID virus right now. We’ve got enough issues.”

Finally, Rodman made an emotional appeal for people to come together, not create an even wider divide.

“Why are we doing this? Why are we hurting each other again? Why not just help each other, hold each other's hands and try to solve the problem? We didn’t create this problem, but guess what, we can help. Especially the new generation, the 24/7 generation, help us as older individuals to understand this. Don’t add to it. Do not add to it. Help us, and help everybody right now.”

RELATED: Michael Jordan issues statement of solidarity in wake of George Floyd's death

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