LeBron James

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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Charles Barkley says Kobe Bryant is closest he’s seen to Michael Jordan

Charles Barkley says Kobe Bryant is closest he’s seen to Michael Jordan

Charles Barkley is not here for the Michael Jordan-LeBron James comparisons.

Here’s what he had to say on the topic of that debate bubbling up in the wake of “The Last Dance” on Bleacher Report’s “The Lefkoe Show”:

“I ain’t never gonna say anything bad about LeBron James, but the closest to Michael I’ve ever seen was Kobe. And what I mean by that is a guy who has a singular vision, like, I just want to win. I’m not worried what my teammates think. I’m not worried about what the coach think. I just want to win.”


Indeed, Bryant and Jordan's games are stylistically comparable (in large part due to Bryant molding himself in Jordan's image), and only one championship separates them. Barkley did go on to pepper in some context for this take, adding that James’ play style isn’t even necessarily comparable to Jordan’s.

“In my opinion, Michael the GOAT,” Barkley continued. “And LeBron, to me, I’ve always said he’s closer to Magic Johnson than he is to Michael.”

Hard to argue with them there. Though technically listed as different positions, James and Johnson both stand 6-foot-9 and boast the ability to facilitate offense as off-the-dribble creators and passers — from the post, in the pick and roll and on the fastbreak. Johnson is the greatest point guard of all-time, while James probably owns that distinction among point-forwards.

Johnson led the league in assists per game four times in his illustrious 12-year career. James is on Year 17, and if the season ended today, would own the 2019-20 assist crown. 

James is also third on the NBA’s all-time points leaderboard with 34,087 — trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone — with plenty still left in the tank.

There's no question in Barkley or many others' eyes who the greatest of all time is, though.

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Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

Picking the winners of Shaquille O’Neal’s ideal one-on-one matchups

NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh submitted a wonky, but undeniably intriguing idea Friday morning. As part of a solution to the post-coronavirus sports world’s depletion of live action, why not explore a one-on-one tournament of sorts -- a shot in the arm fo sports-starved fans, with the potential to raise money for charitable causes at a moment many are grappling with the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19.

In non-pandemic times, the idea has been attempted. Once, as Haberstroh notes, the pitch came to fruition, with then-retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving squaring off in an plodding affair:

And then there was the instance which Haberstroh used as the overarching hook for his proposal (which fell through on the doorstep of it occurring): Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O’Neal, fresh of The Dream’s Rockets shaking down O’Neal’s Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals.

An Olajuwon back injury stopped this absolutely blessed event from happening back in the day, but now, the man who incepted the plans, Leonard Armato, former agent to both O’Neal and Olajuwon, is ready to see it again.

“I think it would be huge for the league to do this,” Armato told Haberstroh. “It could be a massive revenue stream. Think of it a little like Phil vs. Tiger.”

For an in-depth look at the potential and pit-falls of the idea, check out Haberstroh’s piece. But we at NBC Sports Chicago are going to seize on the smallest of nuggets among the ocean of information in the feature -- for blogging purposes, of course.

Here are our picks for the ideal NBA one-on-one fight card, amassed from matchups O’Neal told Haberstroh he wants to see. The rules, we’ll adapt to fit Armato’s current vision: No retired players, with games consisting of 10 two-minute rounds (with one-minute breaks in between), and a 12-second shot clock on each possession. We’ll assume the total score wins, as opposed to breaking up bouts round-by-round.

Let us begin:

Heavyweight

Joel Embiid vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The matchup: In Habertstroh’s piece, O’Neal quickly dismissed the idea of an Antetokounmpo-LeBron James matchup, despite the embedded ‘incumbent vs. disruptor’ trope it could evoke. In Antetokounmpo and Embiid, O’Neal argues, you have two like-sized bigs of varying (but in some ways overlapping) skillset, which would provide unique spectacle. And this rivalry is not without intrigue: When healthy and engaged, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are perhaps the two most gifted players in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks and 76ers, as burgeoning contenders (er, at least Philly is on paper), share something of a rivalry.

The verdict: In this non-traditional format, Antetokounmpo probably has the edge. With only 12 seconds to create a shot, it’s easy to envision his extendo reach bothering Embiid’s dribble on face-ups starting at or around the 3-point arc, and his quickness presenting issues as the rounds wore on. Embiid is nimble for his size with the mass (280 pounds), wingspan (7-foot-6) and array of in-between moves to overpower Antetokounmpo on occasion, but the bet is Antetokounmpo’s conditioning would win out.

Middleweight

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James

The matchup: A timeless classic. James and Durant are the two signature forwards of this generation, and have faced off in three NBA Finals, with Durant leading their personal head-to-head 2-1 (both wins with the Warriors, his one loss as a member of the Thunder in 2012). This matchup would rest comfortably at the top of this hypothetical card.

The verdict: This one could easily go either way. With a score to settle, James probably comes rearing out of the gate, he’s a terror defensively when engaged and even at an advanced age his mass could give Durant trouble. But assuming Durant is fully healthy and on par with the legitimate unicorn we were accustomed to pre-achilles tear, his arsenal of pinpoint handles, pull-up shooting and impossible length would be a handful to deal with. I’d probably lean Durant because of how tailored his game feels to the mono a mono format of this competition. 

Lightweight

Steph Curry vs. Kyrie Irving

The matchup: If the Durant-James bout is the headliner of this card, this has the potential to be the spiciest matchup. These two have waged many a battle in their day, with Irving’s game-winning step-back over Curry to cap the Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals the punctuating point. 

Further, these are the two slickest-handling guards in the league, both with an array of in-between floaters and obscene layup packages. Especially given each’s penchant for matador defense, oo’s and ah’s would abound from start to finish.

The verdict: Another one that could go either way, especially depending on whether or not Curry is dialed in from deep. But Irving is probably the safer bet. The things he can do with a basketball simply defy reality. In real games, his exploits can inspire ball-watching or showmanship that belies true downhill shot creation, but with only Curry in his path in this hypothetical format, the immediate impact of his wizardry would be ever-apparent. Curry is a peskier defender, but Irving is a slightly better tough-shot maker (crucial for the quick 12-second shot clock). For that, he gets the slightest of edges.

Classic Division

Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

The matchup: O’Neal rather wistfully pontificated about this matchup to Haberstroh. “Then,” he told Haberstroh to cap his list of dream matchups, “since it’s come up and there’s a lot of bad blood, Isiah (Thomas) and Mike (Jordan).”

And wouldn’t it be something? A bulldog defender with a supremely tight handle and diverse layup package in Thomas (who backs down from no one) against the smoothest scorer (and greatest player) to ever do it -- with the weight of decades of personal contentiousness and inter-city vitriol as backdrop.

The verdict: You know the deal. It’s Jordan -- assuming both players are in their prime in this alternate reality -- and it’s probably not particularly close. Thomas is as tough a customer as they come, but Jordan’s got five inches on him (6-foot-6 to 6-1) with a 6-11 wingspan that would likely engulf the Pistons star as the game wore on. Thomas pestering his way to an early-round advantage wouldn’t be surprising, but as we know, Jordan gets better as competitions wear on -- especially when spurred by internal motivation. His devastating isolation scoring and tenacious physicality on the other end would win out.

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