The MJ v LBJ G.O.A.T. Debate — Dispelling the Myths

My first piece on sports and a little weird that I chose to write about my second favorite sport, not my first (football/soccer). I feel compelled to join in the MJ v Lebron G.O.A.T. debate not because I have a preference (which I surely do) but because I find that the arguments tend not to be based on facts, especially when it relates to what MJ did and what Lebron couldn’t or can’t do. It is quite odd given the availability of data and stats to underline commentary, pundits make assertions that are way off the mark and soon these become mantra. I have decided to address a bit of the urban legend out there, lets see how it goes.

All Time Play offs Scoring Leader

The response to Lebron becoming the NBA’s all time play offs scoring leader by passing MJ has intrigued me. Most pundits eager to pooh pooh Lebron’s achievement quickly point out he did it in 33 more games. What they conveniently leave out is the fact that Lebron has done it in 12 play off seasons (including the current one) compared to MJ’s 13. Lebron has done it attempting 118 fewer shots than MJ did, which explains the difference in their play offs points per game averages with MJ having 33.4 to Lebron’s 28.3 (their playoff field goal percentages were virtually the same 48.3% for Lebron to MJ’s 48.7%). Lets not even get into the fact that Lebron has averaged 8.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in his play offs career to MJ’s 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

Jordan walked into the NBA as a star and Lebron had to grow into it

Forget the fact that MJ had a 3 year college career at one of the NCAA’s most storied programs and under the legendary Coach Dean Smith before coming into the NBA. MJ was 21 when he was drafted, Lebron was 18 straight out of High School. In MJ’s first playoff appearance at age 22, he scored 23 points in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. He lost 1–3 in the first round to the Bucks who would then be swept in the second round by the Sixers. In Lebron’s first playoff appearance at age 21, he had a triple double with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists against the Wizards. He would win that first round series in 6 games and force the back to back defending Eastern Conference Champions Pistons (they had won the NBA finals 2 years before) to 7 games, losing the last two games after going 3–2 up. In Lebron’s first playoff season he played 13 games to Jordan’s 4 and average 30.8 points to Jordan’s 29.3 points.

MJ’s first 3 seasons in the NBA were losing seasons, Lebron has only had one losing season — his rookie year. Lebron improved the Cavs so much after joining them that the highest draft picks after he joined were 10th in 2004, 25th in 2006, 19th in 2008 and 30th in 2009. After MJ’s rookie season the Bulls highest draft picks for next 5 years were 11th in 1985, 9th in 1986, 8th and 10th in 1987, 11th in 1988 and 6th in 1989.

In his second post season at age 22, Lebron led the Cavs all the way to the NBA finals where they were swept by San Antonio Spurs team that had won 2 of the previous 4 NBA finals (Cavs lost the 4 games by a combined 24 points only, games 3 and 4 were lost by 3 points and 1 point respectively). Lebron has never lost a first round series in his entire career, MJ did not get out of the first round until his 4th post season, winning only 1 game out of 10 in his first 3 post seasons. Still wondering who had the better start?

Lebron has stacked the deck since he left Cleveland

Moving to Miami to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh is seen as a dent in Lebron’s career. Prior to that move Lebron had only played with one future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in his final season (2009/2010), yet he had led the Cavs to one NBA finals, one Conference finals and three Conference semi finals in five post seasons. Jordan played with 3 future Hall of Famers in his first seven seasons in the NBA — George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Scottie Pippen. When he finally got to his first NBA finals which he won, his team included future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and fellow first round picks Horace Grant (10th overall in 1987), Bill Cartwright (3rd overall in 1979) and John Paxson (19th overall in 1983).

In 1995, the Bulls acquired 2 time champion and future Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and in 1996 the Bulls acquired 3 time champion and future Hall of Famer Robert Parish as they went about their second three-peat. In all MJ played with 5 future Hall of Famers (Gervin, Gilmore, Pippen, Parish and Rodman) and two more outstanding players who should be in there (Grant and Kukoc). Lebron is in his 14th season and so far has played with one Hall of Famer (Shaq), two locks (Wade and Allen), 2 possibles (Kyrie and Bosh) and one probable (Love).

Add the fact that the Bulls 6 ring run were led by the most successful coach in NBA history Phil Jackson and the Triangle offense designed by Tex Winter. Lebron on the other hand has never played under any of the great coaches, not in college (Jordan had Coach Smith) or in the NBA where he has been on teams led by Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt and Tyron Lue. When Lebron left Miami and returned to Cleveland they had Kyrie Irving who had played 3 seasons in the NBA (after one year in College) and added Kevin Love who had 6 seasons. Neither had played a single playoff game. Stacked the deck?

The East is weak so Lebron is enjoying a cakewalk

This one just cracks me up. In the 6 seasons MJ went to the finals, his Bulls only lost more than 2 games in the Eastern Conference Playoffs in 2 seasons, 1992 (11–5) and 1998 (11–4). In 7 seasons since 2010 when he moved to Miami, Lebron’s teams have lost more than 2 games in the Eastern Conference Playoffs in 4 seasons, 2011 (12–3), 2012 (12–6), 2013 (12–4) and 2014 (12–3). There is no doubt that Lebron has gone through tougher battles in his Eastern Conference (Big three Celtics and the 2012-2014 Pacers) than MJ did when he started winning (Ewing’s Knicks were only challengers until 1998 Pacers).

Its ridiculous how these myths take hold. In the finals the teams MJ faced were 4 60 plus wins teams and 2 55 plus wins teams. By end of the 2017 NBA finals Lebron will have faced 1 70 plus wins team (the best regular season team in NBA history and he beat them), 3 60 plus wins teams and 4 55 plus wins teams (OKC in 2012 was converted based on winning percentage as that was a 66 game season). Clearly Lebron has faced stiffer opposition going through the East (until 2017) and even much tougher in the NBA finals which explains the divergence in their finals win-loss records, especially as MJ clearly had the better teams.

MJ was clutch, Lebron is a choker

Really? The advocates of this absurd line of reasoning always point to the 2011 NBA finals where Lebron struggled and scored no points in 4 consecutive 4th quarters. In those finals at age 26 Lebron and the Heat lost the series to the Dallas Mavericks in 6 games, losing the last 3 games after going up 2–1. At age 26 MJ lost the 1989 Eastern Conference finals to the Detroit Pistons (who were on their way to their first NBA title ) in 6 games, losing the last 3 games after going up 2–1.

The stats below show that Lebron had better offensive and defensive ratings in the elimination game in his series than MJ had in his, even though MJ scored more points (32 to 21). MJ attempted 11 more shots than Lebron on 50% shooting compared to Lebron’s 60%. MJ had 8 turnovers and 5 personal fouls to Lebron’s 6 and 2. MJ had better assists numbers (13 to 6) which truly explains why the Heat struggled — Lebron’s team mates simply did not rise to the occasion.

MJ did not get into the NBA finals until he was 28. At 28, Lebron had played in 4 NBA finals and won 2 with 2 Finals MVP titles. In Lebron’s first Championship game in 2012 he had a triple double — 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. In Game 7 of the 2013 finals he had 37 points 12 rebounds. In the elimination game of the 2014 finals which his Heat lost to the Spurs, he had 31 points and 10 rebounds, averaging 28 points over the series. In the NBA finals series against the Golden State Warriors in 2015 where he was without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Lebron averaged 35.8 points per game. In game 5 he had a triple double — 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. In the elimination game 6, he had 32 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists.

In leading his Cavs back from a 1–3 deficit to win the 2016 NBA finals, he delivered the most dominant finals performance in a 3 game span ever, considering each game was an elimination game. In game 5 he had 41 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists. In game 6 he had 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists. In the championship game on the home court of the 73 win Warriors, Lebron delivered a triple double — 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists including the signature play of the series, the chase down block on Andre Iguodala see here and the final point in the game from the free throw line. Yet he’s not clutch.

Final Word

Its ok to have a favorite player, what’s not ok is trying to pass opinion as fact. A lot of the folks who refuse to accept Lebron as a bonafide rival to MJ’s G.O.A.T. title are mostly older folks who nitpick every Lebron bad game forgetting the struggles MJ had early on. They say MJ was unbeaten in NBA finals so Lebron will never be better than him, like Lebron getting to 8 finals so far is not a worthy feat. Lebron has played in an era of great Western Conference teams such as the Spurs who have 3 titles in 4 finals since Lebron was drafted or the Warriors who have 1 title and going to their 3rd straight finals. Even the 2011 Dallas Mavericks had 2 definite future Hall of Famers in Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd with a probable in Shawn Marion while the Oklahoma City Thunder had 3 future Hall of Famers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Lebron story is still being written and until he is done, this debate will continue. It is my decided opinion that he has already done more than MJ did and by the time he is done will be undisputed as the greatest to ever play the game.

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