Keeping Score

How LeBron James Is Crashing Michael Jordan’s 50th Birthday

The Miami Heat star is on a record-breaking streak of efficiency. As the game's greatest player turns 50, it's fair to wonder: will LeBron eventually eclipse him?

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Issac Baldizon / NBAE / Getty Images

LeBron James greets fans following his team's victory against the Portland Trail Blazers at the American Airlines Arena in Miami on Feb. 12, 2013

Happy 50th, MJ. And to mark the occasion, LeBron James has a present for you: an all-out assault on your all-time greatness. Air Jordan would certainly be forgiven if he launches this “gift” straight toward the trash can.

Just in time for Jordan’s 50th birthday — he hits the half-century mark on Feb. 17 — King James is putting together a historic streak of excellent play. And it’s a streak fit for the 21st century NBA, in which “efficiency” — the statistical buzzword spawned by the sports analytics revolution — is cherished. In Miami‘s 117-104 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, James became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points in six consecutive games, while shooting over 60% from the field in each of those contests.  During this stretch — in which Miami is a perfect 6-0 — James is averaging 30.8 points per game on an almost unheard of 71.7% shooting. On shots taken inside the painted area, James is 46 for 54, or 85%.

(During the 2011 NBA Finals, which Miami lost to Dallas, LeBron-watchers — this one included — griped about how a 6’8″, 250-lb. physical freak like James spent so much time hanging out 25 feet from the basket. Great players rectify weaknesses in the off-season, and James got right to work. He changed his on-court behavior: James’ driving to the hoop helped Miami win the title last season, and coming into Tuesday’s games, James had scored more points in the paint, 636, than any other player in the NBA.)

Now feels like a good time to take a statistical snapshot of Jordan and James, at similar points in their careers. Since James skipped college and went straight from high school to the pros, while Jordan spent three years at the University of North Carolina, comparing them is bit tricky. LeBron is 28, and this is 10th season; when Jordan was 28, he was only in his eighth season with the Chicago Bulls. So let’s split the difference, and compare Jordan’s ninth season — 1992-1993 — when he was 29, to James’ current campaign. In these seasons, their ages and NBA experience are relatively close, just one year apart on each. (Jordan’s 10th NBA season, 1994-1995, was an outlier: he had skipped the 1993-1994 campaign to play baseball, and returned to play 17 regular season games, plus 10 playoff games, in ’95).

In this era of efficiency, the basic theory is that the rate at which a player accomplishes something is a truer measure of his value than raw totals, since raw totals are more dependent on circumstances beyond a player’s control (such as, for total rebounds, the number of shots an opponents misses). So let’s look at some advanced stats, via basketballreference.com, an analytics site. Effective field goal percentage, for example, adjusts for the fact that three-point field goals are worth more than two-point field goals. Jordan’s effective field goal percentage in 1992-1993 was 51.5%. This season, James’ is 60.2%. Total rebounding percentage estimates how many total rebounds a player grabs while he’s on the floor: in 92-93, Jordan’s total rebound percentage was 9.8%. James’ is 12.9%. As for assists: Jordan’s assist percentage, an estimate of how many of his teammates’ field goals a player assists while he’s on the floor, was 25.2% back in 92-93. James is 34.1% this year.

(MORE: LeBron James Named Sports Illustrated’s 2012 Sportsman of the Year)

Jordan does have the edge in one defensive measure, steal percentage: 3.7% of the defensive possessions in which Jordan was on the floor ended with him stealing the ball. For James, 2.3% of possessions end with him recording a steal.

Now, let’s turn to some advanced measures of overall efficiency and value. James’ player efficiency rating, a measure of per minute production, is 31.2 right now, tops in the NBA (the league average is 15). Jordan’s 1992-1993 player efficiency rating also led the league, but it was lower than LeBron’s: 29.7. As for win shares, an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes: Jordan was at .270 per 48 minutes in 1992-1993, tops in the NBA (Charles Barkley, who won that year’s MVP award with the Phoenix Suns, was second, at .242; the league average is approximately .100). James is contributing .304 win shares per 48 minutes this season; more than Michael, but actually only good for second in this year’s NBA – Kevin Durant leads, with .307. (Miami plays Durant and Oklahoma City on Thursday. Since LeBron joined Miami, he’s never scored more than 30 points and shot over 60% in the same game against the Thunder. And yes, that includes last year’s NBA Finals.)

Before you accuse us of sacrilege, let’s be clear: we don’t mean to imply LeBron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. It’s a simple gauge of statistics, which surely can’t round up the emotional pull of the game. And there’s an important caveat on these numbers: they’re measuring Jordan’s full 1992-1993 season, versus James’ 2012-2013 half-season. James’ numbers may certainly fall over the next few months, thanks to second-half wear-and-tear.

But the stats prove that the Michael vs. LeBron debate can start picking up steam. The common dismissal of such talk: Jordan has six titles, while James only has one. But back in 1992-1993, Jordan was chasing his third NBA championship, which he won that June, against Barkley’s Suns. Here in 2012-2013, James is chasing his second. If he wins that title, he’ll be keeping a similar championship pace as Jordan.

So again, happy birthday, Michael. While we celebrate your 50th, we can’t help but wonder: what will LeBron have done by his 30th?

(MORE: True Team: How LeBron James And The Miami Heat Took The NBA Title)

13 comments
Phillip
Phillip

Greg, you're comparing Lebron James best season of his career with basically a random season from MJ's career.  1992-1993 was the first time coaches began talking about Jordan losing a step (some of which ended up regretting their words when they played Chicago that year).  Wouldn't it make more sense to compare their career totals up to that season instead?

rsfcaoffice
rsfcaoffice

People act like this is better than any streak Jordan had.  How quickly they forget...  

Jordan had a 6 game streak in 1990 that makes James' look pedestrian by comparison:  Over the course of six games, Jordan averaged a mind-blowing 46.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 4.7 steals and 1.2 blocks. He shot .604 from the field for the stretch.   To put in perspective, it's worth looking at his average "Game Score": a formula created by John Hollinger to measure a player's impact on the game. 

LeBron's average game score over his streak is a remarkable 30.8. Jordan's over this six-game stretch is a colossal 41.2.  

rsfcaoffice
rsfcaoffice like.author.displayName 1 Like

Quick question... why do they compare it to Jordan's '92-'93 season?  That makes no sense - it should be compared to Jordan's BEST season, which was probably 87-88 or 88-89

chgoflip
chgoflip

Bottom line, MJ stuck to his original team and build up and make this teammates better to win the Championships, a true sign of leadership, a real Champion!  What did LJ do?  He left his home team, his teammates and all his loyal fans to go elsewhere and sourround himself or be with other superstars so he can win Championship(s), a sign of a traitor, a quitter and incompetent... LJ WILL NEVER BE AND GOING TO BE CLOSE OF BEING MJ IN ALL ASPECTS...PERIOD!!!

mholloway
mholloway like.author.displayName 1 Like

There are lies, dam lies and statistics. - Mark Twain

BoomBastic
BoomBastic like.author.displayName 1 Like

Really??? With all the talk about LeBron James‘ current run of five straight games of 30 points at the 60% clip and how it may be the best stretch of games in NBA history – some may have forgotten Michael Jordan‘s insane run of triple-doubles during the 1988-89 season.How about that??? Not so fast Mr. Writer.LOL

ashterix21
ashterix21

When Kobe was in fantastic form 10 years back, they asked "Is he as great as Michael?" .. Kobe since then had wonderful stats and won 5 championships, but has faded somewhat . Now LeBron is playing at a different level than pretty much everyone else in the league and they ask "Is he as great as Michael?" .. 10 years from now, LeBron will have achieved great numbers and multiple championships and would have faded somewhat ..  and the next wunderkind will take over the league and my bet is they will still ask "Is he as great as Michael?" .. Enough said.

wilt#1
wilt#1

Kobe, Lebron and MJ are allowed to walk and palm the ball in this era of BB. Imagine if Oscar and West and Baylor and some of the other old timers were allowed to get away with these infractions. More points on their score card.

wilt#1
wilt#1

How about these numbers----5 consecutive games from 2/25/1962-3/4/1962

                                                        70.2 ppg  27 reb per game  3 assists per game   58% fga  

None other that wilt chamberlain   I do not think that lebron had the 5 best consecutive games in history

cd
cd like.author.displayName 1 Like

They played Defense during Jordan's days.  No way in the world anyone under 6 foot 9 inches would be able to come in the paint and dunk and rebound over Hakeem the "Dream" or Patrick Ewing.  If you drove to the hole, you ended up on your back or somewhere away from the basket in Jordan's era.  The big men nowadays do not play defense or defend like a Motumbo or Malone.  When you compare LJ to MJ bring into context the competition that they were playing against and the type of team defensive play during then and now.  When you compare the two, there is no way LJ or Kobe comes near to MJ.  During MJ's time, they played real defnese, now, it is who can score the most points while making guys work a little bit.  Let LJ try to come in the paint and dunk on David Robinson, Karl Malone, Hakeem, the Detroit Pistons during MJ's era, Charles Barkley, Shaq, or the Knicks with Ewing and I guarantee you that LJ's points in the paint would go way down.  This is something statistics can't teach and people that forget basketball history won't know.   

jssk
jssk

@cdI think Kobe's dedication and competitiveness show a little resemblance to Jordan. But I agree, none of these players in this generation can compare to MJ. Lebron can win 100 titles if he wants. He will not reach Jordan.

Greatness is more than just numbers.

jssk
jssk

What's Lebron's "overcoming hand check" percentage?

sandifjm
sandifjm

I usually shut down any "<insert player name> is as good as Michael Jordan" conversations very quickly. ESPECIALLY if someone dares mention the name Kobe Bryant. But LeBron is certainly beginning to make a case for himself to at least be considered in that discussion. It's still very early, and it will be several more years (and at least a couple more rings) before any type of proper judgment can be made - but it's fun to be able to watch someone perform at this level night in, night out again.

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