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.
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?