The Biggest Difference Between LeBron James and Michael Jordan

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The G.O.A.T. conversation in basketball is more alive than ever as LeBron James continues to perform brilliantly in these 2017 NBA Playoffs. One cannot even imagine the journalistic war that will take place if LeBron manages to beat this Golden State Warriors team that has four all-star level players, and the winners of the last three MVP awards.

That’s because leading his team to beat a favored rival is Jordan-esque. After looking through some of the playoff series Jordan competed in, it is truly amazing what he did, and truly astounding that people continue to make the claim that Jordan couldn’t have won without Scottie Pippen.

Pippen was an excellent player, but that statement needs to be qualified. Pippen was excellent because of Jordan. Without Jordan, Pippen was a skinny and offensively raw prospect from Central Arkansas.

Sure, Pippen might have developed into a decent player on another team, but his inability on offense came up throughout the playoffs over the years. Compared to Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, what Pippen contributed offensively does not even compare to what those four superstars have done to aid LeBron.

Bill Baptist / NBAE via Getty Images

Therein lies the greatest difference between Jordan and James: Jordan was always the best player in the series, let alone the best player on his team.

This discrepancy is greatest at the beginning of the Jordan era. Here are Jordan and Pippen’s stats in the 1988 first round vs. Cleveland:

1988 CLE PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 45.2 5.4 4.8 2.8 1.6 55.9
Pippen 10.6 5.2 2.4 0.8 1 47.1

Even in the defensive categories Pippen came to excel in like stealing and blocking, Pippen was seriously deficient as compared to Jordan. That best of five series went all the way to five games, and game five was only decided by six points. Pippen’s contributions or lack thereof matter. It didn’t get any better against the Detroit Pistons in the next round either:

1988 DET PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 27.4 8.8 4.6 2 0.6 49.1
Pippen 9.4 5.2 2.4 0.8 0.6 45.8

When the Bulls played the Pistons, the defensive attention was on Jordan. The Detroit Pistons were the famous innovators of the “Jordan Rules:” a series of defensive strategies aimed at getting the ball out of Jordan’s hands. With this strategy in place, a hall-of-famer should absolutely be able to score more than 9.4 points in 32.0 minutes per game with that much defensive attention on his teammate.

The next year, Pippen scored more points, but his efficiency sunk to considerably below average levels against Cleveland, and Jordan continued to carry the team. Here is a comparison:

1989 CLE PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 39.8 5.8 8.2 3 0.4 51.8
Pippen 15 8.6 4 1.6 0.8 39.7

39.7% from the field is unacceptable. The 15 and 8.6 are solid numbers, but they are just insignificant against Jordan’s incredible ones. Obviously this is at the beginning of Pippen’s career, and before Chicago won any championships, but the story of Pippen’s inefficiency on offense and insignificance relative to Jordan doesn’t end. It continues all the way through the Bulls’ very last championship in 1998:

1990 DET PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 32.1 7.1 6.3 2.1 0.6 46.7
Pippen 16.6 6.3 3.7 2 0.9 42.6
1992 NYK PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 31.3 5.7 4.3 1.4 1.1 47.7
Pippen 16 8.3 6.6 2 1 40.2
1993 ATL PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 34.3 6.7 4.3 1.7 1.7 52.6
Pippen 15.3 4 5.3 2 0.3 42.2
1995 ORL PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 31 6.5 3.7 2.5 1.8 47.7
Pippen 19 9.7 5.7 1 1.3 40.9
1996 SEA PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 27.3 5.3 4.2 1.7 0.2 41.5
Pippen 15.7 8.2 5.3 2.3 1.3 34.3
1996 NYK PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 36 4.8 4.4 1.8 0.2 44.2
Pippen 15.6 8.2 5.2 3.2 0.4 33
1997 WSB PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 37.3 5.7 5.3 1.3 0.3 57.1
Pippen 16.7 8.7 3 1.3 1.3 38.6
1998 UTA PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 33.5 4 2.3 1.8 0.7 42.7
Pippen 15.7 6.8 4.8 1.7 0.8 41
1998 IND PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 31.7 5.7 4.1 1.7 0.4 46.7
Pippen 16.6 7.7 5.3 2.1 1.1 39.2
1998 NJN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Jordan 36.3 5 2.7 1.3 1 52.9
Pippen 18 7 6 1.7 0.7 43.6

Pippen’s efficiency in these series is awful, and the averages look good, but considering that they come with this poor efficiency and big minutes (39.5 career playoffs minutes per game with Bulls,) it is not surprising that the Pippen allowed more points than he produced on a per possession basis. Here are some series in which that was the case:

Pippen
Series Off Rtg. Def Rtg.
1988 DET 85 108
1988 CLE 96 108
1989 DET 94 101
1989 CLE 102 104
1990 DET 101 103
1993 ATL 100 105
1995 ORL 110 112
1997 WSB 106 106
1998 IND 102 106
Avg. 99.6 105.9

These aren’t individual games – everybody has bad games. These, however, are nine whole, nonconsecutive series in which Pippen was a net negative player. Don’t get me wrong, Pippen was excellent in many other series, but at no point was he ever close to as great as Jordan was, and the combined efforts of LeBron’s supporting cast and co-stars were almost always greater than that of the Bulls’.

Whereas Jordan was the efficient and productive one relative to Pippen, LeBron was the inefficient one for many of his series over the years.

Even during the years when LeBron had “horrible teammates,” they were still more efficient than him while putting up decent stats:

2007 WAS PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
James 27.8 8.5 7.5 1.8 0.8 42.5
Hughes 19 6.8 2.8 1.3 0.5 44.2
Ilgauskas 19 11 0.8 0.3 1.5 60
Gooden 14.5 10 2.8 0.3 0.5 61
2007 NJN PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
James 24.7 7.3 8.5 1.2 0.3 42.3
Gooden 10.7 9.5 0.7 0.5 0.7 45.2
Ilgauskas 11.2 9 1 0.5 0.2 47.9
2007 SAS PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
James 22 7 6.8 1 0.5 35.6
Gooden 12.8 8.3 0.3 0.3 0.5 50

This doesn’t even include the 2008 series vs. Boston when LeBron shot just 35.5% from the field. LeBron’s efficiency in these series was pedestrian at best, and flat out harmful at it’s worst. Similar to how Pippen allowed more points than he accounted for, James had multiple series where that was the case:

James
Series Off Rtg Def Rtg
2006 DET 102 103
2007 SAS 83 104
2008 BOS 96 108
2011 DAL 102 110
2015 GSW 104 104

That is five different series, two of which when he had his all-star, hand selected teammates! These teammates also have outperformed LeBron throughout a whole series, which is just something a true GOAT player cannot have done to him:

2011 DAL PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Wade 26.5 7 5.2 1.5 1.5 54.6
Bosh 18.5 7.3 1 0.2 0.5 41.3
James 17.8 7.2 6.8 1.7 0.5 47.8
2011 CHI PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
James 25.8 7.8 6.6 2.4 1.8 44.7
Bosh 23.2 7.6 1.2 0.6 1 60
2011 BOS PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Wade 30.2 6.8 4.8 2 0.6 52.6
James 28 8.2 3.6 1.8 1.8 47.2

James was being out staged on his own team, not even by the other team specifically in these series, which he has been many times. How can a super-athlete be contained by a washed up 32 year old Shawn Marion? How can a player who’s been defeated by the Celtics in the post-season multiple times be submissive to Dwyane Wade when he finally has the chance to seize his victory? How can James be submissive against Derrick Rose, who stole the 2011 MVP award from James, in the Heat’s series vs. the Bulls?

The examples aren’t confined to 2011 either. Kyrie outscored LeBron in their 2016 series vs. Detroit, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both have had series where they’ve outplayed James, and have been positive impact players on the court when James hasn’t:

Series Player Off Rtg Def Rtg
2011 DAL James 102 110
Wade 123 108
2011 BOS James 109 102
Wade 123 103
2011 CHI James 111 97
Bosh 126 101
2012 NYK James 114 95
Bosh 120 98
2015 GSW James 104 104
Mozgov 113 105
Thompson 118 107
Irving 115 105
2016 DET James 110 107
Irving 121 113
Love 114 110

This is the difference between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. James can accept being the 2nd fiddle. James is content  with letting his teammates show him up. Michael Jordan did everything he could to not get shown up. Jordan was going to win at all costs. Even when he didn’t win, he did everything he could to win and have a chance. James has shown too many times the acceptance of inferiority. James has been outplayed by his teammates, and with the exception of three NBA Finals series wins, two of which were caused by a Ray Allen three point shot and a Draymond Green suspension, being outplayed by his opponents.

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