Michael Jordan Faced Better Competition Than LeBron James

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Michael Jordan Faced Better Competition Than LeBron James

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The average team Jordan faced in his 37 playoff series posted a regular-season net rating of +4.58, which translates into somewhere between 53 and 54 wins using a Pythagorean win percentage calculator. The average team LeBron faced in his 45 (and counting) series posted a regular-season net rating of +3.97, which roughly equates to a 52-win team. (The difference shrinks when removing Jordan’s three first-round playoff defeats to much superior opponents, but it still exists.)

That’s not a massive difference, but it is a material one. To put it in LeBronian terms, it’s only a bit less than the difference between the 2013 Pacers team that pushed LeBron’s Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals (+4.5 net rating) and the 2016 Hawks squad that James’s Cavaliers swept mercilessly in the second round (+3.7 net rating).

The gap widens when considering only series victories. Jordan’s average playoff victim went 52-30 in the regular season with a net rating of +4.06. LeBron’s, on the other hand, went just 49-33 with a net rating of +2.82. That’s the difference between the 1992 Knicks, one of two teams to extend Chicago to seven games during Jordan’s title runs,1 and the 2017 Celtics, who fell meekly to LeBron’s Cavs in five despite possessing home-court advantage.

This doesn’t mean that MJ’s opponents would beat LeBron’s if they were to play head-to-head. But it does show that Jordan’s victims were generally better in the specific season they faced the Bulls.

So why does MJ come out on top? There are two obvious reasons. One is that Jordan’s teams were much better than LeBron’s. Jordan’s Bulls averaged more than 58 wins a season with a net rating of +7.29, while James’s average club won 55 games. Jordan’s Bulls were also the Vegas betting favorite in 91 percent of their series beginning in 1988, the first year those odds are available,2 compared with just 76 percent for LeBron’s. You’ll never believe this, but better teams tend to win more in the playoffs than worse teams.

Were Jordan’s teams better because Jordan is that much better than LeBron individually? Maybe. Were they better because Jordan had teammates that fit better alongside him? Maybe.
It likely helped Jordan that he stayed with one franchise that built around him throughout his playoff career, as opposed to James, who hopped around from Cleveland, to Miami and back to Cleveland. But even LeBron’s Heat teams that were supposedly loaded with stars had a lower average net rating than the Bulls did over Jordan’s entire tenure.
MJ mostly won when he had a better team and lost when he didn't. LeBron's teams actually overperformed more.


However they also underperformed more.


I feel sorry for the kids being born right now. Their GOAT is going to be some 170 lb douchebag with pink hair who is really good at hitting 4-point shots while I got to watch these two GOATs, and Shaq and Hakeem and Mutumbo and Malone and KOBE and Pippen and Dirk and so many more all during their prime

But that doesn't mean you should underrate the teams Jordan beat. Just don't underrate the team he was on either. Likewise I think you can acknowledge that LeBron lifted a sh*tty a*s Cavs team to the Finals in 07 but that 2011 was a disappointment. Love both players, and look forward to seeing how much closer LeBron can try and come in his last few years in the league.


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