As a society, we spend way too much time debating the merits of LeBron James vs. those of Michael Jordan. It’s sports, and I suppose it’s supposed to be fun. But I can’t help but be disappointed seeing people who are paid to provide context to sports fall short. If you are old enough to see Jordan, then we really shouldn’t be talking about this at all.
To me, both are great and it’s fantastic to have seen them plus Brady and Manning over the last 25 years. MJ and LeBron are very different players, dominating in different eras. And you can spin the debate any which way: LeBron is bigger and stronger and will eclipse Jordan from a volume standpoint due to playing longer. Jordan was a psychopathic competition maniac who retired twice and spent more time in Atlantic City and underground Chicago celebrity blackjack games, but also made the game-winner in 1998, the game-winner in college in 1982, holds the NBA Playoff single-game scoring record, dunk contest, defensive awards….
(A basketball coach I worked with years ago went to high school with Mike Cameron, who played with MJ on the Birmingham Barons in 1994. He told stories of all types of conquest and hijinks, yet a supernatural work ethic and obsession with winning that would supercede any stats comparison or basketball resume.)
See..I’m in danger of going down the Jordan-LeBron rabbit hole. But really the point of this post is to address this common, erroneous thought:
“LeBron is 3-6 in the Finals because he has no help. Jordan was 6-0 because he had Scottie Pippen.”
Thinking about this topic made me curious on a rainy Sunday: how did Scottie Pippen perform in 6 NBA Finals appearances, compared to the second-best player on LeBron’s teams (2011-18)? How did MJ’s Number 2 compare in the NBA Finals against LeBron’s Number 2 in the NBA Finals?
Wade/Irving/Love vs. Scottie Pippen
In 7 of the last 8 NBA Finals, LeBron James has played alongside a perennial all-star or hall of fame teammate. From 2011-14, he played with Dwyane Wade in his prime. In the 2016 and 2017 finals, he played with Kyrie Irving, who made the winning shot in 2016 while scoring 27 points per game in the series. In 2018, his best teammate was Kevin Love, who isn’t at the same level as D-Wade and Uncle Drew but he’s a 5-time All-Star and once average 26 & 12 in a season. He remains a borderline elite player.
In all 6 NBA Finals during the 1990s, MJ played with HOFer Scottie Pippen.
So I took the NBA Finals stats of those players (2011-14 Wade, 2016-17 Irving, 2018 Love) and measured them against the NBA Finals numbers produced by Pippen.
It comes out fairly even.
The table above contains the totals of 7 NBA Finals, 39 games from which to measure LeBron’s best teammate. Irving averaged 28.1 ppg during his 2 finals appearances, and Wade gave LeBron 21.1/5.2/4.5. Even Love averaged 19 & 11.2 during the Warriors’ cakewalk last week.
You’ll notice I left out 2007 and 2015, when the Cavs didn’t really have a Number 2 in those series. Love and Irving were both injured during the playoffs and didn’t play in the finals in 2015.
How did Pippen play during the NBA Finals?
Josh, What Does This All Mean?
During the Bulls’ first title run – before the Birmingham Barons – Pippen was a versatile, athletic, defensive monster who was good for 20/8/8 throughout the playoffs. He couldn’t shoot much (3-20 from 3 during his first 17 finals games), but was a perennial all-star and played on the Dream Team (whose roster was primarily influenced by MJ anyway – see: Thomas, Isiah).
In 35 NBA Finals games, Pippen averaged about 19/8/6 and 2 steals on 42% shooting. LeBron’s best teammates contributed around 23/5/4 and 1.6 steals on 47% shooting over 39 games. The totals are about even, right?
Well, what do the advanced metrics say? Glad you asked. Here are cumulative playoff win share totals for the same players over the same years:
(The Bulls went 24-11 in 6 trips to the NBA Finals. From 2011-18 – while omitting 2015 – LeBron is 17-23).
To be clear, Pippen was an excellent player for a long time, and was much better defensively than any of the 3 players we’re measuring. But Wade was also excellent, and Irving may build a Hall of Fame career. Love will probably end up an 8-time all-star with 15,000 career points. From 2011-18, LeBron has had a teammate that equaled or surpassed Scottie Pippen statistically in the NBA Finals.
The “LeBron has no help and Jordan had a super team” narrative is incorrect. And media who have lived both eras should be aware of that.
He’s Got Jokes
No debate: the Cavaliers weren’t as good as the Warriors.