Charting 15 years of Michael Jordan and LeBron James

Nate Rattner
May 12, 2018 · 3 min read

Statistics don’t tell the full story behind the greatness of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. But now that both NBA legends have played 15 NBA seasons, basketball fans are presented with an opportunity to revisit The Great Debate: MJ or LeBron? Charts of nine statistical categories shed some light on the course of each player’s career.

Michael Jordan’s NBA story is one of excellence: a perfect 6–0 NBA Finals record, five MVP awards, fourteen All Star games. But the charts also show that of his 15 seasons, MJ was at his absolute peak during his third, fourth, and fifth years in the league. It was during this period of 1986 to 1989 that Jordan posted career highs in points (37.1 in 1986–87), rebounds (8.0 in 1988–89), assists (8.0 in 1988–89), blocks (1.6 in 1987–88), and steals (3.2 in 1987–88), while playing 40 minutes or more per game. At his very best, Jordan may have had the edge over LeBron.

Of course, the drop-off following this torrid stretch was not steep. Jordan would finish his career averaging just over 30 PPG, and other parts of his game developed over time. His three-point shooting was improved following his first retirement; he shot 50 percent from three during a 17-game stretch when he returned in the 1994–95 season, and 43 percent the following season, a career best in his eleventh NBA season. Jordan cut down on his turnovers and never averaged more than 3.0 per game after his sixth season.

And though Michael Jordan is widely accepted as the greatest basketball player of all time, a look at his statistics graphed by age show that the stepped away from the game while playing some of his most productive basketball. At age 29, when Jordan left the NBA to pursue a baseball career, he was coming off of a third-straight championship season in which he averaged 32.6 points, 5.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds. When he retired again at age 34, Jordan had just won his fifth MVP award and completed a second championship three-peat. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been made of the four seasons he sat out.

LeBron’s NBA story to date is one of longevity, steadiness, and, remarkably, continued improvement at age 33. Of course, there is no better evidence for this than his seven straight NBA finals appearances. A look at his statistics over time tell the same narrative of steadiness and consistent top-tier performance.

LeBron has never averaged less than 35 minutes per game over the course of his career, and other than his rookie year, never averaged less than 25 points per game in a season. In the 2017–18 campaign, his fifteenth, LeBron posted career highs in assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.6) while leading the league in minutes and displaying some of this best three-point shooting. And of course, the Cavaliers are currently deep in another postseason run, largely thanks to LeBron’s regular season and playoff heroics despite a heavy workload and weak supporting cast.

Among other testaments to his greatness, LeBron will be remembered for bringing a championship to Cleveland in 2016, the possible apex of fifteen years full of special moments. But the charts show that despite this and other accolades, his longevity and consistency may be the lasting impression of his NBA career.

The above charts were made with Matplotlib, and the code can be found here. Data source: Basketball Reference.

Nate Rattner

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@SeatGeek | @venture4america, @NorthwesternU, @MedillSchool alum