Sorry, Michael—LeBron James is the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time

The crazy thing is it’s not even that close

Bo Winegard
Arc Digital
8 min readMar 11, 2019


The debate is over. LeBron James is the greatest basketball player in history. His closest competitor, Michael Jordan, has been vanquished.

Not everyone agrees—Jordan still has many defenders. But that’s only because human beings are slow to let go of once-revered truths. What these resisters have in common is a general refusal to examine the advanced statistics carefully. They rely, instead, on vague, quasi-metaphysical concepts such as “indomitable will” and “relentless desire to win.” Jordan, we are assured, would eat nails, break concrete, leap monster-filled motes, and much more just to win a game. LeBron, on the other hand, stuffs the stats sheet but lacks Jordan’s killer instinct when it matters most. Why else would Jordan be 6 for 6 in NBA Finals and LeBron a paltry 3 for 9?

One of the great things about sports is we can quantify nebulous concepts. If Jordan really had an indomitable will to win that made him more “clutch” than LeBron, then that would show up in the statistics. But the cold, hard facts—as opposed to vague, poetic attributes—point to LeBron being the GOAT (for a balanced take that instead leans Jordan, see here).

Call me a positivist about basketball. Like everyone else, I’m vulnerable to nostalgia and narrative. But I discipline my biases with data. And the data tell an incontrovertible story: LeBron James has been more valuable than Michael Jordan, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Consequently, LeBron, not Jordan, is the greatest player in NBA history. He is also the greatest playoff player in history. When winning most mattered, he added the most value to his teams.

First, we can look at traditional basketball stats, points per game (PPG), field goal percentage (FG percentage), rebounds per game (RBG), and assists per game (APG). The career stats tell a pretty clear story. Jordan was a slightly better, but less efficient scorer, while LeBron was the better all-around player.

Career traditional statistics

However, Jordan besmirched his career statistics by playing two mediocre seasons in his late 30s. Therefore, it’s also useful to look at statistics for each player’s four best seasons (in a row) — that is, their respective primes. For Jordan, that is the 1987–88 season to the 1990–1991 season. And for LeBron it is the 2007–08 season to the 2010–11 season.

Statistics during their four-year primes

The story here is muddier. Jordan is the much better scorer, he is slightly more efficient, and he is only slightly surpassed by LeBron in rebounding and assists. This illustrates why I make a concession: LeBron and Jordan were nearly equally valuable players during their respective primes. I still think a smart team would take LeBron, for reasons I will shortly explain. But the difference is miniscule. However, LeBron had a much longer prime and has contributed much more value to his teams across his career than Jordan.

We could examine a slew of other traditional statistics: three-point shooting, steals, blocks, free throws, etc. But I want to examine the advanced statistics, which furnish a fuller picture of greatness. These statistics were created to ascertain the value a player adds to a team, which ultimately is what we should care about. When we say “best” player, we presumably mean, “the player who contributed most to his team’s ability to win,” because the goal of basketball is winning games. The Jordan advocate might counter: “Exactly! That is why Jordan is better. He won more championships!” But a team’s actual victories depend upon more than just one player. If you gave me 30,000 troops, I could whip a 2,000-troop army led by General Ulysses Grant. That doesn’t mean I’m a better general. Jordan played on significantly better teams throughout his career than LeBron. Jordan won more championships, hard as this might be to imagine, simply because his teammates were better.

The best advanced statistics that are readily available come from Basketball Reference and include: offensive box plus/minus (OBPM), defensive box plus/minus (DPBM), box plus/minus, and value over replacement player (VORP).

Box plus/minus is an estimate of a player’s contributed points over a replacement player per 100 possessions. And that is used to calculate VORP, which is an estimate of a player’s total value to a team over a replacement player. One can multiply it by 2.7 to get an estimate of wins above replacement (WAR), that is, how many wins a player adds to an average team over a replacement level player.

(For an interesting application of WAR in the political arena, see Arc editor Berny Belvedere’s analysis of Donald Trump’s year one achievements.)

Here are the career advanced statistics for Jordan and LeBron.

Career advanced statistics

Jordan’s average VORP per game was .1, while LeBron’s was .11. The career advanced statistics clearly favor LeBron, but let’s examine their respective primes again, because that is where the argument for Jordan is the best. (I have averaged the BPM stats across four years for these statistics, which is not exactly a perfect way of calculating this; however, it is very close and will give readers a good understanding of their respective values in their primes.)

Advanced statistics during their four-year primes

Here, Jordan appears to come out a bit better. LeBron is the better defensive player; but Jordan is the superior offensive player. However, it is worth noting that LeBron’s peak season was better (13.0 BPM to Jordan’s 12.6 BPM). Furthermore, LeBron’s prime was interrupted by one poor year that drags his stats down. In 2010–11, he put up 8.6 BPM, before putting up two straight years 11 and above. I will concede that a GM could pick prime Jordan over prime LeBron without getting fired by a responsible owner. But I’d still take a healthy LeBron because he is stronger, faster, better at passing, and better at defense. When LeBron is playing as hard as he can, he is simply better than Jordan. And the playoff statistics make this clear.

But aren’t the playoffs where Jordan’s peerless will to win takes over and he finds a way to single-handedly carry his teams to victories? He was certainly very good in the playoffs. But LeBron, who some pundits such as Skip Bayless assail for “quitting” in the playoffs or for “choking,” turns out to have superior playoff statistics. We’ll start by looking at career traditional statistics.

Traditional career playoff statistics

These statistics basically match their regular season career statistics. Jordan is the better but slightly less efficient scorer, and LeBron is the superior all around player. Their best four-year stretches (their playoff primes) tell a similar story. They are nearly equal, and an honest GM would likely have a difficult time picking one over the other.

What is more revealing, however, is to examine their career advanced statistics. Here, LeBron dominates Jordan.

Career advanced playoff statistics

Of course, LeBron has played more playoff games than Jordan. Here are their respective WARs per game: Jordan, .34; LeBron, .37. Across their respective playoff careers, LeBron added more value to his teams than Jordan. Here is another telling statistic: LeBron had 10 playoff seasons in which he put up a 10 or higher BPM; Jordan only had seven. Furthermore, in 2008–2009, perhaps at the peak of his basketball powers, LeBron James, in 14 games, put up this ridiculous stat line during the Cavaliers playoff run:

LeBron’s playoff statistics in 2009

A last thing to consider. LeBron had to contend with all-time great competition during his prime, whereas Jordan did not. First, the NBA talent pool is just bigger in 2019 than it was in 1993. Teams recruit more players from overseas, and more talented young athletes play basketball than ever before. So LeBron’s competition is simply better because players tend to get better across time in sports (look at the record times for the running a mile, for example) and because the NBA has successfully attracted more talent since the ’90s.

Second, LeBron had to contend with all-time great teams such as the 2012-2014 San Antonio Spurs and the 2014–2018 Golden State Warriors. The 2013–14 Spurs and the Warriors dynasty that has followed have been record-breaking teams. During their championship runs, the Bulls certainly defeated some great teams, perhaps the best of which was the 1996–97 Jazz, who had a 64–18 record and an expected 64–18 record as well (expected uses point differentials to calculate projected wins and losses). But nothing Jordan’s Bulls faced even resembled the colossus that the Warriors have been for the past several seasons. LeBron’s Cavaliers met them four times in the Finals. The first incarnation went 67–15 (with an expected 65–15 record); the second was the record-breaking 73–9 squad (expected 65–15); the third added Kevin Durant to the 73 win team and went 15–1 throughout the playoffs; and the most recent one was an all-time great team that was bored during much of the season and ended with a 58–24 record.

That LeBron put up his insane playoffs statistics and managed to win three championships in such a talent-saturated era is perhaps his most impressive achievement. And yet, oddly, those who assail LeBron’s legacy most often point to his playoff performances as evidence that he just isn’t quite the competitor Jordan was. If such a claim is true, then LeBron’s detractors will have to do better than pontificating on morning shows. They will have to point to the statistical evidence that supports their claims. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon because such evidence doesn’t exist.

Jordan and LeBron are rightly praised as the two greatest NBA players in history. Nostalgia likely makes Jordan shine more brightly than LeBron in the minds of many who grew up watching his Bulls dominate the league and win championship after championship. But our job as analysts is to dissipate the glowing haze of narrative and nostalgia and deal with the facts. In their respective primes, Jordan and LeBron were about equally valuable. Jordan was the better offensive player; LeBron was the better defensive player. Probably, LeBron had slightly higher upside because he could do more on the court. He was a better athlete and a better passer than Jordan.

For their careers, LeBron is unequivocally the more valuable player. He gave his team more wins in both the regular season and the playoffs. He lost more championships than Jordan because he dragged more mediocre teams there. That shouldn’t be a flaw, but rather a testimony to his greatness.

Jordan inspires fervid often hyperbolic praise, but the cold, dispassionate truth is that LeBron is the greatest basketball player of all time; and the surprising thing is that it’s not really that close.



Bo Winegard
Arc Digital

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.