It’s hard to compare two guys who played in different eras using only statistics. Most people that have engaged in this debate know the basics: Jordan was a better scorer and defender, while Lebron was/is a better passer, three point shooter and rebounder. What I want to do now is look at some advanced stats that may offer some new points in this argument that aren’t often explored.
My dive into advanced stats led me to a YouTube video that essentially adjusted for inflation in the context of the league at different eras.
For example, Wilt Chamberlain’s average of 50 points per game was a result of basketball being played at a much faster pace in that era. Jordan’s era was known as the “Dead Ball Era” simply because the amount of total possessions per game was at an all-time low. As of recently, possessions have been on the rise but so has players’ efficiency. This makes for numbers beginning to approach those of the old days with the inflated scoring.
A YouTube video from “Thinking Basketball” made an adjustment, bringing all players to the same amount of possessions and adjusting their stats accordingly. The video also adjusted for minutes per game played because many newer superstars today don’t play as many minutes as guys did in the old days. After this adjustment, Wilt’s 50 points per game were brought down to 39 (which would still be the league record for season scoring), and his rebounding and assists were brought down to 13 and 2 respectively.
These types of adjustments are exactly what I’m looking for. Wilt was a beast, but this doesn’t make me think that Wilt should be in the conversation now. He wasn’t a complete player like Lebron and Jordan were/are, but this information does provide the angle at era adjustments that I was looking for.
This adjustment slightly affects Jordan’s top scoring season negatively, but the video still ranks him at number 2 behind Wilt on player rating based off of best seasons. Number 3 is Kobe, and Lebron is not pictured on this rank — either he is not near the top or maybe there is some bias present within the video. I’m not sure how far down this list he is for his best season adjusted to 2019, but regardless, he is still behind Wilt, Jordan and Kobe.
The next area that I’d like to examine is defense. Obviously, Jordan led in steals, and the two of them were tied in career blocks. The first interesting fact is that Jordan has 514 games with at least three steals. John Stockton is the only player with more. When it comes to having 3 steals and a block in games, Jordan trails only Hakeem Olajuwon.
Box score defensive stats barely scratch the surface of how to judge a player defensively. This intrigues me because there are so many advanced offensive analytics that benefit Lebron, but the only defensive analytic that favors Jordan is his steals per game; in reality, defense as a whole is so much more than that. People who watched Jordan play always say he was the best two-way player to ever play the game, and now, I might see some statistical backup for that.
FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris stated that the amount of steals a player accrues throughout a game can usually tell you how good of an on-ball defender they are. The example he gave was that a player who averages 16 points and 2 steals is just as valuable to a team’s win percentage as a player who averages 25 points and 1 steal. This is a huge jump in logic, but it is directly correlated to win percentage, so there is a value in it.
If we take Jordan’s best year for steals per game (3.2) and bring his value in this calculation relative to Lebron’s best year in steals per game (2.2), then Jordan sits at 44 point value and Lebron sits at a 27 point value. Like I said, this calculation does do a pretty big jump in logic, but it presents validity when trying to determine how valuable a player’s defense is to winning games. I would normally incorporate blocks into this as well, but since their blocks per game numbers are identical for their careers, I think it’s OK to omit them in this scenario.
Who is the greatest player of all time is a mystery to me and is still somewhat subjective, but I hope this offered some insight to the argument. Thanks for reading, and pick up another copy of The Troubadour in two weeks for more sports rants from yours truly.