It’s tough to top perfection. Or, to be more accurate, the perception of perfection.
Michael Jordan won his six rings in six Finals tries, with those two three-peats separated by his first retirement and that brief-but-fascinating minor league baseball career. They say nobody bats 1.000, but his ability to do just that on the NBA’s greatest stage is the main reason his playoff legacy remains unmatched.
Pick a player not named Jordan who’s considered an all-time great, and they had a blemish on their Finals resume. From LeBron James' five Finals losses to Bill Russell (11-1), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6-4), Magic Johnson (5-4), Wilt Chamberlain (2-4), Kobe Bryant (5-2), Shaquille O’Neal (4-2), Larry Bird (3-2), and Tim Duncan (5-1), they all fell short at the end at least once. And unlike James, who faltered badly in the 2011 Finals loss against Dallas and was below his Superman standards in 2007 (a sweep by San Antonio) and 2014 (a five-game Spurs win), Jordan met the moment every time while taking down plenty of greats along the way.
His Chicago Bulls downed Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 (five games), Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers in 1992 (six), the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson Phoenix Suns in 1993 (six), the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp Seattle SuperSonics in 1996 (six), and the back-to-back Finals wins over the John Stockton-Karl Malone Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998 (both six games). That he always avoided any kind of drop-off at the end of a long playoff run, of course, is remarkable.
As James leads his Cavaliers into another conference Final and the argument of who is best between him and Jordan intensifies, we look at just who is greatest. The easy thing would be criticize the other player for what he didn’t do: James is 3-5 in Finals appearances. But if you’re looking at this situation with clear eyes, James stands alongside Jordan in the debate.
On which side you fall is a matter of taste and how wedded you are to a certain era of basketball. There are some unwilling to move from Jordan’s corner. There is a younger generation that knows James better than Jordan.
If your only argument is rings should determine the GOAT, then it’s neither Jordan nor James. Russell won 11 titles, which would make him the greatest. And if you want to put Russell and Abdul-Jabbar in that group, fine. There’s an argument to be made for Chamberlain and his dominance.
That’s why we have these debates even though different eras necessitated different styles of basketball. The debates are fun and worthwhile, but there is no 100% correct answer.
The statistics, as seen below, are a very tangible way to compare and form the basis of a player’s case.
Beyond the numbers, what stands out for James is his extended excellence which includes eight Finals appearances, including seven consecutive (eight if Cleveland beats Boston).
James is adding iconic moments to his resume with each season.
Jordan had The Shot over Craig Ehlo. James had his running floater at the buzzer against Toronto.
Jordan had his “shrug” moment after making six three-pointers in the first half against Portland in the 1992 Finals. James had a triple-double (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) in overtime of a series-saving Game 6 against San Antonio in 2013 and followed it with 37 points and 12 rebounds in a Game 7 victory.
Jordan had his winning shot over Bryon Russell in the 1998 Finals. James had his championship-winning block on Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals – a surprising comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
The all-time greats – narrowed to just a few names – create those immortal moments in addition to winning championships.
James admitted he needed to become a more complete player after the 2011 Finals. He did that, using his ability, intelligence and work ethic. James and Jordan are different in many ways but their determination to be the best is a shared trait.
James also plays in an era of social media and over-the-top hyper-criticism. Imagine if Jordan played in the social media era. He would’ve been crushed for losing to Boston and Detroit over and over early in his career. Remember, Jordan punched at least two teammates – Steve Kerr and Will Perdue – and harangued Bill Cartwright. If James punched a teammate today, Twitter would break.
Also, consider the expectations placed on James as a teen. He was supposed to be the next greatest and not only lived up to those expectations for 17 years but surpassed them. James is the greatest player ever.
Or at least one of a select few.
NBA Finals performance
Jordan’s Finals record doesn’t make the argument for his case impenetrable, but the upward arc of his story helped hide the early playoff blemishes and has everything to do with his GOAT status.
Jordan in the Finals (35 games)
- 33.6 points (48.1%), six rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.8 turnovers, 43 minutes.
- From an individual performance, he wasn’t perfect in the Finals. In 1996, Jordan shot just 41.5% while averaging 27.3 points, 4.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and three turnovers. In 1998 against Utah, Jordan averaged 33.5 points on 42.7% shooting and 2.3 assists.
James in the Finals (45 games)
- 27.7 points (46.7%), 10.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 3.9 turnovers, 42.7 minutes.
- His worst Finals showing was with Miami in 2011 against Dallas, when his lack of aggression was puzzling in the six-game loss (he averaged just 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and four turnovers). James averaged just 15 shots in that series, by far the lowest of his Finals career. He averaged 18.2 attempts, his second-lowest average, when his Heat fell in five games to San Antonio in 2014. In his first Finals appearance against San Antonio in 2007, James averaged 22 points on 35.6% shooting, with 5.8 turnovers.
In all, Jordan’s playoff series record (30-7; .810 winning percentage) is only marginally better than that of James (34-9; .791). He was seven seasons in until he played in the Finals – compared to four for James – and those first three campaigns before Scottie Pippen arrived were rough.
While James remains a perfect 13-0 in first-round matchups, Jordan fell in the first round three times in his first three seasons – once to Milwaukee and twice to Boston. Then came the “Bad Boys” teams that held Jordan back, with the Isiah Thomas-led Detroit Pistons ending the Bulls’ season three consecutive times before the breakthrough in 1991. Jordan won his first championship against the Lakers only months before Magic Johnson would announce his retirement due to HIV.
Yet as James carved out his own playoff legacy, making his way in Miami before coming home to Cleveland to deliver the first-ever title while continuing his remarkable streak of Finals appearances, this once-unthinkable debate is now worth having. Truth be told, it’s a matter of taste at this point.
If ruthless scoring and wagging tongue celebrations are your thing, then Jordan is the playoff pick for you.
- He averaged a league-record 33.4 points in the playoffs (on 48.7% shooting), with Allen Iverson a distant second at 29.7. Just imagine if the three-point revolution had taken place in Jordan’s day (he averaged just 2.5 three-point attempts in the postseason).
- Jordan didn’t stuff the stat sheet like James, but he was hardly just a scorer. Beyond his scoring average, he had 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 3.1 turnovers and 41.8 minutes per game in the playoffs.
- Jordan scored 40-plus points in 38 of his 179 playoff games (21.2%), with a high of 63 points and eight 50-plus point outings. By comparison, James has scored 40-plus points in 23 of his 228 playoff games (10%), with a high of 49 twice.
If Jordan-like scoring, Magic-esque playmaking and incredible longevity are more your speed, then James wins your vote.
- James has averaged 28.7 points (48.9%), 8.9 rebounds, seven assists, 1.8 steals, 3.5 turnovers, 42 minutes throughout his postseason career.
- James is the all-time points leader in the playoffs (6,540 to Jordan’s 5,987 in second place), is third in assists (1,588, behind only Magic Johnson and Stockton), and is seventh in rebounding (2,025, trailing Malone by 37 rebounds for sixth). He is fifth on the games played list (228, behind Derek Fisher, Duncan, Robert Horry and Abdul-Jabbar.
- James has had 10 or more assists in 37 of his playoff games (16.2%), while Jordan did it 20 times (11.1%). He has also had 33 games with 20-plus points and 10-plus assists (14.4%), while Jordan has had 20 (11.1%).
Against the odds
When it comes to Finals outcomes, it shouldn’t be forgotten that James was almost always the underdog at the end. His team boasted the best regular season record just once during the eight seasons in which he made the Finals, and his teams had the better regular season record just twice when compared to their Finals opponent. The gap has been enormous during this recent run against Golden State, as the Warriors have gone a combined 207-39 (.841) in the regular season for the past three seasons while the Cavs have gone 161-85 (.654).
As for Jordan’s Bulls? They had the league’s best record in four of his six Finals trips and only had a worse record than their Finals opponent once. That 1993 win over Phoenix was the most impressive of them all in that regard, as the Suns went a league-best 62-20 that season while the Bulls were 57-25.
(Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com)