When people engage in the GOAT debate, they tend to say LeBron James had the harder competition, unlike Michael Jordan and his way to six championships in the 90s. Fans always try to compare the rivals Jordan had to the ones LeBron faced throughout his career.
Advanced analytics show that MJ actually had better competition during his stint with the Chicago Bulls. Using net rating, or the difference between each team’s points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, FiveThirtyEight gave a little explanation on which player had the worst path to victory, MJ or LeBron. The results show that Jordan faced tougher rivals.
The average team Jordan faced in his 37 playoff series posted a regular-season net rating of +4.58, which translates into somewhere between 53 and 54 wins using a Pythagorean win percentage calculator. The average team LeBron faced in his 45 (and counting) series posted a regular-season net rating of +3.97, which roughly equates to a 52-win team. (The difference shrinks when removing Jordan’s three first-round playoff defeats to much superior opponents, but it still exists.)
That’s not a massive difference, but it is a material one. To put it in LeBronian terms, it’s only a bit less than the difference between the 2013 Pacers team that pushed LeBron’s Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals (+4.5 net rating) and the 2016 Hawks squad that James’s Cavaliers swept mercilessly in the second round (+3.7 net rating).
According to the numbers, MJ had the worst path to the glory, as the difference between his rivals and Bron’s is considerable.
So why does MJ come out on top? There are two obvious reasons. One is that Jordan’s teams were much better than LeBron’s. Jordan’s Bulls averaged more than 58 wins a season with a net rating of +7.29, while James’s average club won 55 games. Jordan’s Bulls were also the Vegas betting favorite in 91 percent of their series beginning in 1988, the first year those odds are available,2 compared with just 76 percent for LeBron’s. You’ll never believe this, but better teams tend to win more in the playoffs than worse teams.
They also pointed out that the East was actually better when MJ was ruling the league, as well as the competition LeBron had in the Finals, beating the best team (Warriors) of all and losing to the worst (Mavericks).
Obviously, this doesn’t settle anything on the GOAT debate, but it gives you an idea of the competition both players have to face to become successful.