Two of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers were the subject of social media discussions last weekend with regards to their playoff and championship performances.
Last Sunday, ESPN debuted the docuseries, “The Last Stand,” which focuses on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ run to their sixth championship. Just a day prior, LeBron James lamented how the NBA Playoffs were supposed to begin last Saturday but the coronavirus pandemic kept it from proceeding as scheduled.
James and Jordan are known as two of the best playoff performers in league annals. In debates over who is the greater player, many of the arguments revolve around their work in the postseason throughout their careers.
With both players routinely elevating their play from the regular season to the postseason, one of the best questions to answer is which one played better than the other—Playoff Jordan or Playoff LeBron?
We’ll look to settle this debate in five categories relative to other players.
1. Traditional And Advanced Playoff Stats
Michael Jordan: 41.8 mins., 33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, 3.1 TOs, 48.7 percent FGs, 82.8 percent FTs, 33.2 percent 3-point FGs
James: 42.0 mins., 28.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 3.6 TOs, 49.1 pct. FGs, 74.3 pct FTs, 33.2 percent 3-point FGs
Looking at the numbers, what many may find interesting is how similar Jordan and James’ statistics are. Sure, there are categories in which Jordan is far superior to James (points/free-throw percentage), but the latter is way ahead of the former in the other stats (rebounds/assists).
Another way of looking at their stats is through a comparison of their advanced stats.
Jordan owns the all-time highest PER and Box Plus/Minus, and has a higher usage rate than James. However, James dwarfs Jordan in VORP and Win Shares, and has a slightly higher True Shooting Percentage.
Contrary to what his critics might have you believe, James is virtually Jordan’s equal statistically in the playoffs even though they have different ways of beating their opponents to submission. Although they have pretty similar stats, Michael Jordan's 33.4 points give him an edge in this case.
EDGE: MICHAEL JORDAN
2. Playoff Records
James holds many longevity records over Jordan. Though they both played 13 seasons, James has the advantage in games played 239-179, a whopping 60-game difference.
Here’s a summary of James’ career playoff records:
- Most minutes - 10,049
- Most points - 6,911
- Most 30-point games - 110
- Most 20-point games - 214
- Most 10-point games - 247
- Most field goals made - 2,457
- Most free throws made - 1,627
- Most steals - 419
Not to be outdone, Jordan has quite a number of playoff records to his credit, too.
- Most points in a playoff game - 63
- Most field goals made in a game - 24 (3 tied)
- Most consecutive field goals made in a game - 13 (see Finals performance)
- Most free throws made in a quarter - 13 (3 tied)
- Most points in a 3-game series - 135
- Most field goals made in a 3-game series - 53
- Highest free throw percentage (min. 15 attempts) in a 3-game series - 100 percent (15-for-15)
- Most points in a 5-game series - 226
- Most field goals made in a 5-game series - 86
- Most field goals made in a 6-game series - 101
- Highest points per game average (min. 25 games) - 33.45
- Most 50-point games - 8
- Most 40-point games - 38
- Only player to score 15+ points in every game (min. 25 games) - 179 games
- Only player to record consecutive 50-point games - scored 50 and 55 points in 1988 Eastern Conference First Round (Games 1 and 2)
- Most consecutive 20-point games - 60
- Most consecutive 15-point games - 179
- Most consecutive 10-point games - 179
By sheer number of playoff records alone, Jordan overwhelms James, who merely has the advantage in a few categories mostly because he played more games.
3. Clutch Shots
James has nailed five buzzer-beaters (go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime) throughout his playoffs career, two more than Jordan’s total postseason output, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Two of Jordan’s three buzzer-beaters ended a playoff series, per The Ringer’s Mike Lynch. Both came at the expense of the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 1989 and 1993.
As Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard noted a year ago, in terms of potential go-ahead shots in the playoffs (including buzzer-beaters), James (6-for-13, 46 percent) has a small advantage over Jordan (5-of-11, 45 percent), though their stats are virtually equal.
It may come as a surprise to many that James has made nearly twice as many buzzer-beaters as Jordan, even enjoying a slight edge in terms of clutch shots in the playoffs. Though he has had some meltdowns in the past (the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals and 2011 NBA Finals come to mind), James has somewhat made up for those by coming up big in succeeding postseasons.
In fact, James may distance himself further from Jordan in future playoff series given the opportunity.
Despite James’ seeming miniscule advantage, however, no one is more clutch than Jordan, especially in the Finals.
In Game 3 of the 1991 NBA Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers with the series tied 1-1, His Airness made a contested jumper to send the game to overtime, where the Chicago Bulls emerged victorious.
He made a tough, contested shot over Charles Barkley, who fouled Jordan, in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals with 13.3 seconds remaining. He made the ensuing free throw to cap off a 55-point masterpiece.
Jordan scored the buzzer-beating, game-winning basket in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals over Bryon Russell.
Later in Game 5 of the same series, he scored 38 points despite suffering from a flu that practically sapped his energy during the game. He also made a clutch 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining to give Chicago a lead it would never relinquish for a 3-2 series lead over the Utah Jazz.
A year later against the same team, he stole the ball from Karl Malone and made a 17-foot jumper in the waning seconds to give the Bulls the lead for good in Game 6 of the Finals. That gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth championship and second three-peat of the decade.
For all of James’ astounding exploits in the Finals, he has very few outstanding moments in clutch situations.
With 7.1 seconds remaining in Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James coolly sank two free throws to give the Miami Heat a comfortable 100-96 lead.
In Game 7 of the 2013 Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs, he knocked down the go-ahead jumper with 27.9 seconds remaining to give the Heat the lead for good. He also made two clutch free throws with 23.5 seconds left to seal the win.
James made a game-saving block on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, but it was Kyrie Irving who made the clutch 3-pointer to give the Cleveland Cavaliers the lead with less than a minute remaining. In the final seconds, James made one of two free throws to ice the win.
It is these moments in the Finals where the spotlight burns the brightest where we can clearly see the distinction between the two players. Though both players have failed and succeeded in the clutch before, the fact that James has succumbed to the pressure in previous trips to the Finals suggests he is not as comfortable in crunch time as Jordan.
Nevertheless, let it not be said that James doesn’t have the “clutch gene.” He does, but his isn’t as formidable as Jordan’s, particularly with the championship within sniffing distance.
4. Team Performance
Jordan never missed the postseason as a Chicago Bull, but he failed to reach the playoffs in his two seasons with the Washington Wizards. But in six trips to the Finals, he has won every time he was on the NBA’s biggest stage.
In 179 playoff games, Jordan’s teams have gone 119-60 for a .665 winning percentage.
James missed the playoffs during his first two seasons in the league as well as last season, but he has been to the postseason 13 times. This year would have been his 14th. He owns a 3-win / 6-loss Finals record that his detractors usually point out as evidence against his ineptitude as an all-time great.
Overall, he has played in 239 playoff games with a 156-83 win-loss card for a .653 winning percentage.
In 24 elimination games in the playoffs, he has won 14 of 24 with averages of 33.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. His scoring average is the highest in league history for a player facing elimination with more than five such games. Additionally, he has an average Game Score of 26.8 with elimination staring his team in the face.
On the other hand, Jordan owns an average Game Score of 23.3 when facing elimination. Jordan’s 31.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per-game averages are slightly lower than James’ but he played in less elimination games, most of those coming during the early part of his career. He has a 6-7 record in these games.
Both have led their teams to the postseason 13 times, though James has played more seasons.
Jordan’s immaculate 6-0 record in the Finals is perhaps his greatest argument against James in terms of team success. James’ 3-6 (.333 percent) Finals record hurts him more than it should.
With the two nearly even statistically while giving their teams the necessary push to advance their teams deeper in the playoffs, their teams’ Finals records create separation between the two.
Though he has led his teams to eight straight Finals appearances, his 18 overall wins against 31 losses in Finals games overall hurts his standing in this debate. He was also swept twice, and twice had a 1-4 Finals result. Though his teams have been underdogs in four of those six Finals losses, the fact that they didn’t emerge victorious each time doesn’t help.
On the other hand, Jordan’s teams have a 24-11 overall record in games played in the Finals.
This record gives Jordan the upper hand over James.
5. Finals Performance
Looking at the two players’ stats, Jordan comes out on top in four categories, James is ahead in three, and they are tied in steals average.
A closer inspection of their Finals performances could help settle who was superior with a title on the line.
Jordan holds the Finals record for consecutive field goals made without a miss with 13 straight against the Lakers in Game 2 of the 1991 series. He also set a Finals record with 14 steals in a five-game series (2.8 steals per game).
The following year against the Portland Trail Blazers, Jordan set and continues to hold the all-time Finals record of 35 points in a half. He holds the record of 14 field goals made in a half in the Finals along with Isiah Thomas, and Jordan did it twice (1992, 1993).
In 1993, Jordan set a Finals record with a 41.0 points-per-game average and six-game series records of 246 points and 101 field goals made. He is one of only six players to score at least 30 points in every game in a Finals series.
Moreover, in 1993, Jordan scored 40 points in a record four consecutive Finals games.
Jordan holds the record as the only player in league history to never score under 20 points in a Finals game. His 20 points or more in 35 consecutive games in the Finals is a record as well.
Finally, the Chicago Bulls legend owns an NBA record with six Finals MVP awards.
James holds multiple Finals records but not as numerous as Jordan’s.
In 2017, James averaged 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists, becoming the first and only player so far to average a triple-double in the Finals, per ESPN Stats & Info. He tied Allen Iverson for most field goals made in a five-game series with 66.
For a Finals career, James has the most defensive rebounds with 395. He currently holds the record for most triple-doubles in the Finals with 10.
He also has three Finals MVPs, tying Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan for second-most in league history.
As the all-time records show, Jordan is a cut above most players and that includes James.
Based on the above categories, Michael Jordan beat LeBron James 5-0. Though he didn’t appear to do quite well in the comparison, James is as close to Jordan as any player in playoff performance.
But the answer as to who is better between Playoff Michael Jordan and Playoff LeBron James has been settled—it’s Jordan without question.
Michael Jordan is the best player in NBA history and there is really no comparison when discussing performances in the NBA Finals. With a 6-0 record, he is unbeaten in the Finals and he never had to play a Game 7. Most pundits consider Michael Jordan as the greatest of all time and the playoff comparison certainly lends credence to that notion.