Is LeBron James The Best Since Michael Jordan? More Data & ESPN Reaction

In an ESPN Insider article published Tuesday, our Austin Link laid out evidence in support of the claim that LeBron James is the best NBA player since Michael Jordan, despite LeBron’s big fat zero in the most important statistic of all: championship rings.

Reactions from commenters were mixed, but those of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless weren’t.

Stephen essentially made the argument that Lebron James is a choker in the playoffs.

Of course, Austin had addressed this in his article:

Skeptics are of course pointing out James’ disappearance during parts of last year’s NBA Finals. He definitely didn’t play up to his lofty standards, especially in a crucial Game 4 loss to the Mavs. And in fans’ minds, persistent failure in the playoffs would be a catastrophic flaw in James’ overall package.

Yet people tend to forget how in many other playoff games, James has risen to the occasion. His Game 7 duel with the Celtics’ Paul Pierce in 2008, his single-handed overpowering of the Pistons in 2007 and even his performance against the Bulls last season all would fit well as part of Jordan’s portfolio.

He even showed a chart comparing the regular season and playoff stats of many of the game’s elite players. James fared better than Kobe, Magic, and Bird. The only non-center he fell short of was, of course, Michael Jordan.

LeBron Looks Worse When Using Different Data

That chart prompted a great email from Justin of A Screaming Comes Across The Court:

When looking at playoff PER versus regular season, you made a mistake in assuming playoff appearances perfectly line up with the regular season. For example, some guys don’t play a lot of games until they’re much older and their PER is consequently lower. Luckily for you and the two NBA fans who read my article, I already did put together numbers on the difference between regular season and playoff PER based on the change from each specific season to the following playoffs. LeBron’s pretty much in the middle of the pack, but Bird’s numbers are even worse, which is really interesting. Hakeem and Thomas legitimately get better in the playoffs.[emphasis added]

Justin included a large table (from his original NBA playoff performance post), which had a few key numbers:

 PER Differences, Regular Season To Playoffs
 1.46 Isiah Thomas
 1.22 Hakeem Olajuwon
 1.09 Reggie Miller
 0.27 Tim Duncan
-0.11 Michael Jordan
-0.32 Dirk Nowitzki
-0.69 Dwyane Wade*
-0.91 Magic Johnson
-1.07 Kobe Bryant
-1.30 Shaquille O'Neal
-1.39 Paul Pierce
-1.82 Lebron James
-2.79 Larry Bird
-3.18 Karl Malone

According to Justin’s data, once you account for the specific years each player went to the playoffs, LeBron doesn’t come off looking quite as good. And Isiah Thomas is the unexpected king of clutch — NOT Michael Jordan. Then again, Larry Bird appears to be one of the most un-playoff-clutch stars ever by this measure, so maybe the real problem is using PER difference to judge playoff performance.

While nobody is claiming that LeBron James is on Michael Jordan’s level, there’s certainly an argument to be made that he is the best player since Jordan. But until he wins a championship, many people will brush aside that argument. Whether that’s justified may not be answerable by stats.