Michael Jordan vs. LeBron: Who Faced Tougher Competition in the NBA Finals?

By Jason McIntyre

Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James.

Michael Jordan finished his brilliant NBA career with six championships. LeBron James – only 28 – has won two titles. Nate Silver of the Times had a great breakdown of where they both were at 28, and what LeBron’s chances are of catching Jordan’s six rings. (Spoiler: 30 percent). Also, here’s a graphic that was making the rounds on the internet over the weekend that you may be interested in:

Undeniable: LeBron has accomplished more at this stage in his NBA career than Jordan has. [Counter: But Jordan went to college!]

I wanted to take a slightly different angle. The 80’s belonged to Magic and Larry. Magic’s last game in his prime was in 1991 (let’s not count that brief run in 1996), and Bird’s was in 1992 at the age of 35. Then, Michael Jordan took over. Many a basketball argument has boiled down to, “hey, Jordan was beating up on a watered-down league compared to the 80s – there were far fewer legendary stars.” [Counter: Huh? The 80s were all Lakers/Celtics with a smattering of Dr. J, Moses and the Pistons.]

I thought it’d be interesting to look back at the teams Jordan beat in his six trips to the Finals against the four teams LeBron has faced in the Finals so far.

1991: Bulls 4, LA Lakers 1 – Lakers won Game 1, Bulls owned rest of the series. Scott & Worthy were hurt and missed Game 5. Scott took just 18 shots in the series.
1992: Bulls 4, Portland 2 – Probably the weakest team the Bulls beat in Jordan’s six trips to the Finals. Won 57 games. Drexler in his prime.
1993: Bulls 4, Phoenix 2 – I’d listen to an argument that all of LeBron’s Finals opponents were better than this Suns team. Won 62 games. Barkley was the NBA MVP.

1996: Bulls 4, Seattle 2 – A good Sonics team, and Kemp had a beastly series, but he’s not Dirk, that’s for sure. Won 64 games.
1997: Bulls 4, Utah 2 – Might be the best team Jordan beat in the Finals. Karl Malone was the League MVP. Won 64 games.
1998: Bulls 4, Utah 2 – Virtually the exact same core as the year prior. Won 62 games.

Here’s how I’d rank the teams Jordan beat in the Finals: 1) 91 Lakers, 2) 97 Jazz, 3) 98 Jazz, 4) 93 Suns, 5) 96 Sonics, 6) 92 Blazers.

LeBron’s Final opponents? This is probably due to recency bias, but I’d say they’ve been considerably tougher than the teams Jordan beat:

2007: Spurs 4, Cavaliers 0 – The Spurs went 16-4 in the playoffs. Tim Duncan is a Top 10 player in NBA history and better than any of the players Jordan beat, with the exception of Magic. [Counter: 1991 Magic led the NBA in turnovers, his shooting from the field was in steady decline, he was only 2nd in the NBA in assists, and the Lakers were at the end of their dynasty, finishing 2nd in the West.] Tony Parker was the MVP of this series, and just for fun … in the annals of NBA history, who will wind up thought of as the better player, Tony Parker or Gary Payton? Tony Parker or John Stockton?

2011: Mavericks 4, Heat 2 – Dirk Nowitzki is considered one of the best shooting forwards in NBA history. Barkley or Dirk? Barkley was 29 on his only trip to the Finals, and averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds in that series. He had 32-12-10 in a Game 4 loss, and 42-13 in a Game 2 loss. Dirk or Kemp? Dirk or Mailman? Dirk averaged 26-9 in the 2011 Finals, and made 45 of 46 free throws. Fun discussion where there’s no right or wrong answer: Was Dirk a more complete player than Barkley, Kemp and Mailman? The Mavs beat Kobe, Durant and LeBron in the postseason.

2012: Heat 4, Thunder 1 – Difficult to say how good this Thunder team was. We may not know for a few years. But at this rate, Durant and Westbrook (assuming they stick together) could end up having Hall of Fame careers and being similar to Stockton/Malone, who went to the Finals twice. Jordan never faced a dominant young scoring tandem such as Durant and Westbrook in the Finals.

2013: Heat 4, Spurs 3: Duncan at 37, Ginobili at 35. And San Antonio benefited from the Westbrook injury (and swept the Lakers minus Kobe). The West was such a mess, the Spurs struggled against the Warriors (4-2), then swept the Grizzlies, who were only there because of the Westbrook injury. I’d compare these Spurs tot he 1991 Lakers, but that Laker team was injured and not nearly as old. Comparing across decades is impossible and an exercise in futility, but wouldn’t this year’s Spurs team have beaten any of Jordan’s Finals opponents?

Here’s how I’d rank the 10 opponents Jordan and LeBron have faced in the Finals:

1. 2007 Spurs (LeBron)
2. 1991 Lakers (Jordan)
3. 2011 Mavericks (LeBron)
4. 1997 Jazz (Jordan)
5. 1998 Jazz (Jordan)
6. 2013 Spurs (LeBron)
7. 2012 Thunder (LeBron)
8. 1993 Suns (Jordan)
9. 1996 Sonics (Jordan)
10. 1992 Blazers (Jordan)