In the past couple of years, there has been increased debate over who the greatest NBA player of all time is. Lebron’s win over the 73-9 Warriors in 2016 gave him a huge boost in the GOAT debate that had previously been unanimously MJ’s. All kinds of arguments have been thrown around on this topic and a quick Google search would yield countless articles on this topic.
One of the arguments tossed around in favor of Lebron is that he has made the Finals 7 years in a row, something that Jordan never accomplished. A further argument is that it took Jordan seven seasons to make the Finals, while Lebron took the Cavs to the Finals seemingly on his own in 2007. Jordan fans counter, saying that the East has been extremely weak for the last fifteen years and that has been reflected by Lebron’s inability to actually win in the Finals (where he has a 3-5 record).
I wanted to dive deeper into this claim. Has the East really been that bad since 2004? Did MJ or Lebron face a tougher path to the Finals during their careers? To figure this out, I decided to calculate two statistics for each season since 1985. The first statistic was the East’s winning percentage against the Western Conference in all interconference games. However, many will make the extremely reasonable point that it doesn’t matter how the teams that didn’t make the playoffs performed against the West, so I also calculated the winning percentage for the Top 4 teams in the East against the entire West for each season.
I decided to do two separate comparisons, one each to deal with the claims presented. First, I compared the East’s record (both top 4 seeds and overall) against the West in the 6 seasons MJ won the title and the 6 seasons in which Lebron has made the Finals (Note: The 2011/12 season was omitted because of the lockout shortening the season to 66 games and leading to an unbalanced schedule). In my other comparison, I took the first 6 seasons of MJ’s career (1984/85 to 1989/90) and compared it to the first 6 seasons of Lebron’s career (2003/4 to 2008/9) to see if MJ not making the Finals early in his career was due to increased competition in the East.
Comparison One: The East in Jordan and Lebron’s Primes
First, we will look at the whole conference against the West:
Here, we see that the East performed significantly better against the West during MJ’s peak as opposed to Lebron’s peak. Except for the 1991/92 season when the East won 49 percent of games against the West, the East had a better than .500 record against the West in every season, while having worse than a .500 record in every single one of Lebron’s title runs.
However, this data set could be heavily influenced like by historically bad teams like the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers that played in the Eastern Conference during Lebron’s prime. As a result, we will look at the same graph, but including only games played by the top 4 seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Similar story, the top teams in the East during Jordan’s peak performed better against the West than during Lebron’s.
Comparison Two: The East in Jordan and Lebron’s Early Years
Here, we get almost the identical result to our first analysis. With the exception of the 2008/9 season when there were three super strong teams in the East (Cavs, Celtics and Magic), the Eastern Conference of the 1980s was significantly stronger than the East between 2004 and 2009. In fact, 2009 was the only year since 1998 that the East had a better than .500 record against the West.
Although this does not settle the MJ/Lebron debate, this is an extra data point that provides insight and clears up at least one sticking point that is likely to come up.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Does the East being bad take away from Lebron’s dominance? Is this analysis overstated and over simplified? Let us know!
Editor’s Note: If you have have any questions for Andrew, please feel free to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at andrew_puopolo.