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The Last Dance

The Last Dance: Did Michael Jordan or LeBron James face tougher competition in the playoffs?

Did MJ or LeBron face harder opponents?
Did MJ or LeBron face harder opponents? (Getty Images)

The final two episodes of "The Last Dance" air this weekend and will feature a look back at Michael Jordan's triumph over the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals.

When we took a closer look into all 37 of Jordan's playoff opponents, we found that the 1998 Jazz team was not only the best team that those Bulls faced off against in the NBA Finals, but also the best team that Jordan ever beat in the playoffs. That's according to FiveThirtyEight's Complete History of the NBA which includes power ratings for every team after every single game in NBA history.

MORE: Are the 72-10 Bulls the best team ever?

Of course, these days nary a second goes by after uttering Jordan's name before the words "LeBron James" crashes the party.

The GOAT debate between the two legends has raged on for years and recently re-surfaced with the 10-episode arc chronicling Jordan's rise to power throughout the 1990s. As if that fire needed more fuel, ESPN released its updated list of top players of all-time earlier this week with Jordan claiming the top spot just ahead of James.

Honestly, it's a debate that has no right or wrong answer so we're not going to bother getting into it right now.

What we are here to do, however, is shed some light on the teams both legends beat en route to their place atop the NBA's Mt. Rushmore. In poring through all of Jordan's playoff opponents, I couldn't help but wonder how his road to six championships compares with LeBron's. While King James can't match Jordan's ring total, he holds a 9-6 edge in Finals appearances which shoud count for something.

Is LeBron's count of Finals appearances inflated due to a weakened Eastern Conference? Or does his playoff record stack up favourably to Jordan?

For the purposes of this discussion, we're once again utilizing FiveThirtyEight's all-time team ratings. Curious about how it works? Read more about it here. Rather than bore you with the method beyond the madness, let's dive headfirst into the results sure to drive many mad.

The overall picture

There were 82 playoff opponents to consider in all - 37 for Jordan, 45 for James.

If you simply take the average rating of every team they played, Jordan comes out on top with the harder slate.

MORE: Everything you need to know about MJ wearing No. 45

Case closed then, right? That's it, problem solved... thanks for reading!

Not so fast...

There's far more to it than meets the eye.

LeBron's easier path to the Finals

LeBron James has famously never lost in the 1st Round, a perfect 13-0 record.

He didn't just win, he pummels teams. Prior to the grueling seven-game series against the Pacers in 2018, he had won a ridiculous 21 consecutive games in the opening round, essentially never even sweating an early round exit for nearly a decade. The only two players under the current 16-team playoff format (since 1984) that can hold a candle to his early-round dominance are Derek Fisher and Robert Horry, both of whom went 16-0 in the 1st Round.

Unlike Jordan, LeBron never faced a juggernaut early on.

The toughest opponent Jordan ever faced was the 1985-86 Celtics, one of the greatest teams in NBA history who swept Jordan's Bulls despite a stellar showing by the then second-year guard. In addition to that legendary Celtics team that featured five Hall of Famers, Jordan also squared off against a 59-win Milwaukee Bucks team in 1985 that featured the league's best defence spearheaded by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief. According to FiveThirtyEight, that Bucks team was better than 34 of the 36 teams that James has played in all rounds leading up to the NBA Finals.

The toughest opponent James has played in the first round was a 2011-12 Knicks team that fired Mike D'Antoni halfway through the season after an 18-24 start. That team starred Carmelo Anthony, a banged up Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith.

It's not just the first round either.

If you take every team that Jordan and James faced in the East, you'll find that it's Jordan who faced the stiffer competition in rounds leading up to the Finals.

Eight of the toughest 11 opponents belong to Jordan and if you limit it to just the years in which they reached the Finals, six of the top eight were MJ opponents.

It's even more drastic when looking strictly at who each of them faced in the Conference Finals. If you line up all 18 of their Conference Finals opponents, four of the top five were foes of Jordan's Bulls while seven of the bottom eight teams were ones that faced off against LeBron's Cavs or Heat.

The 1997-98 Pacers team featured in "The Last Dance" that pushed Jordan to seven games ranks higher than eight of the 10 teams LeBron has played in the Conference Finals. The one feather in LeBron's cap is the 2010-11 Bulls who went 62-20 and featured league MVP Derrick Rose. That Bulls team sports a higher ELO rating than any of the teams that Jordan beat in the East, barely edging out the 1993 Knicks.

Hardest Pre-Finals Opponents
Team Round Rating Who? Result
1986 Celtics 1st Round 1770 MJ Lost
1989 Pistons Conf Finals 1767 MJ Lost
2008 Celtics Conf Semis 1700 LeBron Lost
2011 Bulls Conf Finals 1698 LeBron Won
1985 Bucks 1st Round 1697 MJ Lost
1993 Knicks Conf Finals 1696 MJ Won
1990 Pistons Conf Finals 1686 MJ Lost
1998 Pacers Conf Finals 1680 MJ Won
2009 Magic Conf Finals 1680 LeBron Lost
1987 Celtics 1st Round 1676 MJ Lost
1996 Magic Conf Finals 1671 MJ Won

Did LeBron have it easier prior to reaching the Finals? Yes.

But once there... it's an entirely different story.

Finals opponents

The low-hanging fruit is that Jordan never dealt with anyone quite like the Golden State Warriors, a historic juggernaut that just so happened to come along right smack in the middle of LeBron's stranglehold on the East.

Imagine if Jordan's prime ran parallel to Larry Bird's Celtics or Magic Johnson's Lakers? What if instead of catching the tail end of both, he instead ran into them year after year?

There's this tendency to think "Warriors" first and foremost when thinking about LeBron's trips to the Finals and while those teams certainy reign surpreme, they also in a way underscore the relative strength of his other Finals opponents. Back in 2017 I wrote about how LeBron's worst Finals opponent - the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs - ranked in the 73rd percentile of Finals teams ever. That was before he took on the Warriors for the fourth straight year.

All nine of LeBron's Finals opponents rank among the top 36 teams ever to reach the NBA Finals, an astounding statement regarding his quality of opposition.

Even more illuminating is when you factor in how those compare to the teams Michael Jordan squared off against when ammassing that unassailable 6-0 Finals record.

That Spurs team which grades out as the worst of the nine that James played against ranks higher than four of the six teams the Bulls beat, including all three from the first three-peat.

Every Finals Opponent
Team Rating Opponent
2017 Warriors 1850 LeBron
2015 Warriors 1802 LeBron
2016 Warriors 1790 LeBron
1998 Jazz 1762 MJ
1997 Jazz 1751 MJ
2012 Thunder 1737 LeBron
2014 Spurs 1730 LeBron
2011 Mavericks 1717 LeBron
2013 Spurs 1711 LeBron
2018 Warriors 1710 LeBron
2007 Spurs 1705 LeBron
1992 Blazers 1702 MJ
1991 Lakers 1697 MJ
1996 Sonics 1695 MJ
1993 Suns 1634 MJ

It's a team sport!

Would LeBron have gone 6-0 against the teams Jordan faced?

Would Jordan have gone 3-6 against the teams LeBron faced?

It's impossible to know.

But in looking how each team stacked up to their respective opponents, we can get a sense for whether or not both won the right number of rings.

ELO Rating in Finals
Jordan LeBron
Team rating 1770 1687
Opponent 1706 1750
Difference +64 -63

On average, Jordan's teams entered the Finals with an ELO rating of 64 points higher than their opponents. That's about the difference this season between the Lakers and Mavericks.

If you take those Bulls teams and instead compare them to the average opponent faced by LeBron James, they would have entered the Finals with an ELO rating of just 20 points higher. That's about the difference this season between the Lakers and Bucks.

What if we do the same for LeBron?

Coincidentally, his teams on average entered with an ELO rating 63 points worse than his opponents. Even if you throw out the Warriors teams and only look at the other series, his teams on average had an ELO rating 32 points worse than their opponents.

In five of his six appearances in the Finals, Jordan entered with the better team. The exception? 1998, when the Bulls (1761) and Jazz (1762) entered with almost identical ELO ratings in what was essentially a coin flip.

It's a stark contrast when doing the same for James who entered as an ELO underdog in seven of his nine Finals, perhaps surprising given the way in which his teams have been covered. It's a referendum not only on the strength of his opposition, but the quality of his own teams. The only two times he entered with the superior team were in 2013 and 2011.

MJ and LeBron in Finals
Infogram

What does all of this mean?

In short, it doesn't change anything.

But it should at least frame how we think about 6-0 and 3-6 when it comes to debating the individual merits of MJ and LeBron.

Jordan probably wouldn't have gone 6-0 against the same level of competition that James faced in the NBA Finals.

Conversely, James probably goes better than 3-6 had he been fortunate enough to face teams like the ones that Jordan saw over the course of his run through the 90s.

The views expressed here to not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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