MJ, Kobe, or LeBron?


A couple week’s ago, I came across an article (link) about LeBron James and some amazing work he’s doing in his hometown of Akron, OH.  LeBron announced that his foundation has teamed up with the University of Akron to provide full college scholarships to over 1,000 students.  My first thought was – what a good dude!  My next thought was – what a great basketball player!!  His efforts during the 2015 NBA Finals were heroic.  At times it felt like he was playing one-on-five.

As a lifelong basketball fan, this got me thinking – of the three most dominant players in my lifetime (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James), who would I want on my team?


To answer my question, it would be tempting to examine every stat and every advanced metric for these players until I was drowning in numbers.  Believe me, there is enough data out there to do so.  However, for this analysis, my aim was to keep it high level and simple.  Therefore, I decided to look at the following four areas:

  • Career Totals
  • Game-by-Game Contribution
  • Performance in Wins versus Losses
  • Performance in Regular Season versus Playoffs

By comparing the players in these four areas, I felt confident I could come up with an answer to my question.  With numerous statistics to choose from, I decided to examine the players on only three: points, rebounds, and assists.  The reason I chose this small collection is because one of these three stats tends to happen on every basketball possession.  So, in my mind, these categories represent the most common ways to contribute to a team.

Before I dove into the analysis, I first had to gather and prepare some data.  Game-by-game data for each of the three players was collected from two different sites, primarily because the first site did not have stats for MJ (is he THAT old already?).  The acquired data was then transformed through a two-step process.

First, any game in which a player had zeros for all three stats was eliminated.  This was done to regulate cases where players either sat out or had to leave a game early.

Second, the number of games to be incorporated into the analysis was truncated at 1,089 per player.  This number came about by default because it represents the total number of games played by LeBron (after making the first adjustment described above).  Since LeBron has played in the fewest games of the three players, limiting the number of games to this amount created a fair comparison (ie. who would I take through their first 1,089 games?).

At this point, the data was in a format suitable for analysis.  The first area explored was the players’ career totals.  Figure 1 below shows a bubble chart of career totals through their first 1,089 games.  The vertical axis represents points scored, the horizontal axis represents assists, and the size of the bubble represents rebounds.

Figure 1 – Player totals through first 1,089 games

The next area of investigation was each player’s game-by-game contribution.  Throughout the course of a season, players go through many highs and lows in regards to performance.  Great players tend to have more good nights than bad, so I wanted to see if one of these three players stood out (contribution-wise) compared with the others.  Figures 2-4 below show stacked bar charts of player performance for each of their first 1,089 games.  Data labels have been added to show each player’s highest scoring night during this span (each one was over 60 points!).

Figure 2. Mean Contribution – 43.6; Median Contribution – 43.5
Figure 3. Mean contribution – 35.0; Median contribution – 36.0.
Figure 4. Mean contribution – 41.8; Median contribution – 41.0.

The final areas of exploration looked at how player performance differed in wins versus losses and in regular season versus playoff games.  Great players are expected to step up when their teams are struggling and even more so in big games.  Player averages for each scenario (as well as the delta) are shown in the tables below.



Time to analyze  the charts above.

Historical Totals – Looking at the aggregate totals through the first 1,089 games, one player was clearly lagging behind.  Kobe Bryant had the lowest totals in all three categories.  MJ led the way in scoring, and LeBron tallied more rebounds and assists than the others.

Game-by-Game Contribution – I found these charts interesting.  While MJ led the way in mean/median contribution, and LeBron was not that far behind, there were some other aspects of the charts that jumped out to me.  First, when looking at MJ and LeBron, their contribution was strong and steady from the beginning.  However, Kobe took some time before he began to contribute at the high level we have all become accustom to.  I guess I never realized (or just forgot) that Kobe started out “slow” in  his career (this is obviously in relative terms).  The second thing that jumped out to me was the consistent amount of red and blue on LeBron’s chart.  While having the tools to be a dominant scorer like MJ and Kobe, LeBron has always been more off an all-around player.  This just proves it.  The final thing that jumped out to me was each player’s highest scoring game during this span – 61, 69, 81?!  These guys are unreal!

Player Performance – Each of these players perform at a high level, but this analysis showed whose production dropped off in different circumstances.  In games where their team lost, all players saw a decrease in averages for all three stats.  Kobe’s stats decreased the least, while LeBron’s decreased the most.  In playoff games, often the barometer for greatness, MJ saw an increase in all three stats.  LeBron saw an increase in scoring and rebounds but witnessed a decrease in assists.  Kobe saw a decrease in points, rebounds, and assists.

Finally, to reach a decision, I quantified all of my observations above.  For each category, a score of 1, 2, or 3 was assigned to each player.  A score of 1 meant the player was the best in that category when compared to the others.  The following table shows the results:

Final Analysis

Similar to golf, the lowest total score in the table above is the winner.  Therefore, through the first 1,089 games of their careers, I would want Michael Jordan on my team.  He ranked first or second in each of the categories explored.  MJ is usually recognized as the greatest player in basketball history, so I am not surprised with this outcome.

– SD






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