Backpicks GOAT: #2 Michael Jordan

Key Stats and Trends

  • Unmatched combination of scoring volume, efficiency and low turnovers
  • Struggled with shot selection in ’80s before leading offensive dynasty during the ’90s
  • Good defender, but style was high-risk, high-reward

Scouting Report

At his apex, Michael Jordan was the most complete scoring weapon in NBA history. He could score in the post, off the ball, in pick-and-roll and in isolation with a gaggle of efficient moves. Possessed with extraordinary quickness and gravity-defying leaping, Jordan’s éclat was rooted in fundamentals: up-fakes, jab steps and traditional footwork that he used to create unencumbered looks or open driving angles. But he wasn’t always a complete player — his efficacy evolved from his rookie year in 1985 to his peak seasons between 1989 and 1991.

Early on, Jordan flashed one of the best first-steps in NBA history, mixing ball fakes with the classic triple-threat attack to rock defenders onto their heels. Below, he practically teleports around back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Sidney Moncrief and nine-time all-league defender Dennis Johnson:

Jordan found his trademark fadeaway by the late ’80s, but he sported a smooth midrange shot right out of the gate (and hit 85 percent of his free throws as a rookie). His unrivaled elevation and Kryptonian hang time made these attempts difficult to disrupt:

Jordan’s midrange accuracy was elite during his prime, and he mixed these jumpers with rocket-boosted acrobatics around the rim:1

He attacked open space like a Hall of Fame running back, knifing through gaps or gliding past helpless defenders:

Under coach Doug Collins, a sizable portion of his game was actually off-ball, and his time of possession was low relative to his plump scoring rate. Chicago would set staggered screens for Michael to flare out to the baseline or curl up to the elbow, where he could catch and shoot or attack the rim if given space. His moves were decisive, giving the defense little time to react:

But when he entered the league, Jordan’s shot selection redefined “shoot-first.” No player in history likely took so many double, triple and even quadruple-teamed shots:

His tendency to pass up open teammates prompted me to track just how frequently he missed opportunities to create for them.2 From 1985-88, he created shots for teammates only slightly more than he passed them over (6 plays per 100, in line with his traditional box creation estimate).3 His wild forays into multiple defenders yielded a woeful efficiency of 0.59 points per attempt on such plays. Ironically, some of the most efficient offense is generated by simply passing to open players, and he missed layup opportunities as well as spot-up shooters with regularity:

By 1989, he started to clean this up, but never reached an equilibrium. When Phil Jackson arrived in 1990 and installed the triangle, Jordan’s habit of shooting into heavy coverage dissipated. (He settled at around 2 missed creations per 100 for the rest of his career, comparable to career rates from LeBron.)

But suboptimal court vision isn’t easily correctable and myopia sometimes limited the value of his passes. Not all creation is equal either, and Jordan was inconsistent in finding the high-value spots on the court. He could stubbornly lock into a scoring mode, relentlessly probing for his own shot in lieu of high-percentage passes right under the hoop, ignoring uber-finisher Scottie Pippen on the baseline in the next clip:

Jordan was always capable of throwing highlight-reel completions, and after a few years he matured into an above-average passer who could hit high-percentage targets:

In the next clip, he demonstrates his excellent rebounding — he used his quickness and leaping to hunt for the ball, making him one of the best rebounding guards ever — then drops a high-level open-court dime:

During the Jackson years, his passing capability didn’t change much, per se. His decision-making simply improved. Jordan replaced difficult, low efficiency shots with setups for open teammates, bumping his own efficiency and creation rates in the process.4 As he upgraded his floor game, MJ morphed into an elite creator, posting rates in the 94th to 98th historical percentile between 1989 and 1997.

On defense, he entered the league as an unpolished risk-taker. His footwork wasn’t sharp and he constantly gambled for steals, like this:

He loved to snipe the post, sneaking away from his man for a steal, then leaking out in transition. Only, he whiffed a lot:

His rotations to the rim were soft, often avoiding contact and rarely dissuading the shot. His on-ball defense wasn’t anything to write home about in those first few years either:

But then, in the summer of 1987, he sprinkled fairy dust on himself and magically learned to defend. While his man D improved a bit in his third year, it leapt forward in his fourth (1988). He curtailed his habit of leaking out for steals — probably a factor in his defensive rebounding spike that year — and many of his silly gambles were replaced with highly-attentive rotations, laser-focused steal attempts and even some rim protection:

His reactions were sharper, his reads smarter and his motor revved up higher than any other season, save for 1989. He also improved his footwork on the ball, where he would often lockdown opposing point guards. In the following play, notice how he uses his size and textbook positioning to slow down Isiah’s drive into the lane. In the second clip, he clinically hedges around a screen before his trademark swipe leads to a turnover:

But his style was still high-risk, high-reward, and his defensive error rates were on the high side, landing in the 17th percentile for the heart of his career. His highlights are impressive, but he bled value at times.

For instance, in the 1991 Finals, Jordan slowed the Magic Johnson train by picking him up in the backcourt, preventing him from building a head of steam. In the low-post, Chicago constantly doubled Magic, and although Jordan did a solid job bodying him up at times, he also struck out on a number of steal attempts:

His transition awareness could be a problem, misjudging threats in front of and behind him:

Like nearly every guard, he was too small to check bigs, limiting some of his impact when compared to more versatile defenders like Pippen or LeBron.5 He was never a vertical paint defender, instead swiping for steals with his ginormous mitts while his teammates challenged shots up high. Yet his cobra-like strikes obliterated plays when they worked:

His sneak-attacks generated six of the top-200 steal percentages ever recorded, but his gambling style exposed the Bulls at times. He’s so jazzed to intercept this outlet that he bites at the mere sight of a pass:

At other times, his bets led to huge payoffs — his ambush blocks could blow up possessions, and he often played the pass in odd-man fast breaks, baiting challengers like a basketball Jedi. This isn’t the layup you’re looking for:

In 1990, his motor slowed from the fever pitch he had played at for two years, and his defensive involvement tapered down a bit. He idled more, resting his engines to conserve fuel. Although, on possessions where he went full throttle, he made ball-denial an art, navigating screens (a strength of his) and shutting off passing lanes:

During the second three-peat, he swapped athleticism for guile, relying on added strength to grind through picks or to stake valuable position. Here, he completely kills Orlando’s idea of a cross-screen into a post-up, flaming out the entire possession:

He liked to linger in the lane and help against penetration, but improved awareness made this tactic more efficient — notice how he immediately locates the ball as he passes through the paint, de-prioritizing his own cover (Chris Mullin) to shut off a dribbling threat:

It was another risky tactic that could be exposed with better passing, but was a clear net positive from the film I tracked. His offensive reads evolved as well in those final Chicago years, leading to more plays like this:

He attacked the basket a bit less and mastered the use of little backwards hops to create separation in the midrange, freeing up his patented fadeaway:

In those second three-peat seasons, these subtle angles and increased physicality kept his free throw rate afloat. He was smarter on both sides of the ball, offsetting a loss of athleticism with a more polished midrange game. His defense remained strong, better in many ways than some of his earlier championship seasons, and his scoring gently dropped from otherworldly to elite. At the age of 35, Jordan retired for good in 1998.

Impact Evaluation

Jordan played on the cusp of the Databall era, teasing us with snippets of information in order to decode his value. He made a splash as a rookie, but his value during the ’80s was curbed by his shoot-first approach, and until Phil Jackson arrived and supporting stars developed, Jordan’s teams peaked around 50 wins. His best value-signals and box metrics are both at the top of the heap, although neither paint him as an untouchable force.

Before Michael, the 1984 Bulls were a 27-win team (-4.7 SRS) with an average defense and a futile offense that finished 5 points worse than the league (rORtg). Jordan immediately provided the scoring punch that they needed and Chicago improved to just above average on offense in his rookie year, with an overall improvement of nearly 4 points per game. In his second season, he missed a significant chunk of time after breaking his foot, then logged fewer than 20 minutes in each of his first six games back. Excluding those sub-20 minute games, the Bulls played 15 contests with Jordan at a 40-win pace (-0.3 SRS) that year.

As Michael progressed, Chicago upgraded its roster, adding Charles Oakley in 1986 (a defensive-minded rebounder) and John Paxson (a shooter) in ’87 before bringing in new coach Doug Collins that year. Collins preferred defensive lineups, and Chicago improved 5.9 points in relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) in ’87 with bigger bodies playing more minutes.6 This, together with Jordan’s own growth, nudged the Bulls to a 45-win pace. In ’88, they added rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Jordan transformed defensively and Chicago played at a 52-win clip (3.8 SRS). The Bulls finished with the third-best defense in the league, but again, the offense remained pedestrian, finishing about a point better than league average. Given the lack of offensive talent on those teams, these results are inline with some of the better carry-jobs in league history.

At the end of the 1989 season, Jordan was explicitly asked to pass more as the “point guard” and the Bulls offense showed signs of breaking through. Over the final 24 games, he averaged 11 assists per night and Chicago improved its efficiency by about 2 points, posting a +2.9 rORtg. It wasn’t a huge shift, but it was another instance where a team’s most talented scorer helped it more by shooting less.7

Driving the Bulls improvement at the end of ’89 was a major upgrade in turnover percentage. Chicago’s rate dropped from average (14.7 percent) to an elite 12.9 percent (which would have been fourth that year) because Jordan himself was one of the lowest turnover centerpieces ever. Among the Big 4 box dimensions — scoring rate, efficiency relative to league average (rTS), box creation and adjusted turnover percentage — Jordan stands above the pack. He is the only player with three-year averages in all of those categories above the 85th percentile historically. Here’s how he compares to the greatest offensive forces of the 3-point era using their postseason peaks:8

Jordan’s heavy load and ball-security helped Chicago finish in the top-five in turnover percentage in each of its six championship seasons, placing first four times. But without him in ’94 and ’95, the Bulls finished 16th and 15th, respectively. His impact on team giveaways was a byproduct of his high usage and quick, decisive actions discussed in the scouting report.

Then there’s his scoring. Historians have mislabeled Wilt as the game’s most “dominant” scorer, but that epitaph should belong to Jordan. He holds the highest pace-adjusted scoring rate in NBA history and six of the nine highest-scoring rates of all time. He litters the record book with more high-efficiency, high-volume seasons than anyone:

A more selective filter demonstrates Jordan’s singular brilliance: In only 11 NBA seasons has someone scored over 30 per 75 at +6 percent rTS, and Jordan owns four of them (Karl Malone has two, Shaq, LeBron, Curry and Kevin Durant have one each). His scoring game was so resilient that in the postseason he upped his volume and creation with almost no loss in efficiency. This coincided with Chicago’s slight improvement in relative playoff offense during the ’90s, as the Bulls generated a +7.3 postseason rating with Jordan, an eight-season mark bested only by Magic’s Lakers from 1984-91.9

In 1990, Jackson introduced the triangle, an offense with a notorious learning curve. The Bulls arc that year reflected some growing pains; their first-half was comparable to previous seasons, teetering along at a 45-win pace until the All-Star game before a dynasty blossomed. There’s a near perfect trajectory from the All-Star break into the heart of the ’91 season as Chicago ascended from coach to first class. Here’s what its rolling point-differential looked like over the period:

Fittingly, almost all of this change occurred on offense. With Pippen and Grant entering their primes, the Bulls first-half attack that year was a respectable 2.6 points better than league average. But, for the first time in Jordan’s six seasons, it moved into the upper atmosphere after the break. Chicago’s rORtg was +6.3 in the second-half (including postseason), which would place it in the top-35 of all time for a full year, and at the time would have been the seventh-best offense ever. The 1991 Bulls were a similar +6.7 on offense.

In 1992, Chicago peaked at +7.4, the 12th-best offense ever, and one of three attacks in history with a raw efficiency above 115.5 points per 100. After three consecutive top-100 offensive seasons, Jordan took a baseball sabbatical and the Bulls scoring efficiency dropped to 2 points above league average. In 1995, before his return, Chicago chugged along at +1.2 for 63 games (playing at a 52-win pace), reinforcing the team’s competence but also highlighting Jordan’s value — lifting slightly above average offenses by 5 or 6 points is GOAT-worthy. After nearly two seasons off, MJ (posting a cringeworthy -2.6 percent rTS) lifted the ’95 team’s offense to +4.3 in his 27 games (at a 59-win pace). Again, the turnovers declined, down to 12.1 percent from 14.6. Even an oxidized Jordan made an impact.

With the rust off in ’96, MJ led Chicago to two of the 10-best offensive seasons ever, including the fourth-best of all time in 1997.10 They also benefited from the shortening of the 3-point line, as both Jordan and Pippen were better marksmen from the shorter stripe (in place from 1995-97). The height of four of the Bulls six title teams was staggering:

On those first three-peat teams, Jordan could kick to deadly shooters (Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges) while big men like Will Perdue and Scott Williams scooped up misses on the offensive glass. The second three-peat squads rebooted the concept, with the record-setting Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc canning triples while second-chance factory Dennis Rodman dominated the boards. Unlike most great offenses, Chicago excelled at rebounding, particularly with Rodman, and the floor-balancing of the triangle likely helped matters. Those rosters were built to scale around a volume scorer, taking a little luster off of Jordan’s ceiling-raising.11

The adjusted game-level data we have on Jordan echoes the common sentiment that he’s one of the most valuable players ever; he’s right at the top of these three studies with an average per-game value of +8.2. We only have two years of adjusted plus-minus (APM) at the end of his career and another year of Augmented plus-minus (AuPM), both of which paint Jordan as an elite and consistent player, but not a sui generis force; Jordan’s scaled adjusted plus-minus figures from 1996-98 (about +6.5) all fall in the 98th percentile for seasons on record.

Digging deeper, I manually extracted plus-minus numbers from 1991-93 based on video I could find. In a 50-game regular season sample, Jordan’s net on/off was +18.1 per 48 minutes, good enough to yield an Augmented plus-minus of +7.4. These are high-end numbers, but within the bounds of the best results from the Databall era, falling behind Curry (a record AuPM of +9.3), LeBron (+8.9), Kevin Garnett (+7.7) David Robinson (+7.7) and Chris Paul (+7.5). Given that Garnett’s season is the highest actual APM value ever recorded, it’s quite possible Jordan’s peak year could match it based on this sample. Here’s how MJ’s estimate stacks up against all top on/off seasons from this series:

Consistent with his drawbacks on tape, there’s little evidence that Jordan’s defense moved the needle like a titanic big man. His defensive plus-minus values from ’97 and ’98 were both strong for a wing — around 35th among scaled four-year peaks, next to Bruce Bowen — but given his post-retirement defensive prowess, I consider it unlikely that his earlier years were much more impactful. Still, a decent defensive footprint combined with one of history’s most impressive offensive portfolios gives him a persuasive argument for the highest peak in NBA history.

Redundancy with ball-dominant players is always a concern, however this is somewhat mitigated with Michael because he’s a hybrid on/off ball player. His jumper made him an off-ball threat, but so did his penetration, allowing him to catch and finish with a dribble or two if left unattended. I do wonder how much Phil Jackson influenced Jordan’s decision-making shift; the spacing and movement of the triangle reigned in MJ’s shoot-first tendencies, so I have minor reservations about his plug-and-play impact on other quality offenses.

More importantly, Jordan lacked longevity, missing a year in ’94 and logging partial seasons in ’86 and ’95, both of which cost him valuable GOAT mileage. By my valuations, he composed 10 MVP-level seasons, compared to 12 for Kareem and Russell. If MJ’s injured seasons followed his valuations curve, he would have a strong argument for No. 1, and if his hypothetical 1994 season followed the curve, he would likely be No. 1 on this list. While I can see giving him slightly more credit, he could only finish first with his current longevity if I viewed his peak as an outlier among outliers, and neither box metrics nor non-box data support that idea. If anything, they suggest Jordan’s GOAT peak status isn’t unassailable, which means there’s also an argument for him dropping back a slot. Therefore, he’s my highest peak player, but falls short in career value to Abdul-Jabbar, landing at No. 2.

Backpicks GOAT: #3 LeBron James

Key Stats and Trends

  • Led historically good offenses on a variety of teams
  • Has the best box and non-box statistical portfolio of the Databall era
  • Elite passer and perimeter defender, but overly ball-dominant at times

Scouting Report

LeBron entered the league as the best teenager in NBA history, a cocktail of size, athleticism and basketball IQ. From Day One, he was capable of explosive scoring with an aptitude for the skip pass.

But his jumper was streaky and his shot selection spotty.1 As he entered his physical prime, he combined speed, length (7-foot wingspan) and power (255 pounds, plus or minus 10 depending on the year) to bullrush the basket, bouncing defenders backwards as they made contact:

Yet he was quick enough to take point guards with the slightest of angles or explode out of a canon with ferocious backcuts:

LeBron’s speed made him a one-man fast break, careening down court with the ball like a heat-seeking missile:

His super-efficient transition scoring comprised a sizable chunk of his offense over the years (15 to 23 percent, depending on the season), and he’s finished in the top five in transition points in each of his last 13 seasons.2

Along with speed and power, LeBron’s other great differentiator has been his passing. He’s the most prolific skip passer in NBA history, constantly exposing weak-side rotations and finding corner shooters a level away:

His game evolved over the years, and in ’09 and ’10 he increased his already large on-ball role, carrying two of the 10 biggest loads in history. His passing rates, always good, graduated to another level that year. Note the velocity on the third pass below:

As a result of his increased primacy and evolved court vision, LeBron’s creation rates jumped from about 11 per 100 to a whopping 14 per 100, just short of the highest rates ever estimated. In my sampling, his quality passes leapt into the upper stratosphere, reaching Nash-like frequencies with a “good” pass on 8 percent of his possessions. He went from hitting about 75 percent of his high-leverage passing chances to about 80 percent, a rate he maintained through 2017. (In my tracking, this was below Nash, who was at 88 percent in Dallas and Phoenix, and Kevin Garnett, who was at 86 percent.)

LeBron missed his fair share of quality passes too, tossing ones that were off the mark — too hard or into too much traffic, for example — every 2 plays per 100 possessions. This is an elevated rate, a natural tradeoff of a risk-taking style, but the ROI on LeBron’s average attempt was lower than Nash’s, looking for outside shooters more than teammates at the rim (such as the last clip below):3

LeBron’s move to Miami reduced his on-ball scoring attempts, as the Heat traded some of those possessions for Wade-centric attacks. In 2012, James slid his game inside more, the beginning of a multi-year trend toward more efficient shots and a more versatile offensive attack:

When he was younger, LeBron pulled the trigger on more of those low-percentage, double-teamed looks after breaking down defenses. In Miami, he was more willing to pass those shots to open teammates, a trend that continued into his second Cleveland stint. The improved decision-making helped boost his scoring efficiency. 4 Most importantly, his 3-point shot improved, keeping defenses honest when they packed the paint against him. From 2007-11, LeBron shot 33 percent from downtown. Since 2012, he’s leveled up to just over 36 percent.

On defense, James improved in phases as well. In his first few seasons, he was prone to more breakdowns and lacked dominant defensive sequences. However, he would become one of the most impressive perimeter defenders in NBA history, gradually improving until 2008 before jumping a level in 2009.

He is one of the only players ever to truly guard all five positions on the court. Here’s a sampling of him guarding three All-Star players at the point, wing and center positions, demonstrating quickness, strength and technique:

He regularly diagnosed plays and anticipated where to be, sometimes directing teammates like a linebacker calling out the action before the snap. (For instance, in the previous clip, he sends the smaller Kyrie Irving to the wing, immediately recognizing the mismatch Boston would exploit with Irving on a big man.) He often sacked pick-and-rolls like he stole the opponent’s playbook — in the next clip, notice how he slides with the action before running to Dirk’s sweet spot. Once there, his help didn’t just mitigate an advantage, it mucked up the entire possession:

So much of defensive impact is about off-ball movement, and based on my scoring, LeBron’s instances of “good” help spiked from 2009 to 2013. He disrupted offenses in a variety of ways, jumping passing lanes, pinching down on dribblers or crisply rotating to the rim:

James was able to defend like this without fouling, regularly finishing near the bottom of the league in shooting fouls committed. His size bothered so many wings, and he used his strength to fight through screens and smother opponents at times:

He became known for signature chase-down blocks, but he also protected the rim in the half-court, erasing shots like another backline big:

LeBron’s block percentage lagged just behind the top perimeter rejectors during his best years, but his blocks were more valuable (per the clips above), frequently swatting these high-percentage looks near the hoop. According to play-by-play data, 43 percent of his blocks were within five feet of the rim, a rate eclipsed by only a few wings in the last two decades.

His defense was not flawless — in his Cleveland years, he could gamble a bit too much, trading physicality for risky gambits. He also missed his share of rotations — his rates from sampling would land in the bottom quartile of the league.5 He was sometimes overly stationary off the ball, and in the following play, ends up in no man’s land while diagnosing some off-ball action:

He’s been an elite defensive rebounder since his teens, posting rates above the 96th percentile for perimeter players for the last 13 seasons. His defense peaked from 2009 to 2013, then his activity started to wane in 2014 as the mileage piled up on his odometer. His closeouts were always a touch reckless, but that year they became more of a problem:

While his foot speed noticeably faded by 2017, a more slender James regained bounce in 2016, leading to a brief defensive renaissance; in 21 playoff games that year, LeBron set a career-high in block percentage, with rates that would fall in the 88th percentile historically among all players. In the last two seasons, he’s been prone to major defensive breakdowns as his activity has dwindled.

Over the last few years, his passing has continued to grow, finding tighter windows and more Grade A connections. His 2014 season was likely his offensive apex, although his 2016 year might have eclipsed it. At the time of writing this, a 33-year old James is at the backend of his prime (2018).

Impact Evaluation

LeBron’s one of the more complex offensive players ever to evaluate, not merely because of the breadth and depth of his skill shown above, but because he’s played some of the most ball-dominant roles in history and has redefined the stat sheet as the center of his team’s universe. His on-ball approach is heavier on scoring than pass-first wizards like Steve Nash and Magic Johnson, but volume passing and volume scoring won’t maximize most top-end talent. Instead, James is the greatest floor-raiser in NBA history, able to do more with spare parts than anyone ever by simultaneously bolstering an offense while upgrading the defense.

Even before he hit his stride in 2009, LeBron kept defensively-inclined rosters afloat. The ’05 Cavs posted a +2.3 relative offensive rating (rORtg) in 70 games with James flanked by Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — both viable post scorers and mid-range shooters — along with defensive specialists Ira Newble and Eric Snow, and toothless journeyman Jeff McGinnis. This was not a team of 3-point specialists feeding off of James’s gravity, but they still played at a .500 pace with a passable offense orchestrated by 19-year old LeBron.

The ’06 Cavs were even more impressive, thanks to a breakout year from James. With Ilgauskus and Gooden now accompanied by Larry Hughes (a moderate creator and inefficient scorer), the offensively-challenged Snow and two shooters (Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones), Cleveland churned out a 5.1 SRS when healthy (56-win pace) with a +6.6 offensive efficiency in 30 healthy games. A similar rotation ticked along at a 51-win pace in ’07 (3.4 SRS) in a larger sample, but the offense regressed to near-average, meaning the ’06 result was likely an aberration. (LeBron’s offense regressed slightly in ’07 too, likely contributing to the backslide.) Still, the period demonstrated that pre-prime LeBron-ball could buoy offenses while stuffing the court with defenders and a few shooters.

After grinding through an injury-plagued 2008 campaign in which they trotted out 21 different starting lineups, the Cavs doubled-down on a LeBron-centric attack. In 2009 and 2010, he elevated defensive personnel to heights that none of his Heatles teams ever surpassed. Cleveland posted a 9.6 SRS when healthy in ’09 (66-win pace) — Miami’s best full-strength SRS with LeBron was 7.7 — and those Cavs teams finished with offenses around 5 points better than average, when healthy.6

They did well to surround LeBron with skilled shooters — Mo Williams (44 percent from 3 in ’09) and Delonte West (40 percent from 3) — while Ilgauskas opened the floor as a pick-and-pop big; the results were certainly greater than the sum of the parts. Not everything fit though, as was the case in 2010 when they regressed a touch by giving minutes to an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal. The Cavs traded spacing and defense for Shaq’s quick-burst post scoring, but he graded out as a net negative.

Like Nash, LeBron was supercharging dependent talent — finishers who disproportionately benefited from shots served to them on a silver platter. So with his talents in South Beach, Cleveland crumbled in 2011. While most teams fall off after losing a superstar, none imploded like the Lebron-less Cavs; in 21 games with a similar group of players, they played at an anemic 18-win pace (-8.9 SRS) before injuries ravaged their lineup. LeBron’s not worth 40 wins on a typical club, but no player in history has correlated more strongly with such massive, worst-to-first impact.7

With better talent in Miami (and later in his Cleveland redux), his teams reached greater offensive altitudes, although, in traditional lineups their efficiencies were only slightly improved (indicating diminishing returns). Paired next to another superstar wing in Miami, LeBron scaled back his ball-dominance, and although those Heat teams never produced an all-time level point differential, every full-strength Heatles lineup bested LeBron’s Cavs on offense (per relative offensive rating):8

The best four-year offenses in NBA history have finished about 7 points ahead of the league. At full-strength, Nash’s Suns were nearly 10 points better from 2005-08, although they were small-balling lineups at the expense of defense. LeBron’s teams downsized at times too, and his best full-strength four-year offense was +8.1 (2013-16), in the upper stratosphere historically.

He never again matched the video-game numbers from his first MVP seasons in Cleveland, not because he was worse, but because he tapered down his on-ball role. He actually ramped up his solo performance when Wade went to the bench, improving both his volume and efficiency (!) as the Heat outscored opponent’s by 6.9 points per 100 with LeBron on the court and Wade off it from 2011-14. In his last two years there, Miami was +8.3 per 100 with James on and Wade off.9 Again, this speaks to the floor-raising power of a great quarterback.

LeBron wasn’t all offense though. He graded out as one of the best defenders in the league using my tracking-based metric in 2011. From 2011-16, he was also a key stopper on a number of high-end defensive units. Using four-man lineup combinations (samples can be too small with five-man groups), he played on five quartets that finished at least 6 points better than league average in defense efficiency.10 His best four-man group finished 14th in that time frame — a 2011 lineup with defensive banger Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and Wade — holding opponents 9.5 points below league average while outscoring them by 14.5 points per 100. In 2013, Miami’s best four-man combination held teams 6.7 points below average with an undersized pairing of Bosh and Udonis Haslem up front.

According to this scaled set, his four-year defensive peak in adjusted plus-minus (APM) ranks 41st among perimeter players since 1997, although about two-thirds of the players ahead of him were defensive specialists.(LeBron’s best stretch was from 2008-11.)11 While this is a good result, it’s short of the very best defenders, likely a function of LeBron’s medium defensive usage (related to some of the inactivity mentioned in the scouting report).

James is, arguably, the king of overall plus-minus stats. 2018 is the 25th season of league-wide plus-minus data, which covers nearly 40 percent of the shot-clock era and touches 12 of the top-20 players on this list. None have achieved LeBron’s heights: He holds four of the top-five scaled APM seasons on record, and six of the top eight. Since 2007, 10 of his 11 years land in the 99th percentile.12 However, his seasons in Miami were a (relative) low point:

Just like rebounds or field goal percentage, adjusted plus-minus is a measurement, a fairly stable gauge of an involved player’s value on a given team. LeBron wasn’t worse during the years in South Beach — based on film study, he was better in most areas — but he wasn’t as indispensable to those Heat teams, and thus his impact measurements clocked in below his historic floor-raising efforts.

The above graph also jibes with the scouting report; as LeBron’s passing steadily improved and his shot selection grew more judicious, he synthesized with better talent, correlating with larger and larger scoreboard shifts after a nadir in 2012. This was a two-way street: As LeBron’s more efficient passing helped the talent around him — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love posted career-best marks in scaled APM in 2017 — his improved 3-point shooting allowed him to finish more plays setup by his teammates. (Notice in the previous charts how LeBron’s efficiency improved alongside Irving.)

Of course, James also ranks among the box score titans, tallying points like a pinball machine while playing quarterback. (A style approximated by James Harden today.) His statistical peak came in his original Cleveland days, hybridizing Magic-like table-setting with Jordan’s scoring.13 Only Steph Curry’s three-year regular season peak covers more real estate on the Big 4 box diamond featured in this series. In the postseason, LeBron’s Cleveland numbers trailed only Jordan, and his line in Miami matched Curry’s efficiency:

I keep invoking Nash, another ball-dominant engine like James, but LeBron is different in a handful of ways. Both have generated excellent results surrounded by shooters and pick-and-roll dance partners, but James maintains greater value next to other ball-dominant players (like Wade and Irving) thanks to his post game, offensive rebounding and thunderous cuts to the rim. This is a versatility advantage that makes LeBron a more valuable player in a wider variety of lineups and roles, which in turn makes him slightly more scalable (because better teams often come with other on-ball stars). On the other hand, he seems to relegate post players to the perimeter in order to open the lane, casting doubt on whether he could thrive next to a traditional low-post stud. Still, when compared to other all-time quarterbacks like Magic and Oscar Robertson, his defense gives him a considerable edge.

In total, Jordan is the only comparable perimeter peak in history, although James’s defense was slightly more impressive at its apex. Eight of LeBron’s last nine seasons are all-time level campaigns, pairing either good or great defense with transcendent offense. He’s logged enough mileage to challenge Jordan; this will be his 14th season on the All-NBA team, whereas MJ only made 11. Like the other great megastars who excel in non-scoring phases of the game, I do wonder if I’m undervaluing LeBron, given the unique shape of his offense.

In a few weeks, he will likely move to No. 2 on this list. If I had fewer reservations about his ball-dominance scaling (and his lack of spot-up shooting), he’d be a spot higher already, and I do think he has an outside argument as the highest-peak player in NBA history. And, barring injury or premature retirement, James will likely retire with the most valuable career ever. For now, he’s etched on the Mt. Rushmore of the sport at No. 3.