Record Watch: LeBron James Chases Michael Jordan

Record Watch: LeBron James Chases Michael Jordan NBA Playoffs

The story was published by Sports Illustrated on Aug. 2 of last year. Just six weeks removed from leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first title and earning the third of his career, LeBron James voiced a bigger pursuit – the ultimate pursuit for a basketball player.

“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

While most players have scurried from comparisons to Michael Jordan – the player widely regarded as the greatest of all-time – LeBron James is openly pursuing his greatness. He’s not satisfied with being in the conversation of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball; he wants the title for himself.

That is a daunting task. But in his first playoffs since making that claim, LeBron is putting up jaw-dropping numbers through Cleveland’s first eight games – all wins – as they await their opponent in his seventh straight Eastern Conference Finals.

34.4 points (2nd among all playoff participants, 1st among players that advanced past the first round), 55.7% field goal percent (9th), 46.8% 3-point percent (15th), 2.8 3-pointers (7th), 9.0 rebounds (11th), 7.1 assists (8th), 2.1 steals (4th) and 1.5 blocks (9th).

Throughout this playoff run, LeBron has climbed the NBA’s all-time playoff ranks in multiple categories and has Jordan in his sights as the top scorer in playoff history. Jordan scored 5,987 points during his illustrious playoff career that saw him win six NBA championships in 13 playoff appearances. LeBron will enter the Eastern Conference Finals trailing Jordan by just 140 points. If LeBron continues to score at this ridiculous pace, he would need just a hair over four games (4.11 to be exact) to surpass Jordan as the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring champion.

Considering the Cavaliers have swept each of their first two playoff series – upping LeBron’s sweep total to an NBA-record 11 – it may take until the NBA Finals for LeBron to pass Jordan. If either the Wizards or Celtics can challenge the Cavs in the next round and force a long series, Jordan’s mark will likely fall before the Finals tip off on June 1.

While LeBron is bound to sit atop the leaderboard for all-time points scored in the playoffs, let’s make on thing clear: LeBron is not the scorer that Jordan was. But really no one is. Jordan holds the all-time record for highest scoring average in both the regular season (30.1) and the postseason (33.4).

LeBron has already played 207 playoff games as he jockeys back and forth with Manu Ginobili between 9th and 10th all-time. Jordan only played in 179 playoff games (18th all-time). LeBron’s 28.2 playoff scoring average (6th all-time) is 5.2 points fewer than Jordan’s all-time mark of 33.4. A few items come into play when looking at the disparity in games played between Jordan and LeBron, especially considering this is LeBron’s 12th playoff appearance compared to 13 for Jordan.

First, the NBA changed the first round from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven format in 2003. That is a perfect dividing line as all 13 of Jordan’s playoff appearances came prior to this change and the change took effect in the same year that LeBron was drafted, so he’s always had an extended first round to rack up more games – many times against lower-seeded opponents. The second factor is LeBron having one more Finals appearance – and maybe more in his future – than Jordan’s six during his time in Chicago. Jordan also never faced a Game 7 in the Finals, something LeBron has done twice – and been victorious both times (2013 and 2016).

Consider this: Jordan had just one playoff run where he averaged fewer than 30 points (LeBron has six) and has five playoff runs where he averaged at least 35 points per game (LeBron has just one but is close to a second this year).

In addition to surpassing Jordan for the all-time points lead, LeBron is also on pace to take over the top spot in free throws made this season. LeBron trails Jordan for the all-time lead by just 41 free throws and has averaged 8.4 per game during Cleveland’s first eight games of this year’s playoffs. If LeBron continues to get to the line with such frequency – 11.5 attempts per game – Jordan’s mark would fall in just five games.

Free throws are a common thread that Jordan and LeBron share as they collected more playoff points than any players in NBA history. While Jordan got to the line more frequently (9.9 FTA to 9.2) and shot a higher percentage (82.8 FT% to 74.5%) than LeBron, free throws account for nearly a quarter of the playoff points for both players.

It is another line on the court that separates the two, as LeBron has used the 3-point shot far more than Jordan did during his day of mid-range dominance. LeBron has made more than twice as many 3-pointers as Jordan, while the two shot similar percentages from beyond the arc in their playoff careers. What LeBron is doing this playoffs (46.8%) is far above is playoff career average of 32.8% from three, which has upped his effective field goal percentage to 62.3% – the best mark in his career.

LeBron’s use of the 3-point shot has helped him post a higher eFG% (51.7% ot 50.3%) and true shooting percentage (57.1% to 56.8%) than Jordan for their playoff careers. But shooting and scoring is not where LeBron and Jordan differ the most. Where LeBron gains some separation is in the other facets of the game – particularly in rebounds (8.8 per game compared to Jordan’s 6.4) and assists (6.8 per game compared to 5.7). James ranked 28th all-time in assists per game, narrowly edging Larry Bird for the highest assist average for a non-guard in playoff history.

On the defensive end, LeBron needs just five steals to pass Jordan for second place all-time and 25 to top Jordan’s teammate Scottie Pippen for the all-time lead. LeBron has 40 more blocks than Jordan, including his signature chase-down from last year’s Finals that will be a part of every career retrospective that’s ever made on LeBron.

“My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” James said in the Sports Illustrated piece. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”

We can break down the numbers and all-time leaderboard positions for days, but in the minds of many the key stat that keeps LeBron chasing the ghost of Jordan is 6-3. Despite playing in one more NBA Finals than Jordan, LeBron has three championships to Jordan’s six. The closer he gets to that six-ring threshold, the louder the argument can be made that the ghost could possibly be caught.

At just 32 years of age and coming off a regular season in which he led the league in minutes, LeBron has shown no signs of slowing down. He should have plenty of years to distance himself statistically from Jordan and more of the all-time greats, and more opportunities to chase championships. The first of which gets underway next week when the Cavs open the Eastern Conference Finals, halfway to defending their crown.

For more 2017 NBA Playoffs coverage, click here.

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