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Analytics-Obsessed NBA Exec: LeBron Is the Best Ever by 'a Bit of a Big Margin'

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Much like baseball before it, the NBA has taken the concepts of quantitative analysis and analytics and run with them to such a huge degree that anyone who, like Charles Barkley on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” tries to dismiss analytics as worthless tends to get laughed out of the room.

No NBA executive has grabbed the bull by the horns with this new revolution and turned his team into an exercise in “big data” more than Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Indeed, the entire way the Rockets play the game of basketball is a reflection of that philosophy — the numbers show that the two most efficient things an NBA team can do on the floor is shoot 3-pointers and force their way to the free throw line, and if that isn’t James Harden’s game distilled to one sentence, I don’t know what is.

But there are certain battlefields where even if the cause is hopeless, the old-school holdouts still have a foothold, and that’s in determining who is the greatest player of all time.

For the holdouts, Michael Jordan is like a religious figure, His Airness and his six championship rings in the 1990s, along with a 72-10 regular-season in 1995-96, standing the test of time and setting an impossible standard. They point to his unmatched competitive fire, his clutch play and the tough era in which he played, and they say he passed the “eye test” whenever he was on the court.

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But for Morey and for those who prefer the boardroom to the barbershop when making basketball arguments, the greatest of all time is LeBron James, and it’s a “bit of a big margin.”

Morey went on “The Dan Patrick Show” on Wednesday and outlined his case, playing the “look at the numbers” card, a nerd’s way of restating Rasheed Wallace’s famous dictum that “ball don’t lie.”

“You look at his ability to generate wins and championship probability over time, and you basically break that down,” the GM said. “You don’t need all the numbers. You can watch as well and see that.

Is LeBron the greatest of all time?

“But if you basically isolate that and also look at the career he’s had, frankly I think at this point it’s become a bit of a big margin, actually, where he’s come out ahead. I know that’s a little controversial.”

“Championship probability” may seem a bit of a reach when you consider that LeBron is 3-6 all time in the NBA Finals compared with Jordan’s perfect 6-0 mark, but in the words of Bill Nye the Science Guy, “consider the following.”

Magic Johnson, in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, had one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history.

LeBron channeled Magic for three consecutive games when down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors in 2016, a Warriors team that had gone 73-9 in the regular season, and James dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers over the finish line more or less by himself.

He frequently had the inferior team in the Finals throughout his career — his teams were star-heavy but tended to have atrocious supporting casts below the second- or third-best player, and in the case of the 2007 team that got swept by the San Antonio Spurs and the 2018 team that lost to the Warriors, LeBron’s teammates were straight out of the G-League.

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Even Jordan couldn’t have led some of those teams past the likes of the Spurs and Warriors, who collectively are 5-2 against James and who are known for having been some of the most stacked teams 1 through 12 ever fielded.

And if that’s still not enough to convince you, consider also that LeBron is the only player in NBA history with 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists, and he is 7,349 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the career scoring title.

Indeed, if LeBron averages 22.4 points per game over the next four seasons, he will break that record — and LeBron’s career scoring average is 27.2.

By advanced stats, Jordan and James are comparable. They are separated by just 0.23 points in player efficiency rating, with MJ at 27.91 to LeBron’s 27.68.

James is fourth in career win shares with 219.4; Jordan is fifth at 214.0. Kareem’s record — 273.4 — is very likely unbreakable, as the stat tends to favor big men and point guards who grab lots of rebounds or dish lots of assists to go with their scoring.

Of note, the top 43 players in that stat all time are in the Hall of Fame, still actively playing or recently retired with strong Hall cases.

For value over replacement player, the catch-all stat that essentially shows just how bad a team would be without a player on the roster, James is at 124.9 and rising because VORP is cumulative. Jordan retired for good at 104.4.

James has three more Finals appearances with worse teams. Sometime during the 2018-19 season, he will pass Jordan with more career points, and his advanced stats are opening up a bigger lead every year. The honor of the greatest of all time is a championship belt of sorts, one held by some true NBA legends over the years and rarely given up after a short reign.

Is that enough to make LeBron the GOAT? It’s debatable, to be sure, but if you’re the type of person for whom analytics matter, Daryl Morey makes a very strong case.

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Boston born and raised, Fox has been writing about sports since 2011. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights shows for The Boxing Tribune before shifting focus and launching Pace and Space, the home of "Smart NBA Talk for Smart NBA Fans", in 2015. He can often be found advocating for various NBA teams to pack up and move to his adopted hometown of Seattle.
Boston born and raised, Fox has been writing about sports since 2011. He covered ESPN Friday Night Fights shows for The Boxing Tribune before shifting focus and launching Pace and Space, the home of "Smart NBA Talk for Smart NBA Fans", in 2015. He can often be found advocating for various NBA teams to pack up and move to his adopted hometown of Seattle.
Birthplace
Boston, Massachusetts
Education
Bachelor of Science in Accounting from University of Nevada-Reno
Location
Seattle, Washington
Languages Spoken
English
Topics of Expertise
Sports




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