LeBron James’ Lakers vs. Michael Jordan’s Wizards: Fact, fiction in latest GOAT debate
The Lakers were eliminated from NBA postseason contention this week, and that offered another strand of data for the debate that never ends.
Of course, we’re going to make this about LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
NBA LEAGUE PASS: Sign up to unlock live out-of-market games (7-day free trial)
The Lakers dropped to 31-49 after Thursday’s loss to the Warriors, and that offers another opportunity to prop James’ time with Los Angeles up against Jordan’s stint with the Wizards.
So, with the understanding that both sides already have their minds made up, let’s play a game of fact and fiction:
The 2021-22 Lakers are worse than MJ’s Wizards teams
Fact. The Lakers are 31-49 this season, which is a worse record than the Wizards had during Jordan’s two-year stint with Washington. The Wizards finished 37-45 in both the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.
Washington was much closer to reaching preseason expectations. The over/under on victories for the Wizards was 37.5 in 2001-02 and 41.5 in 2002-03. Los Angeles’ over/under was set at 52.5 coming into this season.
The 2021-22 Lakers are worse than any of MJ’s teams
Fiction. There’s a big catch here, though. The Bulls’ worst season with Jordan on the roster was 1985-86 when they finished 30-52. Of course, Jordan broke his foot that season and played in just 18 regular-season games.
He returned for the NBA Playoffs, scoring 63 points in Game 2 of the Bulls’ first-round series against the Celtics. Chicago was swept in that series, but that performance lives on today more than anything else about that season.
The last two Lakers teams are worse than MJ’s Wizards teams
Fiction. Los Angeles finished 42-30 in 2020-21, a season that was cut short 10 games because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lakers have a .480 winning percentage in those two seasons, which is higher than the Wizards’ two-year winning percentage of .451.
Los Angeles won a Play-In Tournament game against Golden State last season before losing to Phoenix in the first round. Despite this year’s collapse, the Lakers have a better record in that two-year stretch.
Still, this is a bad vs. worse argument.
The Wizards never made the NBA Playoffs with MJ
Fact. There’s a catch when it applies to the comparison with the Lakers. Washington did not make the postseason in 2001-02 or 2002-03, but had the NBA held a Play-In Tournament back then as it does now, the Wizards would have made it both years. Washington would have played Toronto in 2002 and Orlando in 2003, and it would have had to face either Detroit or New Jersey in the first round if it advanced.
It’s tough to envision a scenario in which Washington makes a run in either one of those seasons.
LeBron’s stint with the Lakers is worse than MJ’s stint with the Wizards
Fiction. It’s an imperfect comparison that has too many variables. The Lakers won the NBA championship in 2020 in a COVID-19 shortened year in which James won the NBA Finals MVP award. He did that at 35 years old. It’s also worth noting that James is averaging 30.3 points per game this season and is in the hunt for the NBA scoring title at 37 years old.
Jordan was far removed from his prime at 37 years old before coming out of a three-year retirement to play with the Wizards. Jordan averaged 22.9 points per game in 2002 and 20.9 points in 2003.
It’s better to wait two years to see where James is (and where his game is) before even thinking about this comparison.
The 2021-22 Lakers would beat the 2002-03 Wizards
Fiction — because it’s hypothetical. We’ll never know, but this is the fun part of the argument.
A better question for the Lakers: Who is playing? At full strength, it would be hard to bet against a unit that features five future Hall of Famers at various points in their careers in James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. But as we now know, their group only looks good on paper.
Davis missed half the season. James has dealt with injuries. Anthony turns 38 in a month. Westbrook is the only Los Angeles player who has started in every game this season. The Lakers rank 24th in the NBA in offensive rating (109.6) and 22nd in defensive rating (112.8).
Jordan played all 82 games in 2003 as a 39-year-old player, and Jerry Stackhouse was the team’s leading scorer with 21.5 points per game. The rest of the supporting cast included James’ former running mate, Larry Hughes, and James’ former coach, Tyronn Lue, along with Christian Laettner and Brendan Haywood. Washington was only slightly better than Los Angeles in terms of its rankings for offensive and defensive rating.
Would James be the best player on the floor? At this point in his career, yes. Would Jordan take the matchup personally? Of course.
Who wins the game? These aren’t the teams that defined James’ and Jordan’s careers, so it doesn’t really matter.
The Lakers-Wizards comparison settles the MJ-LeBron debate
Fiction. When the MJ-LeBron debate fires up, the fans on both sides come armed like accountants with every possible number from both players’ careers. This chapter of their careers is not the crux of either argument, and it shouldn’t be.
Jordan’s time with the Wizards is a footnote in his career. It was barely touched on in “The Last Dance,” and it was more of a bonus to see Jordan play for two more seasons. Coach Doug Collins and Jordan left after the 2002-03 season, and Washington dropped to 25-57 the following season before a true rebuild around Gilbert Arenas took shape.
James’ contract with the Lakers runs through the 2022-23 season, and speculation has already begun around what could be the potential “Last Dance” for James and whether it will involve his son, Bronny, in some fashion. Frank Vogel will likely be out as head coach, and Los Angeles’ next set of moves will be a primary storyline of the offseason.
Will James be in a position to win a fifth or sixth NBA championship before he retires? Does that matter? At this point, most fans have already solidified their positions, no matter what happens next.
That’s been a fact for a long time.