With the Cleveland Cavaliers one win away from locking up their 2017 NBA Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors, and with those Finals not slated to start until June 1, we're going to spend a lot of time over the next week talking about Michael Jordan.
That's fine! We're all adults here. We can discuss how LeBron stacks up against the Greatest of All Time like reasonable people — and that conversation starts with their postseason competition.
People have been throwing around takes on LeBron's dominance of the Eastern Conference and Jordan's relatively easy Finals matchups lately, but we've yet to see a year-by-year, series-by-series breakdown of each superstar's postseason history.
For the sake of this exercise, we went through Jordan's last 12 playoff runs, compared them to LeBron's 12 trips to the playoffs, year-by-year, and picked a winner for who faced tougher playoff competition in Playoff Year One, Year Two, and so on.
For a truer comparison, we excluded Jordan's rookie season — when the Bulls made it to the playoffs and were quickly eliminated by the Celtics — in order to compare 12 years to 12 years, and to account for LeBron entering the league as an 18-year-old, relative to the 21-year-old rookie Jordan.
Our conclusion? While LeBron has a long way to go before he's done, he has indeed faced a tougher road through the playoffs than Jordan did, even as he's fought through such a weak Eastern Conference.
However, the margin is razor-thin, with LeBron claiming the "advantage" of playing tougher opponents in seven of the 12 years.
The discussion runs much deeper than that, of course, and we'll get to our larger conclusion — right after we go through each year-by-year comparison.
(If you just want to read the conclusion, scroll to the bottom.)
L-R: Andrew D. Bernstein & Rocky Widner/NBAEL-R: Andrew D. Bernstein & Rocky Widner/NBAE
Playoff year No. 1 (Jordan: 1986; James: 2006)
Jordan's opponents: Boston Celtics (67-15)
James' opponents: Washington Wizards (42-40), Detroit Pistons (64-18)
Although Jordan was eliminated in the first round for the first three years of his career, going up against theCeltics led by Larry Bird was undoubtedly a tougher task than LeBron James' inaugural romp through the Wizards and eventual playoff exit at the hands of the Pistons.
NBAE/Getty ImagesDick Raphael
Playoff year No. 2 (Jordan: 1987; James: 2007)
Jordan's opponents: Boston Celtics (59-23)
James' opponents: Washington Wizards (41-41), New Jersey Nets (41-41), Detroit Pistons (53-29), San Antonio Spurs (58-24)
1987 was the last year the Celtics made the NBA Finals in the Larry Bird era, with the Hick from French Lick battling problems from a 1985 back injury suffered while shoveling his driveway.
So while Boston was still a formidable squad, LeBron takes Year No. 2 by virtue of leading an overmatched Cleveland team to the NBA Finals.
Playoff year No. 3 (Jordan: 1988; James: 2008)
Jordan's opponents: Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40), Detroit Pistons (54-28)
James' opponents: Washington Wizards (43-39), Boston Celtics (66-16)
Year No. 3 is an easy comparison between the two — a first-round defeat of a less-talented foe, followed by a second-round defeat by a team that would haunt each player in the early going of their careers.
Playoff year No. 4 (Jordan: 1989; James: 2009)
Jordan's opponents: Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25), New York Knicks (52-30), Detroit Pistons (63-19)
James' opponents: Detroit Pistons (39-43), Atlanta Hawks (47-35), Orlando Magic (59-23)
Jordan faced Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, among others, in year four of this exercise, while LeBron only had to deal with Dwight Howard.
Playoff year No. 5 (Jordan: 1990; James: 2010)
Jordan's opponents: Milwaukee Bucks (44-38), Philadelphia 76ers (53-29), Detroit Pistons (59-23)
James' opponents: Chicago Bulls (41-41), Boston Celtics (50-32)
That 2010 Bulls team was better than its record indicated, and the 2010 Celtics made the Finals, but His Airness gets a close win in Year 5 thanks to his bouts with Charles Barkley's Sixers and his final defeat at the hands of the Bad Boy Pistons.
Playoff year No. 6 (Jordan: 1991; James: 2011)
Jordan's opponents: New York Knicks (39-43), Philadelphia 76ers (44-38), Detroit Pistons (50-32), Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)
James' opponents: Philadelphia 76ers (41-41), Boston Celtics (56-26), Chicago Bulls (62-20), Dallas Mavericks (57-25)
Ignore the fact that LeBron lost to the Mavericks in the Finals, which is irrelevant for our purposes here. The King's first Heat team faced better teams across the board in the 2011 playoffs than the Bulls did in 1991.
Now, you might point to Chicago's series against the Lakers as an argument in Jordan's favor, but that Los Angeles team featured Vlade Divac as its third-best player.
Were the Lakers better than the '11 Mavs? Probably, sure. They had Magic Johnson, after all.
The difference isn't enough to tip year six to Jordan, though.
Jerome MironJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Playoff year No. 7 (Jordan: 1992; James: 2012)
Jordan's opponents: Miami Heat (38-44), New York Knicks (51-31), Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25), Portland Trail Blazers (57-25)
James' opponents: New York Knicks (36-30), Indiana Pacers (42-24), Boston Celtics (39-27), Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19)
Don't let the oddly low win totals for LeBron's opponents confuse you. Remember, this was the year of the lockout, meaning that Knicks team played at a 45-win pace, the Pacers at 52 wins, and the Thunder would have won 58 games in an 82-game season.
Meanwhile, Jordan waltzed through the Eastern Conference, only needing to vanquish Patrick Ewing to earn a leisurely championship victory over Clyde Drexler's Blazers.
Playoff year No. 8 (Jordan: 1993; James: 2013)
Jordan's opponents: Atlanta Hawks (43-39), Cleveland Cavaliers (54-28), New York Knicks (60-22), Phoenix Suns (62-20)
James' opponents: Milwaukee Bucks (38-44), Chicago Bulls (45-37), Indiana Pacers (49-32), San Antonio Spurs (58-24)
2013 was the year we started to feel the full force of LeBron's dominance of the Eastern Conference. Free agents started heading west, and the playoff field was far worse for their decisions.
Playoff year No. 9 (Jordan: 1995; James: 2014)
Jordan's opponents: Charlotte Hornets (50-32), Orlando Magic (57-25)
James' opponents: Charlotte Hornets (43-39), Brooklyn Nets (44-38), Indiana Pacers (56-26), San Antonio Spurs (62-20)
Jordan had to shake off the post-retirement rust in 1995, so he didn't get to square off with Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets.
LeBron, meanwhile, lost in the Finals to a Spurs team that played some of the greatest basketball we've ever seen in a best-of-seven series.
Playoff year No. 10 (Jordan: 1996; James: 2015)
Jordan's opponents: Miami Heat (42-40), New York Knicks (47-35), Orlando Magic (60-22), Seattle Sonics (64-18)
James' opponents: Boston Celtics (40-42), Chicago Bulls (50-32), Atlanta Hawks (60-22), Golden State Warriors (67-15)
From Alonzo Mourning to Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, and the dynamic duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, the '96 Bulls had to tear through a gauntlet of mid-90s legends to cap their historic 72-10 season.
LeBron, on the other hand, didn't break a sweat until a Finals series in which the Cavs were missing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Playoff year No. 11 (Jordan: 1997; James: 2016)
Jordan's opponents: Washington Bullets (44-30), Atlanta Hawks (56-26), Miami Heat (61-21), Utah Jazz (64-18)
James' opponents: Detroit Pistons (44-38), Atlanta Hawks (48-34), Toronto Raptors (56-26), Golden State Warriors (73-19)
Year 11 offered weak competition for both LeBron and Jordan prior to the Finals, with Jordan holding a slight edge in the second and third rounds. Yet as good as the Jazz were in the late-90s, taking on the best regular-season team in NBA history means this year goes to LeBron.
As for those 73-19 Warriors? We'll touch on how they impact this discussion in our conclusion.
Playoff year No. 12 (Jordan: 1998; James: 2017)
Jordan's opponents: New Jersey Nets (4-39), Charlotte Hornets (51-31), Indiana Pacers (58-24), Utah Jazz (62-20)
James' opponents: Indiana Pacers (42-40), Toronto Raptors (51-31), Boston Celtics (53-29), Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Neither Jordan nor LeBron faced particularly tough competition in the Eastern Conference in Year 12, with The King claiming this one on the strength of the Warriors team he's one game away from facing in the NBA Finals.
The bottom line
Here's the final tally: Jordan had the harder road through the postseason five times (Years 1, 4, 5, 8, and 10), while LeBron faced tougher competition (Years 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 11, and 12) in seven postseasons.
The fact that these two are neck-and-neck is fitting — and offers a reasonable, nuanced answer to the question of whether LeBron or Jordan faced tougher playoff competition in their careers:
Jordan consistently had a tougher time through the first three rounds of the playoffs, which makes sense. There were fewer teams in the NBA during his time, so all of the talent in the Association was more tightly distributed than it is in 2017.
But LeBron undoubtedly went up against better opponents in the Finals because he plays in the age of player movement and superteams.
Although His Airness had fewer cakewalks before the Finals, his hardest work was over by the time he was playing for a ring each year — while LeBron was just getting started.
Indeed, if you stack up all 13 teams these two faced in the NBA Finals, six of the top eight would be LeBron opponents, including the top four (the 2017 Warriors, 2016 Warriors, 2014 Spurs, and 2012 Thunder).
Only the 1993 Suns and 1996 Sonics can hold a candle to any of LeBron's foes — and those are the two series that gave Jordan the most trouble in his career.
So even if you want to give MJ the edge in a couple of those close postseason comparisons, or even if you believe he faced tougher superstars, this argument boils down to the level of competition in the Finals, where LeBron wins.
On some level, His Airness would have to appreciate that.