Fitting that, on the anniversary of what was the greatest playoff performance of his career, Lakers star LeBron James is being recognized for something else: having been the top player in more playoff series than anyone in NBA history.
According to research by Hoopshype.com, in 45 playoff series in his career, James has had the highest Game Score of any player in that series 38 times. Michael Jordan is second, at 35 series.
Game Score is a measure of a player’s in-game productivity, taking into account (with weighted importance) points scored, shooting accuracy, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, fouls and turnovers. According to a Thunder Stat Lab explainer, “A Game Score of 40 would indicate that the player had a fantastic game, while a Game Score of 10 would reflect an average performance by a player.”
Jordan had Game Scores of 40-plus seven times in his career. James has done it six times.
Both Michael Jordan & LeBron James Were Better in Playoffs
But Hoopshype was measuring the sheer number of playoff series in which James was the best player on the floor. He leads in that category. Jordan, though, has a higher percentage of series in which he was the best player. James was the best player in 84% of the series he has played in. For Jordan, it is 95%.
Only twice in his postseason career was Jordan not the best player on the floor for a series, according to Game Score measurement.
James and Jordan do have something in common when it comes to their approach in the playoffs: Both got more productive even as most of their teammates dropped off. Players tend to see their numbers dip as postseason action slows down and becomes more defensive-minded. That was not the case for Jordan and is not the case for James.
Jordan averaged 30.1 points (with 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists) in the regular season but bumped up to 33.4 points in the playoffs (with 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists).
James goes from 27.1 points (with 7.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists) in the season to 28.9 points (with 8.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists) in the playoffs.
James & Jordan Way Ahead of Rest of NBA
Probably the most remarkable aspect of the Hoopshype research was how far ahead of the rest of the pack Jordan and James are when it comes to being the best player on the floor in a postseason series—though it should be noted that the Game Score measurements only go back to the 1983-84 season.
But since that time, tied for third on the list are Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, who were the best player in 19 postseason series.
Karl Malone had the highest Game Score in 18 series. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, surprisingly, ranks only tied for ninth, with Boston’s Larry Bird.
The postseason remains one of the distinguishing factors between Jordan and James in their all-time comparisons. As much success as James has had, Jordan is better remembered for his ruthless mindset and ability to knock out an opponent almost singlehandedly.
Denver coach Michael Malone, who was an assistant with the Cavaliers when James was playing in Cleveland early in his career, said back in April that was a key distinction between the two. As Malone put it:
I coached LeBron James for five years and have a great relationship with him. LeBron did not have the same mindset or killer mentality that Michael Jordan is supposed to have had. But LeBron James is arguably the greatest of all time as well. Michael Jordan was not just a great player. He would reach into your chest and pull your heart out if he had to win a game. You don’t see that really often. He had that killer mindset and brought it every single night. That’s why all of these many years later, he’s the greatest of all time.