Who's the greatest fantasy hoops legend among LeBron, MJ and Kobe?


LeBron James entered Wednesday's game with 32,280 career points, only 12 behind Michael Jordan for fourth on the all-time list, and passed him in the first half. Kobe Bryant is next up on that list at No. 3 with 33,643 career points. This historic time period gives us an excellent reason to compare three of the elite players in fantasy and NBA history.

As LeBron surpasses Jordan and sets his sights on Kobe on the scoring list, how does LeBron's career -- in fantasy and NBA -- stack up against against MJ and Kobe?

Career fantasy/box score contributions

There are a lot of interesting parallels between fantasy basketball and what most people think of when they hear "advanced stats."

The NBA's early steps into data ball involved composite stats like John Hollinger's player efficiency rating (PER), which combined contributions from box score stats (e.g., points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, turnovers, etc.) and shooting efficiency stats (e.g., FG%, FT%, 3FG%) to come up with a single figure to estimate how good a player is.

While PER is the most popular, there are many variants of this approach, including Kevin Pelton's wins above replacement player (WARP), Dave Berri's wins produced (WP) and several that are featured on Basketball-Reference, such as win shares (WS), box score plus-minus (BPM) and value over replacement player (VORP).

These same categories are used to score fantasy basketball as well, and though the calculations are different, one would generally expect PER and the points systems used in fantasy basketball to tell roughly similar stories.

Here is a quick look at how LeBron compares to MJ and Kobe over their careers in two of these measures.

Note: Kobe has played the most regular-season minutes of the three and the second-most playoff minutes, and Jordan played the least amount of minutes in both time periods.

Second note: PER is a per-possession stat, which means longevity doesn't factor in, while win shares (WS) is an additive stat, which means that longevity improves the score.

With those things said, it is clear that LeBron and Jordan are far ahead of Kobe in composite box score stats and arguably fantasy basketball value for their careers. Jordan and LeBron are competitive in per-possession stats, whereas LeBron's longevity gives him the edge in progressive stats.

This story matches completely with what Pelton wrote when comparing LeBron and Jordan this summer: The comparison is very close, but LeBron wins when longevity is factored.

It should also be noted the same relationships exist in the playoffs as in the regular season, which debunks any hot take that Jordan distances himself from LeBron and/or that Kobe could close the gap on them based on postseason play.

Single-season fantasy/box score contributions

Of course, those aforementioned stats refer to career values, while fantasy basketball is played one season at a time. Let's pin it down to single seasons, two for each player: their best statistical season and their best championship campaign during their late-prime years.

All three had their best statistical seasons during campaigns earlier in their careers when they didn't have the greatest supporting casts. Then, on the flip side, all three won championships in Years 12 or 13 of their respective careers, when they had more help carrying the load.

Let's pin down their box score contributions in each of those two single-season situations, again in both the regular season and the playoffs (standard fantasy basketball leagues don't use the NBA postseason, but it is still useful to evaluate how these players performed during the postseason), and calculate their fantasy points (FP) using ESPN Fantasy's standard scoring system:

As expected, the single-season fantasy points reflect what we saw in the career box score advanced stats comparison: The fantasy scores roughly tracked via a composite metric like PER, with Jordan and LeBron putting up the best marks and Kobe a ways back.

Interestingly, for these chosen seasons, Jordan had the best regular-season fantasy points, but it was LeBron who put up the best fantasy scores in the playoffs.

As a bottom line, for their given eras, prime Jordan and prime LeBron were both consistently the No. 1 overall fantasy prospect in a given season, and Kobe was generally more in the top 4-8 range per season. And if all three were in the same draft, the battle for top pick would come down to a razor-thin margin between LeBron and Jordan that could vary, based on things like position eligibility and position scarcity in a given season. And again Kobe would be several picks down the list.

Winning NBA championships: the plus-minus story

When it comes down to determining who was really the best player, most people want to move beyond fantasy basketball and the so-called advanced box score stats. Players can put up empty numbers to manipulate the box scores, stat padding on poor teams or unimportant situations. Plus, the math manipulation of the raw box score stats to produce the composites is often impenetrable and nonintuitive.

Thus, my favorite metrics for comparing players are the so-called impact stats that were developed entirely to quantify how much an individual contributes to winning.

Raw plus-minus is, at base, a measure of how the team does when a player is on the court. By also measuring the plus-minus of the team with the player off the court, a raw estimate of the player's value can start to be formed. From there, if the lineup data is available, one can do math called regressions to better isolate the individual player's impact from his teammates and opponents, factoring in elements like playoffs and crunch time to really dig into a player's actual value toward winning an NBA game.

Unlike the box score stats, plus-minus stats result in tangible estimates of individual impact on winning.

Sign me up.

The real-plus-minus (RPM) stat on ESPN is a state-of-the-art plus-minus metric that uses regression across thousands of different lineups in the NBA in a given season to estimate how much each individual player in the league contributed to changes in their team's scoring margins. Unfortunately for this comparison, RPM data is available dating only to 2000, so it misses Jordan's entire Chicago Bulls career.

Thankfully, due to Philadelphia 76ers statistician Harvey Pollack and NBA.com, we do have raw plus-minus numbers for the NBA regular season starting with the 1993-94 season and for the playoffs starting with the 1996-97 season. This is a rougher, noisier impact approach, but it does tell a good bit of the story. And since this time window captures the post-baseball part of Jordan's career, which includes two MVPs and three championship rings, it allows our comp to continue.

Let's compare the regular season and playoffs on-court/off-court plus-minus scores for Jordan from 1996-97 through 1997-98 (no playoff plus-minus for 1995-96), Kobe from 2008-09 through 2009-10, and LeBron from 2015-16 through 2016-17. All three windows capture these players during their early 30s, playing at an MVP level while leading their respective teams to NBA finals appearances in both seasons:

LeBron measured out with the highest on-court/off-court plus-minus during these two campaigns, for both the regular season and the playoffs. During the regular season, the Cavaliers were 16.8 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to on the bench. In the playoffs, that number went up to 25.7 points better per 100 possessions.

While Jordan's regular season on/off plus-minus score was lower than Kobe's during the seasons considered, there is some context to consider:

  • During the 1995-96 season, Jordan's regular season on/off plus-minus was plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions, with a mark of plus-16.7 on-court and plus-1.5 with Jordan on the bench. That differential of plus-15.2 for Jordan was higher than any mark in Kobe's career (Kobe's career best was plus-12.5 in 2005-06).

  • The Bulls were 20.1 points better per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court than off during the 1997 and 1998 playoffs. While postseason on/off plus-minus can be strongly influenced by the small "off-court" time periods of star players, it should be noted that during the 22 seasons of playoff plus-minus data that is publicly available, the only players to produce multiyear playoff on/off plus-minus scores of at least 20.0 points per 100 possessions during multiseason samples including a championship are :Tim Duncan (2001-03), Shaquille O'Neal (2000-04), Kevin Garnett (2002-08) and LeBron James, twice (2007-10, 2016-17)

Thus, Jordan's two-year playoff plus-minus run during the last two postseasons of his career already measure out as mega-elite, with a reasonable likelihood that during his prime seasons, Jordan was probably performing even better. Kobe's single-playoff career-best in this measure is "only" 14.2 during at least a conference finals run, back in 2001.

So who's the best among LeBron, MJ and Kobe?

LeBron James and Michael Jordan have statistical footprints that are very comparable across their careers to date, with each having some small advantages and disadvantages against the other.

Whether starting a fantasy squad or an NBA team, LeBron vs. MJ would be a very difficult decision. Both distance themselves against the Black Mamba. And neither of the two legends would have been any more likely to lead this season's Lakers to the playoffs than King James has been able to do.

Put it together, and on this historic night when LeBron passed MJ and got one step closer to Kobe on the all-time scoring list, LeBron can still hold his head high with respect to the two legendary wings against whom he is most often compared.