David Butler II-USA TODAY Sport. Pictured: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James
- With LeBron James back in the Finals, the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron debate is raging once again.
- Jordan clearly has the edge in championships.
- But ATS results declare one clear winner when it comes to playoff betting value.
Who is better, LeBron James or Michael Jordan? With James headed to his eighth straight NBA Finals, the debate has resumed. Arguments can be made for both players, but the conversation ultimately turns to rings.
MJ was a perfect 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while LeBron is 3-5. With the Cavaliers historic underdogs to the Golden State Warriors, it is likely King James will have as many Finals losses as Jordan has championships.
It is hard to argue against titles, and those six rings are the trump card for Jordan. But in the Jordan vs. LeBron argument, who was more profitable for bettors? As gamblers we don’t care who wins, rather who covers the number.
Jordan has the rings — was he also a better bet than LeBron?
We don’t have against-the-spread (ATS) records for all of Jordan’s postseason games. So, to get an apples-to-apples comparison, I pulled the results for MJ’s playoff games from the 1990-91 to 1997-98 seasons and compared them LeBron from 2011-12 to 2017-18. This gives us a seven-year sample size — remember Jordan spent 1993-94 playing baseball — starting with each player’s first championship run.
According to Bet Labs, LeBron has played 143 playoff games from 2012-2018. Over that span, LeBron’s teams have gone 100-43 (69.9%) straight-up and an impressive 79-63-1 (55.6%) ATS record.
During Jordan’s three-peats, the Bulls amassed a 95-31 (75.4%) record. Considering the number of championships Jordan won from 1991-98, you’d expect his straight-up record to be better than LeBron’s. Surprisingly, his ATS record did not keep pace. From 1991 to 1998, MJ went 67-58-1 (53.6%) ATS in the playoffs via Covers.com.
Where LeBron really begins to separate himself from Jordan is as a favorite in the postseason. Since 2012, James is 65-43-1 (60.2%) ATS as the chalk. Jordan was below .500 (48-50-1 ATS).
It is important to note that on average, Jordan was favored by 5.9 points in the playoffs from 1991-98. LeBron was favored by 3.8 points from 2011-18. Thus, it would make sense that LeBron has the better ATS record since he did not have to cover as big of a number. But that doesn’t explain away a losing record as a favorite for Jordan compared to covering more than 60% of the time as chalk like LeBron has done.
Who is the greatest of all-time? That debate will never end. Jordan has the rings but His Airness can’t beat LeBron in the one category most important to bettors — cashing tickets.
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