There’s this great advanced basketball stat called VORP. It stands for “Value over Replacement Player.”
In the description provided by basketball-reference.com, it claims to compute “a box-score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed over a replacement level player translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.”
If your VORP is 10, it means in a world in which you share the same average teammates as everybody else, you’e making a 10-point difference for your team every game. And, by the way, a 10 VORP would lead the NBA in all but 10 seasons since it could be computed
Not enough other stats were available prior to 1973-74, but they have been since and VORP’s leaders, annual and retroactive, are a roll call of all-timers.
We can’t know who would have led VORP from 1969-70 to 1972-73, but good chance it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because he led it the next seven seasons, from 1973-74 to 1979-80, averaging a 7.7 VORP over those seasons in which he also cumulatively averaged 26.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, won two NBA championships and four MVPs.
He led the league in VORP four times, consecutively, from 1982-83 to 1985-86, averaging 7.8 over those seasons. Funny, but Bird turned in an 8.6 VORP in 1986-87 and an 8.1 VORP in 1987-88, yet failed to lead the league either time.
Magic led the league in VORP one time, 1981-82, at 7.0, yet he was more impactful for three straight seasons beginning in 1989-90, when his figures were 8.3, 8.9 and 8.1.
Led VORP twice, at 7.1 in 1997-98 and, somehow, at 4.0 the next season. Two other times he cracked 7 but never 8.
Never led the league, cracked 7 twice, never 8.
Led in 1999-2000 at 9.0, higher figure Bird or Magic ever attained and Kareem only once, yet only two other seasons cracked 7.
Never lead the league, reached 8.0 in 2005-06 and, otherwise, never cracked 7.
You can see where we're going.
If you’re buying all this and willing not to argue for Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson or George Mikan as the greatest of all time, then VORP must have something to say about Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
We'll get there.
If our GOAT debate is them — Michael and LeBron — though it will be about more than numbers, titles and MVPs, here’s the thumbnail resumé for each, VORP free.
Throw out Jordan’s two seasons with the Wizards and you’re left with a 930-game regular-season career in which he averaged 31.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists, shot 50.5%, 33.2% from 3 and 83.8% from the foul line. Over 179 playoff games, those same figures figures were 33.4, 6.4, 5.7 and 48.7%, 33.2%, 82.8%.
Jordan went to the finals six times, won six NBA titles, earned Finals MVP six times and league MVP five times.
Throw out James’ first three regular seasons to begin counting his campaigns at the same point in his basketball life we're counting Jordan’s — because Jordan spent three seasons at North Carolina and James hit the league straight from high school — and here’s what you get.
In 1,027 regular-season games, LeBron averaged 27.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists, shooting 51.5%, 34.7% from 3 and 73.2% from the foul line. In 152 playoff games, he’s averaged 28.8, 9.0, 7.2 and shot 49.6%, 33.5%, 74.1%.
James has been to the Finals 10 times, won four championships, been Finals MVP four times and league MVP four times.
You can make a great case for LeBron: he’s the more complete player, the better teammate, his points, rebounds and assists, together, compare favorably to Michael’s points, rebounds and assists.
He’s taken teams to the Finals that should have gotten there and team’s that shouldn’t have.
If you watched them both, your heart may be with Jordan, but the data says James.
LeBron’s also played longer, his prime has lasted longer, he’s just done more.
What about VORP?
From 2005-06 to 2012-13, eight seasons, LeBron led the league every season, averaging 9.3, a taller figure than all those guys mentioned before. In the fourth of those eight seasons, it was an insane 11.8.
Michael’s last nine full-seasons before his first retirement, 1986-87 to 1996-97, minus two years he tried to be a baseball player, he led the league every season, averaging 10.4 over those seasons. In the second of those seasons, it was 12.5, the only figure ever higher than LeBron’s in 2008-09.
Jordan and James actually occupy eight of the top 10 VORP seasons in NBA history. Jordan has six, James two and David Robinson and Julius Erving one.
None of that makes Michael greater than LeBron, but if you were looking for statistical back-up, now you’ve got some.
In their absolute prime, one number that’s supposed to take into account every number, says Jordan’s impact reigned greater than everybody else's.
The greater truth, of course, is who you choose says more about you than them.
I can accept LeBron’s career as greater, bigger, even carrying more impact in more ways than Michael’s.
Also, if any of Jordan’s championship teams were to meet any of James’ and get to Game 7, I’ll take Jordan's team every time to the end of time.
That’s my metric. It doesn’t have to be yours and neither of ours has to be VORP.
But VORP’s cool, right?
I mean, it’s outstanding.