As if the GOAT debate hasn’t been beaten into the ground already, we’re going to put a new spin on the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James discourse today by comparing them head to head for each year of their careers, from age 19 through age 39.

Everybody feel free to cherry-pick the outcome you like the most for use in your GOAT debates, which can be found on the final slide.

Ready to dive into the legendary careers of Jordan and LeBron, year by year? Let’s get started.

Age 19

HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images

HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images

MJ college stats: 20.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.8 bpg, 53.5 FG%, 73.7 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.7 bpg, 41.7 FG%, 29.0 3PT%, 75.4 FT%

MJ accolades: Sporting News National Player of the Year, 1st Team Consensus All-American, Pan American Games gold medal
LeBron accolades:
 Rookie of the Year, 9th in MVP voting, Olympic bronze medal

Fresh off a national championship, Jordan averaged 20 points per game his sophomore season at UNC-Chapel Hill, his best average in college and no easy feat considering the lack of a three-point line in NCAA competition at the time and the snail-slow pace of the college game (the 45-second shot clock in NCAA wouldn’t arrive until 1985-86). Regardless, at that point, James was already Rookie of the Year in a stacked class that featured Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, two other all-timers, and already receiving MVP votes.

James would miss the playoffs that season through no fault of his own, as the Cleveland Cavaliers went 35-47 in 2003-04 to miss the postseason by just one game as they finished ninth in the East that year.

Jordan’s North Carolina team, meanwhile, made it to the Elite Eight but with James Worthy departed, lacked the firepower outside of Jordan and Sam Perkins to repeat as national champions.

Jordan was one of the best NCAA players around in his age-19 campaign but James was already producing at a very high level in the NBA. Could Jordan have had a similarly good rookie season when he was 19 to James? Impossible to know but we have to go with the facts here – James was already doing it at the highest level, winning Rookie of the Year and nearly leading a team to the playoffs – leaving us with an obvious choice.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 20

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
MJ junior year college stats: 19.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.1 bpg, 55.1 FG%, 77.9 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.2 spg, 0.7 bpg, 47.2 FG%, 35.1 3PT%, 75.0 FT%

MJ accolades: National College Player of the Year, Sporting News National Player of the Year, 1st Team Consensus All-American, Olympic gold medal
LeBron accolades:
 2nd Team All-NBA, All-Star, 6th in MVP voting, 6th in Most Improved Player voting

In his junior season at North Carolina, Jordan put up similar numbers to his sophomore season but his Tar Heels were upset in the Sweet 16 of that year’s NCAA Tournament by Indiana despite having Jordan, Perkins, Brad Daugherty and a freshman year Kenny Smith on the roster.

1983-84, Jordan’s age-20 campaign, also saw him suit up for Team USA at the Olympic Games, leading the team in scoring at 17.1 points per contest as he helped the Americans secure the gold medal in men’s basketball. Jordan was so dominant in Olympic trials that legendary NCAA coach Bob Knight, who coached Team USA that year, told then-Portland Trail Blazers general manager Stu Inman, whose team had the No. 2 pick in the 1984 draft, to just draft Jordan and play him at center if he wanted a big man that badly.

Still, James was already an All-Star and earned All-NBA 2nd Team honors in his age-20 season. James made a leap to the point that he put up a stat line eerily similar to his career averages, though not yet as efficient as he’d be later on. James’ Cavaliers missed the playoffs again that season despite having the same record as the eighth seed due to a tie-breaker but again, how can you remotely blame the guy putting up 27/7/7 with two steals per game for that?

Once again, we don’t know how Jordan would have done in the NBA had he been thrust into the league as a 20-year-old (he probably would have done all right, truth be told) so we have to go with what actually happened, and that was James already being a proven superstar in the NBA by Year 2.

So once again…

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 21

LeBron James 2006

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 28.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 0.8 bpg, 51.5 FG%, 17.3 3PT%, 84.5 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 31.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.8 bpg, 48.0 FG%, 33.5 3PT%, 73.8 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 29.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 8.5 apg, 2.8 spg, 1.0 bpg, 43.6 FG%, 12.5 3PT%, 82.8 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 30.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.7 bpg, 47.6 FG%, 33.3 3PT%, 73.7 FT%

MJ accolades: 2nd Team All-NBA, All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 6th in MVP voting
LeBron accolades:
 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star MVP, 2nd in MVP voting, World Cup bronze medal

Jordan came out absolutely firing as an NBA player, averaging 28/6/6 as a rookie with over two steals nightly, even managing to up those averages in his first taste of the playoffs. James’ age-21 season was also his first time in the playoffs as his Cavaliers’ got to Game 7 of the second round, taking an experienced former champion Detroit Pistons team to the brink of elimination. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were defeated 3-1 in the first round by a strong Milwaukee Bucks team in the 1985 playoffs.

James was already statistically the best player in the NBA in his age-21 campaign, averaging a career-high 31.4 points, a mark that came at a time when teams averaged roughly 97 points per contest. James finished second in MVP voting that year behind a veteran Steve Nash, a decision that was not super controversial at the time but would have had Twitter up in arms these days if you just look at the two players’ respective numbers (Nash averaged 18.8 points and a league-leading 10.5 assists in 2005-06).

Jordan came out blazing as an NBA player but James, armed with two years of top-level experience by that point, was perhaps the best player in the league in his age-21 season, coming very close to winning MVP and reaching the Conference Finals, hence…

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 22

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 22.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.2 bpg, 45.7 FG%, 16.7 3PT%, 84.0 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.7 bpg, 47.6 FG%, 31.9 3PT%, 69.8 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 43.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.7 apg, 2.3 spg, 1.3 bpg, 50.5 FG%, 100.0 3PT%, 87.2 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 25.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.5 bpg, 41.6 FG%, 28.0 FT%, 75.5 FT%

MJ accolades: All-Star
LeBron accolades:
 2nd Team All-NBA, All-Star, 5th in MVP voting, FIBA Americas gold medal

This is one of the easier decisions on this list, as Jordan broke his foot early in the season, just two-plus games in, to be exact, while James, on the other hand, made a Finals run.

By his illustrious standards, James had one of his least efficient years ever as a 22-year-old, putting up the second-worst true shooting percentage (factors in field goal, free throw and three-point percentage) of his career at 55.2 percent. Regardless, James was just so athletically dominant that it didn’t matter, as he led Cleveland on a surprising run to the Finals, one that did end with a sweep at the hands of the dynasty San Antonio Spurs at the peak of their powers.

Impossible to blame James for that, however, considering the second- and third-leading scorers on that Cavs team were Larry Hughes (14.9 points per game on 40.0 percent shooting) and Drew Gooden (11.1 points per game).

That year saw the first iconic playoff performance of James’ career when he scored 48 points, including the last 25 points of regulation and the two overtime periods for Cleveland in what was a 109-107 Game 5 win over the very talented and tough Pistons.

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The Cavs would end up winning that series in six games to reach the Finals.

Jordan, on the other hand, was swept in the playoffs, but it’s equally as hard to blame him for that considering his averages of 43.7 points on pristine shooting splits in the postseason that year. Oh, and he did that against the classic Boston Celtics dynasty team, still standing strong in 1985-86. Boston wound up winning the championship that year.

His age-22 season was also when we first saw the first glimpse of an iconic Jordan playoff performance when he scored 63 points on 53.7 percent shooting – on the road – in a Game 2 double-overtime loss for the Bulls against Boston. 63 points stands as the record to this day for a playoff single-game scoring total, by the way.

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NBA Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird described that Jordan performance as ‘God disguised as Michael Jordan.’

Nevertheless, Jordan played in just 18 regular-season games in his age-22 campaign while James was a 2nd Team All-NBAer and took his team to the Finals, so once again…

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 23

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 37.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.9 spg, 1.5 bpg, 48.2 FG%, 18.2 3PT%, 85.7 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 30.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.1 bpg, 48.4 FG%, 31.5 3PT%, 71.2 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 35.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg, 2.3 bpg, 41.7 FG%, 40.0 3PT%, 89.7 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 28.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.6 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.3 bpg, 41.1 FG%, 25.7 FT%, 73.1 FT%

MJ accolades: 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 2nd in MVP voting, 8th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star MVP, 4th in MVP voting, Olympic gold medal

Jordan took the momentum from his magnificent, albeit short-lived, 1986 playoff run into his age-23 campaign of 1986-87. That season saw His Airness win his first scoring title at 37.1 points per game, which remains the highest single-season scoring average since 1962-63, while averaging nearly three steals and one-and-a-half blocks per contest, to boot.

Jordan lost MVP to Magic Johnson that year anyway but you can make a good argument that he was the best player in the NBA already at this point, especially when you factor in defense.

The same claim can be made about age-23 James despite his finishing fourth in MVP voting that campaign. James led the Cavaliers to the second round of the playoffs that year and took the Big 3 Celtics, who won the championship that year, to seven games in a series that saw James put up 37.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists between Games 5 and 7 with the series on the line.

Even so, we’ll go with Jordan here because of those 37 points nightly –  without missing a single game all season. James averaging 30 points per game in a low-scoring era (unlike the ’80s) was no joke, though, and that, along with the fact that Jordan got swept out of the playoffs in the first round by Boston again in 1987 did give us some pause.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 24

USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 35.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 3.2 spg, 1.6 bpg, 53.5 FG%, 13.2 3PT%, 84.1 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 28.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.1 bpg, 48.9 FG%, 34.4 3PT%, 78.0 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 36.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 1.1 bpg, 53.1 FG%, 33.3 3PT%, 86.9 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 35.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 7.3 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.9 bpg, 51.0 FG%, 33.3 3PT%, 74.9 FT%

MJ accolades: MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, 1st Team All-Defense
LeBron accolades:
 MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Coincidentally, their age-24 seasons are when both Jordan and James won the first MVP awards of their careers. Leading the league in both nightly points and steals, however, Jordan also won Defensive Player of the Year that year, something James fell just short of doing. James finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year voting in his age-24 campaign behind a peak Dwight Howard, a defensive monster at the time.

Can an argument be made that late-80s Jordan was better than ’90s Jordan? Absolutely. Just look at the hell of a season he put together. Sure, sometimes Defensive Player of the Year votes were a bit questionable, with players who racked up steals and blocks winning the award without voters looking at true one-on-one defensive impact but even so, Jordan was an otherworldly defender in his prime. According to StatMuse, Jordan is one of just six guards ever to win the award.

Postseason-wise for both players, Jordan lost to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, but again, he was amazing in the second-round series, averaging 27.4 points 8.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists in a five-game defeat against a defense catered to stopping him. James, on the other hand, did get to the Conference Finals in his age-24 season but fell short of reaching the Finals for a second year in a row, losing to Howard and the Orlando Magic in six games despite James putting up 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists as the 66-16 Cavaliers were shockingly upset by Orlando.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 25

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg, 0.8 bpg, 53.8 FG%, 27.6 3PT%, 85.0 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.0 bpg, 50.3 FG%, 33.3 3PT%, 76.7 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 34.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.6 apg, 2.5 spg, 0.8 bpg, 51.0 FG%, 28.6 3PT%, 79.9 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 29.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 7.6 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.8 bpg, 50.2 FG%, 40.0 3PT%, 73.3 FT%

MJ accolades: 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd in MVP voting, 5th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 4th in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Unlike Jordan, James did repeat as MVP in his age-25 season, while the Bulls legend finished second in the voting (despite leading the scoring for a third straight season on 53.8 percent shooting) to Magic Johnson. Team record probably paid a part in that as the Bulls went 47-35 that season – Doug Collins’ final one as Bulls head coach – while Johnson’s Lakers went 55-27.

Even so, Jordan was a more all-around player in his age-25 campaign, putting up career-best marks of 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists to go with his league-leading 32.5 points nightly.

So even though James won MVP in his age-25 season while Jordan didn’t, we’re going to go with Jordan as the better player that age thanks to his better postseason play. Jordan took the Bulls to the Conference Finals that year (Chicago would once again lose to Detroit, this time in six games) while James, despite leading the Cavaliers on a 61-21 regular season, saw his postseason in the second round after a 4-2 series defeat to the Celtics, a surprise at the time as Cleveland was the favorite heading into the series and Boston appeared to be aging out of contention.

James got a lot of criticism at the time, too, as he didn’t exactly go down swinging, averaging just 21.3 points on 34.0 percent shooting (15.4 percent from three) in Games 4, 5 and 6 of the second-round defeat.

Of course, that wouldn’t be anything compared to the criticism he was about to get for the big offseason move that was coming.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 26

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 33.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.8 spg, 0.7 bpg, 52.6 FG%, 37.6 3PT%, 84.8 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 26.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 7.0 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.6 bpg, 51.0 FG%, 33.0 3PT%, 75.9 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 36.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.8 spg, 0.9 bpg, 51.4 FG%, 32.0 3PT%, 83.6 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 23.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.2 bpg, 46.6 FG%, 35.3 3PT%, 76.3 FT%

MJ accolades: 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 3rd in MVP voting, 5th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 3rd in MVP voting, 9th in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Of course, that James criticism in his age-26 season came when he decided to leave his hometown Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a move that was extremely unpopular at the time, and that’s putting it mildly.

James’ first Miami season was the nadir of his popularity with massive backlash following his departure from Cleveland, which even showed in the MVP race, where he finished behind Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in one of the most brutal MVP decisions of all time, though one that was somewhat understandable at the time, as Rose’s Bulls went 62-20 with the explosive Rose leading the way. James’ Heat, meanwhile, went 58-24 as the team took some time to gel together.

James even gave his haters their most precious gift, cherished in many social media battles to this day, laying an egg in the Finals vs. the Dallas Mavericks (James averaged 17.8 points that Finals series, which included an eight-point performance in a pivotal Game 4 – a three-point Heat loss – with Miami up two games to one in the series). Had Miami won that series and a championship in 2010-11, it was Wade who would have won Finals MVP, not James. That’s to say, James was not even the best player on his team in the series, which could never be uttered about Jordan in a playoff series with the Bulls.

Jordan had his own heartbreak moment in the postseason in his age-26 campaign, with Chicago losing to Detroit yet again in the Conference Finals in a seven-game battle but again, it’s tough to fault Jordan for that, who was a beast, putting up 32.1 points 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the series.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 27

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 31.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.7 spg, 1.0 bpg, 53.9 FG%, 31.2 3PT%, 85.1 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 27.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.8 bpg, 53.1 FG%, 36.2 3PT%, 77.1 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 31.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 8.4 apg, 2.4 spg, 1.4 bpg, 52.4 FG%, 38.5 3PT%, 84.5 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 30.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.7 bpg, 50.0 FG%, 25.9 3PT%, 73.9 FT%

MJ accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 7th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 4th in Defensive Player of the Year voting, Olympic gold medal

Coincidentally, not only did Jordan and James both win league MVP honors for the first time each in their age-24 season, but they likewise both won the first championships of their careers in their age-27 seasons. The two GOAT candidates were also in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year that season, making this a razor-close decision.

Ultimately, the advanced analytics rated age-27 Jordan higher than age-27 James, with the former Carolina Tar Heel producing 10.8 VORP and 20.3 Win Shares while having a +12.8 BPM compared to James’ 7.6 VORP, +10.9 BPM and 14.5 Win Shares.

As such, we gave the 1991 Finals MVP – who vanquished a lot of his former ghosts in Detroit and Los Angeles (Magic Johnson won a couple of MVP awards that probably should have gone to Jordan) on the way to the first title of his career – the nod here.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 28

Photo By USA TODAY Sports (c) Copyright 1992 USA TODAY Sports

Photo By USA TODAY Sports (c) Copyright 1992 USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 30.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 6.1 apg, 2.3 spg, 0.9 bpg, 51.9 FG%, 27.0 3PT%, 83.2 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 26.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.9 bpg, 56.5 FG%, 40.6 3PT%, 75.3 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 34.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.8 apg, 2.0 spg, 0.7 bpg, 49.9 FG%, 38.6 3PT%, 85.7 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 25.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.8 bpg, 49.1 FG%, 37.5 3PT%, 77.7 FT%

MJ accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 3rd in Defensive Player of the Year voting, Olympic gold medal, FIBA Americas gold medal
LeBron accolades:
 NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Leading the league in scoring for the sixth season in a row while also being a 1st Team All-Defender, Jordan was on top of the basketball world at this point in his prime, his age-28 season. Of course, so was James, as he likewise won the second championship of his career in his age-28 campaign like Jordan, though it took more effort from James, who faced a seven-game series in both the Conference Finals and Finals that year.

Jordan’s Bulls did get taken to seven games in the second round that year by the New York Knicks but were able to dispatch of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns in six games in the two championship series.

Another very tight call, we’re going to go with Jordan again here due to having a more dominant playoff run, with better scoring and shooting percentages in the postseason compared to James.

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Plus, James needed a miraculous bailout courtesy of legendary shooter Ray Allen to not lose in the Finals that year to the Spurs. James was magnificent multiple times in this playoff run but there’s no question Miami got a bit lucky to win Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 29

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 32.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.8 spg, 0.8 bpg, 49.5 FG%, 35.2 3PT%, 83.7 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 27.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.3 bpg, 56.7 FG%, 37.9 3PT%, 75.0 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 35.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.1 spg, 0.9 bpg, 47.5 FG%, 38.9 3PT%, 80.5 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 27.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.6 bpg, 56.5 FG%, 40.7 3PT%, 80.6 FT%

MJ accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 3rd in MVP voting, 2nd in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 NBA champion, Finals MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 2nd Team All-Defense, 2nd in MVP voting, 6th in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Both James and Jordan lost out on regular-season MVP honors in their age-29 seasons, with the former finishing second in the vote (behind Kevin Durant) and the latter finishing third (behind Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon). That’s despite Jordan leading the league in nightly scoring and nightly steals for the third time in his career and leading the Bulls to a 57-25 finish in the regular season.

Our decision here was made a bit easier by the fact that not only did Jordan outpace James in most of the major advanced metrics in their respective age-29 seasons (via StatHead, the top row is James, the bottom row is Jordan)…

…he was also able to lead the Bulls to their third championship in a row, the first of his two three-peats in Chicago.

James did lead the Heat back to the Finals as a 29-year-old but received little help in the championship series as Miami fell to San Antonio on its revenge tour four games to one.

Hence, we went with the player who won a championship, led the league in scoring and steals, and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in his age-29 season.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 30

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron regular season stats: 25.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 7.4 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.7 bpg, 48.8 FG%, 35.4 3PT%, 71.0 FT%

LeBron playoff stats: 30.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.5 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.1 bpg, 41.7 FG%, 22.7 3PT%, 73.1 FT%

LeBron accolades: 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 3rd in MVP voting, 13th in Defensive Player of the Year voting

Pretty easy one here as Jordan retired to play baseball, missing his entire age-30 campaign, while James finished third in MVP voting and led his team, his newly rejoined Cavaliers, back to the NBA Finals as James earned 1st Team All-NBA and All-Star honors. In the 2015 Finals, James and Co. fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games, though injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving did affect that series greatly.

It’s downright impossible to fault James for that defeat, as he averaged 35.8 points in the 2015 championship series to go with 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.3 steals while having Timofey Mozgov as his top scoring teammate.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 31

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 26.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.8 bpg, 41.1 FG%, 50.0 3PT%, 80.1 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 25.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.6 bpg, 52.0 FG%, 30.9 3PT%, 73.1 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 31.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.3 spg, 1.4 bpg, 48.4 FG%, 36.7 3PT%, 81.0 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 26.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 7.6 apg, 2.3 spg, 1.3 bpg, 52.5 FG%, 34.0 3PT%, 66.1 FT%

MJ accolades: 11th in MVP voting
LeBron accolades:
 NBA champion, Finals MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 3rd in MVP voting, 11th in Defensive Player of the Year voting

After winning the 2015 Finals behind the play of league MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors looked like the NBA’s next dynasty and a team surely prepared to repeat. Lest we forget Curry and Co. beat Jordan’s 1995-96 Bulls regular-season wins record by going 73-9 in 2015-16, James’ age-31 campaign.

Behind the brilliant play of James (and Irving) and thanks in part to an injury to key Golden State role player, starting center Andrew Bogut, and an ill-timed Game 5 suspension for Draymond Green with the Warriors up three games to one, the Cavaliers prevented Golden State from becoming the unquestioned greatest single-season team ever by winning the 2016 Finals in dramatic comeback fashion.

It would have taken a lot for even an in-basketball-shape Jordan to win the age-31 battle over James, with the Akron native’s back-to-back 41-point outings in Games 5 and 6 of the Finals as the championship hung in the balance and his clutch block in Game 7 to help win the title – on the road –  serving as some of his most iconic moments ever. James led both teams, Cleveland and Golden State, in every major statistical category – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – in the 2016 Finals, becoming the first player to ever pull that feat off in a championship NBA series.

Age-31 LeBron is one of the main reasons the GOAT debate is so hotly contested to this day.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s big 1994-95 comeback ended after 17 regular-season games and with an unceremonious second-round defeat to the Magic. A curiosity about his age-31 season: Jordan finished 11th in the MVP vote with 17 games played, ahead of Clyde Drexler, who played 76 games and ended up winning the title that season.

A lot of people blame Jordan’s rust on the Bulls’ quick playoff exit but truth be told, his playoff numbers very closely mirror his age-32 playoff stats, available in the next slide. Chicago’s roster just wasn’t as strong in 1994-95 (Horace Grant was gone and Dennis Rodman wouldn’t be picked up for another few weeks) and the Bulls weren’t as well-oiled of a machine as they would become over the next three seasons, considering how late in the campaign Jordan had returned.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 32

Age 33

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 29.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.5 bpg, 48.6 FG%, 37.4 3PT%, 83.3 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 27.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 9.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.9 bpg, 54.2 FG%, 36.7 3PT%, 73.1 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.9 bpg, 45.6 FG%, 19.4 3PT%, 83.1 FT%
LeBron playoff stats:
 34.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 9.0 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.0 bpg, 53.9 FG%, 34.2 3PT%, 74.6 FT%

MJ accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd in MVP voting, 5th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star MVP, 2nd in MVP voting

We’re going to be honest. It has gotten exhausting here to deliberate again on who was better. They were just so good.

On the one hand, you had Jordan winning the fifth championship of his career, finishing second in MVP voting, making 1st Team All-Defense and winning the ninth scoring title of his career.

On the other hand, you had James putting together arguably his best run of postseason play, putting up 34/9/9 in his age-33 postseason on nearly 54 percent shooting overall. The overall playoff stats look better for James, especially in efficiency, but let’s also put some context on the numbers: NBA basketball had in the late-90s had become an absolutely physical grind in which scoring didn’t come easy and shooting percentages were down.

As such, Jordan’s 31 points per game in the playoffs were quite impressive but they came on 45.6 percent and 19.4 percent accuracy from three. James, meanwhile, was at 34 points per game with a near triple-double average on 54 percent shooting in his last playoff run with the Cavaliers. Cleveland did get swept in the Finals that year but it went down against one of the best teams ever, the Durant-era Warriors, so it’s tough to fault James, who was brilliant in the Finals against an all-time squad, once again.

So even though Jordan did win a championship in his age-33 season while James was swept in the Finals, we’re going to give the Akron native the nod here.

One more note: James’ age-33 season is the only time he played in all 82 games of a regular season in his entire career. Jordan did that nine times in his career, including in his age-39 campaign, the final one of his career, with the Wizards.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 34

AP Photo/Fred Jewell

AP Photo/Fred Jewell
MJ regular season stats: 28.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.5 bpg, 46.5 FG%, 23.8 3PT%, 78.4 FT%

LeBron regular season stats: 27.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 8.3 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.6 bpg, 51.0 FG%, 33.9 3PT%, 66.5 FT%

MJ playoff stats: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.6 bpg, 46.2 FG%, 30.2 3PT%, 81.2 FT%

MJ accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star MVP, 1st Team All-Defense, 4th in Defensive Player of the Year voting
LeBron accolades:
 3rd Team All-NBA, All-Star, 11th in MVP voting

One of the few easy decisions on the list, Jordan completed his storybook Bulls run by earning league MVP honors, then winning the 1997-98 championship for his sixth ring, getting Finals MVP (he went six-for-six in Finals MVPs during all his championship runs, by the way), getting 1st Team All-NBA distinction, 1st Team All-Defense and hitting one of the most iconic shots in NBA history with his game-winner to seal Game 6 of the ’98 Finals.

It’s sort of a shame Jordan came back at all for his Washington Wizards stint because that only caused him to lose just a tiny bit of the incredible mystique he had created during his 13 seasons in Chicago. His career would have had the truly perfect ending in his age-34 campaign had he just stayed retired.

Either way, he wins the head-to-head age-34 battle against James, who, in 2018-19, was in his first season with the Lakers, one in which they missed the playoffs due to injuries and a lot of youth around the GOAT candidate. It can be said James more or less coasted and missed time when it was clear the Laker season was going nowhere.

Although James was in the running for MVP early in that campaign, things fell apart quickly for the Lakers, who went 37-45 that year and missed the playoffs with James playing in just 55 games, giving the age-34 showdown easily to Jordan.

Final verdict: Michael Jordan

Age 35

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron regular season stats: 25.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 10.2 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.5 bpg, 49.3 FG%, 34.8 3PT%, 69.3 FT%

LeBron playoff stats: 27.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 8.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.9 bpg, 56.0 FG%, 37.0 3PT%, 72.0 FT%

LeBron accolades: NBA champion, Finals MVP, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star, 2nd in MVP voting

With Jordan fully retired in his age-35 season, this one obviously goes to James, who won the fourth championship of his career and Finals MVP in his age-35 campaign, which culminated in the Orlando Bubble due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many could point to the 2019-20 Lakers being one of the worst champions of the century with almost an easier path to the title than pretty much anybody else, but the Lakers (and James) will take it. Some like to argue that bubble basketball was even tougher than normal NBA competition due to it being “pure hoops” (whatever that means) but there’s no doubt there was a huge rest advantage for especially the older players in the bubble (like James) and not having to play any road games certainly changed the dynamic for 2020 more than any other NBA title run in history.

According to our own research, the Lakers’ 2019-20 run was the second-easiest of the 2000s based on opponent win percentage (coincidentally, James’ 2012-13 championship run with the Heat was the third-easiest of the 2000s by the same barometer), with only the 2022-23 Nuggets having an easier path to the championship based on opponent win percentage. Take that for what it’s worth.

Was James even the best playoff player for L.A. that year? You can certainly make an argument in that regard for his star teammate Anthony Davis, who was brilliant in the 2020 playoffs.

Also interesting is the fact that even if Jordan hadn’t been retired for his age-35 season, he might have seen a drop-off in play – if he was even able to play at all in 1998-99 – due to a severe finger injury he suffered… while trying to cut a cigar.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 36

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron regular season stats: 25.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.6 bpg, 51.3 FG%, 36.5 3PT%, 69.8 FT%

LeBron playoff stats: 23.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.3 bpg, 47.4 FG%, 37.5 3PT%, 60.9 FT%

LeBron accolades: 2nd Team All-NBA, All-Star, 13th in MVP voting

With Jordan still fully retired for his age-36 season, this one obviously goes to James, too, who was a 2nd Team All-NBAer and an All-Star that campaign while finishing 13th in MVP voting.

The playoffs were uneventful for James and Co., however, as an injury to Davis caused the Lakers to lose in the first round of the playoffs, a six-game defeat to the Suns.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 37

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron regular season stats: 30.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.1 bpg, 52.4 FG%, 35.9 3PT%, 75.6 FT%

LeBron accolades: 3rd Team All-NBA, All-Star, 10th in MVP voting

A slew of injuries, including to Davis and James himself, and a poor roster around the Ohio legend caused the Lakers to miss the playoffs in 2021-22, James’ age-37 season.

Even so, James put up otherworldly numbers for a 37-year-old, averaging over 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game, unheard-of marks for a player of his age at the time. James is the only player 37 or older to average at least 30 points. Only four players ever, including James, Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have even averaged over 20 at that age.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 38

G Fiume/Getty Images

G Fiume/Getty Images
MJ regular season stats: 22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.4 bpg, 41.6 FG%, 18.9 3PT%, 79.0 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 28.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 6.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.6 bpg, 50.0 FG%, 32.1 3PT%, 76.8 FT%

LeBron playoff stats: 24.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.1 bpg, 49.8 FG%, 26.4 3PT%, 76.1 FT%

MJ accolades: All-Star, 13th in MVP voting
LeBron accolades:
 3rd Team All-NBA, All-Star

Jordan’s age was clearly showing when he returned to the NBA with the Wizards for his age-38 and -39 seasons, as there was basically no trace of the high-flying Jordan we knew. By his late 30s, Jordan had an old man’s ground game with great post-up and midrange abilities but not much in the way of explosiveness.

Even so, he was still a legit All-Star in 2001-02, putting up a 23/5/5 stat line, numbers that. a lot of players historically would love to average for a single season, let alone for their age-38 campaign.

Regardless, Wizards Jordan doesn’t hold a candle to James, who, even though declining, absolutely didn’t look his age. That includes the playoffs, where James was able to lead the Lakers to the Western Conference Finals in 2022-23. (That series did end in James and Co. being eliminated via sweep to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.)

This was also the season that James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer despite leading the league in points just once in his career, which speaks to his absurd longevity and overall greatness. It’s also an important newer talking point on James’ side of the GOAT debate.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Age 39

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
MJ regular season stats: 20.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.5 bpg, 44.5 FG%, 29.1 3PT%, 82.1 FT%
LeBron regular season stats:
 25.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 8.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.6 bpg, 52.8 FG%, 40.5 3PT%, 74.1 FT%

MJ accolades: All-Star
LeBron accolades (so far):
 NBA Cup champion, NBA Cup MVP, All-Star

Jordan was still a very good player in his final season, his age-39 campaign, but he missed the playoffs with the Wizards and his only accolade was that of All-Star.

James has already got an All-Star appearance under his belt in his age-39 season and will almost certainly make All-NBA for the record 20th time if he keeps up his current pace. He also won the inaugural In-Season Tournament, making this one an easy decision.

Final verdict: LeBron James

Final tally

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
As we discussed earlier, one can make the argument that even if you give Jordan the advantage as far as which player had the better peak (leading the league in scoring 10 times and in steals three times is absolutely absurd), James clearly has the longevity advantage and has seen his game age more gracefully.

How might this final tally have changed if Jordan hadn’t missed a season-and-a-half in the middle of his prime in the mid-90s? Or if he had done just one season at UNC instead of three?

We’ll never know.

As is, the final tally reads LeBron James having the advantage in 12 of the 21 ages over Jordan. That’s 12 seasons where we deemed James to have been the better player and nine where we thought Jordan was better.

However, if we look at just the seasons in which Jordan was actually in the NBA, i.e. not in college or retired? That number changes to nine seasons in favor of Jordan and six seasons in favor of James. And that’s including the 1994-95 season when Jordan returned for just the final 17 games of the season.

So like we said earlier, feel free to cherry-pick whichever version of that final Jordan vs. LeBron tally that you want to use in favor of your GOAT. At this point, both sides seem pretty entrenched with their guy so few things, barring James winning another title or two before he retires, are going to change anyone’s viewpoint on the NBA GOAT debate.

And that’s OK.