- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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As one of only three players in NBA history to spend a season as a teammate of Jordan and James at one point during their respective careers, Williams carries a bit of credibility when he suggests the Miami Heat star forward is on the cusp of matching Jordan's run of three straight titles.
“The aspect of LeBron that's similar to Michael is that he will carry this team,” Williams said of James' chances of leading the Heat to a third consecutive championship this season. “I expect big things from them this year.”
Coincidentally, the Heat's next challenge comes Friday against the last team to beat them in a playoff series: the Dallas Mavericks. Miami has won eight consecutive postseason series since losing to Dallas in the 2010-11 Finals during James' first season with the Heat.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Williams said James is armed with just as much skill as Jordan had and is surrounded by the same level of talent and coaching leadership the Bulls had during their dynasty in the 1990s.
Williams, now an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, was a reserve center with Jordan's Bulls during their first run of three straight titles, from 1991-93. Williams then spent the final season of his 15-year career in Cleveland in 2004-05, which was James' second year in the league.
Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes were the only two other players to have appeared in games as teammates of Jordan and James, but they partnered with Jordan when he was well past his prime with the Washington Wizards.
Williams' comments came after James scored 33 points in just three quarters of play during the Heat's 118-95 victory over the Bucks on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. James has long been compared to Jordan by NBA players, coaches and league analysts. Those debates will gain even more steam this season as the Heat try to become just the fourth franchise in NBA history to win three titles in a row.
The Heat are off to a sluggish start at 5-3 and have played with inconsistent effort defensively despite also possessing the most efficient offense in the league through two weeks. James has also been slowed by recurring back spasms since the middle of the Heat's training camp last month.
Williams said James has developed the kind of will and determination he saw Jordan display after tasting a title. Williams' best season with the Bulls came during their third championship season, in 1992-93, when he played in 71 games, made five starts and averaged 5.9 points and 6.4 rebounds the year Chicago defeated Phoenix in the Finals.
“I played with both of those guys, and they're very competitive people, on and off the court,” Williams said of James and Jordan. “They have a passion and desire that a lot of superstars have, but theirs is at a level that separates them from the rest of the greats you've seen in the game.”
That's enough, Williams said, for James to drive the Heat through stretches of lethargic and inconsistent play that hit successful teams, which know the ultimate judgment doesn't come until the survive-and-advance point of the season.
“It's just a long grind, and you have to be able to understand that and manage that, mentally and physically,” Williams said. “It takes a toll on the body and the mind. It's hard to ramp it back up at the start. [The Heat] will fight some of that, but they're a good squad and well coached.”
While Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has aggressively challenged his players to show more effort and energy, Williams said he remembers times in Chicago when master motivator Phil Jackson also had to dig deep for inspiration.
But Williams said Jackson's voice never really grew stale.
“I won't say that, because he had veteran coaches with him -- Jim Cleamons, Johnny Bach and Tex Winter,” Williams said. “And he knew how to rely on those guys to let them do a fair amount of coaching, so his voice would stay fresh. Plus, there were veterans like John Paxson, Jordan and Bill Cartwright. So it was really kind of the perfect blend.”
The Heat's balance around James is also similar to Jordan's cast. An established rotation and defined roles allowed the Bulls to navigate through the dog days of the regular season.
“I think there was always a part of us that knew we could turn it up when it really mattered,” Williams said. “So, yeah, teams go through that, fall victim to a little bit of human nature. We were battled tested and knew we played playoff basketball better than everybody else. Everyone knew their role and everyone had a part to play for us.”
The Bulls team that chased their first three-peat had a 10-game drop-off from their second championship season and won just 57 games. They also watched a determined Knicks team, then coached by Pat Riley, run through the East during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Heat have seen the point-to-prove Indiana Pacers jump out to an 8-0 start with sights set on the No. 1 seed after losing Game 7 of the conference finals last season in Miami.
Eventually, the ultimate success comes down to finding that spark at the right moment, staying relatively healthy and following the lead of the greatest player in the game.
And then trusting his talent and instincts.
Then, it was Jordan.
Now, it's James.
“He's at the top of his game right now, and he's got guys around him like Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, [Shane] Battier, who are multitalented,” Williams said. “They spread the floor, move the ball and play the right way. And, really, that's how you get it done. That's how we did it.”