Comparing LeBron to Jordan
MJ is the standard, but can LeBron reach or surpass that level of greatness?
J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives. Today, they discuss LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
The strangest part of LeBron James' performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday was that it didn't seem as if he was competing with Kobe Bryant. Oh, Bryant was there all right, playing quite well, as evidenced by the 28 points, nine assists and six rebounds by his name in the box score. He just wasn't the measuring stick. LeBron was playing against the track record of Bryant, just as Bryant doggedly continues trying to pad his resume to make it comparable to Michael Jordan's.
If this was about LeBron and Kobe in the here and now, a lot more would be made of the fact that LeBron has won 13 of his past 15 games against Kobe. But that's not what we're monitoring anymore. We're talking about the ability to play the game at rarefied levels. We've seen Kobe enter this zone, when he averaged 40 points in February 2003. Or Jordan's six-game stretch in 1990 when he went for 46 points a night on 60 percent shooting, with 10 rebounds and five and a half assists per game.
Jordan remains the standard, Bryant his surrogate to provide an approximation of how intense a competitor he was, in case anyone forgot. The remarkable thing is we can't forget. We're incapable of viewing LeBron on his own merit. The elevation of his game over the past year has brought Jordan back into the discussion, almost inevitably. Which means there is one more stage LeBron has to reach: smashing the Jordan statue, so that he can serve as the model for the new sculpture.
My question for you is whether that's even possible, and if LeBron is the one to do it.
What would LeBron be doing on his statue? Chest pass, maybe? Chase-down block?
See how I'm avoiding the question? It's so difficult to project that far down the line, because LeBron is only starting to truly enter the Jordan conversation, and even that's only because we're assuming at least another half decade of this kind of dominance.
But what we're seeing from him now makes me think it's absolutely possible.
There are very, very few players in basketball history who can essentially toy with the rest of the league. Wilt Chamberlain led the league in assists one season just to prove he could. Jordan gambled the night before and played golf for hours before the game and went out and scored 40 with relative ease.
What we're seeing from LeBron right now is him playing a game within the game. He's essentially trying to play the perfect game -- at least he has been since that 13-of-14 shooting performance against the Bobcats on Feb. 4.
Go back and watch his reaction after he missed his first shot against the Lakers on Sunday. It was a wide-open midrange shot, and when it rimmed out, he acted like he just missed a game winner in the playoffs.
One fellow writer suggested Sunday that LeBron is trying to score 30 points on 10 field goal attempts or fewer (he got 30 on 11 FGAs against the Clippers).
When you're so good that you can play that game, you're dancing in Jordan's territory. (Side note: It could be suggested that LeBron's attempt at ultimate efficiency is selfish. But it's not when your team is winning, and the Heat have won their past five with relative ease.)
The way I see it, it took last year's playoffs for LeBron to realize just how dominant he can be. Now he realizes that, yes, he can be in Jordan's neighborhood by the time he retires, so he's setting goals and making it happen.
He's on his way there. Finishing the deal is another story.
That's a fascinating thought: LeBron is competing against the parameters of basketball, not against individuals. Jordan was never motivated by the abstract. Michael was always about annihilating the people in front of him. He said he was driven to separate himself from would-be peers such as Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller, or the legends whose times overlapped with him, including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. If Jordan wanted to go after Bill Russell's ring count or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, he wouldn't have taken a baseball hiatus or retired a second time at age 35.
Kobe wanted to do things his way: win a game by outscoring a team on his own (as he did for three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks once) or win a championship without a dominant center (that didn't work out so well).
We've known that LeBron always wanted to win by making the correct play. It's brought terabytes' worth of criticism when he passes to the open man instead of taking the shot himself with the game on the line. And yet he sticks with this ethos. He's driven by a fundamental need to do right, like Batman leaving a criminal's fate in the legal system's hands, or Dexter Morgan adhering to his "code."
LeBron's style has always been more Magic than Michael, and one aspect of Magic I'd like to see LeBron take on is Magic's adaptability. I think Magic would have taken it upon himself to address the Heat's rebounding issues. Sure, LeBron is averaging a career-high 8.1 rebounds this season, but it's only a 2.5 percent increase over last season's production. Magic's rebounding would swing by as much as 27 percent from season to season, depending on his team's needs. Granted, Magic didn't have as much of a scoring burden as LeBron does. Magic directed the offense; LeBron is responsible for generating offense.
While LeBron's approach is descended from Magic, there's one opportunity he has to duplicate Jordan, at least in the sense that Jordan made the 1990s his own. Jordan claimed the decade indisputably, more cleanly than Magic over Bird in the 1980s or Kobe over Shaq and Tim Duncan in the 2000s. Every time Michael Jordan showed up for training camp in the 1990s he ended the season with a championship parade. For LeBron to approach that level of success, he'll have to hold off the ascendant Durant. (If LeBron is doing all this at 28, can you imagine the progress Durant can make when he reaches that age for the 2016-17 season? What a thought. We'll need to address that in a whole other column). If he grabs several rings at Durant's expense, that would be more impressive than Michael racking them up against the likes of Drexler, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
Meanwhile, here's an interim goal for LeBron. It's kind of arbitrary. The best field goal percentage by a player who handled the ball on the perimeter as much as LeBron does is 57.4 percent, by John Stockton in 1987-88. LeBron's at 56.2 percent right now. At his current pace he will attempt 625 more shots this season. If he maintains the standard he has set of late and makes 370 of those shots (59 percent) he can get to 57.4 percent this year.
I know, Stockton isn't supposed to be the target for LeBron. But if he could match him -- or even come close -- LeBron could out-Jordan Jordan. One of Jordan's hallmarks was his accuracy for a high-volume shooting guard (50 percent for the non-Wizards portion of his career). LeBron won't be as prolific a scorer as Jordan, who led the league in scoring 10 times. But before it's over, we might think of LeBron as a more efficient scorer, in addition to the other way he impacts the game. It's part of the challenge. Again, the assignment isn't to fill Jordan's shoes -- LeBron's kicks will never be as iconic as Air Jordans -- it's to create a new template.
If we're going to be bold enough to make realistic Jordan comparisons, you can't ignore the respect element. Jordan had the ultimate respect from his peers, to the point where they knew they were playing with or against the greatest perimeter player the game had seen while he was in the middle of his six-championship run, if not earlier.
With LeBron, there was a reluctance to grant him the label of "Greatest in the Game" because, frankly, he had been handed so many labels prematurely.
He was the Chosen One before he was ever even chosen by the Cavaliers on draft night. So it wasn't just fans of other players who relished in his lack of championship success in his first eight seasons, it was also the other players themselves.
Now, LeBron's peers are marveling at his level of play with the rest of us.
Despite the fact that the Lakers had just lost to end their seven-game road trip on Sunday, Kobe spent about 75 percent of his time with the media after the game discussing LeBron -- willingly.
He even allowed a Jordan-Scottie Pippen reference when discussing LeBron and Dwyane Wade, though he wouldn't dare put them in the exact same category.
"I'll take the championships," he said.
Nash wasn't afraid to drop a Jordan comparison, unsolicited.
"It's scary," the two-time MVP said of LeBron's play. "No one's quite played the game the way he's playing it, as consistently as he's played it.
"I think Jordan had some years of that, when he was rebounding and passing as well as scoring efficiently. But [LeBron] has taken it to a pretty rare area in the history of our game."
This high praise is coming out of the locker of the team that was built to stop the Heat. (As I said to someone on Sunday, Lakers-Heat in the Finals isn't going to happen this year, but if it did, it would still be the most entertaining four-game sweep ever.)
The last step for LeBron would be to hog all the championships he can. With Jordan, it got to a point, probably after the second ring, where winning the championship seemed inevitable. No matter how impressive the best team out West looked, it would be a major upset if Jordan didn't leave with the trophy. Heck, it was considered a disappointment when the No. 45 Jordan was bounced by Orlando in his comeback "season."
LeBron isn't there just yet. There are still folks who believe the Spurs would've beaten Miami in the Finals last season if they'd gotten past Oklahoma City. And this season, there remains some lingering doubt if LeBron can carry his team past the bulk in the East and then fight off Kevin Durant again. But in a couple of years, that doubt, in retrospect, is probably going to seem silly.
What seems even sillier, in retrospect, was the doubt that once existed about whether Michael could win a championship. Most folks either don't know or have forgotten, but for the early part of his career the narrative was "Jordan is too much of a ball hog to win a championship." Before he did it in 1991, no one had won a scoring title and a championship in the same year since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971, so the prevailing wisdom was you couldn't do both. Michael did it six times. And he did it without an All-Star center, something else that wasn't common before he came along.
So Jordan not only changed the way we thought of him, but he changed what we considered to be the path to a championship. LeBron has the chance to do both, as well. He already has eradicated the notion that he can't win the big games. And maybe the new paradigm for a championship player will be a guy who can bring the ball upcourt, operate in the low post, score from any spot and defend multiple positions. (Yeah, good luck trying to find another one of those.)
The nagging question is why it took LeBron so long to embrace his responsibilities in crunch time.
Jordan appeared ready-made for it. He hit the NCAA championship game-winning shot as a freshman at North Carolina. In his second NBA year, he dragged that historically great 1985-86 Boston Celtics squad that won 37 more regular-season games than his Bulls into overtime by scoring 63 points in the Garden.
And what I consider a telltale stat: He never lost a playoff series when he had home-court advantage. LeBron lost with home-court advantage three years in a row. LeBron also has a losing record in the NBA Finals that he needs to rectify.
My criterion for ranking players is this: Whom would I want if I had to win a playoff game? The answer -- for the past three decades and possibly for all time -- is Jordan. While LeBron's Game 6 masterpiece in Boston last year was as good as any playoff performance you'll ever see, Jordan has the more extensive collection, with the "sick game" in Utah ranking at the top. That game was the ultimate testament to Michael's will to overcome physical impairments. For LeBron, it will always be a quest to maximize his physical gifts.
After this season, I think we'll also officially look at LeBron's late-game and postseason struggles as a part of his history, not of his permanent makeup.
It's not just Game 6 in Boston that proves he performs under great pressure. He also has had plenty of fourth-quarter moments this season, including Sunday against the Lakers, when he went into beast mode after Metta World Peace ruffled his feathers.
Whereas Jordan was fighting teams and defensive schemes devised to stop him, forcing him to change his game somewhat, LeBron was essentially fighting himself. It was the drawback from having those expectations so early in his life: the pressure was there from day one. He now knows he's the best, without question, but he also knows he can elevate a team to championship level while still elevating his game to almost unprecedented levels.
This Jordan conversation/comparison might partially be driven by the fact that Jordan is turning 50 this week and we're all celebrating it. So maybe after this, we should hit the pause button and wait to see how the next couple of years play out for LeBron. Because I think we can all agree, there's still plenty more for LBJ to accomplish first.