Withstanding the test of time
Jordan's greatness shouldn't be overshadowed by LeBron's dominance
The unsettling thing about this whole Michael Jordan weeklong birthday celebration is that a great number of people, many of whom think of themselves as basketball fans, appear to have forgotten how impossibly great Jordan was as a player. They recognize the shoes and worship the jersey. They know the six NBA championships and that he was the star of the '92 Dream Team. They can identify historic clips, such as the shot over Craig Ehlo or the one over Bryon Russell or the signature dunks. But they have no handle whatsoever on the extent of his night-after-night basketball genius and competitive relentlessness.
You'd have to be 35 years old minimum to remember the details of Jordan's insanely prolific season, 1986-87, when he averaged 37 points a game. And even some who are old enough to remember have instead locked themselves in the prison of now, perhaps worn down by the constant bombardment of right this moment, the overbearing and maddening insistence that anything that happened today is better. We have more information and more ways of accessing it than ever, yet seem increasingly less inclined to do so.
It's probably a good thing that what has been proclaimed as the greatest stretch of LeBron James' basketball career just happens to coincide with the celebration of Jordan's birthday.
You're not going to read a single negative word about LeBron here, and why would you? He's an athletic marvel in any generation whose physical, intellectual and emotional maturity have all come together at once to produce some of the best basketball we've ever seen.
But this notion that what LeBron has done over these past six games is the best stretch of basketball in the history of the sport is -- to use one of my favorite Bill Russell phrases -- "in error."
"SportsCenter" asked whether we'd ever seen a roll like the one LeBron is on: six straight games of 30 points, each carrying a shooting percentage better than 60 percent. And the answer was pretty simple: yes, of course. I obsessively followed Jordan's entire career, much of it live and in person as a sportswriter for The Washington Post. In 1989, when Jordan was probably at the height of his physical powers he recorded 10 triple-doubles in 11 games. He averaged 34 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists on 51 percent shooting during that barrage.
One of my ESPN.com editors, a man who was a sportswriter in Chicago during most of Jordan's career, said when he first heard the stat Sunday afternoon, that Jordan had 10 triple-doubles in 11 games, his first thought was, "That can't be right."
It was my first thought too, because who does that in today's NBA? Not LeBron James, not Kobe Bryant, nobody. But there it is in black and white, from March 25 to April 14. Magic Johnson, who earlier in the day had said LeBron might be on the greatest roll he had ever seen, shook his head in disbelief and said, "I should know better. I should have known Michael would have had a stretch that was better."
I guess you can argue whether you'd rather average 30-plus points on 71 percent shooting or record 10 triple-doubles in 11 games. To me, it's not even close; the standard for all-around brilliance in modern-day basketball is the triple-double. You know what Jordan did in the game before his streak began? He put 34 points and 17 assists on the Trail Blazers in Portland.
The one game Jordan did not record a triple-double in that 11-game stretch? How about 40 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds (on 61 percent FG shooting) in the second of back-to-back games against the Detroit Pistons, who would reach the NBA Finals in a few weeks & and that was 24 hours after he'd put 31 points, 10 assists and 13 rebounds on the Pistons in Detroit. Five games, seven nights, four triple-doubles, and three rebounds from a fifth!
If a player put together that kind of stretch now, Twitter would explode.
And while Jordan's 50th is the impetus here for delving into a little NBA history it's not as though Jordan had a monopoly on greatness, or Jordan is the only player whose greatness we're forgetting. Not only did Wilt Chamberlain score 50 or more points 12 times in 13 games in his ungodly 1961-62 season, as an old geezer in 1967-68 Wilt recorded nine straight triple-doubles.
But before we get back to Jordan and LeBron, two quick things about Wilt's 1962 season. How about these point totals in consecutive games: 78, 61, 55, 54, 52, 43, 50, 57, 55, 59, 51, 53, 60. And on the night Wilt scored 78, he had 43 rebounds & against the Lakers. Later in that same season of '62, Wilt had nights of 67 points and 21 rebounds, 65 points and 23 rebounds, 61 and 28, 100 and 25, and 58 and 35.
If you like your greatness to show up in the postseason, consider that Magic once recorded double-digit assists in all 19 playoff games the Lakers played en route to the 1984-85 championship. To show it wasn't a fluke, in the very next postseason Magic dished out double-digit assists in 13 of 14 playoff games, and in the 14th game had nine assists. You know who doesn't know he did this? Magic. I told him I was going to find it and he said he didn't think such a streak existed. It does. We all forget.
The guy who really has to be chapped over all this is Oscar Robertson, who in that same 1962 season averaged 31 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. Surely Mr. Robertson has to hear all this slobbering over LeBron (and even MJ 24 years ago) and think to himself, "Are you kidding me? They're praising these guys for doing less than a dozen times what I did every damned night?"
So, do we really need to consider whether LeBron's stretch of 30 points/60 percent is the greatest basketball ever played? The overstatement doesn't do any favors for LeBron, or Kobe for that matter, because neither compares favorably in so many ways to Jordan. Only Robertson, Wilt and Elgin Baylor really do statistically, and Bill Russell, of course, when it comes to winning championships. Bryant, in my book, will retire as one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the NBA. But that doesn't mean, as was frequently being pushed two years ago, that another title will make him the equal of Jordan. Once again, long-term memory is failing people.
Jordan was a better scorer than Kobe, by about five points per game, was a better rebounder (6.2 to 5.3), a better passer (5.3 assists to 4.7) and shot a better percentage (49.7 to 45.4). Jordan shot 50 percent or better five straight seasons. Kobe has yet to record his first 50 percent shooting season. The one place Kobe is better than MJ is three-point shooting, yet Kobe's career percentage from beyond the arc is 33.6 to Jordan's 32.7.
And to think there are current NBA coaches, who coached against Jordan, Kobe and LeBron, who will say privately -- though not publicly, so as not to offend the two killers they still have to play against -- that if Jordan had come of age in today's game with no handchecking and no Pistons-style body slamming high fliers, he'd easily average 40 points on 55 percent shooting.
LeBron, if he stays healthy and keeps playing for contending teams, could conceivably dominate his era and win enough championships to force a legitimate comparative conversation down the line. Conceivably.
LeBron's set of skills is as unique as Jordan's. He seems to be as complete as Jordan, plus two inches taller and, oh, 40 pounds heavier. But we still don't know whether LeBron, or anybody else in the coming years, will play night after night with Jordan's infamous relentlessness and, yes, ruthlessness.
Tim Legler, the ESPN analyst and former NBA guard who played against Jordan, marveled during a radio interview with Mike & Mike the other morning about LeBron, but allowed that the Heat might only now, midway through the season, be growing interested in the season. LeBron and the Heat, Legler said very accurately, might not yet be playing with that championship edge, having already won a title in June.
And see, that's probably what helped take Jordan to a place LeBron hasn't yet found, Kobe either. Jordan never lost his edge when he was on a basketball court. After winning three titles, he led a team to 72 wins, the league's best-ever record. And after doing that, he led a team to 69 wins, tying the league's second-best record. And then after that, he won again. Games were more a concert than competitive contests. Jordan won whenever he wanted, scored whenever he wanted, took the opposing player's best perimeter player for 40-plus minutes, not at the end of games or here and there.
Jordan has been very quiet about this entire 50th birthday thing, a fuss I imagine he couldn't possibly want. But I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he hears that other fuss, over LeBron James' fabulous stretch of basketball and the comparisons to him, Jordan, at his best.
More times than I can count, when young 20ish LeBron was going through his postseason struggles, I got messages from Jordan that amounted to, "Hey, leave that kid alone & he's going to kick everybody's ass one day and you'll feel dumb for criticizing him!"
But now that LeBron is doing just that, as Jordan and most others predicted, and people are forgetting just how MJ terrorized every player and thrilled every fan for years, I imagine that if Michael Jordan could give himself the ultimate birthday present, anything in the world, he'd turn 50 into 35, pull out a pair of those old Air Jordans, walk onto the court and remind people just how dumb it is to forget.