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Thursday, May 28, 2009
Air standards seem out of reach

By Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine

LeBron James & Kobe Bryant
No matter how well LeBron and Kobe play as individuals, reaching the MJ standard proves difficult.

The next time you see one of those innovative Kobe-LeBron puppet commercials, savor it, because it may be the only matchup we get this season between the game's two biggest and best stars.

With LeBron's Cavaliers on the brink of summer vacation and Kobe's Lakers in a dogfight with the Denver Nuggets, who knows if we'll get to see the real deals try to one-up each other with the same passion as their marionettes?

You can't blame Nike for pushing the potential dream matchup, and the roommate concept was a nice touch.

It was also right on the money. Figuratively speaking.

LeBron and Kobe are indeed roommates, living under the same roof built by Michael Jordan. Let's call it a mobile home -- one that's, of course, crazy mad plush -- because everywhere they go, the ceiling of their Jordan-constructed digs travels with them.

Everything they do on the basketball court is compared to Jordan. Obviously, that's a compliment to their great skills, but it's also a near-impossible standard that often clouds the judgment of their critics.

I mentioned to LeBron a few weeks ago that he's always being compared to Jordan. His response was a healthy one that I'm sure allows him to keep his sanity.

"Man, there'll never be another Michael Jordan," he said. "You'll drive yourself crazy trying to be the next Michael Jordan."

I'm not saying it's wrong to compare these guys to Jordan, mind you. In every field of endeavor, we compare today's best to the best ever, so this is quite natural.

My point is just that Jordan changed the standard by which NBA superstars are measured, and that can often diminish the achievements of the great ones who follow him.

Michael Jordan
Kobe and LeBron will have a hard time matching MJ's six rings.

For instance, with Jordan winning six titles without a dominant big man and with just one perennial All-Star teammate (Scottie Pippen) and with such nondescript guys as Stacey King, Bill Wennington, Will Perdue, Jud Buechler, Randy Brown, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Scott Burrell, Luc Longley, Jason Caffey and Scott Williams playing key roles, a title is not just a title anymore.

It's no longer enough for a truly, truly great player to win just a title; he must win multiple titles. Then, even if he wins multiple titles, we analyze who he won them with and how good his teammates were.

That's why people seem to have forgotten that Kobe already has won three championships. We always belittle Kobe's three rings by saying, "But he had Shaq."

Yeah, and?

It's like Kobe has to win a championship without Shaq to validate himself.

He can thank Jordan for that.

And if the Cavs fail to defy history by rallying from their 3-1 deficit in the East finals versus Orlando, LeBron will take hits in some quarters for not being Jordanesque enough.

Never mind that he's scored more points in the first four games of a conference finals series than anyone else (including Jordan); LeBron is averaging 42 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists on 50 percent shooting. Or that he hasn't had one teammate score 20 or more points in this series, a sad reality that hasn't happened in a conference final since MJ's Bulls lost to Detroit in 1989. Or that he has just one other starter hitting at least 44 percent of his shots. Or that the Cavs are the only team left standing that doesn't have at least two legitimate stars. Or that he doesn't have anything close to a Pippen or a frontline stopper like Dennis Rodman.

But such is life After Mike.

The legends we lift up and adore from the B.M. (Before Mike) days weren't held to nearly as high a standard.

First of all, before Mike, perimeter players weren't measured by their championships, because no matter how good you were, you needed a big man to win big.

Oscar Robertson, whose triple-double play we laud (and rightly so), won only one title, and that was as a 32-year-old, 11-year veteran playing with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet Robertson, who averaged 19 points and 8 assists as a champion rather than the 30-12-11 we praise him for, is still viewed as possibly the best guard ever not named Jordan.

The Logo, Jerry West, played 10 seasons with a healthy Elgin Baylor and four with a healthy Wilt Chamberlain and won just one ring. He lost seven times in the NBA Finals before winning his lone championship (and eight times overall) yet he's nicknamed "Mr. Clutch."

I hesitate to write this next line because it feels sacrilegious, but it's true: If West were being held to the same standard as Kobe and LeBron, he'd be known as "Mr. Clutching His Throat."

Larry Bird won three rings, but none without Top 50 All-Time teammates Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, not to mention the scores of other solid Celtics he played with over the years, including Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Tiny Archibald.

And though Magic Johnson's five rings all came with Kareem, I've never heard him questioned because he never won one without the game's all-time leading scorer. Of course, Magic also had guys like James Worthy, Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper to finish his no-look dimes.

See, that's how good Jordan was. Before him, conventional wisdom was that you couldn't lead the league in scoring and lead a dynasty, that you couldn't lack a dominant big man and build a dynasty.

Can Kobe and LeBron ever reach MJ's rarified air?

We'll see. But if not, they're still in some pretty lofty company.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.