Commentary

Not Jordan yet

Originally Published: November 7, 2012
By Skip Bayless | ESPN.com

LeBron James and Michael JordanUS Presswire, Getty ImagesLeBron James, left, and Michael Jordan holding the Larry O'Brien trophy. But even pictures worth a thousand words don't tell the whole story.
Once more, it has grown cold and dark here on Planet LeBr-Honesty. The population exploded two years ago, but now I'm alone again and oxygen and perspective are in short supply. Someday the "Prometheus" crew might find my remains here, but I will not give in.

I'm still not ready to put LeBron James in the same solar system with Michael Jordan. In fact, what LeBron finally pulled off after nine long NBA seasons is being laughably overrated. It now feels as if King James won seven championships one night this past June -- one more than Jordan.

For nine years, I've acknowledged LeBron is easily the most gifted player on Planet Earth. But I've routinely been astounded so many millions felt so compelled to ignore LeBron's shortcomings and leap to the conclusion he's the Greatest Player Ever. It's as if a contagion has swept the known world, affecting the ability to see LeBron clearly. Who knows? Maybe I was saved by all the hand sanitizer I use.

What LeBron does best -- pass -- is precisely what so many keep giving him: pass after pass.

Michael Jordan was the mentally toughest superstar ever. LeBron James has regularly proved to be the exact opposite. Jordan was the Player You Most Wanted To Take The Last Shot. LeBron has often been an astonishing disaster with the clock ticking toward zeroes.

The clutch gene, I call it. MJ was born with an oversized clutch gene, LeBron without one. In nine years, LeBron has hit only two walk-off shots -- both in 2009.

But now none of that matters anymore. Now, his coach, Eric Spoelstra, says LeBron has undergone a "transformation." Charles Barkley says LeBron will be better than Jordan -- and Planet Barkley is becoming overpopulated with commentators and fans who agree.

All because of four games about four months ago.

All because, in Games 2 through 5 of the Finals, LeBron finally did what I've been publicly begging him do for years -- attack the basket. All because, starting with Game 2, LeBron was guarded by Kevin Durant, his best buddy and offseason workout partner, and fell into a comfort zone against a beanpole of a defender who has far too much respect for LeBron to do what the Mavericks did in the previous Finals -- get under his skin and in his head with "you ain't bleep" trash talk. All because LeBron finally cut back on what he does worst -- shoot jump shots -- and began driving and dunking or dishing to preposterously hot teammates.

Shane Battier, who made 62 3-pointers in 65 regular-season games, hit five 3s in Game 2! Dwyane Wade, fighting a bad knee and a worse custody battle, scored 25 in Game 3 as the Miami stage proved too big for the self-destructing young Thunder! Mario Chalmers -- MARIO CHALMERS -- scored 25 in Game 4, including 12 in the fourth quarter! And 6-foot-8 Mike Miller, who measured 5-8 because he was so hunched over with back pain, hit 7 of 8 3s in the closeout Game 5!

LeBron's planets finally aligned.

Yet now, because of one well-deserved Finals MVP and one ring, everything that happened (and didn't happen) before has been erased from the collective memory? Mind-blowing. Just because LeBron finally gave up in Cleveland and joined forces with a top-5 player (D-Wade) and top-20 player (Chris Bosh) and won one championship in two Miami tries, he's making us forget the Michael Jordan who went 6-for-6 in NBA Finals with six MVPs? Dumbfounding.

Stephen A. Smith, my "First Take" debate partner, went overnight from LeBron's harshest critic to his most vehement defender. He now tells me I sound "foolish" for daring to discount LeBron's first ring or to doubt his transformation into a clutch force who will pick right up where he left off. Stephen A. now wonders whether I bear some personal grudge against LeBron. No!

I think LeBron is a nice guy who has a standing invitation to join us on our show and discuss any and all issues he has with me. I've been told several times in the past five years that he has wanted to but that his advisers didn't think it was good idea. LeBron, in fact, has said several times in interviews that he is entertained and motivated by my criticism and has called me his "Howard Cosell," referring to the fearlessly critical broadcaster whose lovingly tough interviews with Muhammad Ali were sometimes better than The Greatest's fights. Honored, LeBron.

But believe me, I am not being a contrarian for debate's or ratings' sake. I'm simply baffled by the nine-year compulsion to deify LeBron James no matter his obvious flaws. Is it BECAUSE he's such a nice guy? Or because -- as some of my "First Take" debate opponents have said -- I've helped turn him into a sympathetic figure?

Or is it far deeper? Is it because the early Nike commercials brainwashed millions into thinking he truly is the "Chosen 1," as is tattooed across his upper back? Or because so many proclaimed him Next when he hit the NBA out of high school and they've waited through so many humiliating collapses to say, "SEE! I told you so"? Or because his blindingly obvious skills and all-time greatest ability to dominate a box score with sometimes misleading stats have always allowed his idolaters, even in his lowest moments, to say, "Yes, but …"?

Out here in the cold dark, I still say no. Please hear me out.


I watched LeBron play twice on TV when he was in high school and concluded -- as did many -- he'd be an instant NBA star. Heck, in physique and face, he looked 10 years older. But three signs shocked and troubled me. This man-child was already embracing what a Sports Illustrated cover had deemed him -- the Chosen One? He was already calling himself "King" James? He sometimes beat his chest after dunking over undersized opponents?

I gently wondered on TV whether he would ever quite be able to live up to his tattoo and his royal moniker, and I wondered whether his chest beating signaled a little deep-down doubt about how invincible he really was.

But wait, it got worse: The Chosen One CHOSE to wear Michael's No. 23 and he CHOSE to borrow and continue Michael's pre-tipoff press-row powder toss. LeBron James was announcing The Next Jordan has arrived.

So please remember, I didn't set LeBron's bar MJ high. He did. From the start, I shrugged and said OK, New 23, show me Old 23.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe uniform number. The pregame ritual with chalk powder. LeBron James certainly did not shy away from comparisons to Michael Jordan.
In some ways, he did. For sure, he was much bigger and a little faster end-to-end than Jordan -- more of a runaway train on fast breaks -- and a better post defender. No doubt he has the rarest gift of passing the basketball -- of anticipating the cut and delivering the ball before defenders know what hit them. Only Cousy, Magic, Stockton and Nash have known that gift at that level. Jordan became a very good passer. But he was never in LeBron's league.

That's a powerful tangible. Now for (in my book) an even more important superstar intangible.

The more I watched in LeBron's first three NBA seasons -- and I watched nearly every Cavs game -- the more astounded I was by what I did not see. LeBron did not have what MJ had beyond compare: the clutch gene. Kobe and D-Wade have it. So do Durant and Carmelo Anthony. But LeBron's swagger shrank and his face tightened with stress in late-and-close situations, which became literal nail-biters. It soon became apparent the King had a phobia: standing alone at the free throw line with no time left, expected by millions of loyal subjects to calmly swish both free throws as surely as he dunks.

So LeBron became afraid to do what he did most overpoweringly -- freight-train to the basket -- because he obviously knew he just might get fouled. (LeBron's basketball IQ is at least Magic's and Larry Bird's, but in the King's case, it can be his own worst think-too-much enemy.) Jordan was a good-but-not-great free throw shooter at a career 84 percent, as is Kobe and was Oscar Robertson. Magic was 85 percent, Bird was 89 percent. Durant is 88 percent. LeBron should be better than a career 75 percent, but he could look especially shaky-handed shooting late-game free throws. In his NBA career, of the 18 players who have attempted at least 150 "late and close" free throws, LeBron ranks 18th.

More and more, LeBron began to settle in clutch moments for what he did absolutely worst -- shoot 3-pointers. If he clanked a 25-footer at or near the buzzer, as he often did, he knew the media probably would give him a pass. Hey, that deep fallaway 3 was really a tough shot, even without a defender in his face.

LeBricks, I called them. Throughout games, LeBron took these awkward-looking jumpers that could miss shockingly badly -- air balls or basket-shaking ricochets. At best, he was a streak shooter. He could get comfort-zone, Twilight Zone hot for a night -- front-running, chest-pounding hot … which usually just encouraged a 1-for-10 from 3 the next game. He's a career 33 percent 3-point shooter. He made a career-high 36 percent last season, mainly because he attempted almost three fewer a game than he did his final season in Cleveland. Since entering the league, among the 25 players to attempt at least 2,500 3-pointers, LeBron ranks 24th. Double jeopardy: For most of his career, he was a below-average and a high-volume 3-point shooter.

But LeBron's MVP ego dictates he shoot 3s. LeBron James, student of NBA history, knew all too well Jordan hit a shrugging six 3s in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals against Portland. So night after night, LeBron wasted trip after trip jacking up LeBricks. I screamed at him on my TV just as I got emotional on TV: JUST ATTACK THE BASKET, LEBRON. NOBODY CAN KEEP YOU FROM THE RIM.

In LeBron's first five or so years, I often took a verbal beating on TV for "nitpicking" his unclutchness and staying on him for shooting way too many jumpers.

Yet even as he was finally attacking Durant and the rim this past June, this off-radar stat began to build. In Game 6 at Boston, LeBron saved the season by scoring 45 mostly on jump shots. He was crazy hot. Rare hot. But beginning with Game 7 at Boston through the NBA Finals, your three-time MVP was 10-of-53 on jump-shots -- 18.8 percent. Who knew?


On the morning of June 1, 2007, my cell rang as I warmed up on the driving range for a golf tournament. I was on vacation. But a breathless ESPN booker wanted to know if I'd at least do a phone interview about what already was being hailed as The Greatest Game Ever Played -- LeBron's 48-point explosion in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals the night before in Detroit. Cleveland had won in double overtime. Obviously, the producers wanted me to finally admit I was wrong about King James.

My tee time prevented that interview. But back on TV in Bristol the next Monday, I calmly explained that LeBron had been sensational -- in part because Antonio McDyess had been thrown out, Rasheed Wallace had basically flipped out and a superhighway had opened to the rim for LeBron (who calls himself 6-9, 260 pounds). Again and again he had powered down the lane for a dunk or lay-in. He can be a benign bully, swelling with front-running confidence when he's sure he has the edge.

But, forgive me, I also noted that, with 7.9 seconds left in the first overtime, LeBron launched a 22-footer that would've been the clincher -- and air-balled it! What superstar in the midst of his greatest game as a professional would throw up a clutch, overtime air ball?

No, I said Monday on TV, I am not ready to admit I was wrong about LeBron.

In the closeout Game 6 back in Cleveland, LeBron shot 3-of-11. His 14 of 19 free throws (74 percent) brought his total to a respectable 20 points. Yet Daniel Gibson had come off the bench to make the bigger difference with 5-of-5 from 3 and 31 points. LeBron: hot, then not.

He and his Cavs went quietly in the Eastern finals against the San Antonio Spurs, whose LeBron-stopping mantra was: No layups; make him shoot jump shots. They did just that. They swept. The media mostly shrugged and said, "Well, what did you expect from LeBron's lousy supporting cast?" I actually had expected a little more from the Chosen One.


On Friday night, May 22, 2009, LeBron James hit what was quickly proclaimed The Greatest Shot Ever Made.

With the Cavs down 1-0 at home in their playoff series with Orlando, Mo Williams inbounded to LeBron just beyond the top of the circle with no time to make a drive-or-launch decision. Inexplicably, Hedo Turkoglu played him to drive instead of trying to crowd what would have to be a catch-and-shoot buzzer-beater. Without time to think, LeBron launched a 3. You could hear the roar all the way to the distant planet I inhabit.

NOW will you admit you were wrong?

No!

Orlando won three of the next four and the series as LeBron began to disappear routinely in the fourth quarters.


[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James' end-of-game problems start with his career free throw percentage of 75.
On Friday night, May 7, 2010, LeBron destroyed the Celtics in Boston with 38 points to take a 2-1 lead in the series. ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that LeBron was miffed that some were questioning how sore his wrapped elbow really was. LeBron playing mad, forgetting his insecurities, trying to shut up a heckler or some skeptics, can be a wondrous (but rare) sight.

NOW are you ready?

Still Prince James to me.

The Celtics won the next three and the series. LeBron routinely disappeared in fourth quarters but hit bottom in Game 5 in Cleveland. He appeared to play in a trance. This was the Next Jordan?

His confidants advised key media voices that LeBron was so upset over a personal issue with a teammate that he had to be sedated before the game. Maybe so, but I insisted on air that we were simply seeing how debilitating late-game pressure can be for King James. Right before the world's blind eyes, the Chosen One was turning into the Frozen One.


About two months later, the evening of July 8, LeBron sat across from Jim Gray in a special televised by ESPN and said, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach." The Decision, it was called, mostly derisively, and it turned my life upside down. By the next morning, I was hearing I could be elected mayor of the city that for seven years had considered me Public Enemy No. 1: Cleveland. I had suddenly gone from Most Hated to beloved because LeBron had gone from beloved to having his jersey burned in the Cleveland streets.

But this was the inconvenient truth: I had repeatedly encouraged LeBron to join the mentally toughest star this side of Kobe -- D-Wade. Michael Jordan would've won a championship with LeBron's supporting cast. But LeBron could not and would not. LeBron needed at least one ring to validate his MVPs, and D-Wade had won one with an aging Shaquille O'Neal.

Do it, LeBron. Let D-Wade be your Batman, your closer, your fourth-quarter backbone.

One reason LeBron refused to apologize to or even acknowledge the fans of his home area was that he was feeling childlike shame for giving up without delivering a championship for Cleveland. Instead, LeBron cold-shouldered Cleveland, helping turn himself into the biggest villain in sports.

Some stars would have fed off the criticism. It began to devour LeBron.


Again and again in LeBron's first playoffs with Miami, he gave his idolaters reason to tweet me that he had finally proved me wrong. But in each Game 4 of the first three series -- against Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago -- LeBron blew walk-off opportunities, with a missed jumper, a turnover and a charge. Clearly Wade and Spoelstra were trying to get LeBron comfortable with late-game pressure simply by giving him reps.

Then came the Finals, the Mavs and the biggest superstar collapse in history

I was told that after the Heat went up 2-1 with a Game 3 win in Dallas, LeBron returned to his hotel room and made a list of people he was going to tell off after he won his first ring. I was No. 1.

And the Heat lost the next three and the Finals. Worse, LeBron all but ran from the ball in the fourth quarters, mostly standing frozen on the perimeter. The Mavs' game plan appeared to be to get physical with LeBron and get in his ear, tell him he was going to choke. And he did. In clutch time of the six NBA Finals games, LeBron scored zero points, shot 0-for-7 and did not even attempt a free throw.

I told Stephen A. Smith on air that LeBron had become the mentally weakest superstar ever. Stephen A. agreed. So did the many who were suddenly renting space on my planet.


LeBron's walk-off demons grew even louder in his head last season. At Utah on March 2, LeBron had made his last 10 shots and scored 17 in the fourth quarter -- had made shot after big shot -- but down one in the final seconds opted to bounce-pass to a surprised Udonis Haslem, who had to force up a no-chance jumper from beyond the free throw line. It was obvious to me LeBron shied from driving and probably having to shoot two stand-alone free throws to tie and win. Utah, 99-98.

Eight days later against Indiana in Miami, LeBron took his apologists from ecstasy to agony within minutes. With 10 seconds left in regulation, LeBron hit a corner 3 to tie. Clutch! But with 25 seconds left in overtime, score tied, LeBron missed a deep 3 … rebounded by Haslem and kicked right back to LeBron. He briefly thought about it, then sheepishly waved for D-Wade to come get the ball. D-Wade obliged and promptly hit the walk-off winner, a 19-foot jumper.

Think about that: A soon-to-be three-time MVP in his ninth NBA season had so little faith in himself under pressure -- when superstars star -- that he signaled a teammate to please come save him from himself. Can you imagine Kobe or Durant doing that? Let alone Jordan. That was less than eight months ago.

At Indiana in the second round of the playoffs, Heat down two games to one, Bosh out with an injury, Wade saved more than the game. He saved LeBron's legacy. Could the Heat have rallied from a 3-1 deficit? Maybe. But what if LeBron had ended his ninth season with a playoff loss to the Pacers? Indiana led by 10 with about eight minutes left in the third quarter when Batman decided it was time. Wade scored 14 in those eight minutes, then eight more in the fourth quarter as the Heat won by eight.

Why didn't Wade get more credit for those 22 points in little more than the last quarter and a half? Because LeBron won the box score: 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists. Awesome numbers. But Wade scored the points.

Against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron continued to punctuate Jordanesque games with the kind of failures his fanatics blindly watch. At the end of Game 4 in Boston, with the side cleared for him to attack, he dribbled sideways across the free throw line into heavy traffic and gave up the ball -- obviously running from the last shot. In Game 5 in Miami, he scored only two in the final eight minutes as Miami lost by four.

Boston, up three games to two.

Then came The Second Greatest Game Ever Played, Game 6 at Boston. LeBron: 45! Heat by 19. Then Game 7, another big one for LeBron (31 points, 12 rebounds). King James!

In Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Oklahoma City, the King's Team looked overmatched. LeBron scored only one basket in the first 8:15 of the fourth quarter as the Thunder broke it open. Durant had 17 in the fourth alone.

Then came the turning point in LeBron's NBA life. Twelve seconds left in Game 2, Heat up two. Derek Fisher surprised LeBron with a quick-trigger in-bounds pass to Durant. LeBron committed the cardinal basketball sin: He gave up the baseline to Durant, who drove past him. LeBron could do only what beaten defensive backs do -- he arm-barred Durant to impede him, actually fouling him twice. Either the baseline ref (1) missed it, (2) saw it and decided LeBron had suffered enough in the Finals or (3) swallowed his whistle in the last-minute spirit of just let 'em play.

Instead of going to the free throw line, where he almost certainly would've made both to tie, Durant took a tough shot -- a baseline runner from about 7 feet with no backboard angle. He left it short. The rebound fell to LeBron, who was immediately fouled. LeBron walked to the other end and made two of the biggest free throws of his career to put the Heat up three, then four. Demons, be damned! The Heat were back in business, heading home 1-1.

Could the Heat have rallied from 2-0 down by winning a Game 6 or 7 in OKC? Maybe. But in Game 2, it took a late, uncalled foul to turn LeBron James from goat to hero. Sometimes it's just meant to be.


At 10 ET on the morning of June 22, 2012, I gave LeBron an on-air standing ovation and said you can finally call him King.

I applauded him for finally turning his game upside down and initiating the offense from the paint instead of the perimeter … for outplaying Durant nose-to-nose on both ends … for calming himself with self-help techniques (prayer? meditation? mantras?) as he sat on the bench before games in Miami, eyes closed, mouthing words to himself … and for, according to some who cover the team, finally tuning out critics and no longer trying to "get even" with haters, in Cleveland or on "First Take."

I echoed the first words out of his mouth, live on ABC, when Game 5 ended: "It's about damn time."

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade and LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade and LeBron James celebrate the Miami Heat's NBA title win this past June.
I had picked the Heat before the season and before the Finals. Stephen A. picked the Thunder.

Yet in the days that followed, all I heard from fans, debate foes, players and ex-players was: "You were wrong about LeBron." Heck, I even heard from many Cavs fans who suddenly had forgiven and forgotten.

That's when the entire basketball world began to suffer selective, collective amnesia. It was as if LeBron had been LeBorn Again as the Next Jordan. Now he was Beyond Criticism.

No doubt if you took a players-only poll, LeBron would win Most Popular in the NBA. He goes out of his way to be nice to even the 12th men on rival teams. But what shocks and disappoints me about the new-age NBA is that so many rivals were so openly rooting for him and ready to predict he now is ready to dominate for years to come. What is this, a pity party? Did any rival root for Jordan? Do they root for Kobe? MJ and the Black Mamba: candidates for Least Popular. Good for them. On-court killers.

I have taken Durant to task many times for allowing LeBron to get too close to him, and Durant has returned fire. Yes, LeBron is genuinely good-hearted, but he's far from naive. He knew Durant was his biggest threat -- I'd still take Durant over LeBron. In part, LeBron's insecurities motivated him to become BFFs with KD to maybe take a little angry edge off Durant's game if they faced off in the Finals. It worked, once.

If Durant ever wises up to this, LeBron won't find it quite so easy to live up to the many championships he promised the day he was introduced to Heat fans: "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …"

The Heat are again favored to win it all, and should be. If D-Wade stays healthy, LeBron should win another couple. He now has one of the greatest clutch jump-shooters ever, Ray Allen, although Durant will be without James Harden (traded to Houston) and the reloaded Lakers might take a year to find their flow (see Heat two seasons ago).

But seriously, did LeBron suddenly grow a clutch gene and have a killer-instinct transplant in four games this past June? Will he now close games with Jordanesque arrogance? Keep terrorizing opponents in the paint and, if necessary, at the free throw line with no time left?

I remain skeptical LeBron is much if any better than he was after Game 1 of the Finals. I say his demons remain. I feel sorry for the guy. I say the pressure on him is even greater than it was a year ago. Not just two, LeBron. Or three. Or four …

Way out here in outer space, I sit alone, doubting whether LeBron will ever even come close to living up to the Beyond Jordan expectations he helped create.

Skip Bayless

First Take host
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on First Take.