In sports, it is natural to let our minds wonder, “Who was the greatest?” and “Will so-and-so surpass so-and-so?” I understand that. This entire “LeBron James Could Be The Greatest Of All-Time” argument is growing tiresome. First, he’s still completing his body of work. Second, he just won his first NBA championship, the traditional measuring stick of all the NBA’s greatest players. Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Webber, Iverson, McGrady, and countless others were criticized for not having any rings. Russell, Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, and Duncan are all revered because of their enormous collection of rings. That’s the way the game is. Could Lebron become a “not one, not two, not three, not four….” time NBA champion? Absolutely. Will that elevate him over Michael Jordan? In my opinion, that view is simply the syndrome I like to call: What have you done for me lately? My grandmother used to be this way. She would give credit to someone who was helping her out at that moment, but would forget those who helped her out weeks, months, or years before. Ultimately it was harmless, but it didn’t make the reality any less distorted. This column is coming as a response from “The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons and his Friday column that Lebron’s pursuit of greatness is all that matters this season. I’ll let that sink in: The Lakers and their potential juggernaut don’t matter. Neither does KG and the aging Celtics vying for one more title. Derrick Rose‘s return, perhaps the biggest question mark in NBA history, doesn’t mean anything. Neither does OKC and if they make ‘The Leap’ and become elite setting the table for an OKC/Miami rivalry that spans YEARS. That’s all secondary to Lebron’s media created quest to be the greatest. Two things really bothered me about this:
“Now we’re doing this dance with the latest object of everyone’s affection, LeBron James, the best basketball player in 20 years.” – Bill Simmons, “King James’s Next Stop: Permanent Legend Status”
First of all, you’re telling me Lebron James in 2012 is BETTER than Michael Jordan at what you called in “The Book of Basketball” your favorite Michael Jordan season – 1992? Are you really willing to say he is better than MJ’s best season?
“For the first time, I feel myself starting to waver a little. Maybe Michael Jordan won’t remain the greatest basketball player ever. Maybe we were wrong.” – Bill Simmons, “King James’s Next Stop: Permanent Legend Status”
I have never wavered on this not even for a second. I even took Lebron and MJ and compared them “One-on-One” a couple of years ago. I feel like the argument needs updating and needs more validation since this question keeps recurring. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed I got angry at Simmons and vented at him (click here to view my Twitter account). I feel like we need to examine the entire body of work, but how do we account for the conflicting eras? Who knows how many points Jordan could’ve scored in today’s NBA? Without handchecking, with flagrants being handed out like candy, and with stars getting all the calls, could he have averaged 40 ppg? Isn’t that conceivable?
Without regurgitating Lebron and MJ’s statistics (Lebron actually had some better statistics this season compared to MJ in 1992), here are four areas in which I think Jordan bests Lebron:
Lebron’s Lack of a Post Game/Mid-Range Game
I know. Lebron “worked on his post game and is now a menace on the block.” But he’s also 27 and has been in the NBA for 8 years. He’s just now starting on it. Jordan’s post game was refined and annihilated Kevin Johnson in the 1993 NBA Finals. He used it as a weapon. Lebron is now inventing his post game. Unfortunately, advanced statistics from Jordan’s prime aren’t available (at least not that I could find), but look at Lebron’s shooting percentages by range:
- At the rim: 76%
- 3 to 9 ft: 46.5%
- 10 to 15 ft: 48%
- 16 ft to 3pt: 37.2%
- 3pt: 32.5%
Here is the breakdown from Michael Jordan’s final season with Washington (age 40):
- At the rim: 61%
- 3 to 9 ft: 36.3%
- 10 to 15 ft: 43%
- 16 ft to 3pt: 42.4%
- 3pt: 29%
Shouldn’t we be concerned that Lebron’s averages (minus at the rim to 9 feet) aren’t blowing Jordan’s away? I’d love to see Jordan’s breakdown in his prime. If it was that good at age 40, can you imagine at age 30? Lebron has to improve his mid-range game and his post game. That’s how you stick around the NBA for a long time. Which brings me to my second point…
Lebron Doesn’t Have Much Time Left
Look at high school players that have played in the NBA and when they started to get hurt and their stats started to fall off:
(Change from the year before in parentheses)
- Kevin Garnett: 13th year (age 32), played 57 out of 82 games (knee injury), 1128 games played total (including playoffs), 43,291 minutes played (including playoffs), averaged 15.8 ppg (-3), 8.5 rpg (-1), 2.5 apg (-1), 1 spg, 1 bpg
- Tracy McGrady: 10th year (age 28), played 66 out of 82 games (knee injury, microfracture surgery), 787 games played total (including playoffs), 27,884 minutes played (including playoffs), 21.6 ppg (-3), 5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1 spg, .4 bpg
- Kobe Bryant 14th year (age 32), played all 82 games, 1311 games played total (including playoffs), 48,310 minutes played (including playoffs), 25.3 ppg (-2), 5.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.2 spg, .1 bpg
- Kobe Bryant: 15th year (age 33), played 58 of 66 games (had procedure on his knee in offseason), 1381 games played total (including playoffs), 51,018 minutes played (including playoffs), 7.9 ppg (+2), 5.4 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.2 spg, .3 bpg
- Jermaine O’Neal: 11th year (age 29), played 42 of 82 games (knee injury), 767 games played total (including playoffs), 22,449 minutes played (including playoffs) 13.6 ppg (-6), 6.7 rpg (-3), 2.2 apg, .5 spg, 2.1 bpg
Did you notice any similarities? All of them had knee injures, all of their numbers went down (except for Kobe Bryant this season after his knee procedure), and they all started declining between ages 28-33. All of these guys came out of high school, just like Lebron James. All of these guys were perennial all-stars, just like Lebron James. Kevin Garnett WAS Lebron James before Lebron was Lebron: a freak athlete out of high school, capable of literally playing all five positions and defending all five positions, and nobody had really seen anything like him. Kobe Bryant has been generally considered to be the heir to MJ’s throne and one of the best, if not the best, players in the NBA for the past decade. These guys had all the credentials Lebron James had (Garnett and Bryant both have MVP awards to their credit).
So why is this important? Here’s Lebron’s breakdown: starting his 10th year (age 27, will be 28 in December), played 804 games total (including playoffs), 32,491 minutes played (including playoffs). How much time does Lebron really have left? This is the age T-Mac started falling apart and had problems with his knees. Jermaine O’Neal fell apart a year older. KG and Kobe lasted to around 32. Does Lebron really just have four to five more years of being elite and then he’s just another great player? It sounds insane doesn’t it? We’ve already examined where Lebron is most effective: At the rim. According to Phil Jackson, the one similarity he noticed between Kobe and MJ when they were both in decline is the ability to finish at the rim declined first. Won’t that happen to Lebron? Shouldn’t he have been working on his mid-range and post game so much earlier and have it mastered by now? What if he has to have a surgery like McGrady? Could he reinvent himself? What if he loses that quickness and only retains that overbearing size? He won’t be able to elevate over people and his jumpshot isn’t quite reliable.
My take: I think Lebron has five elite years left which means he would have to rip off five more titles in five years to equal Michael Jordan. I don’t think that’s possible. First, Dwyane Wade isn’t going to be around five more years. He’s too beat up. Second, he might leave Miami in 2014. Third, Oklahoma City is going to be right there. The Lakers might be right there if they build around Dwight and Kobe/Nash/Gasol decide to keep playing with him. Chicago (once Rose returns) is still going to be a contender in the East. Boston is still a contender right now. It’s a very competitive league. Who’s to say they will make the Finals again? In my opinion, Lebron squandered his chance of matching Jordan’s rings. 2011 against Dallas was a huge misstep. They should’ve won that year, but he didn’t show up. I think he’ll ultimately retire with three to four rings maximum, but that’s all depending on how long the Miami dynasty stays together and also how Oklahoma City reacts after trading James Harden. The final separation between Lebron and Michael Jordan is this….
In Michael Jordan’s career, there are only a handful of haunting moments. Like the time he volunteered to scrimmage around the nation with the Washington Gener…I mean Wizards as a goodwill gesture for the NBA. (He DID NOT play regular season games with the Wizards. Do you hear me?!) Or when Nick Anderson stole the ball from him after he played baseball for two years and plunged himself into a playoff race wearing number 45. Those are forgettable and ultimately forgivable. He had a few elite and memorable games for the Wizards: Eclipsing 50 points a couple times, becoming the oldest player to score 40 points in a game, his first dunk during a preseason game, and his memorable final All-Star appearance, where he hit the game-winning fadeaway embarrassing Shawn Marion only to have Jermaine O’Neal screw up. With his baseball comeback: The buzzer beater against the Hawks (had an 20 point third quarter in that game that is Jordan-esque) and the Double-Nickel against the Knicks. Performances like that make these errors in judgement forgivable and ultimately are part of the legend.
Lebron’s haunting moments are a little more severe. There are three main ones that stick out to me:
1. Lebron James No-Shows Game 5 Against the Boston Celtics in 2010: This is his final game as a Cleveland Cavalier. Here are the highlights if you can call them that. It was painfully clear to everyone watching that game that Lebron had checked out of Cleveland. It wasn’t the same player that ran over my Chicago Bulls the round earlier or that had dominated the entire NBA for several years. This was an apathetic and ready to be off this team Lebron James that makes NBA fans want to puke. Michael Jordan NEVER quit on his team and he played with worse players than Lebron has at various points in his career (Chris Whitney, Jahidi White anyone? Ed Nealy? Kyle Macy?) Can we really remember a guy as “the greatest” when he blatantly and obviously gives up on his teammates and his city, the one that has been a tortured fan base in every major American sport for decades, and he was supposed to bring them a title? I’d venture to say it’s unforgivable.
2. The Decision: When Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995 he sent a fax to David Stern that read “I’m Back.” When Lebron James became a free-agent he decided to host an hour-long TV special on ESPN in which he had decided to embarrass and torture the already tortured Cleveland fan base. In what I view as the most egotistical and ridiculous television spectacle I have ever seen, “The Decision” was a horrible idea on so many levels. How could a guy that “grew up in Cleveland” turn his back on the fans that cheered him night-in and night-out and made excuses for his shortcomings? This may seem like an extreme comparison, but it was similar to Kobe’s alleged rape case several years ago. It wasn’t that the acts were similar, it was that both acts stripped these athletes of their innocence in the public eye. Up until that point, Lebron had been viewed as a basketball prodigy, the heir apparent, and the most marketable star in the NBA. He generally goofed off with his teammates including his obnoxious and frankly stupid pregame ritual of pretending to take a picture with them. Does anybody remember the time Joakim Noah called him out for dancing and taunting them or how he and Danny Green used to dance on the sidelines? That image of the fun-loving good kid from Akron got stripped away from him the day of “The Decision.” It is extremely similar to Hulk Hogan turning into Hollywood Hogan at “WCW Bash of the Beach 1996.” The innocent hero, Hulk Hogan, turned into a bad guy and told the fans to stick it. There was no going back. He crossed the line. Is it any wonder Cavs fans burned his jersey and booed him like there was no tomorrow when he returned the next season? It was well deserved. Jordan had his issues with gambling, but this was much larger than those issues. “The Decision” is a large black mark on Lebron’s career and legacy. (Edit 2014: Will Miller correctly points out that this was a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club as a fundraiser, but could he not use his celebrity to raise funds in a different way? It was a disaster)
3. The 2011 NBA Finals: We all remember it. Lebron no-showed the NBA Finals in 2011. He was visibly absent in crunch-time and excessively deferred to his teammates. It was an embarrassment. Instead of rising to the occasion like a superstar should, he shrunk in the moment and was barely visible at times during the Dallas series. What happened? Did the side-effects of “The Decision” and the backlash that followed affect him more profoundly than we knew? He was brilliant at times in the Chicago series, but against Dallas? He disappeared. This made Lebron 0 for 2 in the NBA Finals. Jordan was 6 for 6 with 6 NBA Finals MVPs. He rose to the occasion and had some of his greatest moments in the NBA Finals (“Oooh, what a spectacular move…by Michael Jordan,” The Shrug Game, 55 against the Suns, winning the title on Father’s day, The Flu Game, and The Final Shot.) He never shrank from the moment like that. Lebron did in 2011 and it was painfully obvious. Shouldn’t the greatest player of all-time rise up when it matters and put the team on his shoulders and say, “We’re not losing tonight” just like Jordan did with The Flu Game or the Shrug Game, in which he ended the stupid notion that Drexler was equal to him, or the Final Shot? Have you see the last game for Michael Jordan? Pippen hurts his back like the second play of the game and is not the same. Jordan basically carried the offensive and defensive burdens by himself and wills the Bulls to the sixth championship. Lebron did that this year, but why didn’t he have that in 2011? If we’re going to compare him to Michael Jordan we need to compare all of the qualities. Lebron can’t even come close to matching Jordan’s will to win.
(Note: I’d question the notion he is more athletic than Michael Jordan. It’s one thing to speculate whether Lebron could play another sport professionally, but Jordan actually went and did it. Jordan also could jump out of the roof and control his body unbelievably. Lebron is just big and quick. I don’t know that makes him more athletic.)
The final point goes along with the previous point….
Playoff performances matter when you’re labeled the greatest basketball player of all-time and it’s an area where Lebron falls shockingly short. In fact, the only two memorable performances that come to mind are the game winner against Orlando in 2009 (while he played for Cleveland. By the way, DON’T compare this to the shot on Ehlo. Jordan hung in the air and hit a ridiculous shot to send them to the next round. The Cavs lost the series against Orlando) and his unbelievable game against Boston this season. That’s it. When you think playoffs with Jordan, you think of the shot on Ehlo, finishing the Knicks in 7 games in which he almost fought Xavier McDaniel in a ridiculously physical series, all of the moments mentioned before, and the NBA Playoff Record from 1986: His 63 points in Boston Garden against what is believed to be one of the greatest NBA teams ever. (Note: Simmons said it was the greatest team ever in his book, “The Book of Basketball.”) Could Lebron drop 63 on that team in that era? Could Lebron drop 63 on any team in this era? I don’t see it in him. He doesn’t seem to have that maniacal instinct to want to destroy his opponents. Even against OKC and Boston he seemed kind of “nice.” MJ was good friends with Ewing, Barkley, and Bird, but when it was game-time he went crazy.
Since Simmons said Lebron is the best basketball player of the last 20 years, I decided to compare Lebron and Jordan in a simple way, using Basketball-Reference.com and in their best years, according to Simmons. That would be Michael Jordan in 1992-1993 and this year’s Lebron James. I used advanced statistics and viewed their offensive and defensive ratings in the playoffs for each year. Lebron’s highest offensive ratings were 154 (1st round), 138 (2x: once in the 2nd round and his legendary performance against the Celtics), and his highest in the Finals was 130. Jordan in ’92-93: 158 (1st round), 147 (Eastern Conference Finals), and his highest in the Finals is his next best performance this year, 132 against Phoenix. Just for fun, here’s his offensive ratings from 1997-98 when he was on the decline: 163 (1st round), 149 (Eastern Conference Finals), 144 (Eastern Conference Finals) and his highest in the Finals was only 126.
Comparing their defensive ratings: Lebron: 120 (Eastern Conference Finals), 112, 111, 110 (all NBA Finals). Jordan in ’92-93: 122, 117 (2x: All in NBA Finals), and 113 (2nd round). Jordan also rose to the occasion on defense in the playoffs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Lebron is a tremendous off-ball defender, but Jordan was amazing off the ball and on-ball. He was the second best perimeter defender in his era (to Scottie Pippen) and even won defensive player of the year. He truly was a great defender. (By the way, Jordan’s defensive ratings in ’97-98: 133, 129 (Both in the Eastern Conference Finals), 126 (1st Round), and 118 (Eastern Conference Finals) Still higher than Lebron in his prime.)
Ultimately in the years to come, people will continue to rehash this argument as Lebron continues to compile his body of work. However, for the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe Lebron James can or will surpass Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all-time. Jordan was the most elegant, athletic, and determined player I have ever witnessed. For someone to surpass him would be a truly difficult feat to accomplish and would require someone with the same characteristics that Jordan had and the talent to match it. Lebron doesn’t possess those qualities or he would’ve been driven to perfect his post-game and his mid-range jumper by now. As basketball fans, it’s always fun to compare players from different eras. But in reality, Michael Jordan is the best that ever played.