As this offseason began to unfold and develop some interesting storylines, one in particular caught the attention of ever NBA fan. We all waited with bated breath to see where Lebron James would sign. Would he return to Miami? Would he return to Cleveland? Would he go somewhere else?
We now know where LBJ will be lacing up his shoes for at least the next two seasons, but that is just a small part of the larger picture that is King James’ career and the legacy he will leave behind. With Lebron, the media cannot talk about this offseason decision without talking about his place in NBA history. This talk of his greatness and legacy almost necessarily brings up the question of whether or not Lebron is or will be better than Michael Jordan.
Stoking the fires of debate, this list looks at ten reasons why Lebron will not surpass Michael Jordan’s greatness. Enjoy…
10. Rule Changes
One important aspect of the LBJ-versus-MJ debate that’s completely out of Lebron’s control is the ways in which the league’s rules have changed. In Jordan’s days, the NBA was very physical, as slashers getting body checked in the air was not uncommon and defenders were allowed to hand check the ball handler to keep him in front of them. This physicality both took a toll on offensive players’ bodies and made the prospect of driving to the basket a frightening one. One has to look no further than the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” to see an example of how teams could and did treat Jordan. They slammed Jordan to the ground, bumping and bruising him and sending him a message in the process.
A message like what the Bad Boys sent Jordan cannot be sent in today’s NBA, as the league has put a stop to the old style of physicality. Instead, the rules are such that the offensive player is more protected than ever. Players like Lebron, although James Harden might be the league’s best example, can get to the free throw line at will, if defenders play them too aggressively. One is reminded of Kirk Hinrich’s desperate attempt to stop a fastbreaking Lebron in 2013; he kind of tackled LBJ, and Lebron made his bitterness known to the media after the game. That “tackle,” however, was nothing compared to the way defenders used to slam Jordan. As such, Jordan will always be eulogized for his ability to put up great scoring numbers despite the way defenders played him.
Again, the era of the league in which Lebron plays is completely out of his control. Jordan’s era might be judged too favorably as well, an inflation that most of the media, who grew up watching the NBA in the 80s and 90s, seems reticent to acknowledge. Especially in the 80s, the NBA needed to change its image, as its ratings weren’t particularly high in comparison to other professional leagues. The NBA became part of the American social fabric through the coast-to-coast rivalry of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers—most specifically, the perfect rivalry, because of ways in which they contrasted one another, between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Bird and Magic eventually gave way to players like Jordan, Charles Barkley, Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, and Patrick Ewing. These players are bona fide legends, so it is hard to dismiss the competitiveness of the era in which Jordan played.
Lebron, on the other hand, plays in an era that appears to be less gilded. Of course, any league’s “golden age” is most definitely a product of the media, one that has numerous ramifications from a business and marketing perspective. This is not to say that players like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki won’t be apotheosized—yes, that is what we do to our sporting legends—when they retire, but Lebron is just hitting his thirties now. It is hard to see Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, or Paul Pierce, for instance, being admitted into the pantheon of elite NBA players when their careers are over. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the competitiveness of Lebron’s era will ever match that of Jordan’s era in the eyes of fans and the media.
8. “The Decision”
When it comes to “The Decision” haters tend to forget that Lebron James used the one-hour special to raise money for charitable causes. Instead, what gets focused on is the self-aggrandizement, which, yes, is not wholly unfair. Most people have made up their mind about Lebron’s TV special when he chose to sign with the Miami Heat; the negativity of the picture seems immutable. Lebron’s image has since recovered from the blow it took over The Decision, but it is now a lasting piece of his history in the league—for better or worse, the stuff of his legend. Jordan’s abandonment of his team for baseball (we’ll talk about that later) seems much nobler by comparison.
7. Record in NBA Finals
As it stands, Lebron James’ record in the NBA finals is 2-3. Michael Jordan won all six NBA Finals in which he appeared. Lebron’s teams have been blown out of two of those five series, and he forgot to show up in a third (2011, we’re looking at you). His record in the Finals will certainly be important to appraising Lebron’s career when all is said and done, and he will need to win several more championships to dethrone Jordan at the top of the NBA’s all-time list. A great player’s career is measured by championships, a fact that Lebron, no matter how many MVP trophies he finishes his career with, cannot escape.
6. Moving Teams
One important thing that Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, and Magic Johnson have in common is that they all played their careers for one team (Yes, Michael played those two years in Washington, but are we really going to count those?). In the prime of his career, Lebron James jilted Cleveland to move to Miami and the glamour of South Beach. While his move shouldn’t utterly undermine his chances of surpassing MJ’s greatness, it is one fact that works against him. Aside from winning championships, great players are expected to be the stable part of a team’s machinery, making the other cogs come together in a championship-winning fashion. The Cavaliers were doing nothing for Lebron, so it isn’t unforgiveable that he left. However, as he has chosen to leave Miami this offseason, one begins to wonder whether he is afflicted with a grass-is-always-greener type of syndrome.
Since recovering from the hit it took from “The Decision,” Lebron James’ image has been immaculate. He is arguably the most upstanding major professional athlete in America. And yet, the fact that he had to recover from his ill-advised TV special and decision to leave Cleveland says a lot about the challenges his image will continue to face until he retires. He lives in a burgeoning epoch of ubiquitous social media, and it is harder than ever for a professional athlete to stay out of the public eye when they are not competing.
By comparison, Jordan had to deal with none of this stuff. There also seems to be a conspiracy between the league and the media to keep Jordan’s image as clean as possible. Was the flu game because Jordan had the flu or because he didn’t give a you-know-what the night before a playoff game and ate dubious pizza? It doesn’t matter because Jordan lit it up, though it matters a whole lot that Lebron had to walk off with cramps in the NBA Finals this year. Moreover, what about Jordan’s rampant gambling? Why would a player at the top of his game, a player who is known for his exceeding competitiveness, walk away from the game to play baseball in the nineties? Could it be because David Stern forced him out because of the gambling? Lebron James doesn’t seem likely to slip, but he is up against a god.
4. Playoff Performances
Michael Jordan averaged 33.5 points per game in 35 games in the NBA Finals. By comparison, Lebron James has averaged less than 30 points per game in the NBA Finals. But Jordan’s stellar play in the NBA Playoffs goes beyond mere statistics. Indeed, it’s the big shots he hit to seal games. The last time anyone saw Michael Jordan in a Chicago Bulls uniform, MJ hit a last-second shot over Byron Russell to win the game. James still has a handful of amazing playoff performances on his resume, especially when facing elimination. However, when we think of last second NBA Finals shots with Lebron James, we think of Ray Allen’s shot in the corner to save the series for the Heat in 2013. Lebron will have many more chances to hit big shots and have big performances in the playoffs, though.
3. Playing with Friends
Obviously Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman were buddies when they played together in Chicago, not to mention the fact that Michael and Scottie pretty much recruited Tony Kukoc at the 1992 Olympics. However, Michael Jordan always wanted to crush the other elite players in the NBA. He routinely stood in the way of Patrick Ewing, something that Jordan probably took much pleasure in, but he also had great battles with Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, and Reggie Miller, Isaiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson.
Lebron James, on the other hand, made a very contra-Jordan move when he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The idea of joining other star players like those three did was foreign to the players from Jordan’s era. The paradigm of friendship that characterizes the NBA today will affect Lebron’s chances of ever surpassing Jordan as the pre-eminent basketball player of all time.
2. Location, Location, Location
This one is somewhat unfair, given that this article criticizes Lebron for leaving Cleveland in the first place. However, when Lebron left Cleveland, he didn’t pick a team in a “big” city and market. Whether it is fair or not, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York (maybe Philadelphia, but it is a distant 5th) are the cities that bring a player the most attention, respect, and, if they fail, ignominy. Indeed, the stakes are higher in those cities and thus the payoff of success is higher. Hallowed players should play in hallowed cities.
1. Personal Statistics
Thus far in his career, Lebron James has averaged 27.5 points, 6.3 assists, and 6.9 rebounds per game on slightly below 50% shooting. By comparison, Michael Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 5.3 assists, and 6 rebounds per game on slightly below 50% shooting. Their numbers are rather close, but one cannot forget that fact that Jordan took off for baseball in the prime of his career, and played two seasons with the Washington Wizards at age 38 and 39, respectively. His averages during his 140 games with the Wizards were far below his career averages. Taking that all into account, it would be hard to see Lebron surpassing Michael from a statistical standpoint.