Basking in his second NBA championship, LeBron James should be on top of the world. With the Miami Heat’s nail-biting series victory over the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals, the superstar small forward has effectively shed all criticism that he is incapable of leading a team to a title, and after 10 NBA seasons can now focus on the second chapter of his career.
Unfortunately for James, his legacy will be irrevocably tied to Michael Jordan. While James has two championship rings, Jordan has six, and the fiercest Jordan loyalists will do everything in their power to remind James and his fans of this fact. Like Kobe Bryant before him, James is chasing the title total of the greatest perimeter player in basketball history and detractors are acutely aware of how both Bryant and James idolized Jordan, and the original always seems to garner more appreciation than the copy.
A Baryshnikov in high tops, Jordan was as graceful as he was successful, which meant legions of non-basketball fans flocking to NBA arenas or turning on their television sets to watch a mesmerizing player dominate competition like an adult toying around with children. On basketball courts all over the world, Jordan’s style and mannerisms were copied by impressionable youth, who dreamed that their abilities on the playground would translate one day into NBA success while wearing their Nike Air Jordan sneakers.
It’s clear to anyone who has followed basketball in the last 25 years that James and Bryant are unabashed disciples of Jordan worship, and not much different than the kids on courts who sagged their shorts like Jordan and stuck their tongues out as they tried to replicate a magnificent reverse layup. In interviews, Bryant would often sound like he was mimicking the tone of Jordan’s deep and matter-of-fact tone, while James wore No. 23 in high school and with the Cleveland Cavaliers. On the court, Bryant and James, and a host of other wing players, would attempt to copy Jordan’s loose style, his fluid form, and his unique swagger. The adoration for Jordan is not only obvious, but also prompted suggestions from critics that James and Bryant currently live in Jordan’s shadow, and are incapable of being in the conversation as “the greatest basketball player of all-time” unless they win seven titles.
Such talk erroneously suggests that one player is responsible for a team winning a title. If that was the case, then Jordan is perhaps nowhere near as successful as many give him credit for, because he spent the first six seasons of his career chasing after titles and failed to even make the Finals. During the 1980s, Jordan was slightly dogged by the perception that he was a “ball hog” and that his high-scoring style would not result in championships, as consensus “team players” like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had accomplished in their first two seasons in the league.
Jordan was certainly a star player in the early part of his career, having won the Rookie of the Year award in 1984-1985, and then the MVP award in 1987-1988. It wasn’t until Phil Jackson took over as head coach in the 1989-1990 season that the Bulls looked like legitimate contenders to unseat the back-to-back champion Detroit Pistons. The maturation of forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, along with the improved shooting of guard John Paxson played a key role in the Bulls’ success in the early 1990s before Jordan’s first retirement.
It also took time for Chicago to have the personnel to properly execute Tex Winter’s triangle offense. The combination of intelligent half-court coaching and skilled offensive players catapulted the Bulls to historic heights in the early 1990s after the “Bad Boy” Pistons slowed down the pace of the game from the fast-breaking 1980s. As the players surrounding Jordan improved, and as the Boston Celtics and Pistons began to show their age, the Bulls emerged as title frontrunners, which then propelled Jordan to legendary status.
While Jordan almost certainly would have won titles at some point in his career, it didn’t hurt to have the cast he had around him in the 1990s. Jackson, Winter, and Pippen remained constants, and minor moves never shook up the Bulls’ chemistry. Bill Cartwright was eventually replaced by Luc Longley at center, while Dennis Rodman stepped in for Horace Grant at power forward. Paxson was replaced by B.J. Armstrong, and then Ron Harper and Steve Kerr later filled in as Jordan’s backcourt mate. Toni Kukoc emerged as the elite sixth man Chicago always lacked, and all the while the Bulls never seemed to skip a beat.
Through it all, Jordan remained the consummate superstar. While his scoring average dipped a bit while he won championships, Jordan still took plenty of shots, and he rarely deferred to teammates in tight games. The few Jordan detractors out there could no longer call him selfish, and had to accept that he was just as much a competitor as Bird and Johnson.
Prior to the championships, Jordan couldn’t get over the hump and it was very clear why. His cast included journeymen like Dave Corzine, Gene Banks, and Brad Sellers, who failed to give Jordan the help he needed to get the Bulls into the Finals. Some critics would not give Jordan a pass for his lack of rings, but knew it was a matter of time before Jordan would gain ground on Bird and Johnson to become immortalized as the greatest in NBA history. By 1998, there were no Jordan critics.
Such pressure is not new for NBA superstars. Wilt Chamberlain, who dominated opponents to the tune of a 50.4 scoring average in the 1961-1962 season, would have to wait until his eight season to win a championship. Before his first ring, Chamberlain had to endure barks from those who thought Celtics’ center Bill Russell was the better player, as Russell enjoyed winning nine titles before Chamberlain won his first. It helped that Russell had Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Satch Sanders, and Tommy Heinsohn. Chamberlain also had talent around him, but nothing like Russell’s cast. The perception that Chamberlain, who put up statistics that almost seemed impossible, deserved to be marginalized for his lack of titles is ludicrous given his undeniable talent.
Which brings us back to James, and the Jordan comparison. Comparing James with Bryant makes some sense considering they have played against one another, though never in an NBA Finals. But the comparisons to Jordan seem unfair considering the obstacles that stand in the way of a player winning titles, and that being the standard so many basketball people use to equate whether one superstar is better than another. Winning a title is not easy, and it takes a variety of factors to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. James never had a head coach like Jackson, or a strategy guru like Winter, when he was in Cleveland. An astounding talent before his first professional game, he entered the NBA at age 19, while Jordan had three years of college basketball experience before he entered the league, and groomed his talents at the prestigious University of North Carolina under the tutelage of head coach Dean Smith.
Championships don’t tell the whole story. When James retires, many might still claim that Jordan was the better player no matter who has the most championships. They might point to the fact that James went to the Finals twice without winning, and that James had to leave Cleveland and team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get his rings. Jordan supporters will conveniently forget that Jordan failed to make the Finals with Corzine, Banks, and Sellers, yet still point out that James couldn’t win with the Cavs, and ignore how Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, and Mo Williams were not up to the standard needed for James to win a ring.
The more fair and interesting comparison between Jordan and James is the breakdown on their scouting report. Jordan was the better outside shooter, and performed better in clutch situations than James. However, James was the better passer, and far more capable of dominating on the glass than Jordan could. Where things get really provocative, is examining each player’s defense and penetration ability. While the differences are minimal, Jordan likely owns the defensive edge, as he played with a bit more intensity. He rarely slacked off on the player he guarded, and almost never let a player get the best of him. Jordan, who was gifted with phenomenal coordination, also seemed to be slightly more capable of driving past a defender than James.
Size and athleticism also play a role in the “Jordan versus James” discussion. James has a two-inch height advantage on Jordan, and while Jordan was lanky, James has tremendous upper-body strength. Jordan defeated his opponents with finesse and by using cunning moves, while James often simply relies on his superior athleticism to overwhelm those who dare challenge him.
It seems as though both players took bits and pieces of former stars before them to refine their game. Jordan appeared to be an enhanced version of Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, and David Thompson, while James seemed to combine the talents of Jordan, along with players like Dominique Wilkins and Tracy McGrady.
The aforementioned stars failed to have substantial team success, with only Erving winning an NBA championship (Dr. J also won two ABA championships). But does it matter? Who would dare question the talent and ability of Dave Bing, George Gervin, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone? None of those players won rings, but their competitive drive was never questioned. Jerry West, perhaps the fiercest competitor in professional sports history, only won one championship in 14 seasons.
Of course it’s fun to compare players. But a player’s greatness should not be measured by just championships. Basketball is too nuanced to simplify matters to the point that one category makes or breaks a player’s legacy. And there are current superstars who deserve to be recognized for their talents without incessant comparisons to a former player that most resembles their style of play.
James may not ever win another title. Though it seems unlikely, we might be witnesses to the end of James’s championship run. New superstars will emerge, and current stars are awaiting their chance to have all the pieces fall into place to capture a ring. Chances are that James has more championships to add to his resume, but no matter what happens from here on out, James’s mark on professional basketball does not deserve to be undermined because of what his team accomplishes. His extraordinary talent was there for everyone to see, and nobody can take that away from him.
James deserves to have his moment in the sun, and not deal with the shortsighted detractors who think he can’t escape Jordan’s towering presence. Despite an almost inescapable and ingrained interest in replicating the style and success of Jordan, James is indeed a unique player. It’s time for fans to appreciate James as an original and not an heir apparent.