Legendary Syracuse men's basketball head coach Jim Boeheim had some very interesting things to say about a certain world-famous small forward for the Miami Heat.
Talking to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio, Boeheim made a pretty bold assertion. "I always felt Michael Jordan was the best player I've ever seen (...) I didn't think it was close (...) and I'm not so sure anymore," Boehiem said. "This guy is 6-9, 260 pounds and he's getting better (...) I know we've had great, great players through the years. He's like Magic Johnson with Michael Jordan-type skills as well."
It's hard to believe, but the next NBA Draft will mark ten years since LeBron James was taken no. 1 overall by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Back in 2003 he was the most hyped basketball prospect in history. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17-years old. His senior varsity high school games were broadcast on ESPN 2.
2003 was the last year that high school ballplayers would be eligible for the draft, ending an era that began with Kevin Garnett and rolled through several hit-or-miss mirage phenoms (more misses than hits). There was a time when players simply couldn't cut it in the NBA without having had at least some college experience, and when that time ended and general managers began pinning their franchise's hopes on teenagers then the talent pool became considerably dull. Kwame Brown is perhaps the most famous casualty of this lopsided time in NBA history, but the list is quite long. There's Darius Miles, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop, Leon Smith, and the eternally-maligned Tracy McGrady, among numerous others. The 2001 draft alone saw four high schoolers go in the top 10.
A few years ago LeBron himself remarked on the current state of the NBA, what with a handful of teams completely dead in the water and with little chance to be good any time soon. "Imagine if you could take Kevin Love off Minnesota and add him to another team and you shrink the [league]," James said in a call for contraction. "I don't ever think it is bad for the league when guys decide they want to do some greatness for what we call a team sport." It was the precursor to, and likely the primary motivation for his decision to go to South Beach. And, he was criticized by everyone, including His Airness himself.
So, the paradigms are not quite the same when comparing these two players. Some would scoff at the notion that LeBron James could ever approach Jordan's level, much-less that he's approaching it this early in his career. And, that really is the breaking point of this kind of consideration.
It's true that LeBron James is the same age Jordan was when he won his first championship. Detractors will point to the fact that LeBron made it to the finals twice before he finally won it all, but those detractors fail to realize that they give out awards for winning your conference. LeBron will never be able to claim a perfect record in the finals like Jordan can, and that speaks volumes to a player's mythos, but in the end all that really means is that James has two more championship trophies at 27 than Jordan did at the same age. But, it's not the fact that he isn't perfect in the finals that haunts him, is it? It's the fact that LeBron disappeared in both of those series against the Spurs and Mavericks, respectively that still haunts him (albeit not nearly as much as it did even just two months ago).
Jordan won six championships, winning finals MVP all six times. He won the regular season MVP award five of those years for an overall 6 times. His dominance is legendary. But LeBron is beginning to make his case. He already has three MVP awards at age 27, whereas Jordan only had one. He finally got his first ring, though he had to do it in another city and with more help. He's still young, but it appears his choice to play for the Heat will limit his scoring, preventing him from the glossy 32+ points-per-game wizardry that Michael Jordan practically patented.
LeBron's ultimate problem with this kind of comparison goes back to draft day in the summer of 2003. He was 18-years old when Cleveland took him with the first pick, which means he has three whole seasons on Michael Jordan. Though they both won their first championship at the same age, Jordan had spent three less years in the league than LeBron.
James is on pace to break a lot of Jordan's records, and that is a natural result of beginning your career at the age of 18. I don't think Michael Jordan -- who is famously protective of his legacy -- has ever been pleased with the influx of young kids that have taken over the game. He clearly never knew how to handle it, and his selection of the afore-mentioned Kwame Brown with the no. 1 overall pick back in 2001 perfectly expresses that. It came to a head two years ago when Jordan told a group of basketball camp attendees that he thought Kobe was better than LeBron. No one should be surprised that Jordan is afraid of LeBron's talent and trajectory; Wilt Chamberlain treated Jordan himself the same way.
Clearly, we still have a lot of basketball to get through before people can really start to compare these two players, but it is not entirely out of the question. LeBron has already arguably had just as strong an impression on the league as Jordan ever had, and it shows in how teams have reacted to his decision to leave Cleveland.
Though Boston was the first to assemble a "Big 3" back in 2007 when they signed Garnett and Ray Allen, that was nothing more than a ring-grab by three guys who were coming close to retiring without one. LeBron's decision seemed to threaten the entire league. He was putting his money where his mouth was by hooking up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He was making his case for contraction, and since then the Knicks, Nets, and Lakers have all followed suit... making their cases for contraction in the process.
Power is being consolidated in certain corners of the NBA and it is generating excitement the league hasn't seen since, you guessed it, the days of Michael Jordan. Unfortunately for James, that might be the closest he ever gets to standing next to His Airness in the annals of basketball history. James could have signed the largest and most lucrative contract in NBA history when he left Cleveland, but instead he chose to take a pay cut and play for a proven winner.
I have never liked how no one gives James the credit for being the first young superstar athlete to refuse to "chase the money". LeBron James is not even kin the top 10 highest-[aid players in the NBA. He makes less than Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson, and Gilbert Arenas. As a matter of fact, this next season there will be eight players that have never won a championship that will make more than LeBron James, the most talented player in the world. He doesn't get enough credit for being the anti-A-Rod this way, but he will eventually get credit for literally changing the game.
He might finally get his way, and the league might finally contract some teams (I certainly have a few suggestions), but he has so much more to prove.
He finally won his first ring, and the world is no longer sitting square on his shoulders. He has effectively passed that baton to former Boeheim student Carmelo Anthony. With a skill set the likes of which we have never seen, LeBron certainly has the tools to retire the "greatest player that ever lived", but he's going to have to win, and win, and win some more to get there.
When Michael Jordan started winning, he didn't stop. He won, and he won often. LeBron James is going to have to play at the level he played this last season (MVP, champion, finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist) for the next 7-8 years if he wants to have the last laugh
From now until he announces his retirement, the world will be expecting LeBron James to win. He has a new burden to carry, and the ultimate MJ test will be precisely how he carries it.