Comparing LeBron to Jordan
J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez [ARCHIVE]
February 12, 2013
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J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives. Today, they discuss LeBron James and Michael Jordan.


The strangest part of LeBron James' performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday was that it didn't seem as if he was competing with Kobe Bryant. Oh, Bryant was there all right, playing quite well, as evidenced by the 28 points, nine assists and six rebounds by his name in the box score. He just wasn't the measuring stick. LeBron was playing against the track record of Bryant, just as Bryant doggedly continues trying to pad his resume to make it comparable to Michael Jordan's.

If this was about LeBron and Kobe in the here and now, a lot more would be made of the fact that LeBron has won 13 of his past 15 games against Kobe. But that's not what we're monitoring anymore. We're talking about the ability to play the game at rarefied levels. We've seen Kobe enter this zone, when he averaged 40 points in February 2003. Or Jordan's six-game stretch in 1990 when he went for 46 points a night on 60 percent shooting, with 10 rebounds and five and a half assists per game.

Jordan remains the standard, Bryant his surrogate to provide an approximation of how intense a competitor he was, in case anyone forgot. The remarkable thing is we can't forget. We're incapable of viewing LeBron on his own merit. The elevation of his game over the past year has brought Jordan back into the discussion, almost inevitably. Which means there is one more stage LeBron has to reach: smashing the Jordan statue, so that he can serve as the model for the new sculpture.

My question for you is whether that's even possible, and if LeBron is the one to do it.


What would LeBron be doing on his statue? Chest pass, maybe? Chase-down block?

See how I'm avoiding the question? It's so difficult to project that far down the line, because LeBron is only starting to truly enter the Jordan conversation, and even that's only because we're assuming at least another half decade of this kind of dominance.

But what we're seeing from him now makes me think it's absolutely possible.

There are very, very few players in basketball history who can essentially toy with the rest of the league. Wilt Chamberlain led the league in assists one season just to prove he could. Jordan gambled the night before and played golf for hours before the game and went out and scored 40 with relative ease.

What we're seeing from LeBron right now is him playing a game within the game. He's essentially trying to play the perfect game -- at least he has been since that 13-of-14 shooting performance against the Bobcats on Feb. 4.

Go back and watch his reaction after he missed his first shot against the Lakers on Sunday. It was a wide-open midrange shot, and when it rimmed out, he acted like he just missed a game winner in the playoffs.

One fellow writer suggested Sunday that LeBron is trying to score 30 points on 10 field goal attempts or fewer (he got 30 on 11 FGAs against the Clippers).

When you're so good that you can play that game, you're dancing in Jordan's territory. (Side note: It could be suggested that LeBron's attempt at ultimate efficiency is selfish. But it's not when your team is winning, and the Heat have won their past five with relative ease.)

The way I see it, it took last year's playoffs for LeBron to realize just how dominant he can be. Now he realizes that, yes, he can be in Jordan's neighborhood by the time he retires, so he's setting goals and making it happen.

He's on his way there. Finishing the deal is another story.


That's a fascinating thought: LeBron is competing against the parameters of basketball, not against individuals. Jordan was never motivated by the abstract. Michael was always about annihilating the people in front of him. He said he was driven to separate himself from would-be peers such as Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller, or the legends whose times overlapped with him, including Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. If Jordan wanted to go after Bill Russell's ring count or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, he wouldn't have taken a baseball hiatus or retired a second time at age 35.

Kobe wanted to do things his way: win a game by outscoring a team on his own (as he did for three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks once) or win a championship without a dominant center (that didn't work out so well).

We've known that LeBron always wanted to win by making the correct play. It's brought terabytes' worth of criticism when he passes to the open man instead of taking the shot himself with the game on the line. And yet he sticks with this ethos. He's driven by a fundamental need to do right, like Batman leaving a criminal's fate in the legal system's hands, or Dexter Morgan adhering to his "code."

LeBron's style has always been more Magic than Michael, and one aspect of Magic I'd like to see LeBron take on is Magic's adaptability. I think Magic would have taken it upon himself to address the Heat's rebounding issues. Sure, LeBron is averaging a career-high 8.1 rebounds this season, but it's only a 2.5 percent increase over last season's production. Magic's rebounding would swing by as much as 27 percent from season to season, depending on his team's needs. Granted, Magic didn't have as much of a scoring burden as LeBron does. Magic directed the offense; LeBron is responsible for generating offense.

While LeBron's approach is descended from Magic, there's one opportunity he has to duplicate Jordan, at least in the sense that Jordan made the 1990s his own. Jordan claimed the decade indisputably, more cleanly than Magic over Bird in the 1980s or Kobe over Shaq and Tim Duncan in the 2000s. Every time Michael Jordan showed up for training camp in the 1990s he ended the season with a championship parade. For LeBron to approach that level of success, he'll have to hold off the ascendant Durant. (If LeBron is doing all this at 28, can you imagine the progress Durant can make when he reaches that age for the 2016-17 season? What a thought. We'll need to address that in a whole other column). If he grabs several rings at Durant's expense, that would be more impressive than Michael racking them up against the likes of Drexler, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

Meanwhile, here's an interim goal for LeBron. It's kind of arbitrary. The best field goal percentage by a player who handled the ball on the perimeter as much as LeBron does is 57.4 percent, by John Stockton in 1987-88. LeBron's at 56.2 percent right now. At his current pace he will attempt 625 more shots this season. If he maintains the standard he has set of late and makes 370 of those shots (59 percent) he can get to 57.4 percent this...
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