Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! For those of you who may be unfamiliar with The Friday Five, this is a weekly feature that I post on Fridays in which I pick a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, then give my thoughts on the matter as either a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
I had originally intended to return to talking about basketball video games this week, but with E3 2013 right around the corner, a couple of the topics I have in mind should probably wait until we’ve caught another glimpse or two of this year’s titles. Additionally, with LeBron James and the Miami Heat back in the NBA Finals, another topic has piqued my interest, namely the inevitable comparisons to Michael Jordan. Having caught a couple of interesting comments on Twitter and from various sportswriters, I felt compelled to offer five thoughts on the comparisons between the greatest player in the league right now and the player that many consider to be the greatest of all-time.
1. Dismissal of the “Jordan Narrative” is starting to go too far
Not long after the Miami Heat finished off the Indiana Pacers and punched their ticket to a third straight NBA Finals, I saw a few people deride the “Jordan Narrative” in regards to comparisons with LeBron James. In a nutshell, the suggestion is that the “legend” of Michael Jordan has vastly outgrown the reality, with one observer opining that people are more enamoured with the narrative than the reality of how good MJ actually was.
It’s an interesting point and not completely without merit. At the same time, it’s also kind of absurd.
There’s plenty of game footage, highlight reels, statistics and records that demonstrate just how good Michael Jordan was, stuff that backs up the narrative. Sports tales are prone to exaggeration for dramatic effect and it is easy to get caught up in a good story, but it’s getting to the point where people are suggesting that Michael Jordan wasn’t anywhere near as good as commonly believed. While it may be ridiculous to suggest that a player like MJ can ever be underrated, claims like that are beginning to veer towards that territory.
We do need to be wary of the power of the narrative when comparing players, but that goes beyond Michael Jordan. It must apply to some of Wilt Chamberlain’s feats in the 60s, not to mention Bill Russell’s 11 titles in 13 years. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s place in the pantheon of NBA legends is bolstered by their own inspiring tales. Even LeBron himself benefits from a narrative; how often has he been referred to as “a combination of Magic and Michael” or had some other lofty praise bestowed upon him, from the moment he entered the NBA (if not earlier)?
There is a reason for that, of course. LeBron James is the best player in the game today, took a huge step forward after the 2011 NBA Finals and is a rare, all-time great talent. He really is that good, there’s no denying it. But there’s also still plenty of evidence that demonstrates that MJ truly was a great as he is remembered.
2. Discrepancies lead to certain details gaining arbitrary importance
When you’re talking about players of different sizes, positions and playing styles, there is a certain “apples and oranges” element to the debate. The waters are muddied even further when you’re talking about players that entered the league in different eras and under different circumstances.
LeBron is very quickly becoming the youngest player to achieve various statistical milestones. A common point of reference in the Jordan comparisons is the number of accomplishments that LeBron has under his belt compared to MJ at the same age. Of course, James entered the league out of high school, giving him a distinct advantage as far as being the youngest player to do this or that. When you compare them after the same number of seasons in the league, the tally is more even (or in some cases, favours MJ instead). Of course, LeBron also deserves credit here for being a “high school to the pros” success story, which as we know hasn’t always been the case.
By skipping college however, LeBron lacks some of the accomplishments that Jordan attained, including an NCAA championship and multiple individual awards at the college level, such as the Naismith College Player of the Year. Jordan also put up some jaw dropping numbers in a very tough era and snagged an MVP trophy in a league that featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their prime, in the process becoming the first player to lead the league in scoring, win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. That too is an impressive feat.
You’ll find that the great players are alike this way. Bill Russell won an NCAA championship, Olympic gold medal and NBA championship in the span of a year. However, that rare feat requires being on a college team that’s good enough to win the NCAA tournament, leaving college in the same year that an Olympic Games is being held and ending up on an NBA squad that’s in a position to win a championship. You also need to be pretty good player, but the opportunity has to be there.
In a similar vein, the San Antonio Spurs’ injury riddled 1997 season delivered them Tim Duncan in the Draft, who then had a chance to win a title in his second season when everyone was healthy again and the league was shaken up by the lockout of 1998/1999 and the dismantling of the champion Chicago Bulls. Thanks to a trade with the Utah Jazz that really worked out in their favour, the Los Angeles Lakers used the number one pick in 1979 to add Magic Johnson to a team that already featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, resulting in a championship in his rookie season. Years later, they’d add Kobe Bryant to a team that was fresh off a 53 win season and also signed Shaquille O’Neal, setting up a dominant run in just a few years’ time.
Of course, fortunate circumstances don’t diminish the accomplishments of these players and all have earned the right to be called all-time greats. We do have to consider context to keep certain facts in perspective though, since all these different accomplishments kind of even out in the end. When we arbitrarily start placing emphasis on one over the other, we’re conveniently deciding which particular achievement stands out as the greatest or the deciding factor.
3. We all see what we want to see
That brings us to the whole “Watch the games” rhetoric. “I grew up watching Jordan and I’ve also watched plenty of LeBron,” one person will boldly say. “So I can definitely say that Jordan’s skills have been surpassed.” Another person will firmly state “I’ve seen Jordan and I’ve seen LeBron, and there’s no way that LeBron is better than Jordan”.
Here’s the kicker: both of these statements can be made by people who have watched both players enough to form an intelligent opinion and know what they’re talking about when it comes to basketball. Furthermore, they may both have a good argument, but there’s quite likely something in the back of their minds that is clouding their judgement, holding them back from being truly objective.
The first two points I mentioned definitely come into play here. Sometimes, it’s a wariness of nostalgia and narrative (“The ‘Jordan Myth’ is greater than he really was!”). Other times, some fact or figure is given arbitrary importance (“MJ was never swept in the NBA Finals!”). Occasionally, there’s an appeal to authority (“Zo said that Pip said LeBron would kick MJ’s ass!”). Or maybe an opinion is simply affected by dislike or the notion that old/new is always better, no matter what it is you’re talking about.
One observation I’ve made of the “Who is more skilled?” debate is that people often cite LeBron’s size and strength when suggesting that he’s surpassed MJ. That’s always puzzled me, as it would seem to me that MJ’s dominance of the league despite being a smaller player than LeBron – and again, we have plenty of evidence that MJ did dominate the league – would suggest that his skills and talent are greater, seeing as how he lacks the same natural advantages. It’s kind of like Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon; Shaq was easily the more physically imposing and dominant player, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows the game that would suggest he’s more skilled than The Dream.
Of course, whether we’re talking about Shaq and Hakeem or Jordan and LeBron, we can at best make educated guesses at their level of skill. We can objectively measure their production with statistics, both raw and advanced, which is obviously relevant and useful when comparing players. However, there’s no definitive chart, scale or empirical method of measuring all of a player’s skills, especially across different eras and accounting for factors such as size and athleticism.
Again, we all see what we want to see. And on that note…
4. The people on both sides of the argument aren’t so different
When comparisons between Michael Jordan and LeBron James are being made, fans on both sides of the debate tend to throw out the same accusations. The other side are being a bunch of haters. The other side aren’t showing enough respect. The other side is terribly biased. And you know something? Both sides are quite often right, at least when it comes to their critique of their more outspoken opponents.
After the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals concluded, I saw the suggestion that criticism of LeBron rests solely on one subpar series: the 2011 NBA Finals. To me that seems an exaggeration as there’s also the 2007 NBA Finals, Games 5 and 6 of the 2010 second round series against the Boston Celtics and passing up an assortment of big shots, to name a few other incidents. Like all the greats, he’s had his share of blunders. And, as with those other players, that has to be included in a fair evaluation of his career as a whole.
The same goes for Michael Jordan. You all know how that one goes: an inability to trust his teammates, shooting too much, being difficult and demanding and so on and so forth. Such things often get glossed over, because winning has a way of doing that. It’s certainly helped LeBron’s reputation over the past couple of years. In any event, Jordan fans will conveniently ignore his shortcomings while deriding LeBron. At the same time, LeBron fans point out that double standard while employing it themselves, dismissing any arguments against him. And around in circles we go.
A good example is the whole teammate discussion. The common response to “LeBron wouldn’t have won without Wade and Bosh” is “Jordan wouldn’t have won without Pippen”. There is actually an interesting debate to be had there but at the same time it’s murky because it’s not only hypothetical, it’s using a criticism of one player as a justification for another. The notion that MJ wouldn’t have won anything without Pip long pre-dates Miami’s Big Three coming together. What was originally intended as a knock on Jordan (and for that matter, basically every other great player in league history) has become a justification for LeBron’s Decision. At the same time, that common criticism of LeBron (“He didn’t do it alone”) could easily be applied to just about any player in the Hall of Fame.
The bottom line is that in this debate, you’ve got to wade through the fanboys and the haters to really get to the heart of the matter, dodging a barrage of fallacies and accusations at every turn. If you can fight through the flame wars, overcome the narratives, strive for objectivity and avoid being seduced by facts whose significance is very much arbitrary, you can draw comparisons and come to a reasonable (if not definitive) conclusion.
5. You’ve gotta pick someone at the end of the day, so…
…I’m picking Michael Jordan. And yes, I’m sure you’re positively stunned by that revelation.
I really don’t know how objective I can be when it comes to the comparison because it involves my all-time favourite player, but in that respect I’m certainly not alone. I can only try my best and state why I hold that position, so here goes.
Even when you cast aside your nostalgia goggles, Michael Jordan’s career speaks for itself. His name is all over the NBA record books and all-time statistical leaders. The numbers he posted over the course of his career are incredible. There are hours upon hours of footage that demonstrate how he flat out did whatever he wanted on the court, making difficult and impossible plays look effortless. I’m trying to avoid getting into the narrative here, but he had a habit of doing things that made him look…well, superhuman, even supernatural. There’s a reason the “Air Jordan” moniker came about.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll ever change my mind about Michael Jordan being the greatest player of all-time and I’m guessing that a lot of other people feel the same way. I suppose it depends what happens with LeBron, or indeed some other player that may come along in the years ahead. I do believe that MJ’s claim to the title of Greatest Ever remains as strong as it’s ever been though and that anyone who ranks him as such does have plenty of justification for doing so.
As for LeBron James, while I don’t think he has surpassed Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all-time, that’s not intended to be a knock on him. It’s not about LeBron being a great player or not; only a fool or a hater would suggest that he isn’t one. It’s about MJ’s greatness, not to mention the greatness of the other players we consider to be among the best of the best: Magic, Bird, Russell, Wilt, Kareem and a handful of others we’re inclined to include on that shortlist.
However, it’s getting to the point where you have to mention LeBron James along with those great players and seriously talk about ranking him somewhere in the top ten, or at least the top fifteen. He’s got to be top twenty at the very least, though frankly that’s starting to underrate him. Again, just because someone ranks MJ number one doesn’t mean that LeBron isn’t an all-time great himself or the comparisons are completely inappropriate. They certainly aren’t going to end anytime soon, which is absolutely fine. We just need to be fair to both players when we’re having that debate.
That’s going to do it for this week’s edition of The Friday Five. It was a little longer than usual as I had a fair bit to say about this week’s topic, but I hope you enjoyed it. As always, feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments below as well as take the discussion to the NLSC Forum, where you can also join in all the chatter about the 2013 NBA Finals. I’ll probably be getting back to basketball video games starting next week, unless another topic related to the real NBA springs to mind and just can’t wait. For now, thanks for checking out my five thoughts on the Michael Jordan and LeBron James comparisons, please join me again next Friday for another Five.