LeBron-Jordan comparisons are inevitable, but standards are unfair
We love to compare LeBron James to Michael Jordan. It's become a national hobby. As a member of the sports media, I believe that anything you do, you can overdo. So let's take this a step further. Let's imagine they were interchangeable. Let's take a few facts about one man's career and apply them to the other.
In the 2014 NBA Finals against San Antonio, Jordan is averaging 27.3 points, 7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Jordan is shooting 60 percent from the field, 70 percent from three-point range, and 79 percent from the free-throw line. Jordan has committed 15 turnovers against the Spurs, but he also has 10 steals.
Still, Jordan's Miami Heat trail 2-1, partly because Jordan did not get to finish Game 1. Oh, of course, Jordan tried his best to finish the game, despite debilitating cramps -- he literally played until his body couldn't move any more and he had to be carried off the court.
In the 1996 NBA Finals against Seattle, LeBron James averaged 27.3 points. 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He also shot 42 percent from the field, 32 percent from three, 84 percent from the line. He averaged three turnovers per game, and in the deciding Game 6 against the Sonics, he had as many turnovers (five) as made baskets (five, on 19 shots).
In fact, in the last three games of those '96 Finals, James shot 37 percent, with 11 turnovers. Nonetheless, James' Chicago Bulls won, and James was once again named Finals MVP.
James was hailed as the greatest individual talent in history, but did not reach the Finals in his first six seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Critics said he was more concerned with scoring than winning. Only in 1991, when James's teammate Scottie Pippen emerged as one of the best players in the world, did James finally win a title. James had an uneasy relationship with Pippen for a while -- he famously mocked him for having migraines during a crucial Game 7, the kind of relentless ripping that sometimes made James unpopular with his Chicago teammates. Eventually, James and Pippen became the best pair of teammates in the league, by far -- devastating opponents on offense and defense.
In 1993, after winning his third title with Chicago, James suddenly retired, saying he wanted to watch the grass grow. He then played minor league baseball for a while, rather than try to compete for a fourth straight title. James' Chicago Bulls won 55 games without him, thanks to an MVP-quality season from Pippen.
In 2010, Jordan was considered the best player in the NBA, but he had only led his Cleveland Cavaliers to one NBA Finals in his first seven seasons. Jordan then left Cleveland to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Jordan carried the Heat to two of the next three NBA championships (with a third possible this week). Meanwhile, the Cavs dropped from 61 wins to 19 the year Jordan left.
Well, well. What do we think of that? It was a little weird, of course -- pretending Jordan played for the Cavs, then left, seems like another twist of the knife in Cleveland's stomach. But mostly, the exercise reveals more about us than about Jordan or James.
We have compared them for years, but we don't compare fairly. We decide Jordan is superior to James, more of a true champion, and then we use the facts to support our conclusion, even when they don't.
Can you imagine what the amateur psychologists would say if James retired from the Heat after this season, then decided to play minor-league baseball? I'm going to take a wild guess here and say he would not be praised for his mental toughness. And what if James was spotted at a casino past midnight on the night before a playoff game, as Jordan once was?
Look, nobody has to sell me on how great Jordan was. I know. I saw it. We all did. But in the last few years, we have done something I thought was impossible:
We have overrated Michael Jordan.
Really. That's what we have done. What an incredible feat, America. We have overrated Michael Jordan. We have taken one of the great athletes in history and declared him perfect.
Everybody remembers Jordan's iconic shot over Utah's Bryon Russell to win his final championship. And maybe a few people point out that he pushed off, which was illegal but also a savvy veteran move; Jordan knew that with the way the game was called, and with his stature and the moment, that the refs would not whistle him for a push-off. But how many people realize Jordan missed 17 of 26 shots the game before that?
That is not a criticism of Jordan. At 35, he was still the best player in the world, a rare feat, and one that James will probably not be able to match. Praise Jordan all day and night. Call him the best ever, and I won't argue the point.
Still, on some level, all this genuflecting before Jordan has sapped us of our appreciation of LeBron James. It's not just driven by self-promoting talking-heads, either; Jordan is ingrained in the minds of most NBA fans. He is the standard. And so James' 2010 defection to Miami looked even worse than it was because we are so sure Jordan never would have done it. James' accomplishments the last few years are diminished, in our minds, because we are convinced Jordan's were more impressive.
And it's happening again right now. Viewed objectively, James has had a fantastic Finals. His shooting percentages are ridiculous: 60 percent from the field and 70 percent from three-point range? Those are empty-gym numbers. The cramps were unfortunate, but hardly a character indictment; reasonable, intelligent people understand that he did everything he could to play in the game. And in Game 3, when the Spurs were hitting (almost literally) every shot they took, James scored 12 straight points to at least make a comeback possible. It was a Man vs. Machine Finals game, and the Machine won, but I can't wait to see what the Man does in Game 4.
Yes, James has 15 turnovers, which is way too many. (He had seven in Game 3, part of a team-wide problem when Miami was clearly anxious to make up its huge deficit as fast as possible.) Did anybody notice he also has 10 steals? Does this matter?
James is such an easy target that when he says, as he did last week, that he is the "easiest target in sports," people take shots at him for complaining. On some level, it's understandable. He has wealth, fame, and as much talent as any player in NBA history. It's annoying, isn't it? Worse, he seems to want everything on his side -- when ESPN reported this week that the Heat will try to add Carmelo Anthony, you could see millions of eyes roll.
Well, maybe if the Cavs had drafted a player as good as Scottie Pippen to play alongside him, James would be winning championships in Cleveland right now. It didn't happen. He is in Miami. That's reality. And if you love basketball, then you can see this guy may be in the middle of an all-time great Finals.
On the base of the statue of Jordan at the United Center in Chicago, these words are inscribed:
The best there ever was
The best there ever will be
The first line is based on observation. The second line is a religious belief. Maybe LeBron James can't compare to a deity. But I suspect he'll be sheer hell for the Spurs on Thursday night.