Tuesday, February 12, 2013

LeBron vs Jordan...Why?

The most frequent argument I hear in sports is the classic question, “Who is better?”  Seemingly, you can’t engage in a sports discussion regarding individual players without someone chiming in with “Well player X could never be as good as player Y.”  It’s one of the topics in sports that absolutely drive me crazy, for the simple fact that comparing players from different eras is impossible.

I understand holding on to an all-time favorite player and defending them no matter what (heck, I’ve been an Allen Iverson fan since his freshman year at Georgetown), but at some point logic needs to step in.  It’s impossible to put players of yesteryear in today’s version of their sport and expect the exact same results.  Let’s look at a few examples:

Ronnie Lott laying the boom

Would Ronnie Lott last in today’s softened up NFL, where flags are thrown for getting near a receiver?

Could Wilt Chamberlain average 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in a season against today’s athletes?

Obviously there’s no way to figure out if they would be the dominating forces they were during their era, but it’s interesting to think about the possibilities.

While it is easy to sit and compare baseball statistics, count championships in football and such; it’s virtually impossible to do the same in basketball without starting a bar-wide brawl.  Simply mention LeBron James in the same sentence as Michael Jordan and you will receive looks, yells and taunts without even having a chance to make a case.  The funny thing is, only the comparison to LeBron James brings this level of vitriol.  Why is that?

Harold Miner in the
dunk contest

Harold Miner was dubbed “Baby Jordan” but never came close to achieving even a modicum of success that Jordan did.  He lasted four seasons in the NBA, with his only real legacy being that of the NBA dunk contest champion.

Vince Carter exploded into the league out of North Carolina, Jordan’s alma mater, with early career comparison to His Airness.  While achieving status as an amazing leaper and dunk expert, he has come nowhere near the success Jordan enjoyed.  Carter is a guy who has quit on a team (Toronto) and has bounced around the league since.  He’s widely regarded as a player who had the talent to be an all-time great, but simply did not care enough to utilize it.

Carter is unfulfilled promise, whereas Miner was simply a catchy nickname based on the dunk contest.  I know some believe Carter was great, and have argued them for years against that.  No one will make that same case for Miner.  Regardless, neither name conjures up the hostility as comparing James to Jordan.

There are multiple flaws to the arguments both for and against LeBron vs Jordan, and I’m not going to go too deep into them, but I had to touch on it a bit.  However, there are a couple of things to touch on.

I don’t want to take too much time on the fact that some people simply don’t like James because we wore number 23 initially.  You know, unlike every other kid that grew up in the 90’s watching Jordan play and trying to “Be Like Mike”.  Or that he has a tattoo of the phrase “Chosen 1” on his back, despite the fact is was Sports Illustrated that called him that.  Let’s be honest, take any high school kid and put him on the cover of the most popular sports magazine in the world with that nickname attached.  Guess what is going to happen?  We’d all run with that nickname as long as we could.  James was no different.

The main argument the pro-Jordan crowd mentions is all about the ring count.  Jordan – 6.  James – 1.  This is such a short-sighted argument.  Adam Morrison has two championship rings.  Does that make him better than LeBron?  Obviously not.

While a single player can make the difference in a championship run, it takes the full team to win a title.  While many will attribute Chicago’s success solely on Jordan’s shoulders, they quickly forget that he had a tremendous team around him.  During the first three-peat he had Pippen (top 50 player of all-time), Horace Grant (consistent double-double guy and great defender) and players like BJ Armstrong and John Paxson who knew their roles.  During their second three-peat, Pippen was still around and they added the best rebounder/defender in history Dennis Rodman.  Additionally, he had the greatest three point shooter (percentage-wise) in history Steve Kerr and sixth man of the year Toni Kukoc.

Drew Gooden on LeBron's back...hmm
Looking at LeBron’s run in Cleveland; he was surrounded by minimal talent.  During the run to the 2007 NBA Finals he was surrounded by Eric Snow, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.  LeBron led them to 50 wins and an NBA Finals birth, including one of the most amazing playoff games in history.  I will venture to say that not even Jordan himself could have won a title with the team James had this season.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Chicago’s 1989-90 season.  They had virtually the same team as the next 90-91 championship season, but failed to reach the finals.  How easily we forget that at one point in his career, Jordan was thought of as a guy who couldn’t win when they needed it most.

To me, the biggest flaw in the argument is that we are simply comparing apples to oranges.  Jordan was and will forever be a score-first player.  Jordan would easily jack up close to 2,000 shots in a season; while LeBron’s highest were 1,823 shots in his 3rd professional season.  Jordan’s development from slasher to mid-range master is well documented.  While he was a solid passer, including two passes that sealed NBA championships, it wasn’t his first instinct.  LeBron James has a pass first mentality, but has the ability to dominate scoring if need be.  What LeBron does read a game better than any in that he dissects the needs of his team and adjusts accordingly.  If he needs to score 30, he does.  If he needs 10 assists, he’ll dish.  Like he showed in his masterful game 6 performance against Boston in the 2012 playoffs, he will do anything necessary to win.

The crux of the issue is that LeBron James is the single most dominant player in today’s NBA; much like Michael Jordan was in his day.  Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and the like will win MVP’s and get recognition, but the real basketball purist will appreciate Jordan and James as the greatest players on the planet during their run.  Due to their greatness and dominance, we’ve found it virtually impossible to compare them to their peers, thus we have to compare them to each other.  LeBron James is in the same air as Michael Jordan as a player.  There’s no way around it, regardless of whatever number you choose or mythical idea (the concept of clutch) used to compare them.  The simple fact that the comparison garners such heated and passionate debate shows that the argument has merit.

LeBron James makes us question what we know, what we have always believed, and that scares some.  To the passionate fan, this is similar to questioning someone’s religious beliefs or political ideology.  The hostility and anger that can be bred from such discussions is shocking, but somehow understood.  Personally, I just feel lucky to have been old enough to marvel at Michael Jordan and old enough to appreciate the greatness of LeBron James.  They don’t have to be compared, as there will never be a definitive winner.  Yet, we have to compare them because they sit in a level of skill unto themselves.

So to answer the question, “Who is better?”

We all are because, simply, we get to watch their greatness.

Questions or comments? Feel free to e-mail me at: wahlscorner@gmail.com

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