The sports gods have really done it this time. The stars have aligned. A strange feeling is in the air. There’s a sense of déjà vu in the NBA.
Everyone’s talking once again. They’re talking about the person who holds the title as being the greatest basketball player of all time. One player has it; another wants it. And with impeccable, almost-eerie timing, both are in the news right now, making the conversation as delicious as ever.
Many have tried and failed. A mere few have come close. Only one has made it through the rigorous application process and come out crowned the king of the NBA. His name is Michael Jordan. And for anyone who dares to challenge his place upon the throne, you have big shoes to fill.
So, in honor of his 50th birthday this week, we’ll humor this conversation for a bit.
Enter Miami Heat’s LeBron James. He’s been the league’s hottest commodity since he was being featured on ESPN highlights before he was old enough to vote in high school. He’s been hailed as the “next” Michael Jordan since before he was drafted. Many gave him immortality status before he even won a championship.
He’s been dominant. He’s been spectacular. He’s been controversial. He’s been bad. But most of all, he’s been the unquestionable face of the league since he joined it. Last year, he finally got that ring. And now he’s playing at a level few have reached as he continues his hot streak of unparalleled epic proportions, or so they say.
But let’s make one thing very clear. LeBron James is not Michael Jordan.
James will be the first to tell you. He knows he’s not there yet. He tweeted on Wednesday, “I’m not MJ, I’m LJ.” I agree. While James has no doubt been phenomenal recently, I think mentioning him in the same sentence as MJ is still awhile away from being realistic. Actually, in my eyes, Kobe Bryant in his prime would’ve been a better candidate. And what about Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain? LeBron has yet to pass them, too.
Let’s start with the obvious. He hasn’t played as long as Jordan yet. That’s the first reason to just stop with the comparisons. It is far too early to start making the argument that LeBron is equal to or better than Jordan. And I don’t think there is anyone out there who would disagree that if his career ended today, he would fall well short of reaching the precedent set by Jordan.
From a scoring standpoint, LeBron has led the league in scoring just once (2007-08), although he has been in the top five nine times. MJ? All ten years of his first decade he was the scoring champion. Few question that Jordan is a superior scorer. James’ 27.6 points per regular season game through ten years is nothing short of stellar. But it isn’t Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan is 30.1 points per game in the regular season. Michael Jordan is 33.4 points per game in the playoffs, compared to LeBron’s 28.5 post-season average. Michael Jordan is better than 50 percent shooting in both the regular season and the playoffs. Lebron (48 and 46 respectively) is not.
It’s not all about scoring, we know. LeBron’s passing ability is probably better than Jordan’s ever was. And LeBron has been one of the top defenders in the league for several years now. And he’s probably just as much the celebrity Jordan was.
But what really matters in this conversation? It’s not Twitter followers or shoe endorsements but NBA Championships. Jordan has six and LeBron has one. Talk to me when LeBron wins another three.
Bottom line is we don't have the answer yet, and we won't have it until years from now. The jury is still out. Sure it’s nice to keep track of LeBron’s progress and say it’s possible he could be what Jordan was someday. But to put the two on the same level so early? That’s just wrong. It’s better to see how his career plays out. Until then, take it from Lebron. He’s not MJ. He’s LJ.