By Jason Keidel
Whenever we mention a player as possibly the greatest ever, our fathers always hurl a (pre)historic figure our way.
When we say Barry Sanders, he says Jim Brown. When we say Shaq, he says Wilt. When we say Bonds, he says Mays.
So let the blasphemy begin when we ponder LeBron James’s place in the pantheon. Is he about to become the best? Is he a year or two from hurdling His Airness?
Michael Jordan, his eminence, excellence, and the exemplar of modern basketball, is the unquestioned king. But can King James leave the game with just one more jewel in his crown?
It’s all subjective, of course. But one of our myriad pleasures in sports is comparisons, top-ten lists, and endless debate. It’s not always linear or logical, so we lean on stats and rings to assess royalty.
But if NBA titles were the main metric, then Bill Russell is the unquestioned boss of basketball. So we need an amalgam of numbers and titles to state a case for anyone as the gold standard. We need more than stats; we need equal measures of hardware and hardihood for the hardwood supremacy.
Jordan, the de facto logo, his high, wide-legged visage stamped on millions of sneakers, made millions of dollars, and won millions of hearts. When he retired, it was hard for even the most calcified soul to say he saw a better basketball player.
Both won their first titles when they were 27-years-old. Jordan won three in a row, LeBron won two, lost the three-peat to San Antonio. At 27, Jordan had three NBA MVP awards, LeBron also had three. (LeBron has four overall, while Jordan retired with five.) Jordan had won five scoring titles. LeBron has won one. Jordan had won a Defensive Player of the Year award. LeBron has not.
Jordan, of course, won six NBA titles, and lost none. LeBron has won two NBA Finals, and lost three.
It’s a slightly skewed comparison, since Jordan was 21 when he entered the league, while LeBron was 18. At age 28, Jordan had scored 19,000 points, had 1,594 steals, 623 blocks, 3,507 assists, 3,697 rebounds, hit 52% of his shots, in 589 games. LeBron had 20,804, 1,306 steals, 638 blocks, 5,227 assists, 5,481 rebounds, hit 49% of his shots, in 755 games.
With an extra two seasons worth of games under his belt, the numbers predictably tilt toward LeBron. But not by much.
So, LeBron has some work to do. Jordan was 29 when he won his third championship. Should LeBron lead Cleveland to the title this year, he will have his third ring at 30, equaling Jordan at the same age.
Jordan went on to win five more scoring titles, giving him ten, a number LeBron will never come near. Since his game spreads like butter across the box score, LeBron will never be as robust a scorer as Jordan. LeBron will retire with more assists and rebounds, but it’s the final game of the final round that will ultimately nudge the needle toward either icon.
And LeBron isn’t going to take a hiatus to play our pastime. if we use 27 or 28 as a baseline, it won’t give us a clear winner by age 30, but since Father Time and Mother Nature tag-team every athlete, most will agree that LeBron, at 30, has about four or five years to make it to Michael-Land.
Should LeBron lose in the NBA Finals (most concede Cleveland will beat Atlanta to get there), then he will be a dubious 2-4 in the Finals, and will need to win at least three NBA championships in the next five years to share an orbit with His Airness.
Jordan retired with 32,292 points (all but about 3,000 of which scored with the Bulls), six rings, six NBA Finals MVP awards, ten scoring titles, five NBA MVP awards, and was a 14-time All-Star.
LeBron has scored 24,913 points, has two rings, two-time NBA Finals MVP, has four NBA MVP awards, one scoring title, and is an 11-time All-Star.
Jordan also averaged 33.4 points in the playoffs (5,987 total), in 179 games. LeBron has averaged 27.9 points in the playoffs (4,715 total) in 169 games.
So if you thrash through the swamp of statistics, you’ll see that the numbers are comparable, until you get to the final round of the playoffs. Like it or not, fair or not, Jordan’s flawless Finals play is what distinguishes him from anyone since Bill Russell.
Kobe Bryant is a notch below Jordan because he never got that sixth ring. LeBron gets copious credit for taking Cleveland’s forlorn franchise to the NBA Finals the first time, getting stomped by San Antonio, while perhaps no one other than LeBron would have started for the Spurs.
LeBron had no Pippen or Shaq, but Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were rather credible copilots. And while LeBron should get kudos for making it to the Finals four straight times, he takes a hit for losing two of them. Kobe lost twice, but won five, and Jordan never tasted defeat.
Kevin Love is out and Kyrie Irving is hurt, putting LeBron in a familiar role as Batman sans Robin. But LeBron asked for this. He was excoriated for fleeing his hometown and home team for palm trees and Pat Riley. Then he was hailed as returning royalty when he took his name, game, and 21 million Twitter flock back to Akron.
There’s the physical. Now, the metaphysical. Did you ever get the sense that LeBron would die on the court, that he’s willing to sacrifice his friendships and following to squeeze those extra two points in the final two minutes out of his teammates? Does he care too much about his friends and fans to be the hardened assassin that defined Jordan’s career? It seems like eons ago, but LeBron did disappear in his first NBA Finals appearance with the Heat, losing to an older and inferior Mavericks team, despite being in charge of the series after three games. It will take talent and temerity for LeBron to breech the barrier between himself and His Airness.
So the next few years are indeed a referendum on his place on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA players. Once he made his move to Miami, took his talents to South Beach, he forfeited any sense of sympathy. He played the mercenary, the hired gun, whose soul was for sale despite his assertions that Ohio was his heart.
Maybe winning it all this June won’t make him Michael Jordan. But if LeBron somehow brings Cleveland its first title in any team sport since 1964, he won’t have to “be like Mike” to be a hero. And it will be a perfect platform to take flight and, maybe, match his might with His Airness.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.