Michael Jordan comparisons a disservice to LeBron James’ wide-reaching game
The mythology of Michael Jordan has done wonders for the NBA as an industry, but it’s also been largely misinterpreted. Jordan was the best player the league had ever seen as well as the most ruthless, two qualities that many basketball historians bind with a causal link. Jordan was Jordan, the thinking goes, not only because of incredible athleticism and hardened skill, but also because his approach to the game was inherently cruel and uncompromising. He’s certainly not referred to as a “killer” or an “assassin” based on his cuddly basketball personality, and from that merciless play came the template for the superstars to follow. It wasn’t enough for the next generation to win or to produce; in order to be uttered in the same breath as Jordan, other stars needed to demonstrate some of the same cold-blooded execution that elevated Jordan to greatness.
There’s no denying that basketball success requires some strand of relentlessness, but the notion that Jordan’s way is the only way is troublingly narrow. Some will inevitably share in a similarly cold intensity, but the vast majority of NBA players will navigate games, seasons and careers in distinct fashion. That’s no basketball sin, nor any indictment of their quality.
Yet the comparisons in approach and personality will continue, largely focusing on Jordan and the player with the best chance of potentially challenging his title as the greatest of all time: LeBron James. Public discussion of James’ game turned a corner in the 2011 postseason, but the obligatory Jordan comparisons linger, for reasons more to do with style than effectiveness or production. Every quarter or half in which James shoots jumpers or sets up open teammates invites this obvious contrast, the volume of which only increases if the Heat trail.
James is too often faulted for making smart, selfless plays. His patience is mistaken for passivity, and with that comes grounds for further criticism on the basis of him not being Jordan. LeBron isn’t and will never be the kind of hyper-aggressive scorer who treats every matchup as a personal affront, but he still influences the course of most possessions on both ends of the court — even in ways that Jordan never could. He casts a tall shadow without even touching the ball, and in that flexes the full extent of his superstardom in ways different from Jordan but not intrinsically inferior.
Even on those occasions in which James doesn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers, his presence still manifests in productive ways. Take the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio as just one convenient example. In 22 minutes, James registered just four points on 2-of-7 shooting with four assists — a half as fundamentally opposite Jordan as a player of James’ stature could muster. But between the lines of the box score, James was an active participant or a needed decoy in most every play. The ball didn’t always swing his way, but there’s a world of difference between floating out of a game and making engaged moves without the ball, as James did here with a hard, planned cut down the baseline:
There is no deferral there, only balance. James understands better than most the value of letting Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or Ray Allen operate, even if that means his role in a play is to distract rather than enact. He fills such a role without complaint. James is, by nature, a collaborator — one of the best to ever play the game. He draws pressure, but tends not to force the action:
He creates opportunities literally by running down the court (watch the Spurs’ Danny Green, No. 4 in black, completely leave Mario Chalmers, No. 15 in white, to track James):
He’s quick to re-establish a teammate in a position of advantage:
Think about that play for a moment. In a situation where most stars would reset the ball at the top of the floor to run an isolation or pick-and-roll, James re-establishes Chalmers without hesitation to exploit a point of perceived weakness. Miami attacked the baseline consistently in its Game 2 victory, and rather than divert from that plan to get his or simply control the ball, James immediately gave the ball back to Chalmers and looked to help him penetrate with a quick screen.
That was one regard in which James helped plenty in Game 2 while going largely uncredited. He may not be attributed points on these plays, but he’s as responsible for the basket as the teammates who converted them:
Most of this action comes without box-score reward, the likes of which James also tends to earn in bulk. He scores plenty, racks up assists and piles up rebounds. But James contributes in so many ways at virtually all times that it’s baffling his style could ever be considered to be empty or in any way passive. He’s not limited in scope to his counted contributions on the scoreboard, or even to that which is immediately noticeable. The world marveled at James’ crushing of Tiago Splitter’s dunk attempt but paid precious little mind to all those occasions in which James rotated over and deterred Splitter — one of the better pick-and-roll big men in the league — from even attempting a shot:
Nor was much attention paid to this play, in which James navigates seamlessly from Kawhi Leonard to Tim Duncan to Tony Parker:
All of which transpired in James’ supposedly quiet first half.
James’ game isn’t merely broad, but layered. He shows bursts of Jordanesque scoring and cobbles together impossible stat lines. But it’s his accompanying game that makes him so unfathomably valuable to a team competing for its second straight title.
He’s not Jordan, and never will be. But he’s made hardwood greatness his own by building out his game and thriving in such subtlety, and in the process dismissed any faint validity of comparisons that are as inevitable as they are tired.