“I am not Michael Jordan.” Lebron James (“LBJ”) stated in response to Phil Jackson’s remarks about LeBron James and the Cavaliers’ chances in the 2016 NBA Finals. Ever since appearing on national television as the All-World, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school phenomenon, LBJ has drawn comparisons to the man generally regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan. Now that he’s won his third NBA Championship ring, comparisons have only intensified. LBJ, however, shuns comparisons and maybe we should too if we are to fully appreciate LBJ’s greatness.
Yes, LeBron is correct. He is not Michael Jordan. His career is fuller. He is the total package on the court and the saga of his career is too. While he may not have tried his hand as a minor-league outfielder, his career is as holistic as any player in the last 30 years. While he may not have eclipsed Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bill Russell or a few others in NBA Championships, he has done more across a greater number of categories making his career less of a competition against other greats and more of LBJ’s own distinct work of art. To compare LBJ’s career to anyone else is to cease watching Forrest Gump after he receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. There is more to the story.
To start with the imperfect science of comparisons, most fans agree MVPs and NBA Championships speak more to a player’s greatness than any other statistics or accolades. According to assorted categories of greatness, Michael Jordan is still considerably ahead of LBJ. Michael Jordan was named the NBA’s Most Valuable player five times; LBJ was four times. Michael Jordan played on six NBA Title winning teams; LBJ has on three. Michael Jordan was named to the First-Team All NBA team 10 times; LBJ has done it nine times, but will presumably eclipse Jordan in at least one of the remaining seasons of his career. Eclipsing Jordan in each of the three above categories, LBJ will require longevity and durability unseen by previous NBA greats.
Statistically, LBJ may not match Jordan – ever - but to sum up LBJ’s career only as he compares to Jordan in a few categories is unjust. He is not Michael Jordan. Competition is so deeply embedded in the DNA of sports that foregoing comparisons is to take the sports out of them. However, LBJ’s career, if viewed as a work of art, is to be heralded in much the same way as the Mona Lisa. No comparison, just appreciation. To fully appreciate LBJ, an analysis of what distinguishes him from Jordan is necessary. LBJ may not break all of MJ’s records, but we may not see again as much greatness in as many ways as we have in him.
LBJ’s accomplishments span a greater number of categories than mere MVPs, championship, or other awards. LBJ is the total parcel and his career’s statistics and story prove it. During the most important games of his career, he has dominated the inside and outside game. It’s an ultimate testament to a man and his ability to play any position at any level. He is officially listed as a forward on NBA.com, but is rightfully identified as a small forward, a power forward, and by some publications even a shooting guard. The latter classifications are more accurate. It’s difficult to confirm, but LBJ has possibly made more plays within more positions and roles than any player in history. He is, as Jerry West said, like a “Swiss Army Knife.”
Moreover, LBJ has already given his prime years to two different franchises and a double-digit number of different starting line-ups. None of his teams has missed the playoffs since the 2005-2006 season. A number of all-time greats played their best years and won championships with one franchise and the same core group of players; Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls); Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers); Magic Johnson (L.A. Lakers); Bill Russell (Boston Celtics). Jordan won all of his championships with Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Magic Johnson played on all five of his NBA Championship teams with Kareem Abdul Jabbar. LBJ has already won three championships with two different franchises and, more importantly, varying groups of teammates. His teammates from his first stint in Cleveland (2005-2010) included two active All-Stars (Mo Williams, 2009; and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 2005). Apart from his first two seasons, he led all of his early Cleveland teams to at least the second round of the playoffs.
Next, the “Decision” was made and LBJ teamed with former Olympians Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. They rightfully made the NBA Finals four times (2011-2014) and twice grabbed the NBA championship. Having won the title twice, LBJ went back to Cleveland (2014-present) to a younger, less-developed supporting cast of teammates than he had in Miami. The current core of Cleveland players includes more active All-Stars and all-NBA players than during LBJ’s first tenure in Cleveland. But they are not yet Olympic-team-caliber teammates as were Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Not slowing down, LBJ put both of his most recent Cleveland teams on his back all the way to the Finals. Despite losing to Golden State in the 2015 Finals, LBJ was the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in average points; assists; and rebounds per game. He did this without injured All-Star teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Unforgettably, Cleveland won its first NBA title in 2016 with LBJ receiving the MVP trophy, unanimously. LBJ started with a less than complete supporting cast as Kevin Love exited Game 1 and sat out Game 2 due to a concussion. Kyrie Irving suddenly evolved into a vital piece of the Cavs’ Finals roster, but was unsteady until Game 3, having only scored 10 points in Game 2. Kyrie deserves credit for stepping up when it mattered, but LBJ was likely to be named Finals MVP even if Golden State had won.
LBJ may never surpass Jordan’s finals record, but LBJ’s teams Finals record is unique because of the teams and players he has won with. LBJ has proven over and over again that he can take any team to any level. This fact is difficult to quantify statistically and may be more attributable to LBJ’s intangibles, but must not be ignored when comparing him to Jordan or any other of the all-time greats.
LBJ’s achievements across a broad range of individual statistical categories further differentiate him from Jordan and illustrate his all-around greatness. His statistics in the 2016 NBA Finals prove this as well as in any other series of his career. In the 2016 Finals, LBJ had his seventh career triple-double in a Finals game, which is the second most of all-time. It was only the third time (James Worthy and Jerry West also did it) in a Game 7 finale that a player had pulled off a triple-double. LeBron became the fifth player ever to score 40-plus points in back-to-back NBA Finals games in the same series (joining Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal). He led the 2016 series in points-per-game, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. Normally, leaders in those five categories not only are different players, they play different positions. LBJ was, of course, named Finals MVP, which made him the second player ever to win the award on two different teams (Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks and Lakers).
If we can appreciate LBJ’s uniqueness instead of measuring his major statistical achievements (MVPs, championships), we can give LBJ the credit he deserves. Taking all of Jordan’s greatness, across a broad spectrum of categories, and spreading it over statistical columns normally reserved for players in other positions, offers comprehensive insight into LBJ’s career achievements. No, LeBron, you are not Michael Jordan. You have enjoyed a wide, full, and holistic basketball career across a panorama of quantifiable and unquantifiable categories. Your career is something to behold, beyond comparison to any other player in the history of the NBA.