Comparing LeBron James' Historic 2012 Season with Michael Jordan's 1992 Campaign
Since Michael Jordan retired for the last time in 2003, he's become the permanent benchmark against which every elite player hereafter is measured.
It's an understandable, if hopeless, pastime.
Will anyone ever really approach MJ's legacy?
Kobe Bryant is one title short of matching Jordan's six rings, but with three of those championships overshadowed by Shaquille O'Neal's larger-than-life contributions, the legendary Los Angeles Lakers guard struggled to definitively establish himself as the world's best player.
Twenty years later, are we finally witnessing the emergence of someone worthy of inheriting Jordan's throne?
Opinions are sure to go both ways on this one, and rightfully so. Comparing greats from different generations is never a straightforward task, and James still has his best days presumably ahead of him.
At the very least, we can draw some conclusions about the respective seasons that defined their early careers. Here's how they stack up against each other.
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Statistical production isn't always the best measure of greatness, but it's a good place to start.
Needless to say, both Michael Jordan and LeBron James were far more than top-shelf scorers in their 1992 and 2012 campaigns. Jordan's 30.1 points per game edged James' output by three points, but they scored with comparable efficiency.
James shot just a hair better than 53 percent from the field, while Jordan made just under 52 percent of his field-goal attempts. MJ was more consistent at the free-throw line, while LeBron had the edge from beyond the arc.
It's fair to say Jordan was the better all-around scorer, but it's also fair to say the Chicago Bulls needed his scoring more than the Miami Heat needed points from James.
You may be quick to surmise that James was the better facilitator given his endless comparisons to Magic Johnson. Though LeBron will almost certainly walk away with the better career numbers, their assist averages were almost identical in these particular seasons: LBJ notched 6.2 per game, while MJ notched 6.1.
If it's true that the Bulls relied more heavily on Jordan for scoring, it's also true that Chicago relied more heavily on Scottie Pippen to play the role of a distributor.
James does have the advantage on the glass, but by less than you might expect. He tallied 7.9 rebounds a game, while Jordan averaged 6.4.
Given that LeBron has a couple of inches on his Airness and spent far more time occupying the painted area at both forward positions, that's actually a somewhat negligible margin.
Any claims that James is significantly more versatile than Jordan are born out of historical revisionism.
MJ did it all.
Despite being asked to take four more shots per game, he still found a number of ways to make an impact. For those who didn't see Jordan in action on a regular basis, it's easy to forget he was far more than a prolific scorer or clutch shooter. The guy had the motor, talent and skills to do it all.
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Yes, Michael Jordan was a beast on both ends of the floor.
More often than not, those MVP awards take such things into account. In 1992, he averaged 2.3 steals per game, right on par with his career mark. Surprisingly, he also picked up just under a block per contest.
The guy may have only been 6'6", but his instincts and leaping ability still enabled him to bother shots.
When accounting for the fact that the 6'8" James averaged just 0.8 blocks last season, MJ's mark becomes all the more impressive. His 1.9 steals per game similarly fall short.
So much for the notion that Jordan was just a scorer.
Of course, stellar defense doesn't always show up in the box score. There's at least one sense in which James is the superior defender: He can effectively guard almost any position. Few have ever approached James' versatility on the defensive end of the floor.
He can lock down guards on the perimeter, but he can also body up in the post against taller players. That kind of multi-dimensional ability was nothing short of vital for an undersized Miami Heat team.
Advantage: Let's call it a tie.
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Of course, the principal difference between the two championship runs is that the Chicago Bulls won their second consecutive title in 1992, while the Miami Heat claimed just their first under LeBron James' watch.
A year after averaging 31.2 points and 11.4 assists en route to his first NBA Finals MVP award, Michael Jordan followed up by averaging 35.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists in six games against the Portland Trail Blazers. He scored 35 points in the first half of Game 1, nailing six three-pointers in the process.
It was, quite simply, the stuff of which legends are made.
That said, LeBron James' performance in the NBA Finals was nothing short of remarkable. He averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists, closing out the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Game 5 triple-double that typified his consistently diversified contributions to the Heat's success.
Which ring meant more?
Given that Jordan has already claimed his first, the Bulls had targets on their backs all season and overcame the New York Knicks in a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
On the other hand, the Miami Heat spent much of the postseason without All-Star big man Chris Bosh and survived a seven-game series of their own against the Boston Celtics in the conference finals. Were it not for James' ability to slide over to the 4 and help out against guys like Kevin Garnett, Miami would have been in serious trouble.
Of course, Horace Grant was no Chris Bosh to begin with. And hey, repeating isn't a walk in the park.
Advantage: Close call, but Jordan.
The Gold Medals
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Michael Jordan and LeBron James both claimed their second Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 2012.
Comparing their performances isn't an especially straightforward task. Neither played his typical number of minutes thanks to their teams' ensemble depth, and both were able to coast to some degree on account of winning via so many blowouts.
There are a couple of reasons LeBron was more essential to the Summer Olympic success.
He averaged 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game on top of his 13.3 points, once again demonstrating just how important he was in so many different respects.
He also played the power forward position throughout the tournament, enabling Team USA to space the floor on offense without sacrificing anything on the defensive end. Given that the United States was without a number of the big men who would have otherwise rounded out the roster, James' ability to take the role on was essential.
Jordan was no slouch in the original Dream Team's exploits. He was the team's second-leading scorer with 14.9 points per game.
Needless to say, both of these guys contributed their fair shares of highlights.
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There's an argument to be made that LeBron James' MVP was one of the most well-deserved in history.
His 2012 performance was exceptional in almost every possible way. He produced, contributed unyielding effort and did whatever was asked for him.
Yes, he benefited from playing alongside two All-Stars, but you could say the same about Michael Jordan playing off Scottie Pippen. Both of these MVPs had some help.
At the end of the day, though, LeBron had more.
The Bulls had a nice point-guard combination of John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong, and they had a serviceable center in Bill Cartwright. Horace Grant was certainly an above-average power forward and did his job on the glass.
But LeBron went to work with a legitimate third All-Star in Chris Bosh and a platoon of sharpshooters including Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. Assuming Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade more or less cancel one another out, it's hard to say MJ had more to work with.
That's especially true on the defensive end when you account for the impact that role players like Battier and Udonis Haslem made.
Jordan took four more shots per game because he absolutely had to. As much as the Heat needed LeBron, the Bulls needed MJ even more.
The Final Assessment
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It's still far too soon to definitively discern which of these guys had the better career.
LeBron James is still just 27 years old, and he's entering just his third season with the Miami Heat. The Cleveland Cavaliers were never able to supply him with an approximation of Scottie Pippen, so his first seven seasons should be assessed accordingly.
After all, Michael Jordan spent his first three seasons without Pippen and didn't win a title until his seventh season.
Perhaps LeBron is just getting started. Perhaps we'll one day look back on their respective careers marveling at how he accomplished the seemingly impossible task of catching up to Jordan's legacy.
Or maybe that task really is impossible.
Maybe Jordan was a truly one-of-a-kind talent, or maybe today's NBA is simply too competitive for one player to remain so dominant for so long.
Though we can't make especially broad conclusions about how their careers compare, we can indeed say this about the 1992 and 2012 career years that stood out from all the rest.
As mind-bending as both performances were, MJ's was better by the slightest of margins. He meant more to his team, and his heroics were just a bit more superhuman. Of course, it wouldn't be copping out to say the comparison is too close to call.
How often does a guy come even close to this kind of greatness?
Though James did more than rival it in 2012, Jordan still has the edge.