Charles Barkley isn't one to hold anything sacred, in the basketball world and otherwise. Similarly, Sir Charles has a penchant for spewing out opinions that sound like those of a blaspheme at first blush, but once you wade through his thick Alabama accent, make sense, surprisingly enough.
Such is the case for a seemingly curious comment Chuck made during an episode of Open Court, which airs on NBA TV on Tuesday, regarding LeBron James and Michael Jordan:
Kenny Smith, who played for six teams during his 10-year career, asked Barkley, his partner in crime on TNT's Inside the NBA, whether LeBron could be better than Michael, to which Barkley answered in the affirmative.
Not surprisingly, The Jet's knee-jerk reaction was one of incredulity. After all, he and His Airness hailed from the same alma mater (North Carolina), and Smith might not have picked up two rings with the Houston Rockets if not for Jordan's generous mid-90s foray into minor league baseball.
The more telling response, though, is that of Steve Kerr. If anyone on the set were to make a fuss about Chuck's thoughts, you'd think it'd be Kerr, who won three titles as MJ's sharpshooter of choice with the Chicago Bulls during the latter half of the 1990s.
Yet Kerr offers only a giggle as he observes the usual back-and-forth between Kenny and Charles before Barkley preaches a gospel that may not be as heretical as the average gut reaction would suggest.
As the Round Mound of Rebound explains, LeBron and Michael both do/did everything well and both are/were immaculate physical specimens. The difference, Barkley offers, is that James, at 6'8" and a chiseled 260 pounds, is an even more imposing force of nature than Jordan was in his heyday. LeBron can run just as fast (if not faster), jump just as high (if not higher) and is just as strong and skilled as (if not stronger and more skilled than) Jordan was, all in a taller and wider frame.
It follows, then, that LeBron has the potential to be the true heir to the Air, and then some.
Of course, there will be those who argue that LeBron can't possibly compare to MJ because of the latter's six-to-one advantage in diamond-encrusted jewelry and/or his five-to-three MVP edge and/or his six-to-one cushion in Finals MVPs and/or whatever other cumulative award total that inevitably tips the scales in Jordan's favor.
Those are all legitimate points to be made, or rather will be once James' career comes to a close. But it's not exactly fair to compare the resume of a nine-year veteran to that of a legend who spent 15 years (13 with the Bulls) in the NBA.
For now, LeBron has all talent to chase down MJ's ghost, as well as the time needed to catch up. Let's first compare LeBron's career averages at the age of 27 to those of Jordan at 27 (per Basketball Reference):
Overall, Jordan's numbers at 27 were better than James' are so far, though they hardly blow LeBron's out of the water. Michael scored more points per game, shot a higher percentage from the field and from the line and was more of a factor defensively.
Jordan also shot more frequently and was less inclined to line up behind the arc. LeBron's inferior scoring numbers aren't all that surprising when considering that he took almost three fewer shots per game than MJ while devoting more of his energy to rebounding and sharing the ball.
Still, the raw stats clearly favor Jordan, as do the advanced stats, with Jordan earning a player efficiency rating (PER) of 30.2 to LeBron's 27.2.
Let's not forget, though, that LeBron came into the league straight out of high school, whereas MJ spent three years at UNC before entering the NBA draft. As such, LeBron's leap was much greater, and his learning curve much steeper, than the one Jordan encountered.
James hadn't played so extensively with and against future NBA stars as Jordan had. Nor had LeBron learned how to win at the highest level while coping with the pressure and expectations that come with the brightest of lights on the biggest of stages, as Michael Jordan had as a member of the Tar Heels squad that won the NCAA title in 1982.
For the sake of argument, then, let's ignore James' production until the age of 21, at which Jordan jumped to the NBA. Under this lens, LeBron's numbers—28.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 49.4 percent on field goals, 33.2 percent on threes, 74.5 percent on free throws, a PER of 28.8—narrow the gap a bit, but still check in just a shade below MJ's.
It bears mentioning that Jordan came up during an era that was decidedly deficient defensively when compared to the league in which LeBron was reared. For example, the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons, who were slapped with the "Bad Boys" moniker for their menacing (and, at times, unsavory) defensive prowess, ranked second in the NBA in points per game allowed...at 100.8. That would've landed them at 27th in 2011-12, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Charlotte Bobcats.
On the other end of the floor, the Pistons ranked 16th in points scored (106.6) and dead-last in pace (95.5), even though those same numbers would've checked in first and seventh, respectively, in 2011-12. Detroit's team field-goal percentage (.494) would've also been the best in the NBA this past season by 1.6 percentage points.
Controlling for eras, then, James' numbers are practically equal, if not slightly superior, to Jordan's, especially when factoring in that LeBron spent the first seven years of his career on defensive-minded, offensively-plodding squads with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Historical counterfactuals and statistical engineering aside, what about the rest of their respective resumes? How do age-27 LeBron and age-27 MJ stack up against one another and against the leagues in which they played?
At 27, Jordan had earned six All-NBA nods (five First-Team), four All-Defensive honors (all First-Team), two MVPs, a Finals MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year award and an All-Star Game MVP for good measure. So far, LeBron can boast eight All-NBA selections (six First-Team), four All-Defensive nods (all First-Team), three MVPs, a Finals MVP and two All-Star Game MVPs.
In fairness to His Airness, Jordan couldn't possibly measure up to LeBron as far as All-NBA selections are concerned, albeit because MJ had only been a pro for seven years at the age of 27, while James has been at it for nine years to this point. Also, LeBron has yet to miss more than seven games in a season or tangle with a major injury, while Jordan sat out 64 games with a broken foot during his sophomore campaign.
Then again, the durability argument works largely in LeBron's favor, now and into the future.
Even when forgetting MJ's lost season and discounting LeBron's first two, James' mantle is no worse than comparable to Jordan's. LeBron at 27 takes the cake from 27-year-old MJ in All-NBA selections, MVPs (and probably should've taken it by more, if not for the backlash from "The Decision" in 2010-11) and All-Star MVPs and is Jordan's equal in All-Defensive selections, Finals MVPs and rings.
Jordan's lone advantage, as far as official accolades are concerned, derives from his DPOY in 1987-88, which he garnered at the conclusion of his age-24 season. LeBron probably would've had one of his own by now if not for Dwight Howard, who might be one of the five greatest defensive big men to ever play the game. In 2008-09, James, at the age of 24, finished second to Howard in DPOY voting, albeit with a Grand Canyon-sized chasm of ballots separating the two.
And, as far as unofficial honors are concerned, MJ's five scoring titles at the age of 27 kick the pants off LeBron's only crown.
That being said, it's fair to suggest that LeBron currently sees eye-to-eye with his-aged Jordan. As such, Chuck's relatively measured assertion—that LeBron could be better than Michael—doesn't so much resemble treasonous declaration as it does plausible banter.
Especially when factoring in how much LeBron appeared to improve between Years 1 and 2 with the Miami Heat and how much better he figures to be in Year 3. By developing a bona-fide post game (with the help of Hakeem Olajuwon) and cutting down on his three-point attempts, James transformed himself into a more dangerous and efficient offensive force from just about anywhere on the floor.
As a result, in 2011-12, he posted career-highs in field goal percentage, three-point percentage and rebound percentage, all of which served to boost his PER a full 3.4 points from the year prior despite having little to no time at his disposal to rest or practice during the lockout-shortened campaign.
Keep in mind, too, that LeBron didn't fully "figure out" his role with the Heat until the twilight of the 2011-12 season, if that early. LeBron was stuck in the precarious position of clearly being the best player on his team but having to wait for Dwyane Wade, his close friend and the Heat's incumbent franchise figure, to cede top-dog status once he realized that his knees wouldn't allow him to be the "Flash" of old.
At that point, LeBron finally became Miami's unquestioned go-to guy. That new alignment gave Erik Spoelstra the green light to organize the orbits of his players around James' gravitas, which, in turn, propelled the Heat to the title.
There will be no sorting-out of roles among superstars this time around. LeBron comes into the 2012-13 season with a more comprehensive understanding of where he stands on South Beach and a greater sense of responsibility now that Wade is on the decline. On the flip side, the additions of sharpshooters like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis should open up the floor and make James' life on the offensive end that much easier.
What's more, one would presume LeBron to be firing on all cylinders from the opening tip this season after a summer in which he led Team USA to another gold at the 2012 London Olympics. The last time LeBron competed internationally, at the 2008 Beijing Games, he came back with the most efficient season of his career to that point (and arguably to date).
In other words, the best is yet to come for LeBron. That's a scary thought, since James has already been exceedingly brilliant on both ends of the floor. His jaw-dropping athleticism will naturally wane at some point in the not-so-distant future, though he'll always be big enough and strong enough to do work down low.
You could make a case that LeBron's intangibles are still lightyears behind where MJ's were at the same age. Jordan was perhaps the most ruthless competitor to ever play the game and came equipped with a killer instinct that served to elevate his game in the clutch. LeBron, meanwhile, has long been seen as something less, as a player for whom the limelight is a form of kryptonite.
But so far, the results have been largely the same. And in LeBron's defense, he rose to the occasion in Jordanian fashion during the 2012 playoffs. He carried the Heat against the Indiana Pacers after Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal injury and singlehandedly saved his team's season with a 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics in Boston.
After vanquishing the C's, as Jordan did the Pistons in 1991, LeBron defeated the demons of Finals past, averaging an eye-popping 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His triple-double in the deciding Game 5 was bested only by the one-legged three-pointer he nailed in Game 4 to put Miami up for good.
Maybe Chuck's not so crazy then. Maybe a guy who played with Michael on the 1992 Dream Team and against him throughout his career, most notably in the 1993 Finals, knows a thing or two about LeBron's viability as the heir to the Air.
To be sure, LeBron still has plenty of work to do to catch up to Michael in the annals of NBA history. Six more All-Star appearances, three more All-NBA selections, five more All-Defensive nods, one DPOY and two more MVPs would be a good start.
The chatter won't carry any serious weight until LBJ approaches MJ's championship credentials—if not six Finals MVPs, then at least six rings. That's the furthest thing from a guarantee, particularly in this day and age of talent consolidation and super-teams locking themselves into an ever-escalating arms race.
There's also no telling how the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement will impact James' chances, whether a push for parity will put Jordan's holy grail out of reach or cut down his competitors or if the league's talent level will naturally dissipate, as it did over the course of Jordan's career.
But for now, LeBron's prospects of doing so are anything but ludicrous. He has the talent, the experience and the teammates to stand at or near the top of the NBA for some time, assuming he doesn't retire once or twice before he hangs 'em up for good.
How LeBron finishes his career is anybody's guess, though it's tough to ask for much more than an MJ-like start.
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