Opinions are like hindquarters; everybody has 'em.
Especially when it comes to discussions that challenge conventional wisdom, including the ever-more-prevalent comparison between LeBron James and Michael Jordan. It wasn't until LeBron rounded out his MJ-like calendar year—with an NBA MVP, a Finals MVP, a title and an Olympic gold medal—that the chatter first came to the fore.
Since then, players and coaches, active and retired—from Dwyane Wade and Jim Boeheim to Charles Barkley and Phil Jackson—have seemingly been scurrying out of the woodwork to inject the debate with new insight.
As far as overall resumes are concerned, James would be fortunate to catch a whiff of Jordan's jock. His Airness' resume features more MVPs, more titles, more All-Star/All-NBA/All-Defensive nods, more scoring titles and more mentions in the record book than King James could currently shake a stick at.
Then again, there's still plenty of time left for LeBron to catch up to Jordan in the historical rat race, assuming injuries don't derail his career. Setting aside the ghosts of basketball's past, present and future for a moment, though, how do LeBron and Michael measure up against one another?
Athletic Freak Index
Let's start with the basics. As far as size is concerned, Michael Jordan was the prototype at shooting guard—a 6'6, 216-pound beast on the wing. He was strong and muscular, but not necessarily overwhelmingly so. By the same token, Jordan's chiseled frame afforded him an abundance of flexibility, which he put to good use on both ends of the floor.
Jordan was a speed demon if ever there was one, though he wouldn't have earned nicknames like Air Jordan, His Airness and Jumpman if not for his exploits off the ground. At his athletic apex, MJ checked in with a staggering vertical leap of 48 inches, placing him among the most impressive leapers in the history of American professional sports.
If nothing else, it helps to explain how MJ was able to hang in the air for what often felt like an eternity:
LeBron James is no slouch in this regard. There are no official records of LeBron's vertical leap, but by all accounts, the number rests somewhere north of 40 inches.
Not bad, but not exactly MJ either.
Does this mean that Jordan was the more freakish athlete? Not necessarily. There's more to world-class athleticism than just running and jumping.
Power and agility also factor into the equation quite prominently. In these regards, LeBron has few (if any) equals at any position in NBA history. It's one thing for James to be able to run as fast and jump as high as he does.
It's another entirely for him to do so at his size—6'8, 260 pounds—and with such apparent ease. The fact that there's more of him to move, and that he does so while maintaining near-perfect balance and control, makes LeBron's athleticism that much tougher to comprehend. Jordan could attack the rack, but never with quite the same blend of seismic ferocity and poetic brilliance that LeBron has demonstrated in his time.
Throw in James' superior wingspan, which came in at a shade over seven feet, and the difference in jumping ability dissipates amidst a greater equality of reach:
As is the case with great players, James and Jordan are/were both students of the game. Each entered the league as a physical specimen who dominated the NBA by sheer force of will but, as time wore on, developed his repertoire and adapted his style of play to the changing realities of his body and of the league around him.
Neither would be considered a "shooter" by trade. LeBron registered career-highs in field-goal percentage (.531) and three-point percentage (.362) last season, with the latter number marking his first foray above the league average in his nine years as a pro.
Jordan was never a consistent three-point marksman, though he did post season-long percentages of .376, .352, .427 and .374 at different times in his career. The latter three of those marks came between 1993 and 1997, when MJ converted 38.9 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Keep in mind, though, that those years encompassed MJ's late 20s and early 30s, a point in life that the 27-year-old LeBron is just now entering. Even without the benefit of a wise, old jumper, LeBron's career three-point numbers (.331) are still a shade above Jordan's (.327). James has hit better than 30 percent of his threes during each of the last eight seasons, while Jordan never did so for more than four seasons at a time.
And, with improved shot selection and steadier form, James' percentages only figure to creep upward as his career progresses.
Of course, the strengths of their respective games extend far beyond long-range shooting. Both MJ and LBJ have been known to do everything well, from handling and distributing the ball to attacking the basket and posting up.
Jordan was less prone to turnovers (9.3 percent for his career) than James has been (12.1), though that difference likely has more to do with disparate roles on their respective teams. Jordan spent much of his career as a scorer with some distribution duties in the Triangle offense, with an assist percentage of .249 to show for it.
LeBron, on the other hand, has shifted spots on the floor over the course of his career, but has always been either Option 1 or Option 1a to run the offense, as his .341 assists percentage would suggest. As such, one would expect James to turn the ball over more often than Jordan did (if only slightly so) because LeBron spent more of his time passing.
And for good reason:
But what made Jordan so good for so long, and what figures to extend James' reign atop the NBA, was his post-up game. By taking defenders down low, MJ was able to create easier opportunities for himself without having to log so much wear-and-tear on his body. Rather than having to run and jump over, through and around the opposition, Jordan could simply stake out a spot, catch an entry pass and back his way in until he felt comfortable finishing with a turnaround jumper, a baby hook or an up-and-under layup:
LeBron has begun to show considerable promise in this respect. Last season, James spent less time floating on the perimeter and more time within close range of the hoop (particularly on the left block) than ever before. Not surprisingly, he flourished as a result, setting a new career-high in field goal percentage for the fifth year running while torching smaller defenders with his strength and larger ones with his fleetness afoot.
James' game down low only figures to grow from here on out. The Miami Heat plan to employ him at power forward more frequently this season after sprinting to the 2012 title with a small-ball configuration.
In preparation for this shift, LeBron has added a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-style sky hook to his arsenal—something to which even His Airness could never lay claim.
Likewise, Michael, though plenty pliable as an offensive player, was never quite as positionally versatile as LeBron is at present. To be sure, Jordan was spectacular at all spots along the perimeter, though he clearly was best suited to playing on the wing, be it at shooting guard or small forward.
As for LeBron, he's already proven that he can play no fewer than four positions on the floor better than most of his peers at any one of them, and with his improvement in the post, might be able to man all five before long. At least some of James' superiority in this regard stems from his edge in size and strength, though his otherworldly skill and adaptability propel him into a class that perhaps only Magic Johnson might share with him.
The same goes for the defensive comparison between MJ and LBJ. Jordan gets a heap of extra credit (and deservedly so) for winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1987-88 at the age of 25, while James has finished runner-up but once—in 2008-09, when he, too, was 25.
Jordan's main competition the year he won it? Mark Eaton, who led the league in blocks, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who was tops in defensive rating and went on to win two DPOYs in the 1990s.
As for LeBron, since coming onto the scene as a top-notch defender, he's had to contend at the ballot box with Dwight Howard, who won the first of three straight DPOYs in 2008-09 and has established himself as one of the most dominant defensive forces the NBA has ever seen.
Then again, had LeBron not taken six years to develop into an All-Defensive performer, he might've already had that award on his mantle. Jordan, meanwhile, cracked his first All-Defensive team during his fourth NBA season.
It's worth mentioning, though, that LeBron and Michael broke through at roughly the same age on the defensive end. It may be just as fair to suggest that Jordan should've done so sooner, but that his offensive game overshadowed his defensive prowess to such an extent that he wasn't recognized for his all-around abilities for some time.
What sets James apart from Jordan here is what sets him apart on the offensive end—his versatility. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender, perhaps the best who ever lived, but never would've been called upon to guard power forwards and centers, at least not regularly.
James, on the other hand, has been tasked with defending big men more and more frequently as his career has worn on and has risen to the occasion each time. Michael may have been a more superb "specialist" on the defensive end, but LeBron—with his physique, footwork and instincts—may well be the best jack-of-all-trades defender to ever lace 'em up.
Though Jordan and James both dominated their respective eras, they did and have done so in different ways as far as attitude is concerned. Michael made his mark as a fierce and ruthless competitor, perhaps the greatest to ever play the game in this regard. He took the job of destroying his opponents rather personally and was unrelenting in his desire to not only win, but to do so in emphatic fashion.
Simply put, Michael was obsessed with winning in every sense. He was always intent to outwork his peers with an almost manic determination. His desire to dominate others spilling into his practice, his preparation and even his life beyond basketball, for better or worse:
LeBron is certainly a diligent worker in his own right and has shown over time that he wants to be the best.
The difference, though, is in his approach. James wasn't born with the same killer instinct that made Jordan so great, or wouldn't appear to have been, anyway. LeBron had a reputation for shrinking in the clutch, most notably during the 2011 NBA Finals, when he averaged an uncharacteristically-low 17.8 points in a six-game loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
LeBron was also known to be something of a people pleaser, per se. Sure, his nationally-televised "Decision" would suggest otherwise, though the remorse he showed the following year pointed to a more intrinsic desire to come off as friendly and to make others happy.
A turn of character that's in step with his style of play. Unlike Jordan, James never had to "learn" how to make his teammates better. Such seemed to come naturally to him, along with his pinpoint passing and clairvoyant court vision . LeBron has long valued pulling off the best basketball play as opposed to simply stepping up himself, whether it was logistically advisable or not.
For this, he'd been pounded by the punditry. LeBron was painted as a choker, as someone lacking the guts to take over in a big spot, to the point where he couldn't pass the ball in an All-Star Game without catching flak:
Then, LeBron dominated the 2012 playoffs, picking up signature moments against the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the NBA Finals to dispel the notion that he couldn't deliver in the clutch.
It might've taken LeBron longer than Michael to figure "it" out. But in his defense, LeBron came into the league at a comparative disadvantage in that regard. James didn't have the benefit of playing three years of college ball and winning an NCAA Tournament title as Jordan did during at North Carolina.
Instead, LeBron came into the league straight out of high school. He was built up as a savior from the outset, never given much reason to think he was anything other than manna from heaven for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thus, it's no surprise that he went about his business while appearing, at times, to be more concerned with brand building than winning, even though he did plenty of both.
LeBron's most recent triumphs may not have eliminated those concerns in their entirety, much less put him on Jordan's level as a competitor. However, by throwing the proverbial monkey off his back, James demonstrated a keen understanding of how to block out the noise that'd long encroached on his locker room and, instead, play for himself and his teammates rather than attempt to appease expectations.
What the Numbers Say
At a glance, the statistics suggest that LeBron James and Michael Jordan are comparable players, albeit with strengths and weaknesses apportioned slightly differently. LeBron comes off as a better rebounder and distributor on account of his more imposing physique and a skill set resembling that of a point guard. As one might expect, James' ball-handling duties are accompanied by moderately higher turnover rates.
Jordan did his fair share of distributing (5.3 assists) and rebounding (6.2 boards), but would justly be described as more of a pure scorer. His 30.1 points per game place him atop the NBA's all-time leader board, with James' 27.6 points only a step or two behind in third. Jordan, though, did his job more efficiently, shooting 49.7 percent from the field for his career, as opposed to James' 48.3-percent mark so far.
That being said, keep in mind the disparities between their respective eras. Michael came up during the NBA's Golden Age, when scoring and shooting numbers were significantly higher than they are today. The pace slowed and defenses improved as Jordan's career wore on into the 1990s, but the level of competition took a bit of a nosedive. The confluence of money, drugs and a general dearth of talent left the NBA wanting for true superstars once Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and their ilk from the 1980s called it quits.
That overall weakness didn't make Michael's journey to six titles, five MVPs and a truckload of other accolades a cake walk, but it did render his accomplishments feasible than they otherwise would've been.
The opposite seems to hold true for LeBron. He came into the league in 2003, immediately after Jordan retired for good, when the league was already mired in offensive futility. Four teams cracked the Eastern Conference playoff field without winning records that year, with the title going to the defensive-minded Pistons over the soon-to-be-disbanded Shaq-Kobe Lakers.
The next year, the Pistons and the Spurs slogged through arguably the least exciting seven-game championship series in the history of American professional sports, prompting commissioner David Stern and his cronies at the league office to tighten up the rules governing defenses and encourage offenses to flow more freely.
Since then, the NBA has improved dramatically, with superstars marching into the league and superteams coalescing to make life more difficult for one another at the top. LeBron's Heat will be favored to defend their title this season, though hardly overwhelmingly so.
Not with the Lakers reloaded, the Thunder improving and the Eastern Conference deepening, albeit while weakening toward the top. LeBron figures to slip on another ring or two before his playing days are done, but would be hard-pressed to match MJ's total amidst the current climate.
Unless he continues to dominate the NBA the way he has for the last half decade or so, which is entirely possible. LeBron's entering his 10th year as a pro, now firmly in the midst of his prime, with his 28th birthday coming up in late December. With his durability and ever-expanding game, LeBron may well play for another decade if he so chooses.
It may take him that long to match, if not exceed, the contents of MJ's trophy case, assuming he ever does. But even if LeBron never sees eye-to-eye with Michael while standing on a stack of awards, he still has the potential to be every bit his equal in purely basketball terms before he joins Jordan in retirement.
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