Since the day he hung up his iconic, eponymous sneakers, Michael Jordan has been the yardstick for NBA greatness. And thanks to a historic run of spectacular play over the past couple of weeks, LeBron James has sidled up to that measuring mark, inviting pundits to compare him against His Airness.
Look, it's silly to constantly be on the lookout for "the next Jordan." And any comparison between two such obviously dissimilar players as LBJ and MJ feels inherently forced.
But whenever a player so clearly stands above his contemporaries (as James presently does), it's only natural to contextualize his performance by comparing him to the man universally regarded as the best of any era.
By analyzing the notable similarities and differences between Jordan and James through their first 10 years in the NBA, it's actually easier to appreciate both of them. So don't think of this as a search for which one of these guys is actually better.
Instead, consider it a comparative history that celebrates a pair of dominant stars through their first decade of NBA play.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Michael Jordan entered the NBA in 1984 as a skinny 21-year-old rookie and promptly averaged 28.2 points per game. That figure was good enough to rank third in the NBA.
But MJ was just getting started.
Starting in 1986-87, Jordan led the league in scoring every full season until his second retirement. That's seven scoring titles in his first 10 seasons if you're keeping track at home. And he would likely have had nine if not for abbreviated seasons in 1985-86 and 1994-95 due to a broken foot and a late-season comeback, respectively.
So yeah, Jordan could score a little bit. After all, he does have the highest career scoring average in NBA history at 30.1 PPG.
Obviously, any comparison pitting James against the greatest pure point-producer in history is going to be unfavorable to LBJ, but his first decade's 27.6 points-per-game average is nothing to sneeze at.
James has one scoring title, from the 2007-08 season, and has ranked in the top five nine times. In fact, his current career average of 27.6 points per game is the best among active players.
As great as all of that is, James has certainly been no Jordan in the scoring department. But then again, nobody else has come close, either.
If you've spent any time on Twitter recently, you're well aware that LeBron James is currently scoring at a historically efficient rate.
LeBron, 30 points on 11/15 FG, becomes the first player in NBA history to score at least 30 pts while shooting at least 60% in 6 straight.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) February 13, 2013
Obviously, if he keeps up his present pace, entire chapters of NBA lore will have to be rewritten. Nobody has ever achieved what James has accomplished lately, but what's amazing is that if we step back and look at his entire body of work, LBJ's first 10 years have still been less efficient than Jordan's were.
Jordan shot better than 50 percent from the field in six out of his first 10 years, while James only has managed to make at least half of his shots in four of his first 10. What's most interesting, though, is that LBJ's seasons of better-than-50-percent shooting have been his last four.
In a row.
Since taking his offensive game to the elbows and low block, James has ratcheted up his efficiency, culminating in what we're watching him do this season. At present, he's making more than 56 percent of his shots.
If he keeps it up, James will finish this season with a more efficient field-goal percentage than Jordan ever had. MJ shot it better than James during his first 10 seasons, but if things continue trending as they are, James will blow him away during his second decade.
By any measure, James has been a far better passer in his first 10 years than Jordan ever was.
Whether he's making impossible skip passes over the top of the defense or finding cutters like a point guard, James has proven to be one of the best distributors in the league's history. Just imagine if he took the approach that Kobe Bryant has adopted recently.
If all James wanted to do was set his teammates up, it's not a stretch to say he could easily lead the league in assists. As it is, he has ranked in the Top 10 four times.
Jordan was certainly not a poor passer during his first decade. In fact, his 650 assists in 1988-89 were the eighth most in the NBA. But overall, Jordan topped six assists per game just three times in his first 10 years.
James has done it nine times and finished with 5.9 in the only year he didn't reach that mark.
The raw numbers clearly favor James, but they don't tell the whole story.
Jordan was a truly dominant scorer, so many of his assists came as a result of intense defensive pressure or as last resorts against a double-team designed to force him to move the ball. James, by contrast, looks to pass first a fair percentage of the time.
Watch any Miami Heat game, and you'll notice the reluctance with which opposing coaches send double-teams at James. His size and vision make virtually every pass possible, and his to-a-fault selflessness make it downright dangerous to dare him to get rid of the rock.
James' first 10 years have been marked by better passing than Jordan's were, and in this particular area, only Magic Johnson is a worthy comparison.
Interestingly, this is also what LeBron's DNA looks like under a microscope.
On defense, the hardware narrowly favors Jordan over James. MJ's six NBA All-Defensive First Team selections surpass the four James won during his first nine years. Of course, assuming LBJ wins another one in this, his 10th year, the gap will narrow.
Trophies aside, the best evidence of each guys' defensive prowess is probably anecdotal. And that's where their skills are so notably different.
Jordan was a terrifying on-ball defender, capable of locking down any guard or small forward. He used his enormous hands and borderline sociopathic tenacity to hound ball-handlers on the perimeter. In his era, perhaps only his teammate, Scottie Pippen, induced more fear among opponents.
James, on the other hand, is slightly less intense, but he's far more versatile. And he might inspire just as much fear as Jordan did.
Capable of handling any guard or forward on D, King James' unparalleled size and speed mean there's no such thing as a mismatch when he's on the floor. And it certainly helps that he has somehow been able to go weeks at a time without committing a foul.
As an aside, you'll note I omitted any discussion of blocks and steals. That's intentional, as neither stat necessarily indicates defensive prowess. By definition, steals and blocks happen less frequently when defenders are already in good position.
They say that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. I'd posit that "comparing intangibles" could also qualify.
Fortunately, this isn't about whether Jordan or James had "better" intangibles during their first respective decades. Instead, it's an opportunity to examine just how different each player's mental approach to the game has been.
Jordan was a fanatical, unhinged, oftentimes delusional competitor. He concocted sources of motivation and dreamt up slights. For proof, just look at his Hall of Fame induction speech. The guy's turning 50 and still finds ways to convince himself that he has doubters.
At best, he's something of a competitive savant. At worst, he's a lunatic.
James, on the other hand, generally appears sane. He plays extremely hard, but until his ninth year, never flipped his competitive switch into overdrive. You might remember his stunning Game 6 performance against the Boston Celtics in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.
That was the moment James discovered he had a championship gear. You know, the gear Jordan used in practice.
Nobody—not even the newly motivated version of James—will ever match Jordan's competitive fire. But LBJ's unselfishness and desire to be liked might be much healthier. At the very least, we know James won't be calling out imaginary detractors from his high school days when he makes the Hall.
Obviously, since we're looking at the first 10 years of their careers, the discussion of legacies is a little out of place. But it's worth noting that after his initial decade, it was pretty easy to see where Jordan's legacy was headed.
He had won three straight championships in his seventh, eighth and ninth years and had taken home scoring titles on an annual basis. He was already established as a fierce competitor and a three-time MVP. He played another five seasons, but everybody knew who Michael Jordan was after his first 10 seasons.
However, we have no idea who LeBron James is capable of becoming.
LBJ has a ring and three MVP awards, but based on the incredible leap he has made this season, there's no way to know how great he'll eventually be. Maybe he'll keep moving his game toward the basket, eventually leading the league in field-goal percentage.
Or perhaps he'll evolve into an elite rebounder. Who knows?
Because we've never seen anyone with the mix of size, speed and IQ that James has, there's no way to know what his legacy will be. Nothing seems out of the question, though.
James may never match Jordan's six titles, and he doesn't seem capable of assuming his maniacal competitive spirit. That's fine, though, because James simply isn't Jordan.
In fact, based on all the criteria discussed here, the only thing their legacies will ultimately have in common is the distinction of being—far and away—the most dominant players of their respective eras.