Michael Jordan and LeBron James: How Their Paths to NBA Glory Are Very Similar

James Tillman IIIAnalyst IJune 21, 2013

3 May 1998:  Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan #23 look on during a first round Playoff Game against the Charlotte Hornets at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Hornets 83-70.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chicago Bulls fans will say that Michael Jordan is the best player all-time. With six titles and five regular-season MVP awards, along with a list of other individual accolades, they would have a valid point. 

Miami Heat fans will say that LeBron James is the best player in the league today, having added another chapter to his legacy by leading Miami to its second straight title and snagging another Finals MVP award in the process.

And with another title under his belt, LeBron James became just the third player to win the regular-season MVP and Finals MVP in the same season multiple times. The other two players are Larry Bird (1984, 1986) and Michael Jordan (1991, '92, '96, '98)

While the comparisons between James and Jordan have been frequent over the past few years, this is not another article attempting to determine who is the superior player.

Instead, this is a brief look at how each star's road to championship glory was formed.


Michael Jordan

When Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, he took the league by storm, averaging over 28 points per game in his rookie season.

During the next few years of his career, Jordan became one of the most dominant offensive threats on the court with a scoring average that was never below 32 points per contest from 1986-1990.

Despite his individual brilliance, however, Jordan and the Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three straight times—winning just one game in 10 tries.

Jordan's postseason fortunes improved in 1988 and '89, as he led the Bulls out of the opening round of the playoffs—defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers both times.

With a couple of solid postseasons on his resume, Jordan ran into another obstacle in the Detroit Pistons—a rugged team that eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs between 1988-90.

No matter how admirable Jordan's efforts were, he was not able to lead the Bulls past the Pistons on his own.

As a result of the team's failures against Detroit, questions began to surface as to whether or not a scoring champion could lead a team to an NBA title.

However, once Jordan saw the error of his ways and bought into Phil Jackson's triangle-offense, he discovered that it was possible to score 30 points a game while making everyone around him better at the same time.

Once this transformation took place, the Bulls finally dethroned the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals en route to their first of six championships in eight seasons—beating the likes of Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone along the way.


LeBron James

Although James entered the league right out of high school, he averaged a respectable 21 points per contest during his 2003-04 rookie campaign.

But over the next three seasons, James averaged 27, 31 and 27 points per game—leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 Finals.

Unfortunately for James, he came up against a more experienced San Antonio Spurs team that quickly dismissed the Cavaliers in four games to capture their fourth championship.

Just as Jordan failed multiple times in his first few rounds of playoff competition, James had his fair share of painful postseason defeats as well.

In the 2008 playoffs, James and the Cavaliers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games, but the Celtics won Game 7 and eventually went on to win the team's first title since 1986.

The next two postseasons had dismal results as well. James and the Cavaliers were ousted by the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Conference Finals and fell to the Celtics again in the 2010 semifinals.

And although he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, James came up short once again in the 2011 Finals—falling to the Dallas Mavericks in six games and, like Jordan, he faced questions about whether or not he was capable of leading a team to a championship title.

As was the case with Jackson and Jordan, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra revealed a different aspect of the game to James. 

Spoelstra showed James how to become a more efficient scorer from multiple spots on the floor. This is indicative of the fact that James' best field goal shooting percentages have come during his last three seasons in Miami.

The results of James' hard work paid off in Game 7 against the Spurs. Six seasons ago, the Spurs dared James to beat them from the outside and the strategy worked to perfection.

This time around, James nailed the perimeter shot with regularity, scoring 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting from the floor, including 5-of-10 from distance.

Just as Jordan's dominance grew after he added different elements to his game, James has also become the type of player that opposing teams can no longer guard with just one defender.

Due to the contrasting styles of their games, the debate about who is the better player could go on indefinitely without reaching any conclusion.

What we do know is that both Jordan and James endured failure many times over, and each made the necessary improvements that enabled them to make the leap from individual scorers to unstoppable champions.