Comparing the Stars of the LeBron Age to the Jordan Era's Legends

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 26, 2013

Comparing the Stars of the LeBron Age to the Jordan Era's Legends

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    The NBA is a fluid beast, one that replaces declining superstars with up-and-coming young guns every year. There's never a lack of superstars, but that doesn't diminish the historical significance of the former studs. 

    As soon as a Hall of Famer is done, players will inevitably attempt to replace him. In some senses, it's a compliment. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Maybe the new guy will play a similar game, one that resonates with fans in the same way. Maybe he'll have a similar career trajectory. Maybe he'll be perceived similarly to the standout whose footsteps he's attempting to fill in. 

    Well, now that we're firmly in the LeBron James era of NBA history, it's an appropriate time to take a look back at the Michael Jordan era and figure out the closest comparisons for 10 of the biggest names back then. 

    These are not perfect comparisons. They can't be, as each individual is exactly that: an individual. But for the reasons listed above, each player has gained a specific modern-day counterpart. 

Charles Barkley = Carmelo Anthony

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    Both Carmelo Anthony and Charles Barkley thrived as statistical machines. 

    While Chuck was a semi-dominant scorer and absolute force on the glass, 'Melo is a generational talent when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. He won his first scoring title in 2012-13 by averaging 28.7 points, but it was his third time putting up at least 28 points per contest for a season. 

    Do they play similar games? Nope, not at all. But they're both stat monsters who invoke controversy whenever they're brought up because no one is sure whether they can win championships as the No. 1 option. 

    Barkley never held up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and it looks like that's the path 'Melo is on unless he ends up changing teams. Then again, switching squads would just reinforce the comparison, as Anthony's two different jerseys leave him just shy of Barkley's three. 

John Stockton = Chris Paul

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    The best point guard of the latter half of the Jordan era must be compared to the best floor general of the current NBA. 

    And while Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and others are coming for the crown, it still belongs to Chris Paul, just as it has for a while now. 

    CP3 is the best at his position, and he has been over the last few years. A dominant two-way player who can take over a game either with his scoring or his passing, Paul isn't a carbon copy of Stockton by any stretch of the imagination. But he is going to retire as a historically great floor general without many rings. 

    He might not have any unless the Los Angeles Clippers can exceed the expectations and emerge out of the brutally tough Western Conference. 

    Stockton is historically defined by three traits: his record-setting assist numbers, pick-and-roll play and complete lack of championship rings. 

    Paul isn't going to challenge for the all-time lead in dimes (no one is ever going to get there, as Stockton was blessed with health, a perfect playing partner and an incredibly long career), but he may retire as the all-time leader in PER among point guards. 

    He currently sits at 25.55, which leaves him sitting in sixth place, well ahead of Magic Johnson and all the other 1-guards in NBA history. Add in the PnR dominance and his similar lack of playoff success and you can see the basis for this comparison. 

Karl Malone = Blake Griffin

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    Both dunking machines who thrive running pick-and-roll sets, Blake Griffin and Karl Malone get paired together. After all, Synergy Sports (subscription required) reveals that Blake scored 1.2 points per possession as the roll man, good for 20th in the NBA. 

    What's scary is just how similar Griffin's current career averages are to Malone's first three years. The following per-game stats come from Basketball-Reference

     PointsReboundsAssistsStealsBlocksFG%
    Malone21.410.42.41.30.651.1
    Griffin20.410.43.60.90.652.9

    It may seem sacrilegious to compare Griffin to a Hall of Famer like Malone this early in his career, but you could actually make a convincing argument that Griffin was better at the start of his professional basketball days. Problem is, Griffin hasn't been improving at the same rate that the Mailman did. 

    Malone made a big jump in his fourth season, averaging 29.1 points per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. If Griffin can show similar leaps in production, the Los Angeles Clippers will most assuredly be thrilled. 

    I suppose they'd also be quite happy if Griffin can negate the comparison by winning a title in 2014. 

Gary Payton = Rajon Rondo

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    Suffocating defense? Check. 

    Great distributing skills? Check. 

    No point guard in the Jordan era combined those two skills more effectively than Gary Payton. And as for the current era, Chris Paul can give Rajon Rondo a run for his money, but the Boston Celtics floor general still possesses the elite defense-passing combination right now. 

    Rondo isn't the scorer that Payton was in his prime, but that was never what defined the Seattle SuperSonics superstar. While it was an impressive attribute, it still took a backseat to the point-preventing prowess that earned him "The Glove" moniker. 

    Of course, the comparison is made all the more interesting by the fact that Payton doesn't seem to care much for his fellow defense-first floor general. 

Scottie Pippen = Andre Iguodala

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    Remember the 1994-95 season when Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls in all five major statistical categories? Well, only if you don't count Michael Jordan's 17 games, as they left him unqualified for all those leaderboards. 

    Pippen averaged 21.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 48 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 71.6 percent from the charity stripe, establishing himself as the premier stat-sheet-stuffer. 

    His modern-day counterpart has to be Andre Igudoala, who plays a very similar game thanks to the well-rounded nature of his offense and his fantastic defensive play. Hell, Iggy's biggest weaknesses are the same as Pippen's: three-point shooting and performance at the foul line. 

    Iguodala is not as good as Pippen. Duh. Few players are. 

    But he's a poor man's version of the former Chicago Bulls standout, and that's about as good as we're going to get from the current set of players. 

Patrick Ewing = Dwight Howard

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    Dwight Howard's proclivity for switching teams make for a tougher comparison, but it's still hard to think of a more appropriate comparison for Patrick Ewing. The '90s were dominated by big men (and Michael Jordan), but the same can't be said for the current NBA. 

    There just aren't many great true centers to choose from. 

    The Dwight-Ewing comparison stems from their two-way play and failure to do too much in the playoffs. Both players have carried their teams to the NBA Finals where they were ultimately unsuccessful. In 2009, Howard came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers; in 1994, Ewing fell shy of a title thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. 

    If Howard's career continues on its current trajectory, he'll ultimately be remembered in the same vein as Ewing: a legendary talent who never managed to maximize his ability on the basketball court. 

     

Hakeem Olajuwon = Tim Duncan

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    While the '90s were indeed dominated by big men, precious few were actually able to win a title. Hakeem Olajuwon stands out as the top center of the era, beating out David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and the rest of the contenders. 

    The same can be said for Tim Duncan, who has not only emerged as the best big man in recent memory, but also the best player between LeBron James' arrival and Michael Jordan's retirement. No offense to Kobe Bryant, but "The Big Fundamental" narrowly edges out the Los Angeles Lakers superstar. 

    Size and footwork have helped out both Hakeem and Duncan tremendously, but they dominated every facet of the game and maintained their stellar play into their late 30s. 

    Just take a look at their per-game numbers at age 36, courtesy of Basketball-Reference

     PointsReboundsAssistsStealsBlocksFG%
    Olajuwon18.99.61.81.62.551.4
    Duncan17.89.92.70.72.750.2

    Olajuwon is already in the Hall of Fame, and he'll be joined by Duncan as soon as the Wake Forest product is eligible. There's no doubt about that, nor is there any doubt that both have emerged as players you'll tell your grandkids about. 

Larry Bird = Kevin Durant

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    Larry Bird was one of the greatest shooting (and scoring) forward that this game has ever seen. And Kevin Durant has every ability that he ever possessed when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. 

    In the history of the NBA, only two players have legitimately competed for a scoring title while joining the 50/40/90 club. Dirk Nowitzki was close, but he fell over five points per game shy of Kobe Bryant when he gained entry to the exclusive fraternity. 

    I don't think it's particularly hard to guess who the two players in question are: Bird and Durant. 

    Forwards with strokes this smooth are not particularly common. They come around once in a generation, as was the case with these two. 

    However, Bird has one major thing on Durant right now: titles. Not scoring titles, but actual championships that result in rings. 

Magic Johnson = LeBron James

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    LeBron James and Magic Johnson both defy comparison. 

    The NBA had never seen a big, dominant point guard with the same passing skills and court vision that Magic Johnson possessed—Oscar Robertson falls into a similar but different mold—and it hasn't since he retired. 

    The NBA had never seen a physical forward like LeBron with as much finesse, court vision and defensive skills either, and it will likely be a while before we get the second coming of the Miami Heat superstar. 

    In a lot of ways, LeBron's game is a hybrid of many historical greats, but he plays most similarly to Magic. He looks to pass first and score second, and he's willing to fill any role on the hardwood when his team needs it. 

    Plus, we can say that both are champions now that the Heat have won back-to-back titles. 

    Again, LeBron and Magic really shouldn't be compared to anyone else, but both are such prominent members of their respective eras that I have to find a counterpart for each. Talk about killing two similar but different birds with one stone. 

Michael Jordan = Kobe Bryant

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    Did anyone not see this coming? 

    Kobe Bryant never quite reached Michael Jordan's level, but he at least came close during his legendary career and went out of his way to emulate the greatest player of all time. 

    For proof, just watch this video.

    Still not convinced?

    Fine, watch this one as well.  

    The two shooting guards will go down as the two greatest players of all time at their position, and for good reason. They dominated games with their scoring and defense, but they could do everything else too during their primes. They owned the league during different eras, resonated on a global scale and won numerous championships. 

    Kobe was never Jordan, but he sure tried to be. Here, we're going to reward him for his efforts.