The NBA playoffs don't need any additional excitement, but if LeBron James goes on the same kind of retaliatory surge Michael Jordan did when he lost out on a couple of MVP awards in his prime, we could see something truly special.
Kevin Durant took home the 2013-14 MVP award—the first of his career—setting up the potential for LBJ to follow MJ down a familiar path.
James was gracious in defeat, and he accepted the reality that Durant had outplayed him this past season, saying, "Much respect to him and he deserves it. He had a big-time MVP season," per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
It's hard to quibble with James' concession. Durant was better than him in a number of key metrics, leading the league in scoring with ruthless efficiency while piling up the NBA's highest player efficiency rating and the most win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.
|PPG||PER||Win Shares||Team Wins|
And we can't forget that Durant's team won more games in a much tougher conference, despite the absence of Russell Westbrook for a good chunk of the season.
But James still holds a position of primacy in many observers' minds. There's a sense he's still the best player in the league—even if he didn't have the best season. On the rare occasion James gave his full effort this year, it was easy to buy into that notion.
Can't imagine not thinking LeBron is best in the world. And if MVP vote was today, can't imagine him winning it. Durant's been too good.— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) January 28, 2014
Durant had a strong case for the MVP this year, which might make you think the Jordan parallel is imperfect. Everyone remembers the years MJ didn't win the MVP as grave injustices. But the races were fairly close when Jordan lost out to Charles Barkley in 1992-93 and Karl Malone in 1996-97.
Here's a breakdown of the figures from those years:
|PPG||PER||Win Shares||Team Wins|
|Michael Jordan 1992-93||32.6||29.7||17.2||57|
|Charles Barkley 1992-93||25.6||25.9||14.4||62|
|Michael Jordan 1996-97||29.6||27.8||18.3||69|
|Karl Malone 1996-97||27.4||28.9||16.7||64|
Jordan was probably better than both Barkley and Malone in the years in question, and it's harder to make a real case for James in this most recent season. But that shouldn't really matter. Even if James has less of a gripe than MJ did, there's still a narrative we should all be rooting for.
Jordan used those slights as motivation, and maybe James will do the same.
To be clear, Jordan never lacked for motivational fuel. He was pathologically competitive, fully capable of imagining doubters still existed long after he'd squashed all of them. But when he lost out on the MVP awards that should have been his, he didn't need to create enemies or motivating factors in his mind.
In those instances, the doubters were real. And in a twist that's easy to forget, Jordan was diplomatic in his comments about Malone in 1997—just as James was this year.
Per Terry Armour of the Chicago Tribune, Jordan said, "As much as I was probably deserving, he was just as deserving as I am. So I'm very happy for what he's done."
More telling, though, was what came next: "I don't have any animosity—as long as I get the hardware at the end of the season."
A kinder, gentler Jordan? Please. MJ was just being polite. Deep down, he was aching to take out his wrath on Malone.
As you'd expect, Jordan stepped his game up in the postseason in both 1993 and 1997. For anyone who remembers watching him, he played like a man possessed—probably because he was.
The best encapsulation of how MJ dominated comes from Barkley himself, who recounted a telling scene from the 1992-93 NBA Finals on Bill Simmons' B.S. Report (via Andrew Sharp of SB Nation):
I actually thought I was the best. I thought (Larry) Bird and Magic (Johnson) just had better players. So, I said, "Listen dude, I'm going to the Finals this year. Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson... That's what I need. We're going to the Finals." He (head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons) says, "Well Michael's gonna be there." I said, "Cotton, I think I'm better than Michael Jordan." He says, "We will see when you get there."
So, we actually got nervous before Game 1. We struggled. The pressure got to the guys on the team. I played decent, but then I think the other guys were nervous. So Game 2, I'm talking to my daughter.
She said, "Dad? Are y'all gonna win tonight?"
I said, "Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I'm going to dominate the game tonight." And I remember... I think I had like 46, 47. I played great. And Michael had 52.
And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said, "Dad, y'all lost again."
I said, "Baby, I think Michael Jordan's better than me."
She said, "Dad, you've never said that before."
I said, "Baby, I've never felt like that before."
Poetically, Jordan outplayed the guys who'd stolen his awards throughout the postseason. And then he beat them both in the NBA Finals.
We know what he did to Sir Charles. Here's how he dealt with Malone en route to another finals win:
Pitch that script to a production company and it gets kicked back for being too cookie-cutter. A superstar receives a slight and roars back to avenge himself against doubters? Come on; that's too perfect to be true.
But it happened. And it was awesome.
MJ collected rings to avenge his missing MVPs. Perhaps James can follow in his footsteps.
Granted, the injustice of losing the MVP to Durant isn't as egregious as it was in Jordan's two seasons. Durant earned his award. But James is still an exceptionally prideful guy who, deep down, believes he's the best player on the planet. He'll be driven to prove that—just as MJ was.
We should all be crossing our fingers for a James-Durant showdown in the finals. Not just because it's always fun to see the two best players in the league squaring off, but because it'll give us a chance to see if James has more Jordan in him than we think.
Maybe James really doesn't care about one-on-one stuff or individual awards.
LeBron: "My motivation runs deep, beyond my competition, beyond my counterparts."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 29, 2014
But wouldn't it be great to see what might happen if he got a chance to win his third ring and show the world who the best player really is all at once?
Root for whoever you want, but if you care at all about seeing something spectacular, you should be hoping for James to get a crack at Durant in a winner-take-all series.
James has borrowed plenty of things from the all-time greats. He's got Magic Johnson's vision and Larry Bird's efficiency from the field.
Hopefully, we'll soon find out if he has Jordan's vengeful competitive fire.