LeBron James: Not Like Mike...More Like Clyde

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LeBron James: Not Like Mike...More Like Clyde
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

This week, Cleveland.com ran a poll asking "Which former NBA great does LeBron James most remind you of?" The choices included Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson. Oddly enough, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson nearly tied as the people’s choice for "Most Like Lebron."

I see how people are working. LeBron gets a lot of triple-doubles. Oscar and Magic got a lot of triple-doubles. It’s refreshing to see this comparison rather than the usual Michael Jordan comparison everybody else makes. It seems like every sports media outlet has written some sort of article comparing LeBron with MJ, and it’s getting tiresome.

Not that such comparisons are surprising, of course. MJ was the greatest basketball player of all time. Even before he retired, fans and sportswriters were looking for the "new Michael Jordan." The list includes players like Harold Minor, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, and Kobe Bryant.

So, it’s natural that LeBron James, who is one of the most physically gifted and dominating athletes ever to play in any sport and arguably the best player in today’s game, would be compared to Mike.

In my opinion, this comparison is misguided. If you are looking for today’s equivalent to Michael Jordan, that player is Kobe Bryant. You only have to watch Kobe hit a fade-away, turn-around jumper and saunter back down the court, or see him dribble low to the ground like a jaguar poised to pounce on his prey, then suddenly spring 35 inches off the ground to nail a shot over his defender, and you will see the image of Michael Jordan out there on the court. Kobe even sounds like MJ when he opens his mouth.

What set Michael and Kobe apart from other players is not merely their quickness or athleticism, although that certainly helped set Jordan apart. Rather, when you look past the David Thompson/Dr. J-style acrobatics, Kobe and Michael’s true greatness lies in their exceptional skill level and grasp of basketball fundamentals. They are the evolutionary descendants of Jerry West: quick-handed, pure shooting guards who can pass, rebound, and play defense.

LeBron James is a different kind of player. He’s a different level of athlete playing a different style of basketball. When you see him out on the court, he doesn’t look like Michael Jordan. For that matter, he doesn’t look like Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson either. No, if you’re looking for the prototype for LeBron James, you need look no further than the other great shooting guard of the Michael Jordan era: Clyde "The Glide" Drexler.

Now, before LeBron fans get all worked up, let me say this: I’m probably the biggest Clyde Drexler fan in the world, and I will tell you right now that LeBron James is a better basketball player than Clyde Drexler. Don’t start thinking I’m somehow implying that LeBron and Clyde are on the same level, because I’m not. If LeBron James retired today, he would be remembered as a greater player than Drexler.

That being said, Clyde Drexler is one of the most underrated players in history and is the player LeBron reminds me of more than anyone else I’ve seen.

In case you don’t know about Clyde Drexler, he was a 10-time All-Star, an original Dream Teamer, a Hall of Famer, and one of only three players in NBA history, along with Robertson and John Havlicek, to have finished his career with 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, and 6,000 assists. Barring injury, LeBron James will join those three.

Let’s look carefully for a moment at Drexler’s strengths as a player. When he was in his prime, he was arguably the best overall athlete in the NBA. Only Scottie Pippen comes close, and Scottie wasn’t nearly as strong as Clyde. Drexler could dunk from the free throw line, could literally jump over people (look up the YouTube video of Clyde clearing Andre Turner’s head on a dunk in college), had legitimate 4.4 or better speed in the 40, could cover ten feet of floor quicker than anybody except maybe Pippen, and was considered the strongest shooting guard in the NBA.

Carroll Dawson, an assistant coach with the Rockets, claimed Drexler had the strongest hands of any player he’d coached during his 40 year career. This assessment of Clyde’s freakish strength has been echoed by Rudy Tomjanovich, Rockets owner Les Alexander, teammates Chris Dudley and Drazen Petrovic and Blazers assistant Jack Schalow. It’s not the first thing fans think about when they think of "The Glide" but it was certainly one of the first things opponents thought about when they faced him. In his book about the 1992 US Olympic Men’s Basketball team, THE GOLDEN BOYS , author Cameron Stauth noted that Drexler had almost unmatched ability to "out-muscle the other team’s strongest player, and outquick its fastest." Stauth wrote that the only other player who possessed a similar combination of strength, speed, and balance was Charles Barkley.

Does that description remind you of anyone else? In case you aren’t paying attention, the answer should be LeBron James.

Drexler’s greatest strength as a player was his ability to get easy baskets for his team. Among 20th Century players, perhaps only Scottie Pippen could match Clyde in terms of complete mastery of the fast break. 

Like Pippen, Clyde could start a break by getting steals (finished his career fifth all-time in that department), blocks (top three all-time among shooting guards) and rebounds (most prolific rebounder per minute played at the shooting guard position in NBA history).

He could also lead the fast break with his incredible court vision and passing ability. One of the ironies of Clyde’s game is that he has been criticized for dribbling with his head down, yet his court vision was still greater than 99% of NBA players. Even Jack Ramsay, an old school coach who had to cringe when he first saw Clyde dribbling down the court, soon learned that "while it appeared that Clyde was only looking at the ball, he had such great peripheral vision that he could find the open guys." Rick Adelman, who coached Drexler to two NBA Finals, stated Clyde was the best open-court passer he’d ever seen outside of Magic Johnson.

Clyde’s passing ability has been praised in print by the likes of Jerry Sloan, Danny Ainge, Steve Jones, Mychal Thompson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Robert Horry, and Terry Porter. Geoff Petrie, who was Portland’s GM during Drexler’s hey-day, summarized it very nicely: "Clyde has never really gotten enough credit for his passing. He was an absolutely fabulous passer. If there was a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 break, we would score every time....He could do that at full speed, which was pretty fast, with his head down."

Drexler’s assists averages prove Petrie’s point: During his prime, he frequently averaged 6.0 assists or more per game, despite not being the primary ball-handler on his team. He played with top-notch point guards like Terry Porter and Rod Strickland for the bulk of his playing days, yet still managed to lead his team in assists five times in 15 years and finish with over 6,000 for his career.

Of course, if Drexler’s ability to start and run the break is underrated, his ability to finish is nothing short of legendary. Only Julius Erving and now Lebron James have been as dangerous in the open court as Clyde Drexler. Drexler was so fast he would routinely beat entire teams down court while dribbling. At full speed, he needed only about four or five long strides to get from mid-court to the rim, and he was so explosive that he could reach full speed by his second step.

The most famous dunk of Clyde’s college career, a double-clutch, hand-switching jam against Louisville in the 1983 Final Four, came off a turnover at the other end of the court. If you watch the play, you’ll see that Drexler is standing underneath his own basket when the steal takes place. 3.8 seconds later, he is dunking on the other end. Clyde is somehow able to recognize that a turnover has occurred, send a signal to his feet to start moving, cover about 75 feet of floor, catch a pass, glide through the air, and decide to switch hands and double-clutch for the dunk, all in less than 4 seconds.

Off the top of my head, I would say that perhaps only Julius Erving, LeBron James, and Scottie Pippen, if anybody, could make that play. And I doubt Scottie would do it with Clyde’s style.

LeBron would. Like Drexler, James can start the break, run the break, and finish the break. He can create turnovers with steals and blocks, throw pinpoint passes of the no-look, cross-court, and behind-the-back variety, and swoop in for a dunk that nobody even tries to stop. When I see LeBron James, I see Clyde Drexler, except I see a bigger, stronger Clyde Drexler with better defensive skills, and a more reliable jumper.

Comparing the two physically, LeBron has the greater vertical leap, but Clyde could dunk from farther out. LeBron is stronger; Clyde was slightly faster. But not by much.

Comparing their statistics, you’ll see even more similarities. In 1987, Drexler was one of only three NBA players (Magic and Larry were the others) to top 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. In 1988, Clyde averaged 27 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2.5 steals on 50% shooting. The following year, he averaged 27.2 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2.7 steals on 50% shooting. In 1992, Clyde averaged 25 points, 6 rebounds 6 assists, and 1.8 steals on a team that went to the NBA Finals. Twice in his career, Drexler came within one statistic of a quadruple-double, nabbing 10 steals in each case. Those are gaudy all-around numbers in any era.

The two are so similar that they even share the same criticisms. What do LeBron critics cite as reasons why he isn’t as good as Kobe?  Well, he’s not as good a defender. His outside jumper isn’t as reliable. His dribbling style is unorthodox. He isn’t as good at closing games. He relies too much on layups and dunks. He hasn’t won a championship. These are the same things people used to criticize Clyde for in comparison with Michael Jordan.

What do LeBron supporters say in his defense? Well, he’s a better team player than Kobe. He’s a better passer. He’s a better rebounder. He’s stronger. He’s clutch in ways that go beyond merely hitting buzzer-beating shots. He’s a better overall athlete. His "team defense" is almost as good. He’s not as selfish. These are the same things Clyde Drexler supporters used to say about Clyde, right up until MJ destroyed him in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals and it became silly to make such comparisons.

So what does it say about LeBron that the player he most resembles is Clyde Drexler, a player who never won a championship as a Number One guy, who played in Michael Jordan’s shadow, who was (unfairly) labeled as "not able to win the big game", and who is largely considered an afterthought in the pantheon of great players?

Well, it probably shouldn’t say anything about LeBron. Maybe it should say something about Clyde Drexler. Playing in the Pacific Northwest for most of his career, Clyde wasn’t in the national spotlight anything close to as often as either Jordan or LeBron. Back in the 1990s, East Coast NBA fans might have been able to watch Clyde five or six times a year. These days, even casual fans can watch LeBron five or six times a month. If the average NBA fan had watched Clyde more often, they probably would noticed just how good he was.

Ultimately, of course, Drexler remains the guy who went up against Michael Jordan and lost. Even though MJ had been largely outplayed by Drexler for several years during the regular season, in the NBA Finals, when it counted, Michael hit six three-pointers in the first half of Game One, teamed up with Scottie Pippen to keep Clyde under wraps, and went on to become the G.O.A.T. while Clyde faded into distant memory.

However, it's a memory that's worth revisiting. Go on YouTube and look Clyde up. There are a number of highlight videos, and several complete games. Tell me he doesn't remind you of LeBron James.

These days, LeBron outplays Kobe in the regular season, yet Kobe is the reigning Finals MVP. LeBron, though, has a chance to do something Clyde couldn’t do with Michael: He has a chance to beat Kobe in the playoffs. He has a chance to surpass him. I believe he’s far better equipped to do it, because he’s better than Clyde and Kobe isn’t as good as Jordan.

On the other hand, if the Lakers and the Cavs meet in the Finals and Kobe scores 35 in the first half, somewhere out there Clyde Drexler will be feeling the King’s pain.

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