LeBron vs. Magic: Why the MVP is a Pauper, not a King

Pat Mixon@patmixonSenior Analyst IJune 4, 2010

LeBron James sits at home again while another NBA Finals occurs without him. Many fans feel it’s King James’ birthright to play for a championship. But, that will never be true until LeBron starts acting more like Magic than Michael.  

This summer, when the world right now is focused on where LeBron will end up, LeBron should be more concerned with improving his game, his approach, his work ethic than his pending free agency.  

That’s because LeBron is more young Michael Jordan than Magic and boy, does the King need more Magic in his life.

LeBron reminds me so much of where Michael Jordan was in the late 1980’s before Phil Jackson took over as coach of the Chicago Bulls. LeBron puts up crazy numbers and dominates the regular season.  

But the key word in that sentence was regular season. LeBron seems like he is the best player in the NBA but isn’t even close. And, anyone who regards the King as such is missing what matters: Rings.

When MJ entered the league, he went crazy time, scoring and carrying a weak Bulls team. In 1986, Larry Bird, when his Boston Celtics whipped MJ’s Bulls in an early playoff round series win, stated that MJ was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

LeBron is the same way. On tape, in person, on paper, he’s the best.  But, when it really counts, when it becomes winning time, he’s a pauper, not a King.

And, LeBron isn’t even close to being the best player at his size. That’s because the best player at 6’9” who ever laced them up was Magic Johnson, of the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic is the greatest because he made his legend where it counted: the NBA Finals.  

Magic played in ten out of twelve finals in his first years in the league.  That is not a typo. Seriously. And, he walked away with five titles. Until LeBron racks up a few rings, he’s not even in the same ballpark as Magic.

And, I’m saying right now, right here, Magic would take a game of one on one versus the King. If we pitted two of the tallest and most talented perimeter players against each other, in their primes, Magic wins. And, here’s why.

There’s never been and might not happen again, a bigger point guard than Magic Johnson. It isn't figurative but literal how he redefined the point guard position. No one was as quick at that height, with incredible dribbling abilities than Mr. Showtime.  

Well, no one was that fast and that big until LeBron James came along.  King James is also redefining big, because there has never been a quicker and higher leaper who is as strong and tall as LeBron. 

Think about this. Twenty years ago and a guy LeBron’s size is a power forward, like “the large mound of rebound,” Charles Barkley. Did Barkley weigh much more than 260?  And, he wasn’t even close to 6’9!  

The most craziest thing is that, in 2010, LeBron is still on the front end of his career, not even in his prime years. His main weaknesses are outside shooting and free throw percentage and both should continue to improve as he puts more time in the gym. 

LeBron even admitted after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that Kobe Bryant’s insane work ethic had rubbed off on him. That’s a great thing for LeBron and his legacy but a nightmare for the rest of the NBA.  

But the Magic Man from Michigan State, who grew up in the shadows of Detroit and its automotive industry, had a work ethic almost without peer (I can only name a few players, like MJ, Kareem, Havlicek, West, Kobe, that really had the same drive as Magic.) 

If LeBron comes even close to Magic’s discipline and desire, combined with King James’ talent, watch out.  

But for now, in this battle, we get LeBron as he is today, not as we hope he turns out. So, it’s really a Legend versus a possible Legend.  But, either way, it is arguably one of the most intriguing games of one on one ever.

It’s still almost hard to believe that a guy 6’9” played point guard in the NBA. Magic not only did that but was arguably one of the best ever, at any position. You can slice it up any way you want-- the five rings, the boatload of assists, the Showtime Lakers, the tied at the hip to Larry Bird taking the NBA to a new level, all of it.

But I like say, what sums up Magic best and all you really ever need to consider, if you wanted to watch old tape of him, was the 1980 Finals.  

That’s when the Lakers played Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. In game six, with the title on the line and Kareem out with an ankle injury, Magic played all five, all five I say, (yes, that is not a typo) positions and brought the Lakers the 1st of their five championships in the 80’s.  

No one else, in the pantheon of the NBA players, could have played all five spots. But Magic did. The other massive thing Magic possessed beside a monster love and knowledge of the game was a competitive streak to no end. 

The stories go that he didn’t want to nor liked losing at anything, down to the card games on road trips. His thirst to win was unequaled, except for Michael, Larry Bird, and now, Kobe.  

On offense, Magic could do it all. He had tremendous foot speed for a man his size, could dribble with both hands as if on a string, could pass literally like he was a magician, using his height to see over for passes and using his love and knowledge of the game to deliver the perfect pass every time.  

He was a natural born leader and ran the point like a conductor.  Showtime might of been the name for the glam Lakers of Hollywood, but if you were courtside and listened during game action, all you heard was Magic talking and yelling. 

That was an orchestra to me. Magic could drive to the hoop and finish with either hand. He rarely dunked but that hardly mattered. He possessed a very good outside shot, even though he shot it from his tippy toes, the shot more set than jumper.  

Magic also played strong in the paint, loved to back down smaller guards and score in the post. He used his large body to perfection down low and even had his junior, junior skyhook in his arsenal. He had it all and it was tough to defend. He could drive, pull up, shoot over you, hit from long range or destroy you in the paint.  

Defensively, Magic somehow could cover guards. It is always funny to see film of him matching up with a small point guard. But, sure enough, more times than not, there is Magic married up, sticking to the opposing player. 

He used his foot speed and body to keep with his cover and only the smallest and fastest of the little guards could get by him.  

Anyone with any size Magic had no trouble covering out on the perimeter. Sure, guys like Isaiah Thomas or even MJ, with incredible foot speed and/or first steps, could get to the rim on Magic, but pretty much, Magic held his own. 

Most guards settled for outside shots on Magic as he had a tendency at times to give some space to compensate for any variance in foot speed. He’d then use his size to close the distance he’d given up and contest shots. 

In the paint, he could cover anyone, and that is why he could play multiple positions, because Magic had strong interior defensive skills.  

Magic was a very good defender and against size, and even better one because more times than naught, Magic had the upper hand in quickness.

LeBron is a beast. Simple as that. He is a linebacker or tight end on the basketball court. No one his height, and that includes his opponent in this matchup, Magic, possessed the quickness and foot speed that LeBron has. 

Combine that with 260 pounds of pure muscle, almost the athletic talent and leaping ability of say a Jordan or Kobe, and LeBron is revolutionary. He also proved he has the head to match the body, he was the first over-hyped high school player who lived up to and surpassed the expectations. That is handling pressure if you ask me.  

While LeBron flirts with the charms and charisma of Magic, King James does seem to have a competitive streak (no where near Magic, Michael’s or Kobe’s, mind you) and a work ethic that has him improving his game each year. 

King James is only going to get better and better as time goes on.

On offense, LeBron is a man among boys. As Charles Barkley likes to say, the Cleveland Cavalier’s typical offense is LeBron going five on one.  

That is actually true, most of the time. The reason is because LeBron is so big and so good on the perimeter. His size and speed makes him nearly unguardable. 

Little guys who might stick with him in quickness stand no chance physically. Big guys just get blown by and dunked on.  

This is actually one of the reasons why only now, in the last few seasons, has LeBron begun to develop and work on his shooting abilities. The reason was simple: he didn’t need to. 

He could push around and shoot over anyone smaller and he could go around anyone bigger and slower. When that failed, he’d lower his head, lead with his shoulder and barrel to the cup like a football player.(That’s why no one wants to take a charge on LeBron. Would you?)  

The NBA has been a great thing for LeBron to improve his game, because of double teams and defensive schemes have taken away much of his dribble, drives (except on boring pick and roll) and he takes more and more fouls and shots from distance. 

He is an incredible leaper, creative in the air, and finishes with more force and power than either MJ or Kobe.  

The area that is weak in his game is a consistent, reliable outside shot.  LeBron also could develop a more proven mid-range game to keep even the best defenders off balance. 

And, let’s not forget a post up game. He has one but it is mostly using his weight and shooting over smaller guys. We’ll know he has really arrived with a real post up game when he can score on bigger players down low. For now, his outside game is still the weak area.  

On defense, LeBron really causes trouble. He can stick with the fastest of guards, using his quickness and strength to defend.  He’s not someone you can blow by easily. You’re not going to fake him out much either. And, because of his leaping ability, he can get up and block or alter most shots.  

Only perimeter players who possess both height and quickness stand much of a chance against LeBron. Like on offense, I feel LeBron could be exploited in his post defense, as he simply does’t have to do that much, so he doesn’t have the wealth of post D experience yet. 

What I’m saying is still lacking in LeBron’s defensive game is guarding a real four, a power forward, (or like a post player master at the three like James Worthy) and shutting them down in the post.  

I’ve seen LeBron do it all on the perimeter. He’ll be All Defense Team to me when he adds real interior D to his game against guys who make their living in the paint.

Here’s how I see the one on one game going.  

Magic will do what he always did against anyone he thought could play some D on him. He’ll not face up but back the other player down.  

Magic could dribble equally with his right or left, so he can’t be overplayed on either side. He’ll be able to drive on LeBron, at times, lower his shoulder and keep LeBron from the ball.  

But, I see Magic mostly relying on his post game against LeBron. He’ll move LeBron around, side to side, get down into the paint and go to work. He’ll spin, he’ll fake, he’ll drop step, and he’ll even launch some runners, some baby skyhooks over LeBron.  

And, with LeBron having never covered someone at Magic’s height with that foot speed and dribbling ability, on top of Magic’s solid post game, LeBron will struggle. King James hasn’t proven to us yet that he has a strong post defense game, so Magic will work LeBron down in the paint.  

Magic will get the low post game rolling, then mix in some dribble drives, a possible pull up at the free throw line. 

Magic’s basketball IQ was off the chart, so even in a game of one on one, he’s going to be constantly playing it smart, making every possession count, which is what you have to do in a game of one on one against a talented and deadly opponent.  

While I think Magic can score well on LeBron, Magic still can’t afford to miss many shots or turn the ball over, because LeBron is an offensive force. 

So, Magic might launch maybe one long range shot but he won’t do that unless he has a good lead and/or if he is close to winning.  

LeBron will get by Magic. He’ll have to learn how to do it but he has the first step and quickness to break Magic down off the dribble. 

But, LeBron will also find it challenging going by Magic because while LeBron is faster and quicker than Magic, King James won’t be able to push and body up Magic like he is used to.  

That might frustrate LeBron and tease him into taking some outside jump shots, which would be a big mistake.  

LeBron will go around and leap over Magic and that is how he will score and he will need to stick to that plan. The question is, will he?  

Magic couldn’t guard MJ but LeBron doesn’t quite possess that quickness, so Magic just might be able to stay close to LeBron to influence or affect some shots.  

Magic won’t need many stops, just a few, because Magic will score easily in the post. In contrast, LeBron won’t be able to do much in the post. 

So, he’ll need to face up outside, get some speed going, and let the freight train that is LeBron get going. He’ll be able to score on Magic quite easily if he sticks to a face up game.

The way I see it is whoever gets outs, will roll out to a good lead, like 5 or 6 points in a row and then probably miss a make-able shot.  Let’s say LeBron jumps out first.  

Let’s say LeBron streaks out to a 6 to 0 lead but then misses on a fake drive and pull up near the elbow. 

So, the minute Magic gets the ball, he’ll score easily too.He won’t face up but he’ll get to the paint where he’ll exploit LeBron every possession.  

The key factor in this matchup is while LeBron possesses similar charisma and enthusiasm to Magic, the Laker also possessed a killer competitive streak. 

There is no way Magic wants to lose and he’ll be relentless. The only thing with Magic is, unlike Kobe or MJ, Magic will kill you while smiling. He’ll do that to LeBron too. He’ll work his game, even banging on LeBron to get down low and he’ll frustrate LeBron on D.  

LeBron will have never covered someone he couldn’t steal the ball from and he won’t get one on Magic. That’s because Magic was incredible with his ball handling abilities and his assist to turnover ratio was stellar. 

LeBron will learn about that stat the hard way. Magic will get inside and score in an endless number of ways.  

I’ll say Magic roars back to lead 8 to 6 but then rims out a baby skyhook. LeBron will take over but this is where Magic will apply what he’s learned from covering LeBron already.  

Magic will sag off of LeBron and bait him into some outside shots. I’ll say LeBron makes 2 of 3 jumpers as Magic really plays off LeBron and won’t let him drive. 

The one miss will give Magic the ball back at 8 to 8 and that is where Magic’s will to win will kick in.  He’ll take LeBron down low and score with some of his go to, patented post moves to close it out.  

In my opinion, Magic takes this battle and, if not for a missed baby skyhook, the game won’t be as close as the final score indicates.

Final Score:  Magic Johnson- 11; LeBron James- 8


Let the Debate Begin!! 



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