LeBron James Is About to Become the Magic Johnson Clone We All Envisioned

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 22, 2014

Getty Images

LeBron James was never going to be Michael Jordan. 

That's not to say he doesn't stand a chance of reaching a similar spot on the all-time NBA hierarchy, though such a debate is best saved for another time and place. This is more about playing style than anything else. Never has there been any indication that James was going to become a ruthless gunner during his late 30s, and that alone can prevent a transformation into the second coming of Jordan. 

Jordan was just never in the cards. Right initials. Wrong player. 

It's Magic Johnson whom James, a soon-to-be-clone of the legendary Los Angeles Lakers point guard, is evolving into.

It's something we've known for a long time, even if it's tough to accept. For James, who always seems to defy similarity profiles, there's really only been one player with more sheer talent: Jordan. So naturally, that's who he's supposed to emulate.

Except he really shouldn't. Even James' high-school coach, Keith Dambrot, knows that James is built differently than Jordan, as he told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard (subscription required) back in 2012: 

People try to judge LeBron [like] Kobe [Bryant] or Michael Jordan. He can do those things, but he really likes to play the other way, like a Magic Johnson. So people have a hard time judging him. People say he's not assertive, but his assertiveness is different than other guys'.

He's always wanted to be balanced -- to score when he had to but to also get others involved. Magic was assertive when he wanted to be, but he passed it more than he shot it. That's how LeBron's built. But if they're going to win, he can't do that right now. He can't.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

And later in that same piece, Dambrot reiterates those sentiments: 

I envisioned him being more like Magic going into the league, and we worked hard on trying to make him a point guard. I thought he'd lead the league in assists. I never in a million years thought he'd lead the league in scoring.

But because of the circumstances in Cleveland, he became more like a Michael Jordan-type scorer than he really is. He became this scoring maniac because he had to, but that's not really who he is.

It's not hard to surmise that the four-time MVP isn't born to score the basketball. He's remarkably good at piling up points, but that's not his true identity. And not to discredit Dambrot, but he's not a player who will ever lead the league in assists either. 

No, James is a basketball cyborg programmed to make the right plays at all times. He has a memory better than a steel trap, as well as the skills necessary to contribute in virtually any capacity, so long as those contributions are going to further his team's chances of winning. 

Sometimes, that means he isn't going to take the last shot. 

Remember when James passed the ball to Udonis Haslem for a game-winning attempt against the Utah Jazz on March 2, 2012? Johnson would have done the exact same thing, while Jordan might have driven to his left against a double-team and lofted up a contested shot to win the game on the shoulders of his own individual efforts. Jordan might have drained the difficult attempt, but that's beside the point.

ESPN's Skip Bayless noted this particular James and Haslem on-court interaction:

Skip Bayless @RealSkipBayless

Instead last play called for LeBron: Haslem pick. 2 went w/ LBJ but EASILY could've attacked basket. AGAIN AFRAID TO SHOOT THE FREE THROWS.

The outcry was ridiculous after the Jazz game, but the league's current superstar is too smart to analyze his performance based on the results. He knew that the process was sound, as he made the correct play, avoided taking a shot he wasn't comfortable with at the time and found a wide-open teammate who was standing in his sweet spot.

Whether Haslem found net or iron, it was the correct decision, avoiding hero ball for, well, sensible ball.  

"I just try to make the right plays and do what it takes to win basketball games," James explained after that loss to the Jazz ended a nine-game string of victorious play, per Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com. "At the end of the day, games are not lost on one shot at the end or me not taking a shot. But I know the chatter will begin. I wanted that game as bad as anyone else on that floor."

Even during Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals against Jordan's Chicago Bulls, one of the biggest stages possible in any era of NBA history, the disparity between Johnson and Jordan in these situations was abundantly clear. 

"Laker Coach Mike Dunleavy knew Johnson would be double-teamed as soon as he touched the ball, particularly because Jordan had five fouls and his teammates wanted to protect him," Clifton Brown wrote for The New York Times on June 3, 1991.

"Just the way Dunleavy drew it up, Johnson received the inbounds pass and was sandwiched by Jordan and Bill Cartwright. Johnson whipped a cross-court pass to [Sam] Perkins, who set himself behind the 3-point line and released. It was all net."

It wasn't a game-winning assist until Jordan "took Scottie Pippen's inbounds pass about 18 feet from the basket, made a stop-and-go move to elude Perkins, then launched a jump shot from around 15 feet. The ball went into the cylinder, went a third of the way down, then spun back out."

You can fast forward to 8:15 in the above video to skip uneventful plays and timeouts in your quest to see Jordan's missed attempt. 

Even back in 2012, James was already channeling those 1991 Finals and proving the Johnson comparison to be more accurate than the Jordan one. But during the present day, it's more obvious than ever.

PORTLAND, OR - 1988: Magic Johnson #32 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers   during a game played circa 1987 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Brian Drake/Getty Images

Throughout his legendary career, Johnson lived up to his nickname. He routinely made fans believe in Magic. The 1-guard was just that creative with the ball in his hands, and he lived to set up his teammates, especially when running the point for the Showtime Lakers.

"There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going," Michael Cooper said about his former teammate, via an NBA.com profile of Johnson. "Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody."

James hasn't yet become a transcendent passer. His distributing skills aren't magical. But remember, the evolutionary process is only just beginning.

Through his first 10 games back with his hometown team, James is averaging 25.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per contest. Those are hardly Johnson-esque numbers, seeing as the Hall of Fame floor general averaged 19.5 points and 11.2 dimes throughout his career. 

But it's not about the numbers. 

James hasn't had the same athletic burst he's dominated with in the past. Sure, it's still nearly impossible to stay in front of him in a one-on-one situation and keep him from converting a shot around the basket, but he's not the gravity-defying, rim-shattering, dunking machine he's been throughout recent campaigns.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, he's dunked just 10 times in the same number of games, which puts him on pace for a career low, one that's nine short of the mark he set during his rookie season. Last year, James recorded 134 slams, and it was 144 the season before that. 

Dunks are by no means the only part of the game that matters, but the seemingly trivial stat does seem to confirm what so many have seen—James isn't playing with quite the same explosiveness he used during either his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers or his four-year tenure in South Beach. Instead, he's getting more creative than ever before. 

It's sequences like the one you can see starting at 2:39 in the above video, where James begins taking over with his fast-break passing. He's looking to facilitate for his teammates in those situations, and it's not as though he's any less brilliant in the half-court set. His pocket passes are fantastic, and he's a true master of hitting cross-court teammates right between the numbers. 

But just as it's not about the numbers, it's not about what the four-time MVP is doing right now. Sure, he's racking up passing highlights and dazzling opponents while playing unselfish basketball. Even if the process is in its infancy at this very moment, he's still going to become the clone in the future, not the present. 

As James continues to age, he has two routes that he can travel down.

He can continue to compete for scoring championships and lose the trademark efficiency that has been such a big part of his game over the last few years. Or he can make a more beneficial decision. He can adapt and fully accept his role as Johnson 2.0.

After all, he has the size, skill and intelligence to do the latter. 

You need look no further than Kobe Bryant for a great example of what happens when the former route is the choice. 

Bryant has built a massive part of his NBA life around chasing Jordan—whether he's seeking out that championship that would allow him to draw even with the legendary 2-guard or hunting him down on the all-time scoring leaderboard.

He's copied Jordan's moves and taken a similar late-career path, as he's currently leading the league in scoring but isn't exactly adding an equivalent amount of value to the struggling Lakers. 

Can you imagine James in his late 30s gunning for a scoring title but doing so at the expense of winning basketball games? Can you picture him doing anything but continuing to make the right choices, even if there are inevitably going to be critics who wrongfully decry his diminished scoring ability? 

James hasn't yet hit the fork in the road, but when he gets there—and he will—it seems far more likely he chooses the path that leads to a Johnson-esque game. It's by no means inconceivable that he could average something like 18 points and 12 assists per contest when he's in his mid-30s. 

"But if you insist on including Jordan, Magic and LeBron into one sentence, try this," Tom Ziller once wrote for SBNation.com. "LeBron is like a newfangled Bird with the scoring of Jordan and the passing pizzazz and versatility of Magic. Cool?"

That was certainly cool in 2013, when Ziller made that claim. And it may be accurate now as well. But down the road, when James has to make that inevitable choice—conscious or not—about which path to travel, he'll leave Larry Bird and Jordan in the dust in favor of a certain flashy point guard.

His basketball intelligence is too finely tuned to do anything else. 

We're still years away from that becoming a necessity, but even now, you can see hints more clearly than ever. The transition passes, the mastery of half-court sets, the ability to dominate games without making a scorekeeper's life a living hell and even the choice to play with two young scoring superstars who will only get better—it all points to a Johnson replica more than anything else.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.