OAKLAND, Calif. — Twenty years ago Sunday, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls lost Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals in Utah, going down much more conventionally than LeBron James and the Cavaliers did at the hands of the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals.
Back then, there was a concept known as the "Jordan Rules," a series of principles pioneered by the late, great Chuck Daly in an effort to hold the greatest player of the era in check.
In a nutshell, Daly—and later, Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy—lived by the notion of running a variety of double-teams at Jordan. The purpose was to get the ball out of his hands, disrupt his rhythm and force him to do what was not instinctive to His Airness—pass the ball to someone else.
If Jordan somehow escaped and darted toward the rim, the counter move was simple, as Daly once described in an article written by Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum.
"The other rule was anytime he went by you, you had to nail him," Daly said.
With James facing a 1-0 deficit against Golden State for the fourth straight year in the Finals, the debate will rage on as to who—Jordan or James—has a better body of work, a more legendary resume. But there can be no disagreement about one similarity: Just as with Jordan, a philosophy of defensive basketball has emerged in an attempt to counteract the most potent offensive player of this era.
So what, exactly, are the LeBron Rules?
"I don't think there are LeBron Rules," James said Saturday. "I think for me personally, a coaching staff puts together a game plan that best suits their team, best suits the individual when going against myself and my teammates, and they try to be successful with that.
"Obviously, we've all heard of the quote-unquote 'Jordan Rules,' or whatever the case may be, and whoever decided to bring that notion up as a way to stop Jordan," James said. "But I think more importantly, this is a team game, and coaching staffs put together game plans that best fit their teams to stop that dynamic player, but also the rest of the guys on the floor as well."
And if you ask the men of this era whose job it is to design defensive schemes to deal with James, therein lies the fundamental difference. James' natural instinct to be not only a willing, but also a lethal passer, makes defending him literally a five-man job.
And the fact that, unlike Jordan, James is surrounded on any given possession by three and often four three-point shooters alters the landscape even more.
"Historically, few teams have had success putting two people on LeBron," Ron Adams, the Warriors' lead defensive assistant, told Bleacher Report. "You've got to be aware of the fact that he's so good at finding other people.
"We have a few ideas and rules on how to slow him down and we try to follow that," Adams said. "But it's really a five-man effort, and you've got to be aware of their other shooters, too. The three-point shot has changed everything."
Van Gundy, a disciple of the Jordan Rules, has openly questioned in his role as broadcaster the unwillingness of teams to double-team James. From the Pacers in the first round to the Raptors in the second round to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and now the Warriors, playing James straight up, switching every pick-and-roll and having everyone else stay home on three-point-point shooters has been the common refrain.
"The difference would be, Michael was never playing with five out," an Eastern Conference head coach told B/R. "Michael never had Kevin Love at the 5 with a lineup of, say, [Kyle] Korver, JR Smith and [George] Hill, where every guy could shoot threes. To blitz now, particularly in the middle of the floor, is very difficult. It's totally different.
"If you want to go back to when Michael played, teams like New York and Miami blitzed every pick-and-roll and that was their primary coverage, because everybody was playing three-out, two-in [the paint]," the coach said. "With the new spacing, it's not impossible to blitz, but it's very, very difficult."
Another Eastern Conference head coach told B/R his approach is to mix in an occasional double-team—perhaps out of a timeout—just to show James a different look. But it's not a diet you can feed James consistently if you want to have a chance.
James' size and intelligence—"He's always one move ahead of you," one of the coaches said—makes it nearly impossible to gain a physical or tactical advantage when defending him. The only element that has consistently thrown James off over the years is an agitator with nothing to lose, hounding him and getting under his skin.
"The thing that seems to affect him more than anything is, you almost have to have a guy who's half-crazy," one of the coaches said. "Like Lance Stephenson, or DeShawn Stevenson when he was with the Mavs, poking the bear. There have always been certain guys he doesn't enjoy playing against."
As for switching—a tactic the Warriors' Adams popularized—it's the only way to defend James when he is in the middle of the floor and has options on either side. A side pick-and-roll for James is the only one where it's reasonable to accept the risk of having the defender fight over it, as opposed to switching.
"Even then," one of the coaches said, "when Korver, JR and Love are rolling and hitting shots, it's over."
When you factor in that James knows the switch is coming—and knows how to get the matchup he wants out of it—there's almost no way to win.
"If you watch him in the phases of all the playoff games where the other team is switching, he'll call guys up and make sure he gets the matchup that he's looking for," one of the coaches said. "You switch, and he takes advantage of matchups. You put two to the ball, he's going to pick you apart. And if you stay with a regular coverage, he figures out the best play to make. Nobody can guard him one-on-one, so the only thing you can really do is try to mix up your coverages and hope he doesn't shoot."
This is how James was able to produce 51 points in Game 1—only the sixth 50-point game in Finals history—against a team that is still more than capable even without defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala.
And that the other five 50-point scorers in the Finals went home with a win is all the more reason for the Warriors to feel fortunate to be up 1-0.
"I didn't think we made him work hard enough," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I thought everything was smooth sailing for him. It's one thing to have a philosophy where you're going to say, 'Hey, we're going to make this guy beat us and shut everybody else down.' You can have that philosophy in general. A lot of teams have done it with superstars in the past, whether you're talking about Kobe or Michael or LeBron or whoever. But it only works if you actually make the guy have to really use a lot of energy.
"We've studied the sets that they like to run," Kerr said. "So you get to a certain set, you've got to know when to put pressure on him, when to back off. … We've got to put more pressure on him. We can't just sit back and let him pick us apart."
The other element that has made defending a ball-dominant scorer like James so daunting is not only the threat of him passing off for a three-point shot but that of James shooting them himself. James was 3-of-7 from deep in Game 1; his teammates were 7-of-30.
"There were parts of my game that you could disrespect early in my career," James said. "You can't do that now."
Unless you want to go home with a headache—and perhaps a loss on your home floor in the Finals.
"He's a much better offensive player now," Adams said. "I think he has confidence in his three-point shot, and he's still a terrific driver. But just like with a really good wine, as it's aging, it supposedly gets better, right? He's got a lot of miles on him, but he keeps getting more refined in his game."
So much so that all those plotting against him are struggling to come up with a new set of rules that will actually work.