Is it really necessary for pundits to ruin the greatness of the moment by putting LeBron James into the same class as Michael Jordan? As one who thinks LeBron winning one for Cleveland in the fashion he did might be the greatest sports moment since the 1980 Miracle On Ice hockey team, I’m now in the position of having to be a killjoy. This is why, in a nutshell, I think LeBron is still a long way from Jordan territory…
*Jordan never came up short in the NBA Finals to the degree LeBron has at too many points in his career. Jordan made the Finals six times and was MVP all six times. In all of those cases the MVP was eminently deserved. There was no other option. From the Flu Game to the Shrug to the 54-point night against Charles Barkley to the final shot over Byron Russell in 1998, MJ’s star shined brighter on the biggest stage than anyone in any sport.
*Jordan also had a far more difficult path to the NBA Finals than LeBron has had to deal with. The early years of Jordan’s career were spent having to navigate the Bird-era Celtics and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. LeBron has spent his entire career in the East during an era when it’s been almost a “B League” compared to the West at times. LeBron certainly never had to go through a dynasty at the conference level and you can even argue that he never played anyone as good as the Reggie Miller-era Indiana Pacers or the early 1990s Cavs en route to the Finals.
*LeBron has two significant losses in the Finals on his resume. The loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 are both big deals. The ’11 Finals were extremely poor and are the biggest blot on his legacy. The loss to the Spurs in ’14 was not a big deal generally—San Antonio was clearly the best team. But if you change the context to a LeBron-Jordan comparison, this was the type of matchup that was close enough where Jordan could will his team to victory. LeBron’s Heat not only lost, they lost in five games by a record-setting margin.
*In the 2014 and 2015 NBA Finals, the man guarding LeBron got Finals MVP. It was Kawhi Leonard in ’14 and Andre Iguodala in ’15. I hope nothing more needs to be said than simply pointing out that fact.
*I’m generally not real fussy about the fact that LeBron rarely, if ever, has a signature game-winning shot to point to. Jordan didn’t have every big shot for the Bulls either—Steve Kerr and John Paxson hit three-pointers that won titles. But Jordan also had the game-winner of the ’98 Finals and his legendary game-winner against Cleveland, to name a couple. LeBron needed Ray Allen to hit the money shot in 2013 (off an offensive rebound after a LeBron miss) and it was Kyrie Irving who hit the biggest shot this time around. Again, this is not a big deal, but if you insist on comparing someone to Jordan than everything becomes a big deal.
One thing I want to stress to millennial readers is that this is not the rantings of someone who feels a quasi-religious devotion to Michael Jordan (i.e., Skip Bayless). Even though I’m a 40-something, it’s not that I’m against all current players. In fact, I enjoy watching the NBA far more today than I ever have. Today I like the NBA more than college basketball, which is something I would have considered unthinkable back in the Jordan era.
The reason is that I think the current crop of players are mostly good guys, LeBron included. I like the fact that LeBron is actually willing to be friends with rival players. It indicates a perspective on life that Jordan, Bird and Magic may have lacked. So I don’t write any of this to secretly demean everything unique to the millennial generation.
Furthermore, I think that what LeBron has done in going home to Cleveland bringing a sports-starved and economically troubled area a championship—and doing it in the historic manner that he did—is something so unique that it transcends customary rankings of players. It carves LeBron his own special niche in the pantheon of not just the NBA, but all of sports.
That’s pretty special. It doesn’t mean that in pure basketball terms he was better than Michael Jordan, the greatest winner of all time. Let’s not demean the moment by forcing too much.