It has been amusing and a little confusing listening to all the recent chatter about LeBron James one day, possibly, maybe eclipsing the legendary Michael Jordan as the game’s all-time best player. With the 2012-13 season beginning tonight, seems the appropriate time to lend a little perspective.
This notion is funny because only in the last three seasons or so has James really established himself as the top player in the game, confirming it with a magnificent last season during which he earned every conceivable accolade, but above all a championship.
But it is a single title, one, which makes such lofty prospecting of James confusing when he has not even bypassed Kobe Bryant.
To this point in his brilliant career, James trails Bryant in game and accomplishment, so how is it that he is the next best thing to Jordan?
This is not to minimize the remarkable skill set James has displayed. He, indeed, has played better than anyone in the world in the past two seasons, improving his game exponentially each summer. But before he can pass Jordan he has to pass Bryant, and he has not.
Just three years ago, all the talk was how Bryant was the game’s best player. At the same time, many pundits wondered aloud if he would be Jordan’s equal if he matched him with six championships. So, here’s the confusing part: If observers were prepared to begin the debate about Bryant’s place in relation to Jordan only after he won six rings, why now are they giving James so much love after just one title?
Not only that, but many of the same high-profile people leading the discussion of James passing Jordan — Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson — are the same people who ridiculed James for bolting Cleveland to team with superstar Dwyane Wade and all-star Chris Bosh. Remember that?
James had a season for the ages — league MVP, NBA championship, NBA Finals MVP and Olympic gold medal. But that one season does not push him pass Bryant’s five NBA championships. How can it? Why is the criteria for James’s place in history different from Bryant’s, especially when Bryant has been a remarkable player in every facet of the game, including winning?
From a pure basketball standpoint, what areas are James better than Bryant has been? A ballhandler? Edge to Bryant? Defender? James has gotten better as Bryant has gotten older. Mid-range shooter? Bryant. Free-throw shooter? Bryant. Three-point shooter: Bryant. Passer? James is magnificent at ball distribution. As a rebounder? James uses his massive size to earn the advantage. As a leader? Bryant, over the course of his career, has been at the forefront of his teams’ successes. As a clutch player? Bryant. Until the second half of last season, James was reluctant to even shoot in the biggest moments. And when he did, he often missed.
As a winner? Bryant has five championships, James one. That criteria cannot be underplayed. In a very real way, James has to surpass Magic Johnson before he can catch up to Kobe Bryant before any serious discussion can begin about surpassing Michael Jordan.
In fact, the talk about Bryant’s proximity to Jordan should have resumed when the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Dwight Howard in the summer. They have a legitimate chance to reign atop the league in mid-June. And if Bryant puts together another outstanding season in leading the Lakers to the title and wins the Finals MVP, that would give him a half-dozen titles, like Jordan. What’s the conversation then?
If you are starting an NBA team today, only the blinded-by-loyalty Bryant supporters would take him now over James. Three and especially four years ago, Bryant would have been the choice. Admittedly, James’ last season was so dynamic that he rose above the fallout of how he left Cleveland to land to a loaded squad. He was that good.
Still, James has a longer road to get to Jordan than Bryant, with five titles, an unquestioned body of work and a game that is aesthetically pleasing as any we have seen. Bryant is style and substance.
The truth is that LeBron James, by the time he is done, could be as good or “better” than Jordan. But that’s almost like saying the same thing about Kevin Durant. The only real, concrete debate about someone knocking Jordan off his throne (or sharing it) would have to be about Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James.
Let James win three more titles and then the talk should begin. Until then, he’s just an unbelievable, a once-in-a-generation player trying to be the next Kobe Bryant.