LeBron James May Never Match the Feats of Michael Jordan, and That’s Just Fine

When he was just a teenager, not yet a legend, Michael Jordan stamped his aspirations on a personalized license plate: It read, “Magic Mike.” Yes, long before anyone wanted “to be like Mike,” Mike wanted to be like Magic Johnson.   

Indeed, when he arrived at North Carolina, Jordan introduced himself with that moniker, to which a scolding Dean Smith replied, “We already have a Magic.”

“You’re Michael,” Smith said.

This tale comes from Roland Lazenby, author of Michael Jordan: The Life, and it resonates today, as fans and pundits continue to ponder the most grating, mind-numbing question in sports: Who is the next Michael Jordan?

The question ruined Harold Miner, shadowed Kobe Bryant and now haunts LeBron James, who, as it happens, will stare down MJ‘s ghost on Halloween night, when the Cavaliers play the Bulls at United Center.

James can hardly move a muscle without triggering comparisons and criticism.

LeBron left his team to join another star? Michael would never have done that.

LeBron passed the ball for the final shot? Michael would have shot it.

LeBron switched teams, again? Michael was more loyal.

LeBron lost in the Finals, again? Michael was 6-0.

LeBron, still just 29, may one day match, or even trump, Jordan’s six championshipsthe modern barometer for greatness—and the response will inevitably be: Yeah, but he also lost three times.

Michael, of course, never lost in the Finals. To hear commentators rhapsodize about him now, you’d think Jordan never lost a game, period.

Two points:

1. No, LeBron James is not Michael Jordan, however one defines the standard.

2. It doesn’t matter.

The debate has grown tired and comical, to the point where another book had to be written just to shut up the chattering classes. There Is No Next is the latest tome from Sam Smith, the former Chicago Tribune reporter and author of the best-selling The Jordan Rules.

Smith, who covered the entirety of Jordan’s Bulls career and remains the foremost authority on all things MJ, makes his case through personal observation and interviews with countless others, from Magic and Larry Bird to Isiah Thomas, Grant Hill and President Barack Obama.

Smith would be the first to tell you that LeBron James will never “be” Michael Jordan, whatever that means. He would also tell you the comparisons are pointless and should probably cease.

“LeBron is boxing with clouds,” Smith said. “You can’t grab a hold of this thing, this guy, his mystique.”

James temporarily quieted critics by winning back-to-back championships with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. James fell short in his bid for a “three-peat” (Jordan did it twice!), but that failure was quickly eclipsed by the wave of good feelings elicited by his decision to return to the Cavaliers, his original team.

Yet even as Cleveland celebrated LeBron’s second coming this week, Jordan’s ghost lingered.

“Can LeBron James surpass Michael Jordan as the NBA‘s best ever?” asked a headline in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

There is even an entire web page devoted to comparing the two.

It’s a strange construct that we, NBA fans and media, have created. It doesn’t exist in other sports. There is no urgent demand for the Next Hank Aaron or the Next Joe Montana or the Next Wayne Gretzky. Young pitchers don’t face daily comparisons to Roger Clemens.

Only in the NBA do we turn one player into a deity, and then insist that every great young player live up to the standard.

“It’s not logical, it’s not fair and it is unprecedented,” Smith said. “It didn’t exist before Jordan came along.”

Before Jordan collected six titles with the Bulls in the 1990s, the NBA’s standard for winning was Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships between 1957 and 1969. The standard for offensive dominance was Wilt Chamberlain. The standard for filling up box scores was Oscar Robertson. And the standard for clutch was, of course, Mr. Clutch, Jerry West.

But Russell lacked an offensive game, and the others lacked the jewelry. Magic and Bird established the modern standard for greatness, but Jordan was the first to check every category—scorer, champion, iconand the first to cross over as a pop-culture and marketing phenomenon.

“It’s what pop culture determined: Here’s the best guy,” Smith said.

So while Jordan did try to adopt Magic’s name as a teenager, he was never asked to match Magic’s feats or to be the “next” anyone. He was often compared to Julius Erving, for his high-flying theatric and dunking artistry, but Dr. J never cast the same shadow, because his best years were spent in the ABA.

There was a time, early in Jordan’s career, when he was derided as a ball-hogging gunner, as a great scorer but not a winner. Critics wanted him to be more like Magic, the ultimate team player.

“So that used to be held up to him, and it used to really piss him off,” Smith said, chuckling. “He hated that.”

The comparisons effectively ceased after Jordan knocked off Magic’s Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals.

“There was no ‘Jordan’ for Jordan,” Lazenby said. “Michael owned the game like no one ever has. LeBron doesn’t own it like that yet, but he’s very close.”

To an extent, the modern stars have invited the comparisons. They all grew up idolizing and imitating Jordan. Bryant patterned his game, and even his speech patterns, after Jordan. James adopted Jordan’s number, 23. (When he moved to Miami, James took No. 6, which of course evoked Jordan’s ring count.)

And though outwardly they might eschew the comparisons, Bryant and James both badly want to match Jordan’s six titles.

Lazenby has spent time interviewing influential people in James’ background, “and they insist that LeBron’s entire motivation is to win more championships than Jordan.”

“They’re not on the floor at the same time,” Lazenby said, “but I do think they’re sort of competing across time, across the decades.”

And so we all get trapped in these ridiculous debates the moment that Bryant or James (or soon, Kevin Durant) fails to live up to some immeasurable, possibly mythological standard.

LeBron gets leg cramps in the Finals and can’t return? Critics point to Jordan’s “flu game” to prove LeBron is unworthy.

LeBron passes to an open Chris Bosh in the critical moments of a playoff loss? Critics say he lacks the “Jordan gene” (and never mind that Jordan won championships by passing to Steve Kerr and John Paxson).

It has come to the point where the entire Jordan legacy has been distorted. You would think that Jordan took every big shot, made them all and discovered cold fusion during the timeout. Based on the mythology, you would think Jordan alone won those titles, without the aid of Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman.

The Cavaliers never got a Pippen or a Rodman, and so James left for Miami to find his own. If the Bulls had been as inept in the 1980s, perhaps Jordan would have done the same.

No, James cannot match Jordan’s 6-0 record, and to some folks, that alone disqualifies him from “Next Jordan” status. But this discussion is pointless, and the comparisons were misguided from the start.

James entered the NBA as a selfless, playmaking wizard, in the mold of Magic, not Michael. He has evolved into a dominant scorer, but it’s not what defines him.

Comparing players across eras is an inherently fraught exercise, because of changing rules and salary caps and expansion. But Jordan’s statistical feats stand alone. He averaged 33.6 points in his Finals career, a number that James (24.3 average) will likely never match. Jordan once averaged 37 points for an entire season and had eight seasons of averaging at least 30, a plateau James has reached just once.

As a scorer, James will never be Jordan. As a champion, perhaps not either. Yet he already stands apart in his own right, as the only player who ever combined size, speed, agility, scoring, playmaking, rebounding and defense at this levela mashup of Magic and Jordan and Karl Malone.

We can keep obsessing over Jordan and making impossible comparisons, or we can choose to appreciate James for his own unique brand of greatness.

There is no Next Jordan. There is no debate. But the suffocating comparisons will inevitably persist, to the detriment of us all.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009, Jordan peered out into the audience and glibly declared, “I wouldn’t want to be you guys if I had to.” He was addressing his children. He might as well have been saying it to every young basketball star until the end of time.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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LeBron very un-LeBron in opening loss to Knicks (Yahoo Sports)

Shortly after showering, and maybe rinsing off a forgettable performance, LeBron James smiled and laughed as he dressed for a flight to Chicago. It may take Cleveland a little longer. This championship-deprived city, which had waited months to celebrate James’ return from Miami with a rip-roaring party, was in a state of shock following Cleveland’s 95-90 loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday night. Following an emotional pregame, which included him reprising the signature ”chalk toss” routine he made famous during his first stint with the Cavs, James could hardly do anything right.

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LeBron James brings the chalk toss back to Cleveland (GIF)

The Cleveland Cavaliers held their season opener Thursday night against New York, which marked not only the return of LeBron James to Cleveland, but the return of LeBron’s legendary pregame chalk toss.It was the moment that Cavaliers fans have been waiting to see for a long time, and many of them mimicked the chalk toss themselves by throwing confetti into the air.Unfortunately, LeBron and the Cavs were a bit out of synch on the court and they lost to the Knicks 95-90.Video via NBA.
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LeBron James Connects Better with Fans Than Teammates in Opening Loss

CLEVELAND — Four years, three months and 21 days had finally elapsed, so now the countdown could be measured in minutes, and not many at that. The rather spacious party room on the other end of the tunnel was all ready for him, with every seat taken, every supposed sin forgiven and just about every aspect of the celebration carefully scripted. And now, after huddling and addressing his team, LeBron James bounced in place, before playfully popping Nick Gilbert, the owner’s son, in the chest and laughing his way out into the love. 

Following the morning shootaround, James had called this “probably one of the biggest sporting events that’s up there ever,” and while that may have sounded haughty and hyperbolic in 49 other states, it seemed somewhat understated to anyone anywhere near Prospect Avenue or Huron Road or East 4th Street at any time on Thursday. James may be an economic boon for this region, but, on this morning, afternoon and early evening, the only work getting done was by drink-pouring professionals. 

Fans waved giveaway red glow sticks, cheered James’ Cleveland-centric Nike commercial and his “no place like home” close to the introductions on the new gargantuan video screen, sang the national anthem along with Usher, scattered confetti along with James’ chalk toss and even lustily and tepidly booed Justin Bieber and Geraldo Rivera, respectively.

Everything went off without a hitch. 

Well, until tipoff.

Then stuff got strange.

The now-permanent guest of honor started committing uncharacteristic gaffes.

The undermanned Knicks were unexpectedly competitive.

The hyped Cavaliers, after looking so connected during the preseason, underwhelmed on both ends on their way to a 95-90 opening-night defeat. 

“It’s one game, we got to learn from this,” said James, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, while making 5-of-15 shots. “It’s great to have a game like this, especially early on. It’s good for us to learn from the experience, and get better.” 

He can certainly speak from experience, since he didn’t win his first game with Miami, either, after the construction of the Miami Heat‘s Big Three.

“We began the game in the fashion that we wanted to play, and I think we spiked,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, after his official NBA debut. “We’ve been thinking and excited about the game for a long time, certainly all day today it’s been building and building. We used that emotion in a positive way in the beginning and then I thought we spiked and we kind of dropped off the map.” 

Blatt said James’ effort was sufficient. 

His efficiency, however, was off from the start. 

He was short on his first shot, from 19 feet. He converted his second, finishing a fast break that started with one of Kevin Love’s trademark outlet passes and ended with Carmelo Anthony hanging all over him. He pointed to his biceps and, even after flubbing the free throw, seemed poised to lift his team past the woeful Knicks. But then, a fallaway wouldn’t fall. Neither would a pull-up corner three. Or a straightaway three. Or a turnaround bank shot, each attempt now increasing in difficulty, no flow, no rhythm, often no angle. It wasn’t just when Anthony was guarding him, either; rookie Travis Wear, veteran of all of six NBA minutes coming in, preseason long shot for the Knicks’ 15th spot, took some turns on him, too, including one that resulted in James dribbling along the baseline before air-balling an impossible turnaround jumper from the other side. 

“I got some good looks, I got some great looks,” James said. “I missed a layup, I missed two open threes. The turnovers kind of got me off rhythm more than anything.”

Yes, those. He had four at halftime, and four more after.

“I hate turning the ball over,” James said. “It’s a pet peeve of mine and eight is definitely something that’s not OK.” 

Some donut shops don’t offer as many varieties. He fumbled the ball in transition. He tried a no-look pass that backfired. He got called for a moving screen. 

The others?

“I’m throwing passes where I was hoping that some of my teammates were, and they were not there, and that will come with each game, each practice,” James said. “It’s a team that’s learning each other. The one in the corner, where Kyrie [Irving], I thought he was gonna stay in the corner, he cut backdoor. There was another one late, when I thought Kevin [Love] was gonna kind of roll, he popped.”

There were a couple of slick collaborations, once when Irving’s steal led to a James layup, another when Irving’s penetration and Love’s baseline sprint precipitated a sweet finish for the latter. But, generally, the precision of the preseason was missing, as James played with six teammates for the first time in a regular-season game, with Anderson Varejao and Mike Miller (who only teamed with him for 1:24) the only exceptions.

There was zigging when there should have been zagging.

And there was standing. Much too much standing. 

“We got stagnant without question,” said Blatt, known for his creative offensive sets in Europe, sets that Love said the Cavaliers never really got into Thursday. “We’re really good when we’re moving the ball. When we play without motion and without ball energy, then that’s what it looks like. That is exactly what happened.”

That, as it just so happens, is what often happened to the Heat, especially that first season.

“I think we’ve got to do a better job of getting him things in motion, and not ask him to play from static positions,” Blatt said. “And help him out when he needs it. Some nights you need that. Even a guy like him.”

That, too, is something the Heat learned over time and became better at executing after the 9-8 start in 2010-11, and especially after the 2011 NBA Finals loss to Dallas. But go back even further, for the most apt comparison. Go back to that first game, that 88-80 Heat loss in Boston.

James scored more in that game, with 31 points.

But the turnovers?

He had eight that night, too. 

And, at times, the Heat looked even more disconnected than the Cavaliers did Thursday, albeit against a far superior opponent, in a much more hostile building. 

James didn’t have rabid Bostonians to deal with Thursday, but he did have some have some distractions. 

“It was very difficult,” James said of the recent hoopla. “Not only just the game, but having a newborn as well in the house. A lot has happened in the last week, to lead up to this point. You know, it was fun while it lasted.”

The fun with Zhuri James, the third of his children and first daughter, will last for a while. But the fun of this evening had pretty much ended by the final minute of the fourth quarter, when his friend and rival Anthony (25 points) made a challenging fallaway over him. Not long after, before the final buzzer, some of the crowd starting filtering out into the night, knowing that from a basketball perspective, there will be better ones.

“I mean, it was a huge night,” James said. “It was exciting for the fans, exciting for the city. But now we can just play regular basketball, man.”

That starts Friday against another projected East power in Chicago, a team that has more continuity, a deeper bench and a much more established defensive disposition. 

Where his team will attempt to avoid 0-2, and all the alarms that will sound. 

The alarms James, from his Heat experience, knows all too well, when a squad isn’t coming together as the experts expect. 

“I just tried to stay focused, and maintain, and focus as much as I could,” James said. “And obviously it was a special night, not just for myself but for everybody. It was great, but now I’m glad it’s over.”

He’s created a connection with this city again, when—after the broken trust and vile insults—few thought he ever could. It’s clear that the work has just started, however, when it comes to creating a championship connection with his teammates.

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LeBron welcomed back on special night in Cleveland (Yahoo Sports)

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts after a play in the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Carried onto the floor by an emotional ovation building for years, LeBron James is back where he began. Introduced to a deafening roar from Cleveland fans, James was welcomed back Thursday night by a city desperate to end a championship drought that’s about to turn 50 years old. At 8:08 p.m. all was right in Cleveland again. Nearly four months since proclaiming ”I’m coming home” and shifting the NBA’s balance of power, James is again playing in front of family, friends and the Cleveland fans who had their hearts broken when he left for Miami four years ago.


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WATCH: Cavs intro in LeBron James’ first game back was wild

The Cleveland Cavaliers made a huge production for LeBron James’ first game back with his old team, and they really blew the house down with their show. For pregame introductions prior to the game against the New York Knicks, they had a hype video featuring the players on the team. They gave LeBron an orange…Read More

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Quicken Loans Arena Welcomes Back LeBron James; He Tosses Chalk

The wait is over, Cleveland. LeBron James is officially back in a Cavaliers uniform.

After the City of Cleveland spent the whole day partying in anticipation of James’ first game back home, the moment that everyone—all around the country—had been waiting for was finally here. 

The new-look Cavs, starring James and Kevin Love, were greeted at their season opener against the New York Knicks on Thursday night by a packed Quicken Loans Arena. Of course, James got the biggest ovation during pregame introductions. Then, as the fans requested, James brought back his chalk toss.

The crazy atmosphere in Cleveland even had an NBA player who wasn’t playing in the game hyped up. 

[Twitter]

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LeBron James Flexes After Scoring 1st Points Back with Cavs Thanks to Love Pass

For the first time since 2010, LeBron James scored points in an NBA game while wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

Nearly midway through the first quarter of Thursday’s game against the New York Knicks, Kevin Love through a beautiful outlet pass to James, who battled through a foul by the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony to finish a reverse layup. 

James and Love continued to be on the same page while celebrating.

James missed the ensuing free throw.

The layup accounted for the only two points James scored in his first quarter back with Cleveland.

[TNT]

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LeBron: Greatest achievement would be parade in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers season-opener Thursday against the New York Knicks will be filled with uncontrollable excitement and joy as LeBron James takes the court wearing wine and gold once again. James told USA TODAY Sports that bringing a championship to fans in northeast Ohio will be one of his greatest achievements. “The greatest achievement in my career other than just being the best role model while I play this game is to be able to have a parade down East Ninth Street. It would be an unbelievable achievement,” James said. “I’m working toward that every single day. I will command it out of my teammates, out of my coaching staff and I hope they do the same to me. “Hopefully at some point before my career is over, we can have that parade.” James can’t guarantee the Cavaliers will win a title, but he will give it everything he has. “They’ve been part of one of the biggest championship droughts in professional sports history,” James said. “I feel like I can get them there. Will it be

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WATCH: The LeBron Nike spot we’ve been waiting for

We knew it was coming. First, it was the Beats By Dre commercial. Then it was the McDonald’s commercial. There was the Sprite commercial too. The returning of LeBron James’ talents to the Cleveland Cavaliers meant more than just putting on the wine and gold from four-plus years ago; it meant that the egregious pomp […]
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