NBA Finals Offer LeBron Chance at Jordan Throne
Here we are. The 2011 NBA Finals.
Playing for the NBA championship is essentially the place everyone with any common sense thought the Miami Heat would wind up. Certainly, Dallas comes as a bit of a Finals participant surprise (somewhat of a surprise, I took out 20:1 odds that they’d win the whole thing!). However, the Heat have the two best players in the NBA, and we shouldn’t be shocked that they are four games away from winning the NBA championship.
These NBA Finals have a lot riding on them. The media and fans really, really want the Miami Heat to lose. They don’t care to see the player manifestation of greatness, and they don’t want LeBron to succeed after “The Decision.” Other NBA players won’t admit this, but they know that if Miami proves championship-worthy, the NBA competitive landscape will have been changed for the foreseeable future. And people from Cleveland, specifically, would rather forfeit 100 years of sports success than see LeBron James hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in two weeks time.
Of course, legacies are on the line too. Dwyane Wade can become a two-time champion. Dirk Nowitzki can get his first championship. Mark Cuban can prove that he is not the Daniel Snyder of the NBA. And Pat Riley can again ascend to the top of the NBA brain trust.
But the person with the most on the line is undoubtedly LeBron James. Say what you will about “The Decision,” the pre-season championship talk or the fact that he bailed on Cleveland, but you can’t call the man a bad player. He’s a two-time MVP (he should have at least 3 MVP awards, if not 4), he carried this Miami Heat team on his back for most of the regular season, throughout the playoffs and especially against the Chicago Bulls. And of course, the guy does nothing but say and do the right things as a public figure and spokesperson for the NBA.
Despite all of that, the game of basketball is about winning. And in a game in which only 10 people are on the court, one player makes a whole lot of difference. One player can make all of the difference. From Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, we have seen single players not only change their respective teams but change the entire league.
And then there’s Michael Jordan.
Jordan changed the world—well, the world with respect to basketball. Not only did the Chicago Bulls get better, the NBA got better and USA basketball got better. Furthermore, the entire world of basketball got better. Jordan’s influence on the game was that big. His ability to win games, dominate the scoreboard and make his teammates better has caused the way people perceive, play and understand basketball to change. And for that reason, there has only been one Michael Jordan.
But can LeBron be the next Jordan?
It’s a ridiculous question from a subjective point of view. After all, Jordan introduced new people to the game, and then he changed the game. He brought a new style to basketball that everyone has since replicated. He made it okay to be a bit more selfish, so long as you were efficient. He made defense a requirement of being deemed one of the best players ever. He won dunk contests. He sold shoes. He won MVPs. He sold underwear. He played during a time when basketball was played like football and yet he won as the most graceful player on the court—without ever being pushed around. He overcame battles—internally and externally. He was revered by all and hated by none. He turned a losing franchise into six-time champions, and he made nobody coaches and players into perennial NBA greats.
So yeah—subjectively, Jordan may never be replaced, because a lot of what he accomplished was the result of great timing.
However, objectively, LeBron can be Jordan. Let’s start with the easy stuff: the stats—the stuff that has already happened.
People will easily throw around the fact that Jordan is the better scorer, but that’s not necessarily true. Jordan averaged 33 points per game in the postseason, versus LeBron’s 28. LeBron’s scoring average will probably go down, as it is at a mere 26 this season with Wade and Bosh on his team.
However, when we’re talking about averages of 28 and 33, really high numbers, we need not look at the prolificacy but the efficiency. Essentially, when it came to scoring on a shot for shot basis, LeBron and Jordan are the same. Jordan’s post-season true-shooting percentage is 56.8%. LeBron’s is 56.2%. LeBron’s effective field-goal percentage is a tad bit lower than Jordan’s (0.8%), but that just means LeBron is better at getting to the free-throw line. Jordan isn’t even a much better three-point shooter, hitting just 33% of his threes versus LeBron’s 32% clip. Granted, these numbers give a slight edge to Jordan, but if the rest of LeBron’s career looks like it did the last three seasons, he will easily surpass Jordan in those categories.
Rebounding shouldn’t even be argued. LeBron is a better rebounder. If this were a pound-for-pound sport, Jordan would get the edge, but in the NBA, size matters and it doesn’t count against you.
Passing is something LeBron gets the edge in as well. LeBron assists on 34% of his team’s field goals in the playoffs, while Jordan did so on just 28%. Funny thing is that assist-percentages tend to go down the better the team around a player gets. So LeBron could come back toward’s Jordan percentage in the next few years. Thus, the passing category isn’t as definitive for LeBron as it may seem, especially given that LeBron turns the ball over a lot more than Jordan ever did.
Defensively, this is where the stats can lie. I personally don’t have any defensive/plus minus ratios for Jordan, and even if I did, that’s not a perfect stat—not even when adjusted. That said, possession for possession, LeBron’s teams have allowed fewer points in the playoffs than Jordan’s did. Now that could be a result of the eras they play in, as much as it could be a result of the teams they played for. When looking at some of the defensive statistics, like rebounding, steals and blocks though, one might lean toward the fact that LeBron’s presence on defense is a bit stronger than that of Jordan’s.
In looking at the stats, we see these players aren’t far apart. In fact, it’s hard to argue one player over the other, statistically. But that’s just what the numbers say. What about the intangibles?
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and talk about leadership, will or sportsmanship. I might be willing to have a conversation on clutchness; however, I don’t have the appropriate stats for Jordan. What I will discuss is the one intangible that matters in basketball: winning.
I know winning NBA championships is more than a reflection of a single player. However, basketball is the closest team sport there is to having one player control the outcome of a game. That’s why one player can change an entire team. In fact, I have three minimum requirements when it comes to determining who’s a Hall of Famer. One, your team must consistently make the playoffs. Two; you must have advanced out of the first round at some point in your life. And three; if you have another player of high-caliber on your team, you should be a championship contender.
LeBron met all three of those requirements, even before he came to Miami. However, there’s one more requirement when it comes to being considered one of the best NBA players; the number of rings on your fingers.
Sorry, I know it may not be fair, neutral or objective, but winning matters to me in this sport. I don’t put the same pressure on football players, baseball players or hockey players, because we’ve always seen the best player in those sports fail to win it all. But in basketball, the best guys all have championships. Hell, most of them have multiple championships. So to tell me that championships don’t correlate with greatness is unthinkable, and while that may not be considered a statistically-driven statement, it’s pretty damn close to it.
LeBron has to win rings if he’s to surpass Jordan, and he has to win a lot of them. In fact, given his retreat down to Miami, I don’t think six will do it. Hell, four championships in Cleveland might have done it, but six in Miami would still make it hard. LeBron would literally have to win all six NBA Finals MVPs in those six championships, and that’s hard to do now with Dwyane Wade on his team.
I wrote at the beginning of the season that LeBron can’t be Jordan. In my haste, admittedly, I failed to say that it’s going to be really hard for him to surpass Jordan, and that I don’t believe he’ll do it as a result of deferring a stint as the main man in Cleveland. However, if health and luck are on his side, and he can win 6 championships and 6 Finals MVPs, then yeah, he certainly can be the next Jordan, and as I’ve illustrated, the statistics prove that he’s about as close an approximation as we have ever seen. But without the wins, I can’t see it. The 2011 NBA Finals will give LeBron yet another crack at the right path to His Airness’s throne, unfortunately, that path has more twist and turns than the yellow-brick road, and LeBron’s red Heat shoes aren’t quite ruby slippers.
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