Cleveland Cavaliers

The Second Coming – Can LeBron James Really Match Michael Jordan’s Career?

Number 23, the greatest basketball player of all-time, “Black Jesus”, and MJ. Nothing really needs to be said about Michael Jordan, but it wasn’t always this way. Jordan wasn’t always bowed to and referred to as the G.O.A.T. Most people don’t remember when he couldn’t win the big one or when the big bad Pistons more often than not got the best of him, but even those of us who do remember the old days probably don’t realize that it was his time facing adversity that the necessary ground work was laid for his unprecedented reception as “The greatest basketball player of all-time”. We all remember his first three-peat, and when he “retired” only to make his triumphant return to glory and win it three more times, but what we don’t know is why he was/is loved the way he is. If LeBron is going to receive anything near Michael’s praise he’s got some more foundation to establish, even before he wins a title.

Two-time NBA MVP, NBA defensive player of the year, All-star game MVP, two-time slam dunk champion, and Olympic Gold medalist. This sounds respectable enough for any Hall of Famer, but for Michael Jordan he accomplished this much before he ever won a title. It’s what happened before Michael Jordan’s numerous titles that played a huge part in how he became known as the greatest ever, the foundation for success, glory, but most important of from fans of all ages and walks of life all over the globe. Heck, even as much as Magic and Bird were loved they won titles within their first three seasons (Magic in his rookie season, Bird in his third) on franchises with no lack of history.

This is also one of several differences between the career of Jordan and the career of Kobe Bryant. Kobe joined a much storied and glamourous franchise right out of the draft, started his career with arguably the most dominant center of all time, soon to be joined by sure-thing hall of fame coach Phil Jackson, and was winning titles before he was even 22. Granted, Kobe was not the center piece of the Lakers mini-dynasty, Shaq…obviously (3 strait finals MVPs), but the downfall of the early success for Kobe Bryant is the shortened courting period between himself and the NBA public, and it wasn’t until after his time at the top that he was considered the best player in the game. This may also in part explain why Bryant only recently (2007-2008) won his first MVP, as political as the award has become there simply was a gag order put on the man after he helped dismantle a winning machine with his, and Shaq’s, inflated ego, not to mention a certain very public….cough*…indescrepency in Colorado…

When Michael finally won his first title in the summer of 1991 he had been defeated twice by the Boston Celtics and three consecutive times by the Detroit Pistons, needless to say he had some demons to overcome. However, in the process he rounded out an already highly impressive offensive game with a lock-down defensive game resulting in his winning the Defensive Player of the Year in 1988, teamed up with a couple of half-decent draft picks Scottie Pippen & Horace Grant, a new head coach Phil Jackson and most of all love and respect from fans far and wide. After Michael Jordan’s title drought ended, in his seventh season at the ripe age of 28, he went on to win three more MVPs, two more All-star MVPs, and another Gold Medal…not to mention finals MVPs in every one of his titles. These are the more known facts of Jordan’s career, the ones we use as a benchmark for current and future greats like Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’neal. If LeBron James wants to finish his basketball career one day with anything like the acclaim Jordan has garnered he’ll face the same measuring stick, and no one knows that more than LeBron himself, but how does he matchup so far??

You really must start from the beginning when LeBron was selected first overall in the 2003 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, an unproven franchise without a championship history. Like Michael, this blessing in disguise is the perfect opportunity to make his place in history just as Jordan did with the Chicago Bulls, on a team with no history of winning. Much like Michael Jordan paid his dues, so does LeBron James right now. What most “experts” don’t realize is every year that passes as LeBron racks up more records and awards he builds the platform for his reign as a winner deserving of our praise.

In his seventh NBA season LeBron already has a gold medal, an MVP award and was the run away pre-season favorite to win it again for the 2009-2010 season, two All-Star MVPs, one scoring title, runner-up in defensive player of the year voting (2009-2010). Early on in LeBron’s career he was subject to harsh criticism for his lack of commitment on defense and his poor jump shooting skills, but much like Jordan after early criticisms of his defensive effort he came into the 2008-2009 season with a new mind set on the defensive end of the floor resulting in the runner up voting in DPOY balloting.

All the accolades aside, we live in a world of instant gratification and all this build up draws more criticism from the so called “experts” each and everyday, but what we forget to notice is what’s being laid right before our eyes. Although it’s not likely LeBron will win a title this season or next (barring a blockbuster trade) what is likely is another NBA MVP and possibly another all-star MVP, also he’s unofficially put his hat in the dunk contest for this season which will be a nice addition to his resume..assuming all goes well there… After Michael started winning titles his team almost always remained at the top of the league standings and he remained undoubtedly the league’s best player. This is yet another similarity James’ career shares with Jordan’s, holding the un-official title of best in the league before and during their title runs. The Kobe Bryant/LeBron James debate is definitely still a valid one but it’s becoming less so every season and soon will leave LeBron alone at the top.

Once the titles start to rack up as will additional league MVPs and the finals MVPs, however an often overlooked aspect of Michael’s fairytale of a career is the timing of it all. Michael reached the peak of his game at just the right time (although you could argue he never stopped getting better), unlike Kobe Bryant who unfortunately spent the prime of his career on a non-contending team. The best thing, timing wise, for LeBron’s career would actually be to spend the next season or two (while LA and Boston dominate) continuing to develop his mid-range and post up game, because he may be able to outrun and outjump almost everyone in the league but that won’t last forever. LeBron will likely have a decent shot at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record and at remaining the centerpeice of a chamionship team but it just won’t happen without a finesse game. There are some circustances that are currently out of LeBron’s hands like a true star teammate or great sixth man but with what is in his hands he’s on the Jordan path.

In the near future (pre-titles) it’d do LeBron some good to win at least one more MVP, a dunk contest or two, maybe another all-star MVP and/or a defensive player of the year award. It also goes without saying he’s got to continue earning all-NBA/all-defense first team honors every year, which shouldn’t be too dificult (for LeBron, of course). Sooner or later LeBron will have his co-star and will have his titles, but if he wants unconditional love from fans it’d be in his best interest to win them Cleveland (that’s a whole other article), then he’ll truly be in jordan’s lofty circle of one. Jordan not only revolutionized basketball he revolutionized sports in general and it’s unrealistic to even attempt the revolution he pioneered, but with regards to his prominence purely among the basketball world LeBron’s got a better chance than anyone else in the game right now.

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