Michael Jordan Comparisons Are Never Fair
Jerry Stackhouse, Harold Miner, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, and Lebron James have all suffered under the comparisons to Michael Jordan. Too many fans and too much of the media shackle players with comparisons to the past without considering the differences in those eras and differences in the player’s individual skill sets and talent. If you want to compare to Jordan, there are a number of things you have to consider.
For me, the first argument comes to Jordan’s scoring. It is hard for anyone to argue that Jordan isn’t the greatest scorer of all time. Kareem played 20 full seasons, averaged 24.6 ppg, and was at 38,387 when he was done in 1,560 games played. Malone is a Jordan contemporary so his comparison is a bit easier. Karl only played half a season the year he retired and he lost half a season to the strike. He played in 19 seasons, but only about 18 on the court. He averaged 25.0 ppg and was at 36,928 when he was done in 1,476 games played.
Jordan missed ‘85-’86 to injury. He left for baseball and missed
Here’s what sets Jordan apart from Kareem. Jabbar played his first 10 years in the highest scoring era in the league. The level of talent in the league in the 1970’s was not as high as it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Jabbar also benefited from the high paced more possessions era. The late 1980’s and 1990’s were some of the ugliest isolation drain the shot clock basketball ever.
What sets Jordan apart more Malone is that perimeter defense rules during their time favored defenders. Hand checks, forearm checks, and all around physical play was more tolerated. A benefit of the pre-zone defense era is that big men benefited from the slow pace of physical perimeter defense and isolation plays while simultaneously facing none of the zone defense we see today.
Jordan only played 1,072 games. Normally the argument can be made against someone’s durability and ability to maintain a high level of performance because of age and the fact he was a perimeter player. What’s different is that we have evidence of Jordan playing at 38 and 39 years old where he averaged 22.9 ppg and 20.0 ppg which means he aged better than Jabbar and Malone in their years at 38 and 39 years old. When MJ retired at 34 years old, he had a better ppg than both Malone and Jabbar at 28.7 ppg. At 39 years old, he was still a 20ppg scorer that shot at a 45% clip and he started 67 games (played all 82).
He finished 6,095 points less than Jabbar, but played 488 games less. I’ll give Jabbar the credit he deserves for his longevity, dedication to martial arts, and practice of yoga. Jordan lost his second year to injury. That’s his body’s fault. We’re not going to give him any benefit from that, but the almost 5 years he lost due to unnecessary retirements? Let’s give him partial credit.
At 39 years old and at the end of his career, he started 67 games. Let’s just say he only averaged 67 games played for those 5 years he missed (which is a ludicrously low number for a guy who prepared every off season with Tim Grover). Let’s say he was burnt out after the first 3 peat and father time kicks his butt after the second 3 peat. He gets an additional 335 games. He would only have to average 18.2 ppg in those 335 games to beat Jabbar. This is a man who averaged 32.6 ppg when he first retired, 28.7 ppg when he retired the second time, and 20.0 ppg when he retired for good.
For all intents and purposes, if MJ didn’t squander his prime, didn’t retire prematurely twice, he should have been the only 40,000 points man in NBA history. His 30.1 ppg career average is testament to his ability.
At 32 years old, Jordan was a lock down defender on a 72-10 team. At 34 years old, he was a legitimate All-Defensive first team unlike 32 year old Kobe Bryant’s undeserving season where he was undressed by Chris Paul in the playoffs. Jordan became a lock down defender in Doug Collins’ second season with the team when he finally got into MJ’s head how important defense actual was. From his 4th year in the league onwards, MJ reeled off 9 straight All-Defense first teams in the seasons he played. He missed 2 seasons due to baseball, and there was no significant fall off his defense when he retired at 34 when the Bulls gave up the 3rd least points in the league with the best differential and won 62 games.
The argument can be made that Jordan was the best perimeter defender and best scorer the league has ever seen. Everyone attacks Jordan by attacking him with Scottie Pippen. As much as I love Scottie Pippen, we’re talking about a career 16/6/4 guy. Yes, his production was hindered by MJ, but is Pippen better than Kareem’s sidekick Magic Johnson or Magic Johnson’s sidekick Kareem? Is Pippen better than Shaquille O’Neal or or Shaq’s sidekick Kobe Bryant? Is Pippen better than Dwyane Wade or Lebron James? Is Pippen better than David Robinson or Tim Duncan?
Bill Russell won more rings than Michael Jordan, but so did Robert Horry. Bill Russell also played with Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Bill Sharman, John Havlicek, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones. To show you how deep those teams were, Hall of Fame coaches Don Nelson and John Thompson were on those squads. Not only was the NBA less talented, not as popular, but the Celtics were loaded with Hall of Famers. Bill Russell was also dominated in his individual matchups against Wilt Chamberlain. Jordan wasn’t dominated individually by anyone.
So why did I bring this up? Because of all the ridiculous comparisons that Lebron James is facing. It’s baffling how stupid it is to compare Lebron to Jordan at this point since LBJ hasn’t played half his career and is only in his second NBA Finals. All it’s doing is adding a ridiculous burden that shouldn’t exist yet.
People need to acknowledge that Lebron might be the most physically gifted player we have seen since Wilt. Lebron is by far more physically gifted than Jordan. If Lebron learned a post game, the second half of his career he could be a power forward better than Karl Malone. It would be unprecedented for a guy to have a HOF perimeter career and a HOF low post career. We need to enjoy his uniqueness.
He has that talent, but we have to keep in mind there have been players with more physical gifts than Jordan. Vince Carter comes to mind. Vince could jump higher, run faster, shoot better from 3, but his mentality didn’t keep him working on his game his whole career like Jordan. Will Lebron work on his? We’ll see, but we shouldn’t ride him in the meantime.
Lebron is a better passer and rebounder than Jordan, but by how much? It is ridiculous to me that MJ’s best rebounding season is still better than any season of Lebron’s. It is ridiculous to me that the ‘Next Magic Johnson’ has only 1 season where he has better assists numbers than Jordan’s best year. Will Lebron have better passing years and better rebounding years? We’ll see. (Of note, the triangle offense does not allow for the ball to be dominated by one player and has multiple facilitators instead of just one. Kobe’s and Jordan’s assists numbers have been negatively affected by the offense, but then again, it allowed the team to compile wins.)
Lebron has a defensive versatility we haven’t seen since Dennis Rodman. Lebron is by a more versatile defender, but MJ was an elite defender for longer and earlier in his career. Lebron wasn’t an elite defender until the last 2 years in his 7th and 8th seasons in the league. Will LBJ keep this defensive intensity up? Can Lebron adjust to guarding big men full time when his explosiveness starts to leave him? We’ll see.
For a shooting guard, MJ shot nearly 50% from the field for his career and that’s after the Washington Wizards travesty and the end of his career. Lebron’s averages are in their statistical prime and he’s not shooting 50%. Lebron is also a 6’9" 265 lbs perimeter player who refuses to use his gigantic size advantage to post up smaller players.
To give you an idea how far ahead the scoring total is, LBJ has averaged 78 games per season. His career average is 27.7 ppg in the most perimeter friendly league we’ve ever seen. Lebron would have to play 10 more seasons at 27.7 ppg at 78 games a season to overtake Kareem. Can Lebron do it? Maybe? Will he do it? Possibly. It doesn’t change the fact that he did in a era that was far easier to do so.
For example, Lebron’s best scoring year at 31.4 ppg came in the same season that Kobe averaged 35.4 ppg, Iverson averaged 33.0 ppg, and Arenas averaged 29.3 ppg… also all career highs and all perimeter players. When Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg, the next leading scorer in the league was Nique at 29 ppg. Matter of fact the other top 5 scorers in MJ’s season were all forwards: Larry Bird, Kiki Vandeweghe, Dominique Wilkins, and Alex English.
There’s no question who is a better scorer. Currently, there’s no question MJ was an elite defender for longer. There’s no question MJ was a better closer and more proven winner thus far. Can Lebron change all that? We’ll see. He has the talent, but will he do it? We don’t know. We have no idea.
I just think it’s ridiculously unfair to burden every single elite perimeter scorer with the comparison to Jordan. Lebron hasn’t even played half his career yet. He has a chance to change everything. The first half of his career has no comparison unless you combine Magic Johnson’s all around game with Dominique Wilkins’s explosive scoring ability. The second half of his career Lebron could be Karl Malone offensively and Dennis Rodman defensively. I know a comparison to a man who had to guard Magic Johnson in one championship run and Shaquille O’Neal in a different championship run is absurdly high praise, but that’s just how talented Lebron is.
He’s not MJ. He won’t ever be. Is he more talented? Of course. Is he a better basketball player? Too soon to tell, but it’s silly to assume that he’ll automatically get there just because he’s talented.