Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Defense of Michael Jordan

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the two best basketball players in the world today. Both will likely finish their careers among the greatest to have ever played the game. I mean no disrespect to these two remarkable talents and dominant players.

But I have a question. I have a nagging complaint that has been bugging me all season and especially since these playoffs began.

Why the heck does everyone seem so hell-bent on LeBron and Kobe overtaking Michael Jordan as the greatest players of all time?!?

Why is every NBA writer and analyst so freaking eager to crown these guys the heir to Jordan's throne? And why does every John Hollinger and JA Adande think they actually found the write statistical language to speak to make it seem like these guys are on the same level and in some cases actually better than MJ??

“Let’s see … if we add points and rebounds, divide by blocks, multiply by age and don't factor in championships won, than LeBron is actually a little bit better than Jordan!”

Look, deep down everyone knows that Michael Jordan is the best of all time. Even the guys who write and argue this stuff know he is. I know it, you know it, even kids who never saw him play know it. It's a fact of life. So why are we so entertained by the LeBron and Kobe comparisons?

That question is rhetorical. I know what the reasons are, and they are legitimate reasons. I admit that I fall into the same trap time and again. I have compared Manning to Montana and hoped that Crosby would be the next Gretzky. It's just part of the whole sports experience. But for me, Michael Jordan is sacred ground. He's untouchable.

Maybe it's because I'm a basketball purist. Or maybe it's because I was born the year MJ was drafted and I grew up watching him. Maybe it's just because I'm not a very big fan of LeBron James. But for whatever reason, I'm sick and tired of the comparisons and I decided to take the path less traveled - the path that shouldn't have to be traveled at all because it's so obvious - I decided to crack down and write the case to defend Michael Jordan.

Let's begin by looking at the career numbers of the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of all Time):

15 seasons, 31 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.35 spg, .8 bpg, 49.7% fg, 33% 3pt, 83.5% ft

Pretty damn impressive. But the really impressive thing is how the numbers are actually deflated by the two years MJ spent in Washington. (For LeBron and Kobe, it's all about inflating their stats to make them seem as good as possible.)

Jordan's rookie season he put up 28, 6 and 6 while shooting 51% (compare that to LeBron's 21-5-6-41%), and then his second season he played only 18 games thanks to a knee injury. But check out the numbers from 1986 to 1993, the seven seasons of his prime:

33.2 points (40.8 per 48 minutes), 6.4 rebounds, 6 assists, 2.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 52% fg, and 84.5% ft.

Now we're not even talking wins or championships yet, just raw numbers. And of course, after these seven seasons and his one-year retirement, he came back to the NBA for three more years and three more championships with the Bulls. Then came the Wizards years where he averaged 22-6-5 at almost 40 years old. But we’ll get to all that championship-winning stuff later.

What LeBron James did this season statistically was freakish. Everybody raved and called him all sorts of names. The Chosen One. King. Messiah. I think I even heard The Alpha And Omega tossed around a few times.

But let's step back a second and look at what he actually accomplished:

28.4 points (36.4 per 48 minutes), 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 49% fg and 78% ft.

Amazing? Yes. Better than Michael Jordan. No way.

Of course LeBron is going to get more rebounds. He's three inches taller and at least fifty pounds stronger. But can you believe that with all the hoopla about his defensive abilities this year, all the talk about his game-changing blocks and steals, that he only had as many blocks this year as MJ averaged over a seven year span. Remember, Jordan played shooting guard and was 6'6''. LeBron plays linebacker and is 6'9''. Jordan smashed him in terms of steals, shooting percentages, and scoring average by almost 5 points.

Here's the most telling reason why statistically LeBron isn't ready to be compared to the all-time greatest of the greats: Bron is yet to shoot 50% from the field in any of his six seasons. With his strength and ability to score inside easily, shouldn't he be shooting 55%? Seriously. I mean if we're really going to hold him up to the Jordan-Magic-Bird mold and say he is one of them, doesn't he have to do what they did? Well those guys all shot 50% or better, and they shot jumpers throughout their entire careers. None of them could get to the paint as effortlessly as LeBron can and overpower 280-pound centers. The Boy-King has dug himself in a big whole; he's going to have to put up seven straight years averaging around 52% each year just to get his career FG% up to 50%. Which is highly unlikely.

That’s because as NBA players get older, their shooting percentages don't usually go up. They almost always drop. Right around 1000 games, their legs go out. It's pretty much inevitable, especially at the speed and intensity with which a player like LeBron plays with. Maybe he will break the mold, maybe he will be the exception. I highly doubt it, but maybe. All I know is that he has already logged more than 500 games and 20,000 minutes which means he's more than half-way to the point where NBA players, even NBA superstars, see a drop in their production.

And oh yeah, he still hasn't won a championship. And as of last night, he's down 3 games to 1 to the Orlando Magic. Excuse me while I laugh my head off. Michael Jordan wouldn't have spent more than 5 minutes thinking about this Orlando team... He would have taken one look at Hedo Turkolu and said "Okay, very funny. Who's next?"

(Editor's Note: As of now, LeBron lost the series 4-2. Which guarantees two things: 1) He is indeed no Michael Jordan, and 2) He will not be a Cavalier for very much longer.)

It's not rocket science folks. There's a reason why Jordan won all those championships, and why he has always been the best who ever played. The numbers don't lie, and LeBron's numbers don't match up.

Kobe is actually a more fair comparison to Michael, even though LBJ is a better player than Kobe right now and most likely will finish with a better career. Both MJ and the Black Mamba are/were 6'6'' shooting guards known for their business-like competitiveness and ability to take over games with their scoring. (By the way, is there a more overused phrase in basketball talk than "take over games with their scoring?")

So let's bring back down the numbers from Jordan's seven-year prime, since that will be easy to compare with Kobe's prime. In fact, I’ll even do Kobe a favor and average the 7 best of his 13 seasons. (Hey I got an hour to kill before lunch). Here you go:


33 ppg (41 per 48 ), 6.4 rpg , 6 apg, 2.8 spg, 1.1 bpg, 52% fg, 84% ft


29 ppg (35 per 48), 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.7 spg, .5 bpg, 45% fg, 84% ft

I'm sorry, but I just don't see how these are even comparable. With apologies to a great player in Mr. Bryant, a guy that I like a whole lot more than I like LeBron James, I just can't look at these numbers and seriously try to compare them. Jordan is better in every way conceivable. Scoring is what Kobe is best known for, and he's four points short of MJ per game, and only shooting 45% in the best years of his career?

Before I move on to the issue of winning championships and the level of competition, I’d like to address what may be the biggest issue at hand in determining the relevance of these statistics. Teammates.

Jordan had Pippen.
Kobe had Shaq.
LeBron has … Boobie Gibson.

I have to give this point to LBJ.

Yes, MJ did more to make his teammates better than anyone ever has, but his teammates weren’t all that bad in the first place. Scottie was an Artest-like defender without all the crazy and a capable #2 scorer. Rodman was a defensive phenom. BJ Armstrong and John Paxson were good point guards. He had good doutside shooters to work with (Kerr, Harper) and below average big men (Grant, Cartwright).

Kobe is a spoiled rotten superstar. He had one of the best centers ever in his prime, one of the best coaches ever, and role players (Fisher, Horry, Fox) who were better than average. Now he has TWO very good big men (Gasol and Bynum) and a solid band of bench players. But the key here is Shaq. Kobe is yet to win a championship without him. I’m about 50% sure that he will do it by the end of his career. This year is his shot. Until he does it, he can’t crack the top 10 all-time.

LBJ has been great to this point in spite of his supporting cast. Hughes, Gooden, Ilgauskas, Boobie … not until this year with Mo Williams has he even had an all-star caliber teammate. And yet his numbers have been spectacular. He makes his teammates look good and won 66 games this year.

But the point, ultimately, is what you do with the teammates you’re given in regards to the ultimate goal. The goal is not to average a triple-double or make intense stupid faces or to appear in more commercials than Peyton Manning. The goal is to win NBA championships.

And with the B- teammates that MJ had, he did it six times.

With the A+ teammates that Kobe had, he did it thrice. With his current B+ teammates, not yet.

And with the C- teammates that Lebron has, he has yet to do it. One Finals appearance, one time swept. This year, he’s getting beat by the B+ Magic. That’s just not acceptable.

For Michael Jordan, it didn’t matter who was on his team. He was going to win.

At this point you're probably thinking "This article is completely unnecessary.” I wish it were. But I saw something the other day that saddened and infuriated me all at once: A nationwide poll on asked the question: "When all is said and done, who will be the greatest basketball player of all time?" The results, after more than 40,000 votes? 67% Jordan, 26% James, 7% Bryant. Wow. Just ridiculous.

It’s weird that I just spent the past two days researching and writing that Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, but I feel that it needed to be done. What the stat-spinners can do with statistics is gross and astounding. Every single week, some athlete seems to achieve a feat that has never been done before. Players are being hailed as the greatest ____ ever, thanks to the ever-evolving obsession of statistics. If Kobe has a scoring outburst of 52 points on a regular season game, it only takes 24 hours for the story to come out: "Kobe Bryant has now surpassed Michael Jordan as the NBA's all time leader in scoring average on Halloween games played west of the Mississippi."

With every triple double or game-winning shot, LeBron and Kobe seem to take something away from history, by breaking down records and robbing the legends of their glory. Can’t we all find a way to see things differently? To see their modern-day greatness as simply adding to the beautiful mosaic known as NBA history? Let LeBron James be the first LeBron James, instead of replacing Oscar, Magic and Michael.

Who knows where things will go. How many championships or MVPs will LeBron win over the next decade. It could be a whole lot. It could be a couple. Hopefully it will be zero.

All I know is that next year, Blake Griffin will be on the Clippers, and I’m ready to watch him evolve into the greatest player to ever play!!

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