Comparisons are often odious. In sport, they can also be ludicrous. How do you compare Bill Russell - that marvel of a Boston Celtics big man - who won 11 NBA titles, with Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six titles in eight years in the modern NBA era? The two men played nearly two decades apart, with the game and the league changing shape almost entirely in the time between their years in the NBA.
But compare we must. Because comparisons alone bridge the gap between yesterday and today, between who serves as a benchmark and the player looking to raise the bar. And that is why discussions involving Magic versus Michael, Wilt versus Kareem and Kobe versus LeBron are enjoyable, but can also be unending.
Because there is no one way to judge who is the greatest of all time. Because Russell had more rings, but Wilt, by most estimates, was the more dominant center, dropping 100 points on a hapless opponent once. Because Kareem is the leading scorer in NBA history and had six titles, but his teammate in the latter half of his career, Magic Johnson, revolutionized the way the game was played and earned five rings to go with it.
And yet, rings alone don’t determine the best of them all. Much as Michael Jordan would like us to believe, when he gave the edge to Kobe Bryant over LeBron James, championships are a very one-dimensional argument. Winning is important, but to measure a player’s place in the pantheon of NBA greats, one has to look for more. Statistical highlights, impact on the game, MVP awards – regular season and NBA Finals both – all come into play when evaluating a player in the final analysis. Which is why Chamberlain made it to venerable NBA.com writer David Aldridge’s Mount Rushmore of Basketball alongside Russell, Kareem and Jordan, despite winning the fewest championships (only two) among the four men.
Jordan should know this. The reason he is regularly highlighted as the game’s best ever because he became the game’s ultimate superlative on several fronts. Statistically, he averaged 30.1 PPG in the regular season, increasing that to 33.4 PPG in the pressure environment of the playoffs. He won six NBA titles, six Finals MVP awards and five regular season MVP awards. While his dunks and high-flying acrobatics made him the NBA’s poster boy in the late 1980s and 1990s, he was the most fundamentally sound basketball player of his time. Before him, NBA legends, generally, made their presence felt offensively. Few earned their reputations on the defensive end. But Jordan impacted the game, equally, at the offensive and the defensive ends. Where he won the scoring champion title in 10 seasons, he also had nine NBA All-Defensive First Team selections to go with it. Indeed, Jordan’s final play for Chicago, in the dying seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, was the perfect embodiment of his career not just because he made that final play against Bryon Russell, but because the steal he made before it, from the hands of Karl Malone, showed off his proficiency at both ends.
But there was another more intangible element to Jordan, which makes him basketball’s sui generis. He was able to impose his will on the game. He did it against Cleveland in 1989 with that shot on Craig Ehlo. In the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls were down 0-2 against New York, he inspired the Bulls to a 4-2 series win, with 54 points in Game 4 and a triple-double in Game 5 when the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage. Even when the Bulls beat the Jazz in 1998, it was Utah, with the home-court advantage, that was picked by many to win the series before Michael did his thing. Such performances, and there were several more, from Jordan, defined him as the ultimate winner. He was able to deliver nearly every time the game was on the line, with championship success at stake.
‘His Airness’, therefore, must be LeBron James’ benchmark for his legacy. Greatness was always destined for LeBron even if he had finished his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers and not won a single title. Even then he would have finished with 30k points plus, which would rank him among the game’s all-time top three or four scorers.
But LeBron is doing more. Like Jordan, he too is a handful on the defensive end, but James’ ability to guard every position from point guard to center makes him unique. He can play with the ball in his hand, off the dribble and make life difficult for opponents in the post as in the Game 3 win against Indiana. Sports Illustrated’s latest cover story titled ‘The Unique Ubiquity of LeBron James’ is proof of how James is impacting the game.
And of late, LeBron has delivered when it has mattered most for the Heat. In Game 6, in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, with Miami down 2-3, James delivered with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. That performance in an elimination game eventually helped the Heat win Game 7 at home en route to LeBron’s first NBA title. Now, against the Pacers, LeBron came up big in each of the four games that the Heat won to vanquish Indiana in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
But in doing so, LeBron is also chalking out a path distinct from Jordan’s. Where the Chicago legend more often than not took it upon himself, LeBron makes his teammates better. And there is perhaps no greater example of this than in the Heat’s Game 7 win against Indiana. Through the game we saw LeBron harass and restrict Paul George to just nine points on 2-for 9 shooting. As SI’s Ian Thomsen pointed out in his latest column, LeBron took the decision to take over Dwyane Wade’s defensive assignment before the start of the game, in the interest of giving his teammate’s sagging offensive potency a boost. Forty-eight minutes later, Wade arguably had his best game of the 2013 postseason, with 21 points and nine rebounds. Even in Game 1 when LeBron hit the game-winning bucket in overtime, he did so only after notching up a triple-double. Or consider Miami’s Game 5 win, where his fiery speech at the start of the third quarter helped the Heat outscore the Pacers, 30-13, over the next 12 minutes, subsequently securing them a 90-79 victory.
To that extent, LeBron has raised his game exceptionally over the last two seasons. He can impact the game in more ways than one, involve his teammates and play outstanding defense as well. And while he is yet to win his second NBA title, should he finish with a few more rings against his name, his final comparison with the past greats of the game would make for compelling reading.
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