A simple Google search for “LeBron James Michael Jordan” returns about 2,390,000 results. In fact, Google is so impatient that once you get to “LeBron James Mich,” autocomplete suggests a variety of searches including “LeBron James Michael Jordan dunk,” “imitation,” and, of course, “comparison.” Online you’re bombarded by websites comparing their first 300 games and career stats, while the television offers similar conjecture, with breakdowns of their first seven seasons becoming a weekly display on SportsCenter. But when do these comparisons stop, if ever?
Ask Kobe Bryant, a 14 year veteran, who still hears these associations, especially come playoff time. And that’s a player that starts at the same position Jordan did and has won four NBA championships, yet has failed to measure up to MJ in the eyes of many.
Last year Chris Broussard wrote “everything they [Kobe and LeBron] do on the basketball court is compared to Jordan… that’s a compliment to their great skills, but it’s also a near-impossible standard that often clouds the judgment of their critics.” Broussard then furthered this notion by asking LeBron about the comparisons, who responded by saying “there’ll never be another Michael Jordan… you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to be the next Michael Jordan.”
Yet the parallels continue. Even as I write this, I can’t escape the similarities, analyzing Michael Jordan’s stats from his first championship run. With 31.1 points per game, tied for the third lowest average in his 13 postseasons, Jordan deferred to his supporting cast, averaging 8.4 assists in the 1991 playoffs, the second highest postseason average of his career. This season LeBron James averaged 29.7 points and a career high 8.6 assists per game, setting an NBA record for most assists by a forward in a season.
So how can LeBron avoid this disease, this plague knowing that no matter what he does it will always be stacked up against the accolades of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time? Well, I feel there are two things, both of which may very well be in motion. The first is the number change from #23 to #6, a simple, yet significant reminder that LeBron is his own persona. Secondly, James, who is in his seventh NBA season, needs to secure his first NBA championship, much like Jordan did in his seventh season. While conventional wisdom would suggest that this may only fuel the comparisons, a championship gives James a claim of his own.
And even though these Bulls aren’t even be a distant cousin of Jordan’s Bulls, defeating his favorite childhood team which his hero won sixth titles with is the picture perfect way for LeBron James to kick start a championship drive in order to distance himself from the Michael Jordan measuring stick. This step would set the stage for James to win his next three series and hoist two separate trophies, one that proclaims his name should begin a reign of originality devoid of comparisons and another that, well… also proclaims his name, but literally. This isn’t even factoring in what a potential Bulls victory en route to a championship would mean for the Cavaliers organization, which was demoralized by the Bulls all five times they met in the playoffs. Unfortunately, I can’t help but get the feeling that regardless of any success this postseason, those initiating the comparisons, and especially those insulted by such analogies, won’t stop. Jordan historians and Lakers fans alike will mumble “well, that’s one” in unison.
But that’s not the point. No one, including LeBron James himself, is looking at the prospect of an NBA championship as a means of establishing a career that will immediately rival Jordan’s. There’s no guarantee that even six championships would put him in a distinct category. LeBron James may never eclipse the legacy of Michael Jordan and even if he is to, it most definitely won’t be after this season. But a championship offers him a chance to take one step outside of the shadow that is Air Jordan.
When it’s all said and done, the mere mention of the name LeBron James could never be complete without the whispers of “Jordan” in the background. However, he has a chance to start his own legacy with a title this postseason, a journey that will continue on Thursday at the United Center, where a bronzed statue awaits him outside of the arena.