LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: The King Without a Castle

Kevin Daly@@TheDalyWhatContributor IIIMay 24, 2012

After the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series, the main story was, naturally, another instance of LeBron James' inability to finish in crunch time.  LeBron has struggled in late-game situations, we all know this (LeBrick?  Genius!).  These struggles have fueled the masses of LeBron haters since his move to Miami, as he continues to build up on his history of choking in the clutch.

LeBron James is such an interesting case study because he has been the NBA's best all-around player since Magic Johnson and one of the best player over the past eight seasons.  Yet, after he dominates the game for 45 minutes, he has historically faded in the last three (save for the aforementioned buzzer-beater, Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals—where he scored 29 of the Cavaliers' last 30 points in Jordanian fashion—and a small handful of other instances).

LeBron's Comparison to Kobe and a Legend

Kobe Bryant, in a few ways, been the Larry Bird to LeBron's Dominique Wilkins.  Clearly, it's a far-from-perfect analogy: Both current players are greater than the past legends.  Bird was a big man while Kobe is a guard.  Dominique did not have the all-around ability of LeBron.  Bird's a Celtic, Kobe's a Laker.  The list goes on, so let me try to explain.

Bird, for most of his career, had a much more consistent perimeter game than the athletically gifted Wilkins ever possessed.  Bird also had a much more vicious edge to his competitiveness than Wilkins (which says a lot more about Bird than Wilkins, who was also a fierce competitor).  Perhaps most importantly, while both players were two of the greatest scorers throughout the 1980s, Wilkins never came close to rivaling Bird's championship pedigree.

Even though Bird and Wilkins played at extremely high levels during their playoff careers—including in their head-to-head match ups—Bird's ability in the game's most important moments has much more weight because he had the championships to back him up.  He always did.  He also had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Nate Archibald on his team.  Unlike Bird, Kobe Bryant struggled in the playoffs early in his career.  His early exposure to Finals play gave him invaluable mental and psychological preparation for the big moments that followed in his career

Like Bird, Kobe's supporting cast also placed him in a position to fight for championships and, as a result, helped him later in his career.  He always had the luxury of Shaquille O'Neal in the early part of his career, a guy who embraced defensive pressure and took it along for the ride to help create the NBA's most recent dynasty.  By the time Shaq left Los Angeles, Kobe had made the transition into a true star, even if it took a few seasons before he received adequate help to compete for championships again.

Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were two very good big-game performers for the Rockets and Nets, respectively; however, their lack of playoff success prevented them from winning the recognition as late-game performers that Kobe received for maintaining his standard level of play on the way to winning his fourth and fifth NBA titles against the Magic and Celtics.  Conclusion: big-time shots don't establish "clutch" reputation as much as titles do.  Is this new information?  Probably not.  Let's keep going.

Kevin Garnett's and Lebron's Paths Parallel

In a way, Kevin Garnett was like LeBron James before he won his first championship: an unworldly talent trapped in a small market, always surrounded by mediocre talent.  A young Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were the closest Garnett ever got to legitimate help throughout his tenure in Minnesota.  When he joined Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston before the 2007-08 season, there were mixed emotions of sympathy and joy for the guy.  He had spent 12 seasons on teams that made the current Wolves players look like All-Stars.

Side note: Many people forget how good Garnett was.  He led the Wolves in points per game, rebounds per game and blocks per game year after year. He won MVP of the 2003-04 NBA season.  He even led the team in assists for a couple of seasons.  Easily one of the top seven players of the decade.

In his first season with Boston, he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and served as the emotional catalyst for a team that was severely doubted for having a patchwork assortment of young, semi-promising talent and washed-up veterans surrounding the three stars.  

Despite the questions that surrounded the team, the Celtics prevailed and won their 17th NBA Championship that year.  He averaged 20.4 points a game, 10.5 rebounds a game and just over a block per game (basketball-reference.com) throughout the playoff run.

However, the team's offensive performance down the stretch in close games against the Lakers in the Finals was more about the successes of Pierce, surprisingly good bench play and some of the best team play in the past decade than Garnett.

Proof?  Garnett shot 59 percent from the field in the fourth quarter of a game decided by 10 points or fewer throughout the Celtics' Eastern Conference playoff run, but his shooting percentage dropped dramatically to 41 percent in the finals.  

This stat, in the grand scheme of things, means very little, but that's because the season ended in a championship.  He improved in the 2010 NBA Finals, shooting 50 percent in the fourth quarter, even though the Celtics eventually fell to the Lakers in seven games.

Playoff experience and star teammates lead to more opportunities for individual players to perform at a high level on a big stage.  Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are two prime examples of this development.

After a solid playoff run—and a superb series against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls—LeBron's shooting percentage dropped by nine percent in the finals, as pressure reached an all-time high.  

Clearly, however, the circumstances are different with LeBron.  No matter what team he is on, he will always be the marquee name—the single ant burning underneath the magnifying glass.  James' fourth quarter disappearing act supplanted every other storyline in the finals.  The 2011 NBA Finals became just as associated with LeBron's failure as Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks success.

Side note: Dirk Nowitzki temporarily became hailed as the anti-LeBron or "the star who stayed" after the Mavericks defeated the Heat in last year's NBA Finals.  The Mavericks' ascendance as champions was the culmination of two factors.  While Dirk has never had a fellow star player, he had a group of excellent role players.  Secondly, Dirk also struggled with past playoff struggles and "choking" (2007 first-round upset to the Warriors, anyone?).

Also, unlike Garnett, the way in which Lebron joined other star players also led him to attract a considerably greater amount of scrutiny.

My main point is that team success in high-intensity playoff atmospheres, combined with great teammate talent, are the key components for a player to become regarded as "clutch."  Bryant had Shaq, and Garnett had Pierce and Allen.  Heck, even Tim Duncan, who was excellent as a rookie in the playoffs, had David Robinson to help shoulder the load en route to his first of four championships.

A supporting crew of anonymous role players can never provide that support—as evidenced with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

While he has dealt with high-intensity playoff atmospheres throughout his entire career, LeBron has never had that other player.  He had Mo Williams a young Carlos Boozer, but that's about it.  Wade and Bosh have raised the stakes to unprecedented levels, and LeBron has been taunted by his critics to win with the help that he supposedly welcomed.

If he had a teammate at that talent level early in his career, I believe that his playoff experience would have been less scrutinized for its failures.   A second star player would have helped to share the enormous weight that LeBron always carried in Cleveland.  He has Wade and Bosh now, but he didn't mature with these guys.  They only have really learned to play together this year—primarily after Wade conceded to LeBron as the on-court leader.

The Great Jordan and James Debate

Before Pippen, Jordan was an unbelievable scorer, but could not single-handedly put a dent in the Celtics machine at that time.  After Pippen and Horace Grant joined the team in the 1987-88 season, and as the Celtics grew older, the Bulls molded into one of the Eastern Conference's premier teams—along with the Celtics, Cavaliers, Hawks and Pistons.  Jordan still needed Pippen to develop into an All-Star caliber player, along with the steady play of teammates like Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and John Paxton.

He won his first championship at age 28, which was only the beginning to the most decorated, illustrated and finest example of dominance in NBA history.  LeBron is only 27 now.  Even though he has played more seasons than Jordan, he never had a teammate with Pippen's talent before joining the Heat.  The fact that Jordan had the stability of Pippen's play clearly does not belittle his accomplishments.  Rather, these factors made the championships possible.  

LeBron, Jordan, or any other player would never have been able to win with the Cavaliers teams on which team owner Dan Gilbert had stranded James for years.  The fact that he elevated the team to such a level speaks volumes of his accomplishments—more than most other players in the league's history would have been able to provide.


I understand that this post has been abstract, but what I'm really trying to communicate is that LeBron James' career has been somewhat tragic.  Why?  He already has three MVPs, makes more money than he can spend and has already been to to NBA Finals.  Despite all this and already being one of the best players of all time, he has also become one of the most polarizing.

The truth is that most people expected him to be the heir to Jordan or the best player since MJ23.  The Decision shattered at least part of the public perception of what LeBron should be—a one-team living legend who stuck with his "hometown" team until championship glory.  That 'glory' was never going to happen.

The fact that he had to go find his Pippen (or whatever you want to call it) rather than keep waiting for the Cavaliers to get him one (and risk being like Garnett, who leaves his small-market team at the end of his prime, without a championship) means nothing.  His inability to consistently score in crunch time has been the defining severance with Jordan, even if much of this failure has been due to poor teammate play, instability and crushing amounts of pressure.

For LeBron, unlike most other players in the public perception, anything but a championship is considered failure.  He has come to this conclusion too because he knows it's the only thing that matters to the masses of LeBron haters, and it will be the only thing to quell the deafening levels of criticism.

Jordan was given bricks, cement and a blueprint by the team, which told him "build what you can with this."  The result: an impenetrable system that was not defeated until Jordan said so.  LeBron, on the other hand, was given a few sticks, a drawing and Wally Szczerbiak, but he was able to build a kingdom, albeit one that kept getting knocked down in playoff time.

Despite all this, his Decision instantly and irrevocably stained his public perception.  He instantly went from being one of the most liked athletes in the country to one of the most widely scorned.  While LeBron, again, is one of the most remarkable athletes in so many ways - as a player and as a subject of media and public attention - this is one of the most important ways in which he distinguishes himself.

When he decided to take his talents to South Beach, he unintentionally went against the tide that is otherwise known as the American way.  He stopped settling for the gradual and eventual route to success and seemed to choose the high road or "the easy way."  

Whether this is true is for another, unrelated argument.  The point is that this Decision was more than simply a move that announced his change of teams, from a team of role players to a team with other star players.  He went from the good guy to the bad guy because the Decision transcended sports.  He went against what Americans have always stood for and continue to stand for: waiting your turn and always rejecting the path of least resistance.  His choice to leave the weaker Cavaliers team and a city that worshipped him made him different from MJ and a lot more like the rest of us.

Many of us NBA fans and regular folk often make easy, everyday decisions without severe public backlash.  However, star figures - like LeBron - have all eyes on them at all times and, in the process, get held to a higher standard.  While they are able to perform at an athletic level that most of us may not, their on-court expectations carry over off the court.

Going back to the James vs. Jordan debate, each player, like it or not, was a soldier of fortune.  Whatever happens with the Heat will decide LeBron's career path.  If Wade can't stay healthy and the team continues to crumble around James, then the tragedy of unreasonable expectations for LeBron will continue.  If Wade can stay healthy, Bosh bounces back and a supporting cast can stay intact, LeBron will get his ring soon.  

There is a more established order on the team now, which will lead to a better chance of success in late-game situations.  If they make the finals again this year, there will be a different outcome, and the beginning of a new story for LeBron.

Thoughts?  Please share below.  Thanks for reading!