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Does LeBron James Have to Be More Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan to Win Finals?

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 09:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts in the third quarter while taking on the San Antonio Spurs during Game Two of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 9, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2013

LeBron James needs to establish an explicit identity in the NBA Finals for the Miami Heat to emerge victorious.

He isn't Magic Johnson, nor is he Michael Jordan. He's LeBron James—his own player, his own man. Building his legacy doesn't entail that he impersonate one or the other. 

But we're not asking him to be like Mike or Magic exclusively. Their names, for James' purposes, don't represent a man—they personify a style of play.

Jordan carried his team with scoring, deferring only when he needed to, whereas Magic played the part of everything, leading his team primarily as a playmaker.

That's what James needs to decide. Does he take over the game in ways similar to Jordan? Or must he emulate Magic more for the Heat to win?

So far, he's been somewhere in between.

James is currently averaging 25.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 50.5 percent shooting during the postseason. Through the first two games of the Finals, he's at 17.5 points, 13 rebounds and 8.3 assists on 42.4 percent shooting.

Here's a look at how those stack up against Jordan and Magic's career playoff numbers and the career postseason marks of James himself:

Player MP FGM FGA FG% 3P% PTS REBS ASTS STLS
Magic  39.7 6.8 13.4 50.6 24.1 19.5 7.7 12.3 1.9
Jordan 41.8 12.2 25.1 48.7 33.2 33.4 6.4 5.7 2.1
LeBron (2013 Postseason) 41.2 8.8 17.5 50.5 37.1 25.2 7.9 6.7 1.6
LeBron (2013 Finals) 41.0 7.0 16.5 42.4 25.0 17.5 13.0 8.5 1.5
LeBron (Career) 43.1 9.6 20.3 47.3 32.0 28.0 8.6 6.7 1.7

At different points of the playoffs, James has gone back-and-forth. On some nights, he'll attempt to carry the Heat with his scoring (Game 2 against the Indiana); on others, he'll let his playmaking do the talking (Game 1 against the San Antonio).

If a decision has to be made, James is playing closer to Magic's level. He's not dishing out nearly as many dimes, but he's selective with his shots, making it his mission to keep his teammates involved.

There have been some Jordan-esque moments, though. Laying in the game-winner against the Pacers to open the Eastern Conference Finals was pretty Jordan-like (though MJ would have have likely elected for a jumper). Going 5-of-5 from the field for 11 points to spearhead the 33-5 run in Game 2 of the Finals was pretty Jordan-like too.

But for the most part, James has played a Magic Johnson brand of basketball, and there's nothing wrong with that. Magic is a Hall of Famer and has five championship rings to his credit. Imitating him should be encouraged—unless you're the LeBron James of today.

When you have a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and even a Bob McAdoo, you don't need to have performances like Jordan went on to have. The Los Angeles Lakers didn't need their franchise player to mirror the player Jordan inevitably became.

The Heat do.

Nothing against Scottie Pippen, but he was no Kareem. Jordan never had that second scoring option who could lead the league in scoring or carry the Chicago Bulls to a championship on his own. Magic did, and James was supposed to, but he doesn't.

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have struggled (to put it lightly) during the playoffs. Wade's production has been especially marginalized. An ailing knee has reduced him to a sidekick, not a superstar.

Together, James' prolific partners are combining for 26.4 points and 6.4 assists per playoff game. Now's not the time for him to defer in excess—not when he's nearly totaling as many points (25.2) and more assists (6.7) than Bosh and Wade combined.

When Magic won his second championship in 1982, he had the luxury of zeroing in on facilitating. Six different Lakers players, including himself, were scoring at least 10 points a night. Five were pitching in 15 or more. And three were contributing 20-plus. 

Miami doesn't have that kind of offensive depth at the moment. Just four players are averaging at least 10 points a night. And James is the only one eclipsing the 15-point plateau. 

In 1992, when Jordan won his second title with the Bulls, he was one of only three players averaging in double figures. He and Pippen were the lone two raking in at least 15 points, and he pushed past the 20-point mark on his own.

Had Jordan opted to holster his trigger finger, the Bulls may not have necessarily gone on to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in six games to win the second title of MJ's career. They may not have even made it out of the Eastern Conference.

James has to take a similar approach while understanding that doesn't dictate he remove or isolate his teammates on offense.

“Offensively, I attract so much attention that if a guy is open on my team, I will pass the ball,” he told reporters following Miami's Game 1 loss to the Spurs. “I believe our guys will be there to knock those shots down.”

"I've done more and lost," he added.

That should scare him. And it should paralyze the Heat.

James notched a triple-double in Game 1. And the Heat still lost. Surpassing Magic and Larry Bird as the only player since 1986 to register three or more triple-doubles in the NBA Finals should have been a momentous occasion for Miami. Instead, it ended in a loss.

Which isn't James' fault. The fact that triple-doubles aren't enough to pilot his team to victory is on his supporting cast, not him. Realizing those types of stat lines aren't enough dictates he change, though. That change is on him.

In Game 2, he didn't stray away from "natural instincts." He continued to pass (seven assists), attempted just 17 shots and scored 17 points. The Heat won and all is right in South Beach. For now.

Beating the Spurs behind James' Magic Johnson-esque performances is impossible (or, at best, probable). Taking them down while he mimics Jordan increases the Heat's chances significantly. 

Mario Chalmers can't be depended on to drop 19 points like he did in Game 2. Ray Allen himself won't be good for 13 every night. Chris "Birdman" Andersen and Mike Miller aren't going to pitch in nine consistently, either.

Take away their performances, and the Heat had Bosh and Wade combining for 22 points. Most nights, that's not enough. Nor should it be. But it's all James has to work with right now. By refusing to change the way he plays, he's not helping this current version of his team to the best of his ability.

Pass-first, think-about-the-missed-shots-later mentalities aren't going to guarantee any titles. Yet, that's exactly the stance James has taken, as if he's dishing out 12-plus assists every night like Magic. Newsflash: he isn't.

Dishing out 6.7 dimes a game is admirable, but that doesn't mean James can't shoot more. Jordan averaged 5.7 dimes per playoff contest in his career while also putting up 33-plus points. We're only kidding ourselves if we don't believe James is capable of doing the same. Worse yet, we're fooling no one if we let Game 2 cloud our judgment.

Coming off a blowout victory over a team like the Spurs should instill a natural high. The Heat should be riding Cloud 9, ready to take over the series in San Antonio. But they're not. They can't be.

It took a 33-5 run for the Heat to run away with Game 2. Late in the third quarter, with the Spurs' Big Three all having a game to forget, the Heat were trailing 62-61. Remove that astounding stretch of absolute dominance and we could just as easily be discussing a loss.

But South Beach's role players took care of business, so we're not. Chalmers, Allen, Birdman and Miller—they all stepped up. Relying on that for one game—for one win—is fantastic. Believing that the Heat can win a championship with a deferential James, a passive Bosh, a fractionated Wade and a newfangled hope in their reserves isn't.

"I don't know. Whatever conclusion you want," James told the media of the similarities between his stat lines in Games 1 and 2 after Miami's win. "It's a 1-1 series. That's the only conclusion I know. We look forward to Game 3."

James has to know more. He has to know the Heat we see now are built more like Jordan's Bulls than Magic's Lakers. That he must play more like Jordan and less like Magic. That he doesn't have to do it alone, but he must take over more. And he has to know this even after Game 2. 

Miami's title hopes still depend on it.

 

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