LeBron James’ playoff success forces us to consider whether he is moving in the same direction as Michael Jordan.
James’ Miami Heat opened up the postseason by defeating the Jordan-owned Charlotte Bobcats twice, and that might ultimately end up being a notch in his belt if he wins a third consecutive title. His Airness stands in James’ path as an adversary, but even Jordan would have to admit that James’ legacy offers striking resemblances to his.
Prior to even hitting the age of 29, James was already one of the most decorated players in league history, a trait he shares with Jordan. Granted, James joined the professional ranks as an 18-year-old, while Jordan was 21.
Still, James’ career has been impressive when juxtaposed alongside Jordan’s. Here’s a quick rundown of James’ accomplishments:
- Rookie of the Year
- 10-time All-Star selection
- Six All-NBA First Team selections
- Four league MVP trophies
- Two championships
- Two-time Finals MVP
- Two All-Star Game MVP awards
At the same age, Jordan was one league MVP and All-Star Game MVP short. However, he had collected a Defensive Player of the Year award, which is still lacking among James’ accolades.
Although both entered the league at different ages, their career arcs intersect almost seamlessly. This is enough for us to compare whether their playoff paths will be identical as well.
Michael Jordan’s Three-Peat
Jordan officially became the league’s king after collecting three titles in a row.
Now, consider this: Is Michael Jeffrey Jordan simply the best basketball player in the history of the planet? No matter what you think of Jordan as a person, as a role model, as a shoe salesman or even as a high-stakes gambler, you know the answer to that question: yes. A resounding yes.
However, he bounced back in the 1990-91 campaign. Jordan elevated his teammates to new heights and dispatched the Pistons. Afterwards, nothing would stand in his way.
Chicago collected titles that season as well as the following one. What’s more, he was a member of the Dream Team that captured the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics.
All of it led to a 1992-93 season that had people wondering whether the Bulls could win a third straight title.
NBA.com’s Brett Ballantini did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Chicago’s season by outlining the numerous obstacles the team faced.
Bill Cartwright and John Paxson dealt with knee surgeries in the previous summer, while Jordan (arch and wrist) and Pippen (ankle) dealt with injuries on their own. Pippen explained to Ballantini the difficulties involved with going after a third ring:
It was hard. We had no way of knowing what that season was going to be like, especially for me and Michael, playing in the Olympics. It helped, to a certain degree, that we had already won two championships and knew how that could wear a team down, but really, nothing could prepare us for all the non-stop basketball.
Jordan appeared in 78 games and held things together for the most part. He averaged 32.6 points and led the league in steals. Chicago may have played on fumes that year, but Jordan did everything humanly possible to ensure the Bulls played at a high level.
After winning 67 regular-season games the previous year, Jordan’s Bulls won 57 in 1992-93, the lowest total of any Jordan-led title team. What’s more, the New York Knicks emerged as a rival in the Eastern Conference.
The Knickerbockers faced the Bulls in the previous two playoff runs and even forced Chicago to a Game 7 in the 1992 playoffs before wilting to Jordan. That didn’t necessarily convince everyone of Jordan’s mystique.
George Karl, then head coach of the Seattle Supersonics, offered this take on the series at the time to Sports Illustrated’s Hank Hersch: “The combination of intensity, intelligence and commitment from the Knicks is so high, it scares the Bulls.”
Fast-forward to the 1993 playoffs, and an opportunity to dethrone the two-time champs seemed within grasp. Armed with the best record in the conference, some believed the Knicks might best the Bulls.
New York won the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but Jordan was sensational in the next four games. Per Basketball-Reference.com, he averaged 32.5 points and nine assists the rest of the series and led the Bulls back to the Finals.
Jordan’s friend, Charles Barkley, would be his adversary for the title. Winning at the expense of a friend might be a joy unto itself considering the bragging rights, but Barkley entered the NBA Finals with what Jordan probably considered his: the league MVP trophy.
It’s not that Barkley didn’t deserve it. Rather, Jordan’s maniacal competitiveness probably made him want to prove the world it had chosen the wrong guy.
The Bulls secured the title in six games at the expense of the Phoenix Suns, with Jordan averaging 41 points in the championship series. The man himself realized the rare company he had joined at the conclusion of the series and offered Hoop Magazine’s Alex Sachare some terrific insight:
This is a chance for me to accomplish something that they [Magic Johnson and Larry Bird] haven’t. I wanted to do something that set myself apart from them, and this does it. They were never able to win three in a row. Magic has five rings, but I still accomplished something team-wise that he was never able to do. Yes, it has been a driving force for me.
The 1993 Finals put Jordan at the top of the mountain, and LeBron James seems intent on borrowing the blueprint Jordan used to capture his first three rings.
Miami the New Old Chicago?
This might be the worst season the Heat have faced since James relocated to Miami.
Keep in mind, he enjoyed some pretty stellar seasons as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers with a less talented roster. Indeed, in four of his last five seasons with the Cavs, James’ teams won 50 games or more.
In his final two seasons, Cleveland won 66 and 61 games, respectively, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The bone big hurdle James never conquered with the Cavs was the Boston Celtics, which prompted a zip code change.
James moved to Miami and helped the team win 58 games in his very first season with the team, but was humbled in the NBA Finals. It was his second defeat on the biggest basketball stage.
The following year, the Heat won 46 games (69.7 percent winning percentage) during a lockout year where every team participated in 66 contests. James and Co. captured the championship that season and did it again the following year after winning 66 games.
In 2013-14, the Heat finished the regular season by winning 54 games (65.9 percent of their total games), their lowest mark since The Decision.
Much like Jordan’s Bulls, Miami’s decline comes as a result of the wear and tear of the previous title runs. Dwyane Wade missed 28 games because of a maintenance program coupled with an assortment of ailments.
He dealt with issues to his knees, some discomfort in his hamstring and migraines. Injuries certainly made matters difficult for the Heat, but so did prevention attempts.
In an effort to keep players fresh, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra considerably reduced the workload of some of his players.
Chris Bosh (32), Wade (32.9), Shane Battier (20) and Udonis Haslem (14.2) played career-low minutes. James kept things afloat by taking on the bulk of the responsibilities.
He maintained his regular amount of playing time and appeared in 77 contests while averaging 27.1 points on a career-high 56.7 percent shooting. The Heat may have “only” won 54 games, but James made sure that Miami did just enough to finish the year with a good record and a chance to win come playoff time.
He is walking in the footsteps of Jordan, and it’s entirely possible that the playoffs will reveal whether James can truly follow his lead.
What Lies Ahead
For all of the similarities involved in the careers of James and Jordan, ultimately the postseason will determine if James can borrow Jordan’s road to glory.
The Pacers own the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, and they might very well be headed for a collision course in the Eastern Conference Finals with Miami, in the same manner the Knicks and Jordan's Bulls faced off in 1993.
James and Co. have dispatched Indiana in consecutive seasons, with the last playoff matchup lasting seven games. The Pacers are a hungry bunch, and James will have to be at his best should Miami make it to a date with Indiana.
In the event the Heat get past the Pacers, there’s a strong chance that LeBron will do battle against a friend with the title up for grabs much like Jordan did.
Durant is the odds-on favorite to win the MVP trophy this season, which is eerily similar to the playoff trajectory of Jordan’s third championship. James might have to go through the East’s best team and his friend to claim his third title.
There are numerous things that could potentially derail James’ quest for “three.” Injuries, the cumulative grind of past playoff games on the psyche or quite simply a superior opponent could dethrone him.
The 2014 playoffs will more than likely be the most taxing James has ever faced, but the best player in the world will probably find ways to manage.
It’s difficult to envision James failing this time around. Much like his predecessor, James has been on a dominant run on his way to his first two championships, and year three is apparently going according to plan if we are using history as a guide.
Granted, any comparison with Jordan is bound to raise eyebrows and remind the masses of LeBron’s blemishes. His disappearing act in the 2010 playoffs against the Boston Celtics is still dumbfounding, while his performance in the 2011 NBA Finals will likely be used as evidenced by detractors that James is a choker.
However, with every monster playoff performance and championship parade, those memories fade. They are part of James’ resume, but more so in the form of a footnote.
A third consecutive title might erase those demons altogether for all we know.
Interestingly enough, if we step back and focus on the bigger picture, James’ career has been more than impressive. Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick explained prior to the start of the playoffs:
And now, it’s appropriate to review his overall postseason record, rather than just picking apart the pieces. He is 88-50 (.638), including 46-21 with Miami.
Jordan, through his first 138 playoff games? He was 88-50.
Oh, there’s more.
His statistical dominance is becoming increasingly harder to ignore as he navigates through his prime. When looking at his postseason numbers from ages 21 to 28, you might be surprised to find out that James is a few steps ahead of Jordan. At the same age, LeBron has played in more postseason games (140) than Jordan (92).
Also, James has scored more points (3,930) than his predecessor (3,184). James passed Larry Bird on the all-time playoff scoring list during the 2014 playoffs and could actually pass Jordan by age 34 if he maintains the same pace.
James (933) also leads him (624) in assists. None of this is to suggest that James is Jordan’s superior or equal.
Instead, we should take note that James is marching toward basketball immortality, and he is using Jordan’s blueprint.
One might be quick to dismiss such comparisons as folly, but perhaps we’ve stumbled onto something. Indeed, After James clinched Game 7 of last year’s Finals with a mid-range jumper, The Basketball Jones’ Trey Kerby offered:
Now the only thing LeBron James has to do for another MJ moment is to get gypped out of his third straight MVP award, then drop half a hundred on the guy who stole his award in the Finals while leading his team to their third straight title. I’d say this seems ludicrous, but he’s nailed the first two-thirds of the first Bulls three-peat, so why not finish it off?
Everything seems to be right on schedule folks.
All stats accurate as of April 23, 2014.