The 2011 NBA playoffs laid low two of the best, and probably the two most famous, players in the entire league. LeBron James‘ struggles in the NBA Finals are well-chronicled, of course, and remain a subject of fascination mystery seven months later. Kobe Bryant was brought down two rounds earlier in arguably the most embarrassing playoff loss of his career, capped off by the Game 4 white flag that continued a disturbing trend of lay down-and-die performances in elimination games (see ’03, ’04, ’06 and ’08 as well), forming a jarring contrast to his considerable successes.
Both players have spent most if not all of their careers being compared to Michael Jordan, and each at times has been described as even better than Jordan. Well, in light of their recent flops, and with 2012 now upon us, I call upon all basketball fans (including myself) to make the following New Year’s resolution. Repeat after me:
“I resolve to never again compare any active player to Jordan, and to never again proclaim any active player to be as good as, or better than, Jordan.”
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
I get why many fans, in particular David Stern and the folks in charge of NBA marketing, would be reluctant to make this resolution. It would be tantamount to an admission that, in some sense, the game has peaked and can’t get back to where it was. Some fans consider Jordan to have been overrated (including Brown Mamba) and to have gotten all the calls in crunch time as the league’s pet. Fans of the Knicks, Cavs, Jazz, etc., whose teams were victimized time and again by Jordan’s heroics in the late-80s and throughout the 90s, still bear a grudge against #23. But it is time to put all of that aside and to acknowledge the following:
#1: Michael Jordan was the greatest player the NBA has ever seen, and this is not open to reasonable dispute, nor is it likely to ever change.
#2: The urge to compare active players to Jordan unfairly demeans such players and, in my view, diminishes our enjoyment of the game.
Let’s discuss each of these in turn:
1.) The statistics make a compelling case for Jordan’s pre-eminence, among them:
-10 All-NBA First Team selections (surpassed only by Karl Malone, who played six more full seasons than Jordan);
– 30.1 regular-season points per game (the highest ever, just ahead of Wilt);
-33.8 playoff points per game;
-10 scoring titles (the most ever);
-9 All-Defensive First Team selections (tied with Gary Payton for the most);
-5 regular season MVP awards (surpassed only by Kareem, who played seven more full seasons than Jordan); and, of course:
-6 NBA titles; and
-6 NBA Finals MVP awards (the most ever).
I’d like to focus on two of these stats in tandem for a moment. First is his playoff points per game average, which is nearly four points per game higher than his regular-season points per game average, against tougher competition and on nearly as good shooting from the field (just under 49% in the playoffs, as opposed to just under 50% during the regular season). Second is the combination of 10 scoring titles AND 9 All-Defensive First Team selections. Think about that: will we see anyone combine those two distinctions ever again, or come close to doing so? I say no. Wilt might have been more dominant offensively, but was not nearly as good defensively. Russell might have been better defensively, but was not nearly as good offensively. To put it in hockey terms, no one in NBA history was, or is, in Jordan’s class as a two-way player.
But as usual, the stats tell only part of the story. They don’t convey the shadow of dominance that he cast over the NBA during the 90s. Once he got the Bulls over the hump in 1991, in each of his remaining full seasons with the Bulls, there was no reasonable doubt that each such season would end with the Bulls as champions (with the possible exception of 92-93, when they were going for the first three-peat in 27 years, but then in the 93 Finals Jordan showed us how silly it was to have doubted him in the first place). The same goes for his ability to consistently come through in the clutch; every time the game was on the line, you knew that #23 would take the last shot, and each time that he missed felt like a where-did-that-come-from surprise. Nor do the stats convey the non-stop burden that Jordan bore as the singular focal point of every team’s defense every night, with two of the most physical, rugged and dirty defenses ever (the Bad Boys Pistons and the Ewing Knicks) particularly geared to stopping him. Jordan played in an era when defenses had much freer rein than they do today, with regards to hand-checking and the like. Can you imagine what his production would have been like under the more offense-friendly rules that were installed last decade?
The stats leave out certain other essentials when it comes to Jordan as well. They don’t convey his single-minded dedication to improving, and then staying on top of, his game, or his sheer force of will; no one embodied the ideas of “will to win” and “refuse to lose” as well as he did. Nor do they convey the artistry that he brought to the game, whether through his dunks (which as imprinted on his Nike line constitute one of the iconic images in all of sports), his acrobatic layups or the follow-through form on his jumpshots.
Add all of this up and, at least in mind, there’s no room for arguing against the notions that Jordan was the best ever, and that we are highly unlikely to see his like ever again.
4.) “The Supposed “Next Michael Jordan”:
The list of players which, over the years, have been touted as the “next Jordan” or “better than Jordan” includes Harold Minor (!), Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Kobe, Vince Carter, LeBron and Kevin Durant. Granted, many of these players never came close to living up to their potential. But in the cases of Kobe, LeBron and maybe even Carter, I am convinced that our perceptions and criticisms of them over the years have been colored at least in part by the comparisons that have been made to Jordan (the same thing may very well start happening to Durant soon).
I can say with certainty exactly when public opinion began to turn against Kobe; it was on the afternoon of February 1, 1998, when the Bulls visited the Lakers in what turned out to be Jordan’s last game at the Forum. It was widely believed that the 1997-98 season would be Jordan’s last (and it did turn out to be his last as a Bull), and NBC saw an opportunity to tout a “changing of the guard”, so for much of its telecast that day, it showed the stat-lines for Jordan and Kobe next to each other, even though Kobe had yet to crack the Lakers’ starting line-up and the two of them spent hardly any time going head-to-head on the court. Earlier that same week, Kobe had been voted onto the starting line-up of the Western Conference All-Stars (again, even though he hadn’t yet cracked the Lakers’ starting line-up). I am convinced that many basketball fans were still in denial about, or trying to come to grips with, the impending end of Jordan’s career (or so we thought) felt that they were having a successor forced upon them, and have at some level held that against Kobe ever since.
A similar dynamic unfolded, albeit to a lesser degree, when we first started hearing about LeBron in high school, wearing #23 and instantly evoking comparison to you-know-who. Kobe and LeBron are not absolved of responsibility for feeding into the comparisons to Jordan, whether it be LeBron wearing #23 until 2009, or Kobe changing his jersey number from #23 to #24 (to literally one-up Jordan). For the New Year, each of them (plus everyone else who winds up drawing comparisons to Jordan) should resolve to never again solicit such comparisons on their own.
Nor can Kobe and LeBron avoid responsibility for the professional and personal missteps that each has had along the way; those were things that Kobe and LeBron did on their own, and they cannot point the finger at anyone else for those. In evaluating their professional missteps, however, we should avoid the temptation to reflexively say, as many have, “Jordan wouldn’t have done that” or “Jordan wouldn’t have let that happen”, whether referring to the Lakers’ lay down-and-die performances in elimination games, or Kobe’s disappearing act in the second half of Game 7 of the 2006 playoffs, or LeBron’s meltdowns in the 2010 playoffs and 2011 Finals, or even LeBron’s decision to join Miami (which in my view was definitely not a misstep, but which spawned many, many “Jordan wouldn’t have done that” comments in response).
It is absolutely legitimate to point out the numerous instances in which they, and other players that have been compared to Jordan over the years, failed to perform to expectations and to analyze their flaws and shortcomings, be it bad shot selection, ball-hogging, lack of a post game or lack of mental toughness. But in my view, there is no point in applying the criticism, “So-and-so is no Jordan.” So what? No one is, and in all likelihood, no one will ever be again. Making this comparison, which in my view is impossible to meet, can only frustrate us as fans. I consider it far preferable to evaluate and appreciate the players as they are, warts and all, and to critique their flaws and shortcomings on a more objective basis than applying an unrealistic standard. This will enhance our enjoyment of watching players such as Kobe, LeBron and Durant play, and we should enjoy watching them play (unless, of course, they are excelling at the expense of our favorite team) because they often play at such a high level and produce a form of artistry in their own right when they do so. Poking holes in that on the basis that none of them measure up to Jordan is a form of basketball sadomasochism; by tearing them down this way, we tear down our own enjoyment of the game. Why must we insist on doing that? I see no good reason for us to do so.
Michael Jordan as an on-the-court force is gone, and I highly doubt that we will ever see anyone of his caliber again. There will never be another Michael Jordan. Let him be, and let those who have been compared to him be as well. Let’s all resolve to pay due respect to the memory of Jordan as a player, but let’s also resolve to enjoy this game without burdening those who play it, and ourselves as fans, with that memory.
 Actually, one “semi-stat” conveys a flavor of this, namely the fact that his career field-goal percentage as a Bull was higher than 50% (his stint with the Wizards brought this down a bit), in the face of the non-stop attention that was paid to him by every opponent’s defense on a nightly basis.
 Actually, one stat conveys this as well: Jordan’s teams NEVER lost a playoff series in which they had home-court advantage, and won six playoff series (including two NBA Finals) in which they did not.
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