On June 20th, the Cleveland Cavaliers led by Lebron James did what many thought was the impossible, come back from 3-1 down to defeat the record breaking Golden State Warriors. James led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks to put in one of the most dominant finals performances ever seen. Deservedly he took home the Final’s MVP and plaudits for being the best player on the planet.
Predictably the discussion quickly shifted to where this put James in the panthenon of basketball greats, or more specifically in regard to Michael Jordan. Jordan might not be considered by everyone that follows basketball as the greatest of all time but he is as close as anyone to “undisputed” territory. Ever since he hit the global stage as a rookie in 1984, Air Jordan has captured the imagination of sport lovers worldwide and he quickly transcended from basketball superstar to sporting icon.
Now is the era of King James though and a whole new generation of basketball fan is witnessing his reign as it is happening. They’re feeling that same excitement watching him play as many of us older fans experienced when we saw Jordan do his thing in the eighties and nineties. Understandably young fans will believe their own eyes over the nostalgic stories of MJ and grainy edited highlight videos on YouTube and believe James is a superior player to Jordan.
James has earnt the right to be in the conversation with Michael Jordan, at least as much as anyone post-Jordan has. Admittedly I have been Team Jordan ever since I started following basketball in year 6. For my generation it’s always been Larry, Magic and Mike that captured our imaginations but it is hard to deny Lebron’s quality and achievements.
Comparing players of different eras and different positions is always frought with pitfalls and is far from perfect. Often stats or achievements are thrown up but twith little context or back story. I’ve read countless Jordan v Lebron or Jordan v Kobe comparison articles but so many seem to just scratch the surface or look at only specific areas like playoffs/Finals, or from this age to that age, or this specific stat v that specific stat. What I hope to do is provide as comprehensive a comparison as has been done by any single article or televised debate. I’ve scoured numerous sites and articles to find as much information I could and piece it all together in one place.
I’ll be looking at regular season and playoffs, career game and season highs, physical and mental attributes, outside forces, as well as splitting their careers in to three parts each. For Jordan I’ve gone with pre-championship Jordan, Championship Jordan, and Wizards Jordan. For Lebron, Cleveland I Lebron, Miami Lebron and Cleveland II Lebron (I will explain later why I split it up like this).
Much was made of a young Lebron James in his time at St.Vincent-St.Mary High School where he became a national sensation being touted for greatness. Not athletes came with the level of expectation that the Akron native did but the teenager took it all in his stride.
Michael Jordan’s high school story is a part of basketball folklore with a young Jordan not making the cut as a sophmore for the Emsley A. Laney varsity team. A growth spurt and an unmatched determination would see him return for his Junior year and right the wrong, and the rest is history.
Unlike Lebron, Jordan went to college after high school. He was heavily recruited by colleges around the country after being considered one of the best high school talents in the land. He eventually chose to join the late Dean Smith’s programme at the University of North Carolina which was one of the premier programmes in college sports.
Lebron chose to forgo college and go straight into the big leagues where he was taken number one by his hometown team, Cleveland Cavaliers. James wasn’t the first basket baller to go straight into the NBA out of high school but given his athletic ability he was arguably one of the most prepared to make the transition.
Lebron’s early entry into the NBA does mean he has an advantage over Jordan with how many seasons he has available to him to accumulate numbers and achievements. Many people like Jordan’s former Tar Heels teammate Kenny Smith feel that Jordan benefitted as a player by serving two seasons with the legendary Dean Smith. Kenny Smith often on TNT has described Jordan as the best at the fundamentals which he attributed to Smith and his coaching staff.
If we look at whether Jordan could’ve come into the NBA out of high school, we also have to consider the affect this would’ve had on his game if any. Jordan’s high school senior year he averaged 29.2 points per game, 11.6 rebounds, and 10.1 assists. King James averaged 31.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 3.4 steals. Jordan’s stats coming out of high school are overall better than Lebron’s although level opposition and other factors play a part, there is no denying that Jordan was an extremely gifted basketballer before entering college.
Perhaps if it were the 2000s, Michael Jordan would’ve skipped college for the pros. When Lebron was coming through the media presence, interest and money was much bigger than in Jordan’s era so it’s not a stretch to imagine a talent like Jordan would generate some hype. From 2000 to 2005, thirty players have been drafted straight from high school which is easily the most active period for this practice.
In total 44 players have been drafted directly out of high school with Lebron, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett some of the successful and high profile stars to make the jump. Of the 44 players drafted out of high school 10 were guards or guard/forwards so the smaller players have been less likely to get drafted than the big men. In the 80s only two players were drafted from high school – Shawn Kemp and Lloyd Daniels – but neither of them played in the NBA straight out of high school.
Another factor to look at is the Olympics, in Jordan’s time Olympic basketball was still for amateurs so the only chance to represent your country was from college. James was never faced with this dilemma as Jordan and his Dream Team in the 1992 Barcelona Games saw a changing of this rule. Of course in Lebron’s time there was much more money on the table to think about which would make skipping college much more attractive. The money on offer to unproven yet hot prospects could arguably be attributed to Jordan’s legacy on the game.
Without question though Lebron James was more than ready both physically and ability-wise for the NBA. His first season as an 18 year old, he was listed at 6-8 and 240lbs which is bigger than the NBA average of 6-6 and 221lbs. Jordan in college was – according to a North Carolina website – 6-6 and 189lbs which was 6lbs lighter than his rookie year.
Position: Shooting guard/small forward
Vertical Leap: 48″
Hand length: 11.4″
Speed: Over 20mph dribbling
Strength: Shoulder Press 6 reps of 225lbs
Position: Small forward/power forward/shooting guard
Vertical Leap: over 44″
Hand length: 9.3″
Wingspan: 7 feet
Speed: Over 20mph
Strength: Bench press 15 reps of 225lbs
A lot of what has made both players so dominant is the physical gifts that they possess both from their genetics and hard work. Jordan’s hang time is legendary and his nicknames “Air” and “His Airness” pay homage to his seemingly gravity defying feats. Lebron’s physical attributes look like a perfect storm of height and weight making his speed and power a scary proposition for any defender in his way. Jordan and James have expertly used their gifts to take their games to a level few can match.
Sports science has come a long way since Jordan’s time and sports shows are placing more emphasis on the athletic attributes of players than ever before so accessing Lebron’s numbers was easier than Jordan’s. Lebron is clearly the physically bigger athlete with his weight and height significantly more than Jordan’s. Thanks to this, Lebron has been able to play in the front court as a power forward as well as in the backcourt which gives him more positional flexibility than Jordan.
Jordan did undergo more of a physical transformation than Lebron mainly thanks to heavy work in the weight room inspired by the constant beatings he took, most notably against the Detroit Piston Bad Boys. During his first three championships he put on an extra 10lbs and as a thirty year old in the last three he had reached a playing weight of 216lbs. Lebron coming in at 18 was listed at 240lbs but now is closer to 250lbs.
ESPN’s Sports Centre clocked both players at over 20mph with Jordan’s being on the dribble while they didn’t specify with Lebron. Prospective NFL players are put through a speed test at the NFL Scouting Combine, a 40 yard sprint. Lebron while at Miami said he ran an impressive 4.6secs. Michael Jordan’s college coach, Dean Smith, once told Sports Illustrated that when Jordan arrived at North Carolina he ran a 4.6 but the following off-season after working on his speed he came back and ran a 4.3. These are unfortunately only anecdotal accounts so make of them what you will. Jordan’s time of 4.3 was also claimed to have been seen on live TV when he apparently did it during a Deion Sanders TV special but no hard evidence has been found.
The vertical leap of athletes are generally measured from a standing or a one step start. The numbers for Jordan and James are thought to be taken from in-game video footage and off a run up. Lebron’s extra body mass would give Jordan an advantage and allow him to get those extra 3 or 4 inches in Lebron. Given the average vertical leap in the NBA is in the low 20s both men are well above the grade.
Strength is another physical attribute that is difficult to quantify especially in-game. Just looking at Lebron’s physique and you’d have to assume he’s stronger than the shorter and lighter Jordan. Again though we will need to rely on anecdotal evidence to get an idea of their in-game strength.
Magic Johnson was a rival of Michael both on court and for the hearts and minds of the basketball public. He once said of Jordan’s strength, “MJ’s strength is like a big man’s. He’s the strongest guard, I’m talking about body-wise, to ever play.”
Ron Artest was one of the few players to have guarded Jordan, Kobe and Lebron. When asked about who was the toughest match up, “MJ is the toughest to guard because he’s as strong as Lebron, he shoots just as good as Reggie Miller from mid range, and he’s tough. He’s a killer out there in the court.”
Paul Pierce unsurprisingly had Lebron in his top five toughest players he’s guarded. “The only way to stop LeBron from getting an and-one is to straight up tackle him. Slapping down on his hands simply won’t work — he’s too strong. He’s just a caliber of physical specimen that this league has never seen before.”
Michael Jordan revealed he has studied Lebron’s game and figured out how he would’ve guarded him. “If he goes right, he’s going to the hole and I can’t stop him. So I ain’t letting him go right.”
Lebron is without question the more naturally gifted physical specimen but as his teammates, friends and trainers have often said, no one worked harder on this part of their game than Michael Jordan. An opponent hasn’t come along that has worked out how to stop either player from exploiting their physical attributes but Lebron has the obvious advantage here because his size and athleticism makes him able to play in more positions.
Check out the next installment of the comparison coming soon which will be:
The First Stage – Jordan Changes The Game v James Proves The Hype Is Real