Evolution is a major part of sport with the players, the teams, the leagues and the game adapting through experience, rule changes, and sports science. We can watch the career of our favourite player evolve before our eyes as we can also do with our favourite team. Lebron James and Michael Jordan – two of the greatest athletes- started their careers at an extremely high level but also evolved throughout their careers to go from being the most feared players on the court to respected champions. Neither man came into a winning franchise with making the playoffs let alone the Finals a foregone conclusion. So this part of our series will look at the players before they became champions.
The First Stage
When Jordan came into the league there were only twenty three teams so the playing pool was more condensed and it wasn’t unusual for super teams to emerge with the Celtics and Lakers being the prime examples of this era. It wasn’t unusual though for the top teams to have two or more All-Stars or All-Star caliber players. The Celtics and Lakers though we’re the two clear favourites although Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Portland were also among the dangerous teams of the time.
Lebron came into the league with twenty nine teams and the playing rosters spread more thinly with local American talent but there were a lot more international players than previous eras. At this time we witnessed the dominance having two superstars on a roster could bring with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant completing a three peat just before Lebron came into the league. This would come to an end though and it wouldn’t be until the 2010 Lakers that we’d see a team go back-to-back.
Jordan Changes The Game
In Jordan’s rookie year he came into an East that was top heavy. Three teams (Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia) had 58 or more wins for the season. The Bulls with a rookie Jordan scraped into the playoffs for the first time since 1980/81 but were beaten in the first round by the .720 Bucks, 1-3. The Bulls had improved on the year before when they had the second worst record in the league to win eleven more games but they still couldn’t compete with a balanced Bucks side which had the third best record in the NBA behind the Celtics and the Lakers.
Jordan claimed the Rookie of the Year honours with an incredible 28.2 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.4 steals and 0.8 blocks. In the playoffs against the Bucks he averaged 29.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 2.8 steals and 1 block to show a sign of things to come from Jordan when in playoff mode.
Although the Bulls still weren’t striking fear into the hearts of the top teams in the NBA, Michael Jordan had well and truly made everyone stand up and pay attention to the skinny kid who played with his tongue out.
The 1985/86 season promised much when Jordan started the season with 29 and 33 points in two wins over strong opposition in Cleveland and Detroit. It was in the third game away to Golden State that disaster struck for Jordan and the Bulls. After 18 minutes and 12 points, the burgeoning superstar would go down with a broken foot that would keep him out from October 1985 to March 1986, missing a total of 64 games.
Jordan returned for the last 15 games of the regular season but again his Bulls would only just sneak into the playoffs with a mere 30 wins where they faced the Celtics who had a league best 67 wins. The Celtics though who had what today would be described as a “super team” swept the Bulls in three. They would only lose one game on the Eastern side before beating Houston Rockets in six and becoming the deserved champions.
Despite losing this series, Jordan was described as “God” by Larry Bird and had shown that although his team might not be there, he was a force to be reckoned with. His 63 in game 2 at Boston Garden is still a playoff record and overshadowed his game one 49 points and his performance in game 3 when he was one assist away from a triple-double. His averages for the series were 43.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks.
Michael’s third season would see him return fit and ready to prove a point. His Bulls would win 10 more games than the year before but it’d still only be good enough for the eighth seed in an Eastern Conference which had 4 teams with 50 or more wins (the West only had two teams although the Lakers had the league’s best record overall).
Jordan would post some amazing point totals including in the first game of the season away to the New York Knicks which saw him drop 50 points in a 5 point win. He would score 50 points or more 8 times that season including two 61 point games against the number 2 and 3 in the East, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks.
This scoring output though saw other parts of his game drop though with the shooting guard only breaking double figure assists once and double digit rebounds 4 times. He did put in some impressive defensive performances getting 8 steals in three different games and 5 or more blocks in 3 games to average 2.9 steals and 1.5 blocks a game.
Come the playoffs though Jordan would produce more eye catching performances against a team much stronger than his own with averages of 35.7 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2.3 blocks. Again it was a disappointing sweep for the Bulls. Magic Johnson had won the league MVP so Jordan still hadn’t claimed the outright mantle as the best player in the league and his team were still far from being a contender.
Season four for Jordan saw him joined by rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant although their output in their rookie seasons were modest compared to what they would become, the turn around had begun.
The Bulls would reach 50 wins for the first time since Jordan arrived and claim the 3rd seed in the East which was still a strong Conference with 4 teams once again getting over 50 wins, the same number as in the West. The team had improved and Jordan was still delivering the impressive numbers with 35 points per game, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks. His incredible offense combined with stifling defence saw him become the first player to win the regular season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same year. Hakeem Olajuwon is the only other player to do it in the same season with Kevin Garnett and David Robinson the only others to win both awards over their careers.
Jordan had officially become the best player in the league on both ends of the court but once again his team would exit the playoffs early. Jordan did get his first playoff series win defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in 5 games while averaging over 45 points a game. The Bulls would fall in the Eastern Conference semis 4-1 to the higher ranked Detroit Pistons who in the closing three games were able to hold Jordan to under 25 points each game.
The first part of Jordan’s goal of being the best individual player was now accomplished but it would be a hollow achievement if he couldn’t get the team success to go with it. Strides forward had been made but to reach the summit he and the Bulls had to overcome some strong competition in the East.
Season five saw a more determined Michael Jordan but despite all the accolades as the best individual player in the game there were still question marks over Mike’s ability to lead a team to the Promised Land. The NBA expanded to 25 teams but once again the East were loaded with four teams getting over 50 wins but the Bulls were not one of them.
Statistics wise this was Jordan’s most balanced season with averages of 32.5 points per game, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 2.9 steals. He got the second most consecutive triple-doubles in NBA history with 7 when he was temporarily moved to point guard. Only Wilt Chamberlain with 9 had more and Oscar Robertson also had 7 straight in a season. Overall he had 15 triple-doubles for the season with 10 in 11 games. He also had a career high 17 assists and scored 50 or more points in 5 games.
However these remarkable figures were not enough and he missed out on the MVP award which went to Magic Johnson who averaged 22.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 12.8 assists. This disappointment merely motivated Jordan to lead his Bulls past the higher ranked Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks where they’d once again meet their nemesis the Pistons but this time in the Eastern Conference finals. They’d lose in six games and Detroit would go on to sweep the Lakers for their first ever NBA title.
The 1989/90 season saw the Bulls acquire rookie B.J. Armstrong who would serve as a reliable back up to veteran John Paxson. This also meant that Jordan could spend more time playing in his preferred position as a shooting guard. Pippen and Grant continued to improve especially with their contribution to the scoring output and Pippen even made the All-Star bench. The biggest change though came in the head coach position as assistant Phil Jackson would be promoted to the top job replacing Doug Collins.
Chicago would improve by eight wins this season to end the season with the second best record in the East behind the Pistons. The NBA again had a lot of competitve teams with nine having over 50 wins (4 from the East and 5 from the West) and the Lakers getting over 60 wins. Two new teams entered the NBA with Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic bringing the total to 27.
Magic Johnson also got another MVP award after putting the numbers of 22.3 points, 11.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals and o.4 blocks while his team improved by six wins on the year before. Jordan on the other hand had 33.6 points, 6.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 0.8 blocks. He would also score a career high 69 points against Cleveland a game in which he also pulled down 18 rebounds. He only scored over 50 points three times that season with two of them being against the Cavs and the other being against Orlando (he also scored 49 against Orlando in another game).
In the playoffs Jordan and his Bulls breezed past Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Jordan averaged an incredible 43 points a game in the 5 game series against the 76ers. Another Eastern Conference showdown with the Bad Boy Pistons and their “Jordan Rules” awaited. Jordan would average 32 points this series getting 40 plus twice for two of the wins but other than that he was held to just below his average in the other games. The Pistons would once again triumph in 7 games. Detroit would go on to win the NBA Finals again.
During this time, Pippen became the first Bull other than Jordan to make the All-Star team since Jordan arrived in Chicago. The Bulls were never able to get the best record in their conference let alone in the league. Although Jordan had shown he could get his numbers in just about every category, his heroics still couldn’t guarantee the most important thing, wins. He would need more help which meant more All-Star caliber players like many of his rivals had.
However, the Bulls had challenged the Champions as much as anyone had in the last two seasons and although they lost the series they had smelt blood and would be ready next season.
James Proves The Hype Is Real
Not many high school athletes have received the amount of coverage Lebron James did. His dominant displays and imposing physique already had people crowning him the next Jordan. His high school would play exhibition games and they would be televised to a national audience such was the hype around the Akron native. Of course with such hype comes great pressure and this could have easily proved too much for an 18 year old who became the youngest number one pick in NBA history.
When Lebron came into the league there were now 29 teams and Cleveland were at the bottom of the pile with the equal worst record in the league, 17-65. The 1997/98 season was the last time the Cavs had reached the playoffs so when Lebron was drafted he was seen as a superstar they could build a team around and eventually bring success.
He impressed right out of the blocks with a confident individual performance in their opening game in an otherwise disappointing team display away to Sacramento Kings. The teenager scored 25 with 9 assists and 6 rebounds to put to bed quite early any doubts about him being the real deal.
That year the Cavs with their prized pick improved dramatically on the year before notching up 18 more wins than the year before although it was still not enough to end the playoff drought. James would win the Rookie of the Year with a solid line of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks.
Lebron and Cleveland made further strides forward in the following season with both improving on the previous year. Cleveland notched up 5 more wins and Lebron’s stat line saw a big spike in points, rebounds, assists, and steals.
Despite the improvement across the board, Lebron and his team couldn’t sneak into the playoffs finishing one spot out in ninth. Lebron did get his first triple double this season and and scored his first 50 point game when he posted 56 away to Toronto Raptors. Selection to the All-Star team followed where he was joined by teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Season three saw the heavens open and enough Ws rain down to break the playoff drought. Lebron took even more responsibility on the scoring end breaking the 30 point per game barrier for the first time with 31.4 points. The Cavs improved by another 5 wins to reach 50 wins for the season which made them one of three teams in the East to get over 50 wins.
They would get over their first playoff hurdle by dispatching Washington in 6 games but like Michael and the Bulls in the late 80s it would be the Pistons that would stop their run in a tough 7 game series.
Lebron had an outstanding series offensively against the Wizards but overall, apart from his rebounds, his stats dropped compared to his regular season numbers. Still only 21 and his first experience in the playoffs it would prove a valuable learning experience for him and the Cavaliers.
The next season saw Cleveland maintain their 50 win record which along with Detroit made them the only Eastern teams to break 50 wins while in the West they had three teams with over 60 wins. Lebron’s stats would drop across the board but it didn’t stop his team reaching the NBA Finals after beating the top Eastern seed, Detroit, in 6 games.
Unfortunately, the big stage proved too much for Lebron as the Big Three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) of the San Antonio Spurs – despite not being one of the Western teams to reach 60 wins – swept Cleveland. Lebron was unable to provide any resistance with the Spurs not allowing him to score more than 25 in any game. Over the whole playoffs though Lebron had performed well by anyone else’s standards with an average of 25.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8 assists.
Coming into the fifth season the Cavaliers perhaps were ahead of schedule for many people as to where they should be since Lebron’s arrival. The premature appearance in the NBA Finals the year before had perhaps reset the bar a little too high. To make matters worse, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce at Boston to form a triumvirate of superstars. Such was the impact of these acquisitions for the Celtics that they set a new NBA record by improving on the season before by an incredible 42 wins to also give them the best record in the league at 66-16.
Lebron would up his output once again reaching 30 points a game to go with 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks. He would also set a career high with 19 rebounds in a game against Charlotte. Cleveland, however, would finish with 5 less wins than the season before and fail to reach the 50 win mark. Incredibly 8 teams in the West would finish with 50 or more wins while only 3 East teams would reach 50 wins.
It would be against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semis where Lebron and his Cavs hopes would end. Lebron wasn’t able to lift his game to the next level with his stats not being too dissimilar to his regular season efforts at 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. Unsurprisingly the Super Celtics would go on to take out the NBA Championship defeating their arch rivals the Lakers, 4-2.
Season six saw the Cavaliers come back with a fire lit under them. Although Lebron’s scoring output dropped he was ably assisted in this department by Mo Williams who put up numbers that earnt him a call-up to the All-Star team to become the first teammate of Lebron since Ilgauskas to make the East team.
Cleveland improved by 21 wins on the previous season to finish with 66 wins which gave them the best record in the league just ahead of the 65 win Lakers. They were one of three East teams to finish with 50 or more wins and last season’s champs, the Celtics, joined them in breaking the 60 win barrier.
Individually it was a big year for King James who would claim his first MVP award with the solid numbers of 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks. Statistically not his best season to-date but the key was the importance of the superstar to his team’s huge turnaround from the season before.
With the best record in the league, the Cavs were expected to make the Finals with only the Celtics in their way. Fortunately though the Magic caused an upset by knocking the Celtics out in the semis in 7 games. Cleveland had swept Detroit and Atlanta in the earlier rounds before meeting the Magic. Perhaps this easy run caused some complacency to creep in throughout the team. The third seed Magic ended up dumping out the league’s best in six to leave Lebron scratching his head as to what more he could do.
Lebron to his credit put in one of the postseason’s best ever performances averaging 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks. In the Orlando series he averaged 38.5 points but his teammates unfortunately did not come to the party.
The next season would prove to be a pivotal one for both Lebron and the Cavs. Failure would not be an option for Lebron who was desperate to get the gorilla off his back of not winning the Championship yet. Although they won 5 less games than the season before they still ended up with the best record in the league at 61-21. They were the only team in the league to break 60 wins but 3 other East teams broke 50 wins and the West had 8 teams that reached the 50 win mark.
Once again Lebron was named MVP on the back of 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1 block and his team having the best record in the league.
James came up against the 8th seed Chicago Bulls in the first round and put on a clinic getting a triple-double and going close in two other games to triple-doubles while upping his points output to 31.8. They took care of the Bulls in 5 games before they would come up against the aging yet still very dangerous Celtics. The Celtics were the 4th seed in the East and had won 11 games less than the Cavs but it seemed they had timed their run perfectly. The Celtics beat the Cavs in the semis in 6 games and were able to limit James to just two games of more than 30 points.
It was Game 5 in Cleveland that sealed the fate of the Cavs when they held Lebron to 15 points on 3-14 shooting while taking out the game with a demoralising 32 point win. The Celtics would make it all the way to the Finals where they’d lose in 7 to Kobe’s Lakers.
Lebron James had the team with the best record in the league twice now and he was the back-to-back MVP but he couldn’t translate that into an all-important title. A big decision had to be made on the future of the league’s best player.
First Stage: Head to Head
Jordan’s pre-championship era lasted six seasons and over that time he never missed the play-offs but the furthest he could get was the Eastern Conference Finals where he was stopped by the Pistons. Chicago never had the best record in the conference or league during this time. However, Chicago never lost to a team with a worse record than them and they beat two teams with better records.
Lebron spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland and his team made the playoffs five times. They managed to get to the NBA Finals once and the Eastern Conference Finals another time. They had the best record in the league twice but didn’t make the NBA Finals either of those years. They lost twice to teams with worse records and beat one team with a better record.
Jordan came into a losing franchise who hadn’t seen playoff action for a few years. Although he had some solid players during the pre-championship time, it wasn’t until 1990 with Pippen that a current All-Star was playing with him.
Lebron also came into a Cleveland side that was at rock bottom and lacked any star names. Over this time he played with two active All-Stars in Ilgauskas and Williams albeit at different times.
Jordan won the Rookie of the Year, 1 MVP, 1 Defensive Player of the Year, 5 All-Star selections (it was 6 but he missed due to injury), 4 All-NBA First Teams, and 3 All-NBA Defensive First Teams, 4x scoring champion, and 1 All-Star MVP.
Lebron won Rookie of the Year, 2 MVPs, 4 All-NBA First Teams, 2 All-NBA Defensive First Teams, 1x Scoring champion, and 2 All-Star MVPs
Pre-Championship Jordan (regular season)
Cleveland 1 Lebron (regular season)
Pre-Championship Jordan (playoffs over six seasons)
Cleveland 1 Lebron (playoffs over 5 seasons)
Check out the next installment of the comparison coming soon which will be:
The Second Stage – The Jordan Dynasty Begins v James Decides To Win