LeBron vs. MJ

Just a quickie. LeBron has now made the finals six times, as had MJ. Of course, MJ’s teams went six-for-six, a pretty tough record to beat. That difference in rings alone is going to dissuade most fans and commentators from giving the nod to LeBron in a side-by-side comparison with Michael.

One part of the comparison that is being debated, but shouldn’t be, is the quality of the Big Three of which each player has been a part. (We’ll leave aside the Cavs’ frankly bizarre and fluky run to the NBA finals in 2007, when James was 22 years old and the other two members of his “Big Three” were Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao).

During the Bulls first three-peat, Michael played alongside Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Pippen was, of course, a great player, a versatile star in the prime of his career (he was 27 when the Bulls won their third title in 1993). Grant was also a *great* player who was, and remains, tremendously underrated. While Grant was primarily known for his rebounding and doing the “dirty work,” the fact is that he was good at everything. As a result, in spite of his low per game scoring totals, Grant was an extremely productive player. In fact, according to Wins Produced, he was one of the most productive in the NBA during the Bulls’ first run.

LeBron’s main running mates in Miami were, quite simply, not as good. Dwyane Wade is a terrific player, a worthy hall of famer when his playing days were over. And he was great playing alongside LeBron, particularly in the first couple of years of their partnership in Miami. But Wade, who was 32 during LeBron’s final year there, often played hurt during LeBron’s time with the Heat. On the whole, we could call Pippen/Wade a wash, but Wade always seemed diminished by the time the playoffs rolled around.

As for Bosh, reputation aside, he’s simply not the player Horace Grant was and, by the time of the Bulls’ second three-peat, when Rodman replaced Grant alongside Pippen and MJ, the comparison becomes a joke. Rodman is an all-time great. Bosh, who seems like a really nice guy, isn’t close.

As for this year, LeBron’s Big Three has been reduced to a Big 1.5. Kevin Love played four playoff games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Kyrie Irving is more or less playing on one leg and missed two of the four games in the just-completed conference championship.

This isn’t dispositive. There are plenty of other factors to consider, including the fact that the Cavs had the good fortune this year of playing a depleted Bulls team and then an eventually decimated Hawks team. There’s more to the teams in question than the three players I’ve mentioned. And Michael’s six rings are a mighty powerful trump card to play. But despite the degree to which one player can influence a basketball game, teammates matter. MJ was the MVP in six NBA finals, but he had the good fortune of playing with awesome running mates. Overall, LeBron has not had the same luxury.

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2 comments

  1. I am constantly amazed at how little respect Jordan’s teammates receive and how little attention is paid to the fact that they were in an expansion cycle (numerous new teams soaking up the talent for years on end). This team only lost 2 additional games when Jordan quit in his prime and would have been in the ECF if not for some pretty bad ref calls. That is a stacked team. Lebron’s teams on the other hand haven’t fared so well when he left. Cleveland had the single largest drops in wins in league history and the Heat went from four straight finals to missing the playoffs. Lebron however is back in the finals. It is strange that he gets punished for taking teams farther than they should go.

    1. Jon,

      Good point about the expansion cycle. Relatedly, it’s funny how much people talk about a “watered down” NBA today, which is just nonsense, especially when you consider the flood of international talent that has come into the league in the past 15 years. And as you say, LeBron’s former teams simply collapsed when he left.

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