Moments after his team was eliminated from the playoffs by LeBron James and the Miami Heat for the third straight postseason, Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel had strong comments at his postgame presser:
“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row. But we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era.”
If you think like most, then you likely dismissed Vogel’s comments as laughable.
Comparing James to Michael Jordan? Comparing anyone to Michael Jordan? To Michael Jeffrey Jordan? No way, no how.
Jordan, conventional wisdom says, is untouchable. Six for six in NBA Finals, with six Finals MVPs to show for it. Not only that, but he was also a five-time league MVP and quite possibly the best fourth quarter performer the game has ever seen.
Jordan was and forever will be the greatest basketball player of all time. End of argument, end of story.
Well, not so fast.
To me, Vogel’s comments had real validity — LeBron IS the Jordan of this era.
And I’ll even take it a step further: If LeBron can lead THIS Heat team past THIS San Antonio Spurs team for a second straight year in the Finals and if he can thus capture a third straight championship, then I believe he will put himself in perfect position to eventually pass Michael Jordan as the greatest of all time.
Yes, I said it. Let it sink in. Call me crazy, call me foolish, call me whatever you’d like. But, when you take the time to actually compare the two, the statement suddenly becomes not-so-crazy and not-so-foolish.
At age 29, LeBron has a little more of everything — he has more NBA Finals appearances (five to Jordan’s two), he has more league MVPs (four to Jordan’s three), and he might soon have more championships (three to two) — than Jordan had by age 29.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. LeBron has consistently accomplished his major feats in the NBA at a quicker pace than Jordan accomplished his.
In 2007 — at just 22 years old — James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, a Cavaliers team that featured a starting lineup of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas alongside LeBron.
The ‘07 Cavs were, by many accounts, the worst team to ever make the NBA Finals.
Jordan at 22 years old, meanwhile, was busy getting ousted in the first round after a 38-44 regular season with a Chicago Bulls team that, with Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey, was a little more talented than the 2007 Cavaliers.
In fact, it took Jordan until he was 25 to win his first playoff series. At age 25 LeBron had already won seven playoff series. And, by the time James left Cleveland via free agency in 2010, he had won eight playoff series and had led the Cavaliers to four 45-plus win seasons (including a 66-win season and a 61-win season).
I, for one, consider what LeBron James accomplished in Cleveland to be almost as impressive as what he has accomplished and continues to accomplish in Miami.
Over the course of seven seasons with the Cavaliers, the most assistance provided to LeBron was Mo Williams and a broken-down Shaquille O’neal. James never had a Scottie Pippen or a Dennis Rodman; he had LeBron, LBJ, King James, and The Chosen One.
Forget the Cavaliers, LeBron’s Cleveland teams should have been nicknamed James and the 14 Dwarfs. Just how much of the load did he carry? When he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, the Cavaliers dropped from an NBA-best 61 wins in 2009-10 to an Eastern Conference-worst 19 wins in 2010-11.
Could Jordan have had the same level of success with the same talentless Cavaliers teams that LeBron had? I seriously doubt it. Remember, when Jordan retired from the NBA after Chicago’s first three-peat, the Bulls hardly skipped a beat — they won 55 games (after winning 57 the previous year) and, if it weren’t for Hue Hollins’ horrendous foul call on Scottie Pippen in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they might have won the 1994 NBA Finals. That doesn’t quite speak to Jordan’s value, especially not to the degree that the 2010-11 Cavaliers spoke to LeBron’s value.
It’s why leaving Cleveland — something his detractors point to as evidence he can’t be compared to Jordan — was the only decision LeBron could make. He couldn’t stay with the Cavaliers, not unless he was willing to accept playing his entire prime with players like Mo Williams and Ilgauskas as the Robins to his Batman. James was talented enough to take the Cavaliers to the playoffs season after season and win 60-plus games season after season, but the lack of a second star was always going to be the team’s downfall in the postseason, where you need a second star to seriously compete for a title.
Jordan didn’t have those issues. He was drafted into one of the league’s very best organizations and into one of America’s very best cities. He was eventually given Scottie Pippen and he was given Horace Grant and he was given Dennis Rodman and he was given the greatest head coach of all time, the Zen Master, Phil Jackson.
LeBron was never going to receive those type of luxuries in Cleveland. Bolting for Miami, for South Beach, was the best decision he ever made.
Of course, throughout his career, the even bigger knock on LeBron has been his inability to perform in the clutch at a Jordan-like level. To some degree, that critique has had validity: if your memory doesn’t serve, simply revisit the 2011 NBA Finals and his collapse in that series or re-watch his disappearance in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But, for the most part, it’s a misconception — LeBron is clutch and he’s clutch when it matters most, as proven by his playoff track record:
- 2006 Eastern Conference first round: James hit game-winners in both Games 3 and 5 against the Washington Wizards to help send the Heat to the Conference Semifinals and thus win his first-ever playoff series.
- 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5: You remember this one. James scored 48 points — including Cleveland’s final 25 and 29 of the team’s final 30 — to outlast the Detroit Pistons in double overtime and pull the Cavaliers within one win of reaching the NBA Finals, a win they would get in Game 6.
- 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2: In a win-or-fall behind 2-0 Game 2 against the Orlando Magic, the Cavaliers trailed 95-93 with a second left in the fourth quarter before James knocked down the fadeaway, buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer.
- 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4: Trailing by four after three quarters against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, James scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Heat 98, Celtics 90.
- 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 5: With the Celtics and Heat tied at 87 with just over two minutes remaining, LeBron took it upon himself to get his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. He went 4-for-4 from the field (2-for-2 from three) in the final two minutes and 10 seconds, scoring the game’s final 10 points. Heat 97, Celtics 87.
- 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5: With his Heat trailing 77-69, James scored eight points — including the game-tying and game-winning shots — in the final two minutes and six seconds of not only Game 5, but of the Eastern Conference Finals.
- 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4: In a must-win Game 4 (the Heat trailed the Indiana Pacers 2-1 in the series), LeBron had one of the all-time great playoff performances, scoring 40 rebounds, grabbing 18 rebounds, and dishing out nine assists.
- 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6: With the Heat facing a 3-2 series deficit to the Celtics and possible elimination, there was talk prior to Game 6 that Miami’s “Big Three” would be split up if the Heat failed to reach the Finals. LeBron’s 45 points and 15 rebounds saved not only the season, but probably his legacy and the Big Three’s legacy.
- 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1: James converted on the game-winning layup at the buzzer in overtime, earning the Heat a win they desperately needed — it took them seven games to eliminate the Pacers.
- 2013 NBA Finals, Game 6: Trailing by ten after three quarters, James scored 16 points — including what was ultimately the game-winning jumper — in the fourth quarter and overtime. Heat 103, Spurs 100.
- 2013 NBA Finals, Game 7: Up 90-88 with 27 seconds remaining, James hit the second biggest shot of the Finals (after Ray Allen’s three at the end of regulation in Game 6) that gave the Heat a two-possession, four point lead and clinched the game, the series, and the NBA championship.
- 2014 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4: In a back-and-forth decisive Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets, James scored 49 points — including nine in the fourth quarter — to lift the Heat past the Nets and to a 3-1 series lead.
- 2014 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 5: After the Heat trailed by nine entering the fourth quarter, James scored 14 of his 29 points in the final period, leading the Heat to a 96-94 victory and into the Eastern Conference Finals for a fourth straight season.
- 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2: Trailing by four in a must-win Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers, James scored nine points in the final six minutes and 11 seconds. Heat 87, Pacers 83.
That’s quite the postseason resume, and it’s without several other moments and games that I could point out in order to prove the reality of LeBron’s clutch gene. Still, you get the idea: James has proven time and time again in April, May, and June that he rules the playoffs more than any other current NBA player rules the playoffs, just like Jordan did in the 90’s.
But now, over the next two weeks, LeBron James will have his ultimate test. It’s a test that Michael Jordan never had to accomplish in the Finals: to get his third championship and continue on his quest to become the greatest of all time, James has to beat a team that is significantly better than his team.
It’s no secret: the Spurs are better than the Heat. The Spurs have the better head coach, the Spurs are deeper than the Heat (eight or nine Spurs can score vs. five or six Heat players who can score), and, for what it’s worth, the Spurs’ road to the Finals — beating the Mavericks, Blazers, and Thunder in a historically-great Western Conference — was far more impressive than the Heat’s road to the Finals — beating the Bobcats, an old Nets team, and the self-destructive Pacers in a historically-atrocious Eastern Conference.
For the Heat to beat the Spurs four times in the next two weeks, I believe it will require LeBron James to put forth the greatest individual performance in NBA Finals history.
That’s not an exaggeration, either. LeBron is going to have to do this on his own. Unlike in 2012 or even last year, the help for James isn’t there — Chris Bosh has been wildly inconsistent in the playoffs; there’s no Mike Miller to hit seven three-pointers in the clinching game; Ray Allen isn’t as sharp as he was a year ago; and even though he’s playing better than he was last year at this time, Dwyane Wade still isn’t Dwyane Wade.
Personally, I believe the Spurs SHOULD win this series in five or six games. But, I believe the Heat WILL win the series in seven games because I believe LeBron James is going to have four all-time great performances that will earn the Heat four wins.
If he does just that and leads this old, aging roster past a Spurs team I feel is at least on-par with the four Spurs championship teams from the past decade-and-a-half, then I don’t think it’s even debatable.
LeBron James will have officially entered Michael Jordan territory.