Sunday, September 23, 2007
An Interesting Wrinkle in The LeBron-Jordan comparison
So this week, I decided to re-read David Halberstam's Playing For Keeps, which I couldn't recommend more highly; it's an incredible portrait of Michael Jordan, the best I've read, but more than that it encompasses the Jordan Era in basketball completely; If you read The Rivalry by John Taylor (encompasses the Wilt-Russell era, when the NBA was still a "niche" sport; Wilt scored 100 in a nearly empty arena), The Breaks of the Game by Halberstam (encompasses the NBA's transitional period between the Wilt-Russell era into a new era of Bird/Johnson/ABA integration-led commercialism and popularity), and Playing For Keeps, you'll have a pretty good grasp of the NBA from its beginning to today.
Anyways, one interesting thing that stood out in Halberstam's book was not just that Jordan was the best ever at what he did, but he seemed able to surround himself with people who were the best at what they did to help him on the way.
By the time he reached his prime, Jordan had surrounded himself with the best 2nd banana of all time (Scottie Pippen, whose greatness has been previously discussed here), one of the best rebounding/defense garbage players of all time (Rodman), some of the best 3-point shooters of all time (Paxon and Kerr), and other distinguished role players (Grant, Wennington, B.J. Armstrong, Ron Harper). His coach was the best coach of the modern era, his college coach was Dean Smith, and his assistant coach was one of the best assistant coaches of all time. (Tex Winter, architect of the legendary Triangle Offense.) And his walk-around guy, Charles Oakley, may well be the best walk-around guy of all time.
The effect even carried over to the world outside of basketball. His agent, David Falk, was an absolute genius, and is regarded as a legend among agents for his idea of marketing Jordan as an individual star. (Believe it or not, at the time it was unheard of to design a marketing campaign around someone who played a team sport; when he first unveiled his plan, the executives said "Do you think Michael's a tennis player?") He made ads that still stand out as brilliant works of art, directed by none other than Spike Lee. His shoe was Nike, the king of the sneaker world, and his sneaker is the legendary Air Jordan, the most-demanded sneaker of all time. His trainer, Tim Grover, is still regarded as the best trainer in the world today, and continues to help athletes turn their careers around. Gatorade, the drink he promoted, is still on every sideline. Hell, his biographer is the best nonfiction writer of the last century.
(One debatable aspect of this theory is Michael's GM, Jerry Krause. While most agree that he was something of a savant at finding talent where others wouldn't, and was responsible for the drafting and signing of Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, among other brilliant moves, he was in many ways completely illogical, making nonsensical draft decisions and desperately trying to trade for Keith Van Horn and Michael Olowakandi. Even more, his personality made everyone in the organization bitter, and ultimately led to Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen leaving tread marks on their way out, causing the dynasty to end in a hurry. I can't make a call on this one.)
Compare this to LeBron. His supposed second banana is one of the most consistently disappointing and ineffective players in the game. His role players consist of an extremely inconsistent power forward, a molasses-slow center with a heart of gold, a point guard who can't play offense, a streaky Serbian wingman, and an energy player who acts like the ball is made of lead.
His coach, Mike Brown, is no Phil Jackson, and that's putting it lightly; often times, Mike seems completely and utterly overwhelmed, buried the Cavs' 2nd and 3rd best scorers on the bench most of the year, and makes time-outs and roster decisions that utterly defy any sort of logic. (Look at Game 5 of the Detroit series, where the Cavs didn't have a time-out at the end of the 1st OT because Brown used it for no reason at all a few possessions earlier.)
Instead of Tex Winter's legendary triangle offense, the Cavaliers run the "random offense," where LeBron gets the ball of an ineffective screen-roll and ends up 25 feet away from the hoop with no options. It is generally considered the worst designed offense in the NBA.
Even off of the court, LeBron has confusing bedfellows. Instead of an agent like David Falk, LeBron allows four of his friends from high school to run his affairs. And while I certainly can't say LeBron's personal trainer is doing a bad job (LeBron, already possibly the greatest physical specimen in sport, added another 10 pounds of muscle this off-season, making him an obscene 260 with no loss of explosiveness whatsoever, if the FIBAs are any indication. ) But he has failed to find a shooting coach able to fix his mechanical issues in his shot (the fade and the failure to hold his finish), although he has worked with a coach this off-season, and he shot the ball wonderfully in the FIBA games. His sports drink is Powerade, not Gatorade. (To his credit, LeBron is with Nike, and they've done a wonderful job with him, although the LeBrons have never reached Air Jordan status. And his ads are wonderful, but they're not Spike and Mike.)
(One quick aside: LeBron does have the good fortune of being covered by one of the best beat writers in the NBA, Brian Windhorst, who regularly provides wonderful insight into LeBron's world; I look forward to his book on LeBron, and hold out hope that it will cover the LeBron/Wade/Carmelo era the way the previous books I mentioned covered their respective eras.)
And while Krause's effectiveness is debatable, the Cleveland management's ineffectiveness is not; they allowed Carlos Boozer to leave, gave a max-dollar deal to Larry Hughes, signed Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall to long-term deals, gave away Ricky Davis and Darius Miles in a necessary purge, drafted Luke Jackson over Andris Biedrins, Al Jefferson Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, and Jameer Nelson, and drafted Shannon Brown over Jordan Farmar and Sergio Rodriguez. This off-season, they have failed to make a move, and risk losing Varejao and Pavlovic.
Of course, what must be said in conclusion is that it is entirely possible that Michael made those around him just as much as they made him. Phil Jackson toiled in the CBA before rising to glory with Jordan. David Falk was a young, up-and-coming agent. Scottie was a little-known prospect from Central Arkansas before hooking up with Michael, and Rodman was a failed experiment in Detroit and San Antonio. Nike was a relatively unknown company with nothing to lose, and Spike Lee was a little-known indie director who the Nike execs had noticed by chance in She's Gotta Have It. Nobody knew who Tim Grover was, and even the concept of a personal fitness program was somewhat new. Also, it took Michael several years to find his supporting cast; he toiled alone for the fist phase of his career.
Whether LeBron will find the supporting cast he needs to achieve history or will make his current supporting cast into legend as Jordan did remains to be seen. But for now, the gap between those around LeBron will require him to surpass Michael Jordan's achievements in order to live up to his legend.