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.

27 comments:

Kyle said...

This was a very insightful and well-written post. I'm glad Henry @ TrueHoop picked it up. Given his mythic status, people don't often give serious thought to those who surrounded MJ, on and off the court. In this respect, the difference between him and LeBron is staggering. LeBron clearly wants to be the next Jordan, but he navigates his career as if unaware that it was more than supreme talent that made Jordan who he was. Again, excellent post!

Chris said...

I think your analysis is partially misguided. For LeBron to succeed like Mike, his agent, commercial director, shoes and products he endorsed don't matter much at all. Bringing up all that stuff is just noise. Coach matters some, but ultimately it is LeBron's skills, and his team mates that are going to bring him a championship. To tell you the truth I don't know which he's further from getting, Mike's complete game or reliably good team mates.

Krolik1157 said...

I wasn't saying that his agent and stuff effects his championship chances, just that it's interesting how Jordan's Midas Touch carried over to off-court issues; LeBron's off-court help is very, very good, which is different from the story with his on-court help, but I couldn't help but mention just how much MJ was surrounded by greatness.

Anonymous said...

"off of", "outside of"...how many double prepositions does this "article" need?

Dre *SuperStar* Baldwin said...

great post, good insight.

on note: dennis rodman was far from a"failed experiment" in detroit or san santonio. he was an all star and defensive POY in detroit (and started for 2 title teams), and led the league in rebounding by a wide margin san atonio. of course, you made this point to make jordan's accomplishments seem greater than they were. rodman did the same in chicago that he had been doin his whole career.

Krolik1157 said...

What did the Bulls have to give up to get Rodman? Jack. Despite his production, Rodman's attitude had become such a problem that San Antonio had a fire sale on him. While "failed experiment" was probably too strong of a term, Rodman fitting with the Bulls was far from a sure thing. And I'll use as many double prepositions as I damn well please.

Jeff said...

I must say the biggest thing standing in the way of Lebron and greatness is his team mates. hes gonna need the guy that he knows he can count on to come though in the clutch when hes getting drown in a double team. He has no such guy. The guy is only 22 years old, the bulls with jordan when he was 22, barely pushing 40 wins. it took JO 6 years to get his first ring(one season with a broken foot), and he had one of the best coaches ever and a college perdegree from NC and Dean Smith, he already knew what to expect in a big presure game and the ice was already in his veins and the killer instinct instilled in his brain. Lebron has improved his game by leaps and bounds over 4 years, right outa high school, which 9 times outa 10 eaquals bust, and he is taking it upon him self to carry his team late in games, instead of looking to a pass first aproach as he did his first couple of years, out of nessicity. Lebrons game will mature more when he relizes the fact that it doesnt matter how many points you score if you let the man your guarding go for about the same, and his defence will improve acourdingly, look at Kobe, much improved defender over the last few years. The cavaliers need to build a team around lebron, and unfortunatly that his a hard thing to do when you are not getting middle to high first round draft picks. Teams that are rebuilding and turn the corner to fast have a tough time with hitting their ceiling to soon, which unfortunately may be the case here. The only way they can offset this is spend the money, which they already did on poor supporting players, further accented, as Henry mentions, by poor coaching and an anemic offensive system. Ok im rambling, so ill leave you with this, Lebron is not the problem its the situation he was placed that is. Lebron to the celtics!!!

daduke said...

it's so easy to compare Lebron after Year 4 with the totality of MJ's career. We have no idea what Lebron will do. We also have no idea what kind of teammates he will have in the next couple years.

I mean, what was Jordan's roster-mates in his first 5 years? Dave Corzine? Kelly Tripuka? Craig Hodges?

Who were his coaches? Doug Collins?

The cavs will have 25 million in expiring contracts next year. Remember, the year where there will be a good amount of free agents and/or other stars to bring in.

So please end this short-sighted and uneven argument.

The Cavs were in the Finals last year and they were one of the best defensive and rebounding teams. That is a phenomenal foundation from where to build on.

Yes Jordan was the best. Lebron in his way will be one of the 10 best players ever. We are lucky to watch another great one in our midst. Let's enjoy it!

Krolik1157 said...

As I said at the end of the article, it took several years for Jordan to find his supporting cast, but just because he was lucky enough to get the help he did does not necessarily mean that LeBron will enjoy the same fate, nor does it mean he won't. Next time you want to criticize me, you might want to try doing it with something I didn't write.

daduke said...

wow, after trashing the cavs for 12 paragraphs, you decided to throw in a the cheap "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...". Sorry, that doesn't cut it.

What you should have done is a year by year or up to year 4 comparison of the two. Who were their supporting casts and coaches at that point? What had they done in the playoffs to that point?

That would be a different posting.

Your article was slanted and that is what I was referring to.

But ok, the Spike commercials are better...you win ;)

Drew said...

I enjoyed this post very much.

I appreciate your willingness to respond to people who write unnecessary criticisms of your post and then leave the comment anonymous. I thought you did a tremendous job of making it clear you were posing these thoughts in an unbiased manner and showed that clearly in your concluding paragraph.

It certainly will be interesting to see how LeBron's legacy pans out.

Kevin said...

I have a problem with the fact that Dennis Rodman is referred to as a 'failed experiment'. That is a grossly inaccurate statement. The guy is a nut, true, and had attitude issues but was the best at what he did, hands down. He was a defensive and rebounding machine and had the ability to get inside his opponents head and throw them off their game like Michael and Larry Bird (to name a few). Look at what he did to a Hall of Famer like Karl Malone in the finals.

Nike was hardly a 'little-known' company either. In 1980 (a full four years prior to the Bulls drafting Michael Jordan and five years before the first Air Jordan's were produced) they owned a 50% market share in American athletic shoe market.

Generally speaking people need to stop with the whole 'Next Michael Jordan' comparisons. There will be no next Michael Jordan, ever. He completely revolutionized the game on a level that maybe only Wilt did before him. He changed the way the game is played. Countless current players in the league modeled their game after Michael (it is almost creepy for me to watch Kobe at times because you can see MJ's game so clearly).

It is also worth noting that the second Threepeat was a vastly different team than the group that won in from '91 to '93. Look at what happened to Horace Grant when he went to Orlando or Toni Kukoc in Philly/Milwaukee. They did not have anywhere near the success they did in Chicago with MJ. It was more Mike making his teammates better and getting the best out of them than the fact that a great supporting cast was assembled around him.

Like the statue outside the stadium says, "The best there ever was, the best there ever will be."

Chris said...

kevin, your comment is pretty much on point, except for you part on Horace. Ho's stats remained very strong his first few years in Orlando. Pretty comparable to his production along side MJ.

Jeff, most of the analysis I've read has Kobe's D slacking off the last few years partially on account of him carrying them on O.

In the end, MJ and the Bulls provide a nice blueprint for the Cavs on building a champion around a 2 (or 3). It should be interesting to watch them try and do it while using those old bulls teams as a reference point.

Eden said...

the only thing a top tier agent can really help with is exposure, which lebron already has plenty of. but spot on about the coaching problems for lebron. mike brown is a great defensive coach, but the man literally has one play on offense. to me, that was the most frustrating thing to watch during the finals - the cavs running that play over and over and getting destroyed by the spurs defense. as evidenced by the finals, the cavs got to the big stage on lebrons talent, and mike browns defense. in order to get near the same level as jordan, he will definitely need better players on his team as well as a coaching staff that doesnt have a problem trying to find plays for the most physically gifted player in the nba

Osa said...

...here my problem with this entire 'debate' regarding lebron james 'being the next michael jordan':

can we come to the most logical understanding that no two players in any sports are the same...? while everyone wants to drone on and on and on about how great jordan is/was/will-always-be, these same minds suffer from memory problems in realising that jordan struggled under an original team blueprint that didn't have the coaching personnel and the player personnel:

that jordan would have 'struggled' a la like allen iverson did in philadephia if he didn't have the change in coaching and player personnel...but still, people are always crowing and crowing on and on about how great michael jordan was without bothering to look at the circumstances surrounding jordan in terms of the players that elevated jordan during the championship runs made by the bulls.

also - remember that the nba during the 'jordan era' was based upon team playing and not individual stars and stats. what has to be considered that no player dominates without a team and coaching staff and upper management consumed with the intent and desire to win. ask wayne gretsky - his edmonton oilers dominated because he was surrounded with great players and a great coaching staff that led to the oilers domination of the nhl.

when gretsky was shipped to the la kings - his productivity on the ice was seriously diminished as he was not surrounded by the players that elevated his game on the ice.....

ask larry bird: ask kareem abdul jabbar: ask magic johnson.....and ask steve nash (his phoenix suns are the closest team that plays on the level that chicago/boston/los angeles of the 'jordan era' played on consistently night after night, season after season....

jordan was a very good player who played a very great team. as far as lebron james - he's not 'the next michael jordan'...but his skills and his development as a player in the nba will be partially determined by whether or not the cavs' management can surround him with the great team that will elevate this very unique player.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/ most everyone that this was a good post and it was good to remember some of those commercials. I agree w/ the failed experiment on rodman in san antonio. stats are one thing but stats can also be very misleading. he had become a cancer at that time and really need to be put in check. what made jordan so great was he was respected by everyone, but also the most competive and one of the most cut throat players ever. he set the bar high and made everyone better. he once knocked steve kerr out in a pickup game. Lebron is a physical specimen and yeah he got to finals but he drives me insane just pounding the ball and then shooting a fall away three. i think it will be awhile to he gets back there, if he does. when he gets to the bucket he is tough. lebron played well in FIBA championships but he was always the second best player on the floor talent wise behind melo. let me know when you could have said that about mj!

only anonymous because i dont have an account..

josh from indy

Anonymous said...

Jordan is Jordan and Lebron is not Jordan.he.he.he They're both great but MJ had a great accomplishments already while Lebron just starting to show the world what he can do. Back here in my country MJ makes NBA popular. But now that he no longer plays, many lost their interest. It's really different during his era, basketball is very exciting down to the last second. I know there's a lot of talented players now like Lebron but the intensity and excitements that MJ brings is unparalleled.

John said...

Ya, LeBron was only "the 2nd best player" because he chose to be, Carmelo never has that kind of production out in Denver, LeBron, Kobe, Kidd, any one of the guys on that team could have had the kind of stats that 'Melo had, only difference is that 'Melo is a stat hound and doesn't care about playing as a team like the other guys. I remember in the rookie-sophmore games he was always shooting and driving and his teammates were always setting him up and he ended up with like 10-15 more points than everybody else because he just never passes the ball...Carmelo is not a better player, he just shoots more which leads to more points and highlights, but how are those assists coming along?

kris said...

Lebron wont pass the greatness of MJ no matter how good or how bad are his teammates coz MJ is the best player ever!!!!enough said

Tom said...

I like the approach - but I think the analysis of the Cavs is off. First point I have to make is to the anonymous poster who said that LeBron was always the 2nd best FIBA player on the court this year - "when could you say that about michael" was his ending. If you actually watched the old dream team, Jordan didn't play very Jordan-like. Obviously no one cared since they destroyed every team, but don't just say nonsense. Also, LeBron James was without any shadow of a doubt the best FIBA player this summer. He led TEAM USA in assists, and shot an absolutely insane FG%. Let's put it this way - he was hitting 3 pointers at a higher percentage than Melo or Kobe were hitting 2 pointers. When Melo missed a game because he hurt himself dunking - LeBron carried the team by NOT MISSING A SHOT the entire game. He would have slaughtered the single game FIBA scoring record (which he now holds for his magnificent Gold Medal game performance) but Coach K benched him for the entire second half. Don't spout off nonsense. Ok my next post will be about the misleading Cavs analysis.

Tom said...

It's easy to arrive at a very negative impression of the Cavs management/coaching etc. I'm going to ask you to step back and acknowledge a few truths:

1.) The Cavs were the worst franchise in the NBA when they drafted LeBron James.
2.) Since his drafting, they've had numerous coaches, players, GMS, owners, and uniforms. Suffice to say, there hasn't been much stability until the last 2 years (where they made the playoffs both times)
3.) In the 2004-2005 season the Cavs were by far and away the worst perimeter defensive team on the planet. They couldn't guard a briefcase if a filing cabinet happened to set a pick for it. Compare that with 2006-2007 where the Cavs are easily one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the league at perimeter defense and transition defense.
4.) The Cavs style of play leads to a less explosive offense due to their choice of playing very conservatively on defense. They don't play the passing lanes, they don't make greedy outlet passes in transition. Because of these things among others, they are good at limiting turnovers, rebounding, and playing solid D. LeBron James is a part of this equation as he has definitely "bought into" the Mike Brown school of defense, and despite various claims that he's not that great of an on-ball defender, if you watch closely you will see he has improved leaps and bounds over the past year and is not a premier man-on-man defender and explosive help-side defender.

Ok, now that we've laid the groundwork - you need to understand that the Cavs style of play may not be pleasing to a common fan, but it doesn't mean everyone is clueless and sucks. Sasha Pavlovic is a turnover waiting to happen but he has also developed into a premier defender. Don't believe me? Watch how Vince Carter TORCHED the Raptors before shooting the rock at a 30% clip for the Cavs/Nets series. Anderson Varajeo is also a raw player but he is improving every year and is a great rebounder/weak side defender. He led the league in charges taken last year and in spite of many claims - he's not as much of a "flopper" as he is good at getting his feet into position and receiving contact in the right spot. NBA refs are no fools - they're not going to give a 22 year old crazy looking brazilian the benefit of calls - unless he deserves them. Drew Gooden has mental lapse but shoots the ball extremely well for his size when he is put into a position to score. The Cavs run ZERO plays for him at this point so he gets lost in the offense quite often. Look for that to change. Z is big and slow and only matches up well against certain teams but he is not have a "bad" contract if you look at his production. The Cavs future for this year is in Boobie Gibson, Pavlovic, Varajeo, and to an extent, Shannon Brown along with LeBron's improvement. They key is that they won last year with defense and rebounding and since (thank God) they didn't do that stupid trade for Bibby they are still going to be very strong in those areas. They have a new assistant coach and finally some continuity at all the management spots. They will continue to improve and will probably address their point guard deficiency by the trade deadline when they might not have to give up tons of assets to land a player that wants out of a losing situation. To act like the Cavs are a 1-man show is unintelligent (although understandable after watching the end of Game 5). I would definitely agree that LeBron does not have nearly the offensive weapons at his disposal that Jordan had, but he has a solid group of guys that believe in team play and play with class, heart, and defensive intensity. The Cavs don't need to press the panic button (like everyone in the media wants). They need to continue to build around their promising youth and make shrewd moves when the time is right - the fact that they are waiting on Pavs/Andy right now is so that they DON'T make another panicky Larry Hughes/Damon Jones like move. As one of the other readers posted, the Cavs will have lots of cap space next year and will be able to usher out Hughes/Marshall/Jones as they are ushering in the Boobie Gibson/LeBron James era along with a proven playmaker at point. At THAT point, they will simply be adding to an already defensively sound team and will be the team NOBODY wants to play.

And just to make this post longer - It is highly unlikely LeBron will be leaving Cleveland anytime soon. Regardless of his 5 mil Nike kicker the NBA salary cap rules pretty much make it impossible for any other team to offer LeBron a deal that the Cavs can't exceed by way more than 5 million. Add to the fact that he just built a 40 million dollar house and the Cavs just built a 25 million dollar practice facility a stones throw from his house and I don't think LeBron's leaving - especially not if he wants to be as rich as he claims. So everyone just CALM THE HELL DOWN. :)

Anonymous said...

I just have one thing to say... Lebron has to be better than Kobe before he can even be smelling MJ's socks.

Anonymous said...

hey tom its not nonsense to say that melo has more talent than lebron..he shoots better, handles the rock better, gets to the bucket better outside of a fastbreak. lebron may be more unselfish but somebody has to do the scoring. and i didnt say anything about stats and lebron's once in a blue moon shooting game...he lead them assists? who do you think was banging home those jumpers...melo has more tools and a more fluid game than lebron..period...u dont have to like him to appreciate the skills he has

Anonymous said...

look i agree this is very insightful and well written blah blah blah, but Lebron is not the next Jordan. I think that Dwyane Wade is. Wade is doing his thing. he didn't go for nike, he went for Converse. he is making himself unique unlike lebron who wants to be like jordan. Lebron tries to hard, Wade is doing it without realizing it.

daduke said...

To anonymous, you think that Melo is better than Lebron? LMAO!!

See, I really like Melo and there are a couple things he does better. He has a better J and Post Moves.

But did I read that you think he gets to the rim better??? You must not watch basketball for Lebron is the best in the league at getting to the rim and finishing. See his leading the league in And 1's.

He is also one of the best passers in the league and probably the best non-point guard at that skill.

So you think that his assist stats don't count because he would shoot an amazing pass to Melo for a wide open j? Does that mean that Kidd's assists dont count because Lebron would finish his passes on the break? Faulty reasoning on your part.

Lebron is a new breed while Melo is the next Bernard King. And hey, I loved Bernard King!

Also, thank you Tom for that insightful analysis. It was needed on this thread.

Anonymous said...

didnt say that his assists dont count. my point was offensive talent. melo has more skills that u would in your prime scoring. shoots better, handles it better, better post moves and rebounds better. of these four guys to take and make the game winning shot, you tell me where the great lebron ranks...wade,kobe,melo,lebron...he finishes at the bottom of my list..probably at the top to pass it someone else though...he is a gifted freak of nature and a tough matchup for anyone...he is and will be a great player for many years come...tom you must be from cleveland? thanks for the insight..glad you finally had something to cheer about..its been awhile in cleveland

John said...

Ummm carmelo is a better ball handler? You ARE aware LeBron can play all 5 positions, and be in probably the top 10 in every one right? He handles the ball better than half the PGs in the league!! Hell the only reason he's not a PG on his team is so they have soemthing to do w/ Eric Snow!