Michael Jordan never had to take the road without his best two teammates and beat a team that was 47-3 at home. LeBron James’ ability to do that last night, and his history of improving teams more than Jordan, forces the comparison.
Sunday LeBron took the court with just one other top-16 draft pick in Tristan Thompson, and took an incredible road win against one of only seven teams to ever lose two or fewer home games in a season.
Jordan’s first three title teams included five players drafted in the top 10: Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Stacey King, and Horace Grant. His second three title teams included five top 16 picks plus one of the greatest rebounders ever (Dennis Rodman) and shooters (Steve Kerr).
TV Commentator Kenny Smith thought before the game that the Cavs injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love stacked the deck so heavily against LeBron that he would need 40 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists for the Cavs to win. Lebron did that almost exactly with 39, 16, 11. But he played even better than his numbers.
“If LeBron is at his best, it makes it difficult to guard other people,” Smith said after the game. “That is the greatest thing about him…. I have not seen any other MVP do more with less.”
Some try to disqualify LeBron from the comparison any time he misses a last-second shot, apparently forgetting that Jordan missed game-winning shots, too. To refresh memories, we quote none other than Michael Jordan on the dozens of game-winning shots he missed:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed,” Jordan said.
Jordan was credited for being so good he gave players such as Steve Kerr a chance to win games. LeBron topped that tonight. He was good enough to let an undrafted player like Matthew Dellavedova win a game.
With LeBron overcoming a bigger mismatch than Jordan ever did tonight, it is time to start comparing the two again and seriously looking at who truly had a bigger impact on his team.
Both came to the league with terrible teams:
1. His first seasons LeBron improved the Cavs by 18 games while Jordan improved the Bulls by 11.
2. It took Jordan four years and Scottie Pippin’s arrival before he won a single playoff series. By his fourth year LeBron had improved the Cavs from 17 wins to the NBA Finals.
|Before and After||w/LeBron||No LeBron||Difference|
|Cavs 2003 vs 2004||35||17||18|
|Cavs 2010 vs 2011||61||19||42|
|Heat 2010 vs. 2001||58||47||11|
|Cavs 2014 vs. 2015||53||33||20|
|Heat 2014 vs. 2015||54||37||17|
Jordan’s is a little more complicated because the 1999 season after he retired from the Bulls was a strike year in which the Bulls were on pace for just 21 wins based on the partial 13-37 record. Also, Jordan played part of the 1995 season, so we threw that out.
|Before and After||w/Jordan||No Jordan||Difference|
|Bulls 1984 vs 1985||38||27||11|
|Bulls 1993 vs 1994||57||55||2|
|Bulls 1994 vs 1996||72||55||17|
|Bulls 1998 vs. 1999 (pror)||62||21||41|
|Wizards 2001 vs 2002||37||19||18|
Golden State still has a tremendous edge on the court, and remains the favorite to win the series. However, the fact that LeBron James could go into overtime in back-to-back games in one of the seven toughest places to play ever, much less winning Game 2 with a group of players that are nowhere near even making the playoffs without him, forces the comparison once again.
For those who say the argument ends with Jordan’s six titles, the only logical conclusion to saying titles are all that matter is that Bill Russell is the greatest player ever with almost twice as many as Jordan.
According to the all-time Elo player ratings, Jordan made the Finals six of the 10 seasons he had a top-10 all-time teammate in Scottie Pippin. In three of those years he had an all-time top 50 teammate as well in Dennis Rodman. LeBron made the Finals every year he had a top-20 teammate in Dwyane Wade even though he never had a top-50 all-time player to go along with that.
So Jordan won the title 60% of the time he had a top-10 teammate and James won the title 50% of the time he had a top-20 teammate. The argument for LeBron is that he made the Finals every season he had a top 20 teammate while Jordan did not. LeBron has now also made the Finals twice without a teammate anywhere near the top players of all-time and Jordan never did.
There are certainly plenty of arguments that Jordan remains the greatest ever. But the mere comparison cannot be scoffed at anymore.