This year’s NBA Finals has been exciting to watch. The Warriors were expected to dominate and the opposite has happened since Kyrie Irving went down which has led to another level of pumping up Lebron James by the national media. Lebron is the best player in the NBA right now. He has proven this in this year’s playoffs and, more specifically, in this series. However, let’s tone down the “best player ever” talk and the Jordan comparisons. Please! This is the first time I ever recall a guy shooting 11 for 35 and 14 for 34 in consecutive games and being compared to Michael Jordan because of it. To be clear, the majority of superstar players in the history of the NBA could score 40 points if they took 35 shots in a game. Having said all of that, Lebron has been a great facilitator in this series and he has led his team to two big wins. Cleveland has played great defensively. We’ll see where this series ends up.
This post will be about comparing Lebron to the players he’s being discussed with in historical context. In the past 35 years, the players that are in this debate are Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. Some would argue that Shaq should be included. However, he was not the same type of player as the other four. He was dominant, but in a different type of way than these four players. Putting him in a debate of all time centers would be more interesting. Let’s go with a comparison of these four players for the sake of this debate. Most fans would at least agree that these are the top players of the last 35 years. The disagreements would be with the order of the rankings. This is what makes it fun! In this post, there will be multiple categories which will include Stats, The Eyeball Test, Team Impact, Winning, and Clutch Play to work towards coming to a ranking of the top four.
Before we begin this debate, I’m going to give full disclosure here. I grew up watching Larry Bird play and was a big fan of the Celtics. In addition, I am not a fan of Lebron James. I think he’s overrated, he’s a tough player to root for, and he deserves the criticism he gets because he’s a self centered player. Disagree? Listen to his latest interview where he talks about how his shooting percentage went up for seven consecutive years. I have a lot of respect for both Jordan and Magic. I believe that, along with Bird, they changed the game of basketball for the better and their era was much better than anything we’re seeing today in this sport. This post will give some objective points and will look at this from a different view which is the intent of the blog. Let’s get this debate started!
Many fans will argue that stats don’t always tell you how good a player is. I agree. However, I also believe that stats are definitely part of the analysis and a good baseline for the discussion. Here are the numbers for the four players. These are per game averages for their regular season careers.
Wow! We have some big time numbers to debate here! For starters, here’s a quick analysis. Jordan was clearly the best scorer and Magic was the worst of the four in this category. This just wasn’t Magic’s game. Bird was the best rebounder by far and the other three were all very good rebounders for their position. Magic, being a point guard, wins the assist battle. Bird and Lebron were both elite passers for their positions. Jordan was a step below from a passing standpoint. In terms of shooting, Bird was the best and Lebron is clearly the worst. We don’t really learn much from the steals and blocks. For those national media members who pump up Lebron’s defense, would you have guessed that he had the same exact averages for steals and blocks as Larry Bird? I didn’t think so.
How do we rank these players based on stats? For points, rebounds, and assists, we’re going to give a total number. I know. It’s not perfect. I also know there’s a Player Efficiency Rating stat. I think it’s flawed. This is a good measure if you consider the importance of rebounds and assists in comparison to points. We’ll also subtract the turnover from this score to include assist/turnover ratio. We’ll also give a total shooting score. This is a combination of FG% and FT%. FG% is not a good indicator of shooting ability as many players shoot much closer to the hoop than others. If you include FT%, it gets closer to an indication of shooting ability. The steals and blocks are relatively close for all four players with Magic slightly below the other three. We’ll just add that to the total score.
|Player||Total Score||Shooting Total|
Jordan wins the Total Score. Lebron is second with Bird right there with him. Magic is well below from a stats standpoint as he is almost four full points behind Lebron and Bird. Bird wins the shooting battle with Magic and Jordan next in line. Lebron is last. Given that the Total Score has more weight than just the shooting, the rankings for stats specifically are as follows:
The Eyeball Test
Now that we have the stats debate behind us, we can focus on some of the things that fall outside of just numbers. When a lot of people think about the best players, they often relate it to the most athletic players. For example, in the 1980’s Dominique Wilkins was the perfect example. He was a great dunker and he could score with anyone. However, that was it. He was not a complete player. These four players were all complete players. Jordan and Lebron were the best athletes of the four and they could take over the game with their athleticism. Bird and Magic could take over a game by being one step ahead of everyone else mentally. So how do we measure this? This is for parts of the game that aren’t measured well by stats.
Defensively, Jordan was the best of the four. He was a great one on one defender and could take on the opponents top offensive player. Lebron’s defense is often hyped up and he makes a lot of plays that are on the Sportscenter highlights. However, his overall effort defensively is weak. Watch him play off the ball and see if he helps his teammates. Bird was the complete opposite of Lebron when it came to defense. He was not a very good one on one defender. However, he played great team defense and was always at the right place to help at the right time. He would also be willing to take the charge at all times. Magic was an average player defensively. Here are the defensive rankings.
These four players all made tremendous impacts on their team’s overall success. The question here is what’s the ranking in terms of making the players around them better? They all could take over a game in different ways, but who made their teammates better players?
Let’s start with Jordan. Early in his career, he was viewed as an individual player and not a winning player. It wasn’t until later in his career that he won a championship and before the 1992 season he was viewed as the best player on the planet, but he was not viewed as someone who could make his team better. That all changed as he went on to win six NBA championships. However, when you think about raising the games of his teammates, there aren’t a lot of players that come to mind. Scottie Pippen is a player who definitely benefitted from playing with Jordan. However, who else is there? Grant, Rodman, Paxson, Armstrong… all solid role players, but Jordan didn’t really raise their games. Part of it was he was so good and the competition was relatively weak so he didn’t really need to.
This is a category Bird excelled in. He made his teammates better. Take a look at Robert Parish. He was a solid NBA center for four years with the Warriors, but he never made the All Star Team. When he joined Bird in 1980, he went on to make the All Star Team for seven consecutive years. Parish was suddenly a top five center in the league and benefitted greatly from playing with Bird. The same is true for Kevin McHale. He had some of the best post moves we’ve ever seen, but he got a lot of opportunities right around the basket as a result of Bird’s passing and ability to get other people on the team open. Bird was an unselfish player. He could dominate a game by taking just 12-15 shots and involving his teammates.
Lebron is also very solid in this category. If you’re watching the Warriors series, you can see that the Warriors are the far superior team, but Lebron making his team better by facilitating and setting teammates up for open shots. Lebron is a great passer for a small forward. He also has times where he plays the team game, but not always.
Here’s where we get to the really good stuff with Magic. Did he make Kareem better? Probably not. Kareem was an all-time talent. He made players like Worthy, Scott, A.C. Green, and Michael Cooper better. His game was all about the team. He set his teammates up for easy shots. He was probably the best passer in the history of basketball. As far as superstars go, it could be debated that Magic was the most unselfish player that ever played the game. He did not care about scoring points. He cared about winning first.
Here are the rankings for Team Impact.
Many fans look at winning simply as winning championships. In this debate, there’s more to it than that. We could easily just rate them one through four based on championships won. That would be unfair to both Bird and Magic as they played in an era where the competition was much more difficult. For starters, their teams were both arguably top five teams of all time and they had to play each other in the Finals three times. They also had play very strong Philadelphia and Detroit teams. Jordan didn’t ever play a team like that in the Finals. He did beat Magic’s Lakers in the Finals, but that was not the same elite Lakers team from the 1980’s. The question here is which players had the most impact on winning?
It’s tough to argue against Jordan on this one. He was a fierce competitor who could take over a game like no one we have ever seen and he did this consistently for a very long time. He didn’t win early in his career, but once he figured it out there was no stopping him. Six championships. 6-0 in the NBA Finals. He was not going to lose once he got there.
Bird won three championships and was 3-2 in the NBA Finals. Bird simply did not like to lose. He would literally do anything to win. In his peak, winning was pretty much automatic with Bird. His team made four straight NBA Finals and had the best record in the East for five consecutive years. In the sixth year, he had a season ending injury. The Celtics went from five straight years on being the #1 seed in the East to having a 42-40 record and barely making the playoffs. Bird’s impact on the Celtics success was incredible. Even with McHale, Parish, and Dennis Johnson, they were a .500 team without Larry Bird.
Magic also excels in this category. Five championships and 5-4 in the NBA Finals. Magic had an easier road to the Finals that all four players as the Western Conference was very weak in the 1980’s. Magic knew how to win as a team and not an individual.
Lebron has won two championships and is 2-3 in the NBA Finals. Simply put, he’s not at the same level as the other three when it comes to winning. Granted, he still has a long career ahead of him and he may win more championships. However, do you think Lebron James had the same will to win as the other three players? He quit on his team in his last game with the Cavs in 2010 and there were countless other times he did the same. Lebron is a front runner. When he’s on top, he’s great. When the going gets tough, he is not at the same level as the other three players.
Here are the rankings for Winning Teams.
These four players are very similar in a lot ways. What this really comes down to is which player would you want if you needed to win one game or make one shot at the end of the game? In this regard, Jordan and Bird are above Lebron and Magic. Jordan and Bird demanded the ball in the clutch and there have not been two better players in those situations in the past 35 years. They wanted the ball and they delivered. Magic and Lebron would rather let another player take the last shot. They were not pressure type players like Jordan and Bird. It’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Your team is down by one and there’s two seconds left. Who do you want to take the shot? I’m taking…
OK. That’s a lot of analysis so it ends there. It’s time to add up the totals for all categories. A first place rank gets one point and so on. The lowest score is first and so on.
1. Jordan – 9
2. Bird – 12
3. Magic – 14
4. Lebron – 15
The numbers are closer than I would have originally expected. However, this is exactly how I would rank these players. The last category of clutch play means a lot. Let’s please end the Jordan/Lebron debate, folks. Lebron is not at that level. “The King” is Michael Jordan.
Who are your Top Four?