NBA Finals 2011: LeBron James' Michael Jordan problem.

NBA Finals 2011: LeBron James' Michael Jordan problem.

NBA Finals 2011: LeBron James' Michael Jordan problem.

The stadium scene.
June 10 2011 11:41 AM

Airless

LeBron James' Michael Jordan problem.

LeBron James of the Miami Heat. Click image to expand.
LeBron James during Game 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals

LeBron James has long had the peculiar ability to make us believe his legacy is about to be determined. In Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, LeBron scored the Cavaliers' last 25 points, willing Cleveland to a double-overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons. It was, according to the Associated Press, "a performance that might end up being a defining game of his career." Last year, just before the Cavs bombed out against the Celtics in the Eastern semis, Bill Simmons wrote that "every career has a tipping point when you have to pour cement on the foundation." And this week, LeBron himself saw his own career hanging in the balance, calling Thursday's game against the Mavericks "the biggest game of my life." The Heat lost, with James scoring just two points in the fourth quarter.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s executive editor.

Why do we keep on believing that we'll see the arc of LeBron James' career just around the next corner? It's all Michael Jordan's fault.

His Airness isn't just the best player in NBA history. He also had the least ambiguous career trajectory—early defeats followed by unending success—of any athlete in the history of pro sports. Yes, LeBron James has (as of yet) not won an NBA title. But the reason his path seems so troubling is that it's been the exact opposite of Jordan-esque—less of an arc than a flat line, one that's missing both Jordan's formative struggles and subsequent triumphs.

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This wouldn't be a problem if LeBron didn't have Jordan's physical talent as well as his gaudy statistics. After James' remarkable conference finals against the Bulls, Scottie Pippen believed that he, too, could see the sweep of LeBron's career. While Jordan was "probably the greatest scorer" in NBA history, MJ's old teammate said, "LeBron James may be the greatest player." With this declaration on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike, Pippen proved two sports-world theorems: 1) players can be just as clueless as fans, and 2) 95 percent of the dumbest things said in America each day are transmitted on AM radio.

Throughout his eight years in the NBA, LeBron James has established repeatedly that he is no Michael Jordan. "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,' " Jordan said last July, in the days after The Decision. LeBron made the 2007 NBA Finals, but the Cavs got swept. Jordan's Bulls never lost a championship series. Dwyane Wade recently screamed at LeBron on the court. Nobody dared raise his voice to Jordan. LeBron scored a pitiful eight points against the Mavericks on Tuesday night. MJ never scored fewer than 22 in a Finals game.

None of these data points will ever change, no matter whether LeBron retires ringless or wins (not five, not six, not seven) eight championships. But the fact that LeBron James—a 26-year-old two-time MVP with career playoff averages of 28 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7 assists—will never be Michael Jordan's equal says a lot less about LeBron than it does about Jordan. Comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan is like measuring Peyton Manning against Chip Hilton, or holding Tim Lincecum to the standard of a pitching machine. LeBron James is a great player. Michael Jordan is a real-life fictional hero.

For sportswriters, an athlete's ideal career path is indistinguishable from the plotting of a young-adult sports novel. Fitting Michael Jordan's bio into this template was surely Matt Christopher's easiest bit of piecework. MJ gets cut from his high school team, gets picked after Sam Bowie in the 1984 draft, and struggles to beat the Bad Boy Pistons. Thanks to a good honest dose of hard work and the healing power of teamwork, he wins championships in his last six full seasons with the Bulls, capping off his career with a championship-winning jumper. (Not pictured: Jordan calling Kwame Brown a "flaming faggot" during his post-retirement tenure with the Washington Wizards. Also, Jordan refusing to pass the ball to any of his Wizards teammates. And Jordan getting fired by Wizards owner Abe Pollin. Actually, just to be safe, it's probably best to tell our children that Michael Jordan never even visited Washington, D.C.)

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LeBron James' basketball life hasn't unspooled as cleanly. Anointed "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated as a high-school junior, he had the audacity to live up to unrealistic expectations. Rather than struggle as a teenage pro, he came into the NBA fully formed, a physically imposing scorer who never needed to be taught the value of making his teammates better. By the age of 22, he'd led a supporting cast of Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, and Daniel Gibson to the cusp of a title. But LeBron never took Cleveland any further, and he chose to leave behind the Daniel Gibsons he'd once known and start over with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

As every sports fan knows, Michael Jordan's storybook career is not a typical one. Sometimes a great player gets drafted by a team that already has the highest-scoring player in NBA history and starts winning championships his rookie year. Sometimes an all-time great only starts winning when he spurns his first team. It's also possible to stay with the same franchise your whole career and never win squat, or to move from team to team in search of a trophy and never come in first. Sometimes you have a bad game. Sometimes you lose.

And yet, Michael Jordan, the ultimate outlier in team sports, has become the bar that every basketball player must leap over. He is the basketball world's infallible older brother—Michael Jordan never would've done that, we say, tut-tutting disapprovingly when some wannabe heir has the audacity to lose a playoff series or to miss a bunch of shots in the fourth quarter.

LeBron's failures on the court and in the television studio will prevent him from supplanting Michael Jordan in basketball fans' hearts and minds. Nevertheless, James will continue to be haunted by Jordan's rise from a callow ball hog to an infallible veteran. It's because of Michael Jordan that we believe LeBron's next series, next game, and next shot will set him on the path he'll walk for the rest of his NBA days. In reality, the Heat could beat the Mavericks this year and never win another championship, or they could lose to Dirk and Dallas and reel off the next eight titles. We'll have to get used to the idea that we'll never know what's coming next, and that there won't be any moral to LeBron James' story. That's because there's never been a story to begin with.