LeBron James and the Michael Jordan Question

King James had a rough Finals, wearing down during the fourth quarter on a game-by-game basis. LeBron has since been called out for his passive play… but another possibility is that he was just worn down. In fact, he got asked to play more minutes this year than MJ did in his prime.

Michael Jordan NBA Finals

 

In the wake of the Bulls’ loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Scottie Pippen famously said that LeBron is better than Jordan. After an immediate backlash, he clarified his statement to make more sense: that LeBron has the physical gifts and basketball instincts—the potential—to be better than Jordan.

What’s missing seemed evident when James, whose clutch shooting is still unreliable, got the ball in the corner as Game Five was in the balance. Guarded by Jason Kidd, a former lockdown defender whose quickness has been eroded by age and microfracture surgery, James pulled up for a long jump shot, and missed. As Bill Simmons put it:

Dallas made a key adjustment in Game 4, sticking Shawn Marion on Wade and Kidd on LeBron — with the implication being, “We can do this because LeBron won’t make us pay by taking Kidd down low and torching him” — and it worked like a charm. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, they mixed it up by throwing a zone at Miami, hoping LeBron would get confused, stand around, avoid long 3s, and stop moving. That worked, too. To repeat: The Mavericks built their defensive strategy around LeBron’s limitations and predictabilities.

By the time Game Six reached a similar point and it seemed Dwyane Wade was off his game, I thought: they’re going to lose this game by 20 points. They only lost by 10, but there was a pallor to the team, and they ended up trapped in that awkward place between giving up and forcing the Mavericks to the free-throw line. A lot of people don’t like how NBA games grind to a slow finish with one desperate foul after another, but it turns out it’s much less depressing than the alternative.

That was the story of the Finals for James, as many people noticed. Joe Posnanski:

That’s why the sequence with four minutes left will stay with me for a long time. Miami needed a basket of course — being down eight with four minutes left is not life-threatening in the NBA, as we have seen time and again, but it is not ideal, either. Anyway, as much as the points, Miami needed a game-changing moment. LeBron James is breathtakingly good at making such moments.

Here’s what LeBron James did instead: He stood outside the arc, about 25 feet away from the basket. He did not move. And the two times the ball was passed to him, he passed it away instantly … as if playing hot-potato.

Zach Lowe:

Focus on James, and you see a drifter, someone in that horrible in-between place where he slides off his man as if to help elsewhere but doesn’t actually help at all. He turned to watch, and he reached a few times, but he rarely helped as actively as he does when he is creating havoc everywhere.

Lowe is discussing Game Six, but you can see a similar theme in the Mavericks’ heroic Game Two comeback. On three critical plays—Jason Kidd’s three-pointer, Shawn Marion’s drive, and Dirk Nowitzki’s game-winning shot—James’s positioning is just off. In the latter two examples, he gets stuck in that “horrible in-between place,” just a step too slow on the help.

“Passivity” is a word that keeps springing up, the opposite of what defined Jordan for my generation:

If, at some point, the offense fizzles or the chemistry just won’t come, then Jordan decides to take things into his own hands. His efforts, at these times, take on the crazed determination of a man trying to halt an avalanche; for anyone who remembers Walter Payton struggling with bad Bears teams a decade ago, these moments are all too familiar.

It doesn’t bode well, but I try to keep in mind two things about James.

First, he dragged a series of otherwise atrocious Cleveland teams far into the playoffs year in and year out, despite the organization’s inability to surround him with effective teammates, and turned in an astounding performance in 2008-2009, arguably one of the best ever. (And it’s also worth noting that, for all the talk of the Big Three, the Heat’s starting point guard for the first couple games of the Finals was the aging, ineffective Mike Bibby, who, depending on how much stock you put in advanced metrics like player efficiency rating, may have had one of the worst playoff performances of all time.)

Second, as Jeff Fogle of HoopData points out, LeBron James played a lot during the playoffs. More than Jordan in his prime. That’s right: for the Heat, who paired him with one of the best players in the NBA, LeBron James averaged more minutes than Jordan did, by three or four minutes per game.

Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you look at it over the course of this year’s playoffs, the numbers look more significant:

LeBron James: 21 games, 923 minutes, 44 mpg

Dwayne Wade: 21 games, 824 minutes, 39 mpg

Dirk Nowitzki: 21 games, 824 minutes, 39 mpg

That’s 100 minutes: nine percent more than Wade and Nowitzki, or roughly two and a half games more playing time over the course of the playoffs. By comparison, James averaged 41 minutes per game in last year’s playoffs, on a team with much less talent to safely give him a breather.

And as Fogle points out, there’s circumstantial evidence of fatigue: a substantial drop in free throws (a player is less likely to get to the basket if he’s tired), a drop in usage rate, poor outside shooting (because the legs are weak). And if fatigue is going to kick in, it’s most likely going to be at the end of games at the end of the playoffs—the fourth quarter of the Finals, where James famously faded.

Maybe LeBron doesn’t have the killer attitude that Jordan had, the chip MJ carried throughout his career and still seems to:

Also, let it be said that the comparison of LeBron with Michael Jordan makes one think again about all the people who mocked Jordan, at the time of his Hall of Fame induction speech, for his brand of competitiveness—he was still mad at a high school coach who didn’t start him!—when that kind of competitive is what you need to be Michael Jordan.

It’s a possibility. But another one, quite simply, is this: he was tired.

Either way, it’s more compelling than the alternative. People seem glad the Heat lost, and I am too, but less for schadenfreude than drama. If the Heat were a juggernaut steamrolling the NBA, the next few years would look pretty boring. Instead, we have another year of a supergroup trying to escape the fate of all supergroups (maybe someone should have slipped LeBron a Traveling Wilburys CD while the Big Three were being assembled)… and an organically-grown hometown team on the rise as their toughest competition.


Related: a great post suggesting that the Mavericks had one of the great clutch lineups in history. Throughout the playoffs I kept trying to figure out why the Mavs are good. Seriously: they have one star, three past-their-prime vets, and a handful of role players. Out of the whole team, Nowitzki would crack the Bulls’ starting lineup, probably Jason Terry… and that’s it. But that post makes a compelling argument that the Mavs, in particular Nowitzki, Kidd, Terry, Marion, and (surprisingly) Tyson Chandler are just really good when it counts.

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