The Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler scored 52 points on Monday, becoming just the first Bull to run his way over the 50-point mark twice in a game since Michael Jordan’s retirement from the franchise in 1998. Butler is as close to Jordan as anything the Bulls have had to MJ since MJ was pushed out of Chicago in 1998, including 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, but we were all reminded of Jordan’s prominence on this particular stage when noticing that Butler’s career featured a pair of 50-point games, in comparison with Jordan’s stock of 30.
Outside of Chicago, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James remains the closest thing anyone has seen to Jordan since the six-time champ left the Washington Wizards in 2003, as anyone still trying to push Kobe Bryant for this style of comparison probably thinks that NBA teams get possession of the ball back after each score. James’ Cavaliers take on the Bulls in Cleveland on Wednesday evening, with the 2016 champs looking to keep the well-heeled yet mediocre Bulls at arm’s length. With this in place, James recently submitted to a thoughtful look at the comparisons that will forever stick between the pair.
Via Kurt Helin at Pro Basketball Talk, from the Cavaliers’ website:
“He was much more of a scorer. He did a lot of post work at that point in time. But our games are just different. His body is different, my body is different than his. At that age, you recognize his dominance, but there’s no similarities in our game. At all.
“Nah, it’s different. He had much more lift in his fadeaway than mine. That was definitely a go-to move of his. But nah, our games are completely different.”
Not just different, but “completely different.”
Not just dissimilar, but LeBron James sees “no similarities” between his game, and Michael Jordan’s.
He’s right, in the application at least. Jordan and James’ games spiral up from completely different foundations, leaving us (some 14 seasons into LeBron’s career) to conclude not only that LeBron is far closer to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird than he is to Jordan, but that he’s also closer to Baron Davis and Mookie Blaylock than he is to Michael Jordan.
And MJ? Not only was he closer to someone like Jerry West than he is to LeBron, but his style ran closer to Marques Johnson and David Thompson than it did the current King.
LeBron recently turned 32, and if you’re reading this site, you’re more than likely well aware of the work he’s put in since entering the league in 2003. Nominally a small forward, James handles the ball more than just about any other small forward not named Scottie Pippen that the league has ever seen, and he’s topped 30 points per game on the season just twice in his career. Only once (in 2007-08, for a terrible Cleveland team that still won 45 games) did James lead the NBA in scoring.
Jordan, by design following his rookie campaign, led the NBA in scoring in every season that wasn’t befallen by a tryst with Minor League Baseball, a broken foot, or the hellscape that was, is and will continue to be the Wizards franchise. He was a shooting guard who played the part, somehow dominating games at the NBA’s least-influential position.
By age 32, Jordan had carefully perfected the art that he’d become smitten with just before his initial retirement in 1993. His fadeaway jumper, a potent mix of footwork, timing, touch and anticipation, represented a masterful amalgamation of the products of the lessons learned from myriad inspirations (both inside and on the perimeter) that made for Hall of Fame or middling careers alike.
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James, at age 32, doesn’t have much of a fadeaway jumper. He doesn’t really need it much, at this point. Working with two other All-Star-level contributors, as Jordan did (plus Toni Kukoc!) at the same age, James still does his best work peering over a backpedaling defense, thinking the pitch-and-toss game far, far before making the decision to look for his own shot.
It is rather remarkable that LeBron has made it this far into a legendary career without a signature shot to call his own, but Jordan never truly had one (a damn dunk is not a “signature shot,” unless you’re still learning cursive) until returning from his first retirement. MJ himself never truly had a go-to move early on because, as a three-time champion and scoring leader, he never really needed one, in spite of some playoff frustrations. His limitations, as was the case for James during his deadening first spell in Cleveland, came in the form of his lacking teammates.
At age 32, Jordan (noticing that even the 72-win 1995-96 Bulls still needed 100 total games in order to achieve championship glory) limited the workload. He didn’t sit a game through his final three seasons in Chicago, but he did lower the taxation rates on those knees by firing turnaround jumpers where slashes to the basket once (barely) fit, and he took large chunks of the games off defensively.
(Yes, he did.)
James does take games off, to much derision, but he still hounds opponents on the defensive end like he’s Gary Fencik after a Consort binge while averaging 37 minutes per game on the season – the fourth-highest mark in the NBA. There is no telling as to whether or not the random Wednesday off will actually do anything for James’ body as he stares down his mid-30s, but what we do know is that James doesn’t exactly have a knee-saving move that he shows off with as much aplomb as MJ did his fadeaway.
Then again, familiar refrain, he hasn’t needed to much since 2003:
LeBron w/ 32 in first game as a 32-year-old. He has ~1,000 more points than anyone by age-32 — even if you include college totals. pic.twitter.com/TfsvxItgdv
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 1, 2017
James is at 25.6 points per game in 2016-17, outscoring Chicago’s Butler in spite of the fact that Butler often has to do it all (on both ends, especially, with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo moping around) for his sub-optimal Bulls outfit. LBJ is also at 8.6 assists per game, tied for a career high (somehow he was able to find easy buckets for this crew), working with a top-five offense yet again for a Cleveland team that figures to have no foil as it looks to find its way toward LeBron’s seventh straight NBA Finals appearance.
That’s a mark Jordan never approached. Not only because he retired for the first time after his third consecutive Finals turn, but mostly because James has only faced one opponent in Eastern Conference postseason memory (the 2008 Boston Celtics, whom LeBron took to seven games) that came anywhere close to the Detroit Pistons clubs that knocked Jordan’s Bulls out of the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Eastern playoffs. Even the tougher teams Jordan made it through – the 1992 and 1993 New York Knicks, the 1998 Indiana Pacers – were far superior to the competition that James’ Cavaliers and Heat have had to take on.
That’s to point out the workload inherent in James’ run, not the dissimilarities between the legends.
Still, for those of us who continue to chase this dragon, it’s a spark to wonder if James would be up for a go-to move to round those 30s out. Sure, the game has changed plenty since MJ began spinning for fadeaways at the apex of both his team’s triangle offense and the height of the NBA’s zone-averse, post-friendly offense he worked through in the 1990s. LeBron, though, could still make it work in 2017 and beyond.
A fadeaway. An Elvin Hayes-styled turnaround jumper from either block. An unappealing yet no-less potent jump hook, one that could see James’ giant mitts just dart the ball in from a few feet away. A skyhook, even.
The skills are there; James just hasn’t had to work them yet. Jordan was able to find beauty in the mix of elegance and function that was his fadeaway jumper. Will James submit to a style of performance that lowers the workload on his aging legs? One that could paint him as less fearsome to the naked eye, even though his contributions (to say little of his stamina and ability to save his best for deep June) may be as formidable as ever?
Let’s hope it doesn’t take a mini-retirement for LeBron to figure it out.