I love basketball. That is the one constant in my life. The NBA for me is not just something I’m a fan of. It’s a an all-consuming passion. A religion. I’m that guy who has no problem watching a Sixers-Nets game in the dead of February and will find about 25 things that I absolutely love about it.
And I will watch that game over literally any other option. Sure I watch other sports and other TV shows and movies and all sorts of things, but when there is basketball to watch, everything else takes a backseat. And I’m a longtime League Pass subscriber so there is ALWAYS basketball on.
It’s always been that way for me. While other kids were into the Toronto Maple Leafs and rocked their Doug Gilmour jerseys on the schoolyard, I was more likely to show up to school in a Lakers starter jacket, a Jordan Bulls jersey. Other kids imagined themselves scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup final, I wanted to be like Mike or Magic or Larry or Shaq or even Big Country. Just let me in and let me play.
Sadly my skill-set was more a very very very poor man’s Kurt Rambis (and even that is an insult to the great Kurt Rambis) than anything resembling a quality basketball player.
But I played when I can, still do, and just love the game. Basketball is the best. It really is.
Any game, any time, any place.
Being an NBA super-fan, it’s been painful to watch a disturbing trend growing amongst fandom, the media and even former players over the past few years. Something that upsets me, as a fan, and demeans the game as a whole.
The idea that basketball just isn’t as good as it was in the 90s.
First of all, that is absolutely the dumbest thing anyone can say not just about basketball but any sport ever. Sports don’t get worse over time. They get better. Our understanding of the game gets better, our understanding of training techniques gets better, our understanding of diet and nutrition gets better, our understanding of the idea that it’s probably not a good idea to stay up drinking and gambling the night before a game gets better, and so on and so forth.
We have never at any other point in human history had a better understanding of what goes into developing and maintaining a top athlete. That goes for basketball and any other sport.
Look at the way the players look today compared to twenty years ago. The unbelievable fitness and athleticism of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Karl Anthony Towns, and really nearly any other player in the league today was unthinkable back then. A lot of it goes beyond simply raw talent. The NBA players of today know how to take better care of their bodies and push themselves to further limits than the NBA players of even ten years ago. Let alone twenty or twenty-five.
Yet one name seems to trump all logic and reasoning when it comes to this issue: Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan is considered in most circles to be the best basketball player who ever took to the court.
I’m not going to get involved in that argument because to me basketball is such a layered and multifaceted sport that it’s hard to say one player can be better than every other player in history. Every single person on the court has a specific role to play on both sides of the floor. You need your offensive guys, your defensive specialists. You need guys who can thrive on the perimeter or guard the interior, etc. Depending on the scheme a coach draws up, a player can be given such a nuanced and specific role on the floor that a casual fan simply wouldn’t notice.
It’s hard to get someone who only wants to see the offensive outbursts of a Steph Curry or James Harden to get hyped about Kawhi Leonard’s two way game.
So for the casual fan it’s going to be scoring plays over anything else that gets them excited and sticks in their mind.
There’s only one guy who has a scoring play so memorable that it is referred to simply as THE SHOT and that is Michael Jordan.
His scoring prowess was so memorable and exciting that many people lose sight of the fact that Michael Jordan was also one of the best defensive players in the game’s history as well.
There’s no doubt that Michael Jordan is great. There’s no doubt that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest of all time.
But can you really say that Michael Jordan is greater than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell or even – gasp- LeBron James.
I think comparing eras is an exercise in futility. The game evolves and changes so much that you’d be hard pressed to recognize the style of play in the Russell-Chamberlain era to what it was in the Bird-Magic era.
A lot of fans and commentators and even former players are having trouble accepting that a similar shift is occurring today. It’s hard to view the game anymore in the 90s context. The obvious is the three point shooting. Steph Curry was unfathomable in the 1990s. Look at the increase in three point shooting in the past 10 years. It’s insane. Players are shattering record books by hitting 10+ threes in a game. Legends like Steph, Kobe and errrr Donyell Marshall. The game has never relied so much on the three point shot before.
That’s just one facet. The way bigs stretch the floor, the new offensive schemes like Mike D’Antoni’s 7 seconds or less or Gregg Poppovich’s motion offence, the increased reliance on perimeter play and so on and so forth are changes that have altered the game in ways that couldn’t be predicted in Jordan’s time.
Some of his greatest rival teams like the Bad Boy Pistons or Pat Riley’s Knicks wouldn’t be able to play their slow and violent styles of basketball in today’s game. That’s just not the way basketball is played anymore and that’s how sports evolves.
Don’t tell that to the Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith types of the world though.
They are falling all over themselves talking about how much better Michael Jordan is than today’s top dog LeBron James. In their estimation that is the only measuring stick that matters and proves the game was better way back when guys like Bill Lambier or Charles Oakley were committing legal assault on the basketball court.
The problem with these arguments is they don’t rely on stats or logic or even an honest examination of each man’s career.
It’s just dumb statements like “Jordan has more championships”, “Jordan never lost in the finals”, “Jordan will take the last shot and LeBron will defer”, and so on and so forth.
These are incredibly irrational statements.
Yes Jordan has more championships and went to six finals and won all six. But that’s an extremely overly simplistic telling of those events. Michael Jordan played on one of the greatest teams of all time under one of the greatest basketball minds ever to coach the game. While Jordan was unquestionably the greatest player of his era, he arguably had number two riding shotgun for all six championships in the form of Scottie Pippen.
Don’t believe me? When Jordan went on his baseball sabbatical, Scottie Pippen joined Dave Cowens as the only player in NBA history to lead his team in all five major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals).
The only other players to do it since are Kevin Garnett and……LEBRON JAMES.
Michael Jordan never did that and he never had to. He played with amazing supporting casts through both championship runs. Horace Grant is one of the most underrated players in the league’s history. The charismatic enigma Dennis Rodman. Croatian superstar Toni Kokuc. Even Hall of Famer Robert Parrish came along for the ride at one point.
The Bulls were such a force to be reckoned with that they set an all time single season mark of 72-10 that was only just recently broken. More on that later.
Now LeBron did not enjoy that same level of talent when he miraculously dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Finals appearance in 2007. Only his fourth season in the league. Unless you want to make the argument that Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden are as good as Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.
Not even Skip Bayless is ignorant enough to do that.
You can argue that LeBron did have the star power of Jordan’s Bulls during his much maligned run with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form Miami’s “Big 3” from 2010-14. Especially with the veteran presence of another Hall of Famer in the form of Ray Allen for the last two seasons.
However, where the Bulls were blessed with health through most of their championship runs the Heat were not. By the time the Heat hobbled to their loss in the 2014 finals, Wade and Bosh were hobbled with injuries and LeBron came full circle by willing a decimated team to the finals to once again be beaten by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Heat’s 2-2 record reflects the poor health of the team that lost to the Spurs and the thrashing they took at the hands of the unexpected defensive juggernaut that was the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.
LeBron then went back to Cleveland to play in back to back finals with the Golden State Warriors. Dropping the first one without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love before winning the second in a thrilling seven game series with a healthy supporting cast.
Keeping in mind that basketball is a team sport. Jordan definitely had the edge with way better teams.
Now let’s take a look at quality of opponents.
The Bulls won their first championship against a fading Los Angeles Lakers team that was a shell of their showtime glory. Magic Johnson wasn’t quite the dynamo that he was in the 80s and would be forced to retire just a few months later due to an HIV positive diagnosis. The Lakers would also lose starters James Worthy and Byron Scott throughout the course of the series making this not much of a contest.
They won their second against a Portland Trailblazers team that while stacked with talent like Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, Danny Ainge and Terry Porter had zero answer for Jordan and Pippen. Given that they were one of the greatest combos in any sport ever, who did?
The third title came against the Phoenix Suns. Although Sir Charles Barkley had an all-time great season. The outcome was never really in doubt. Of course that’s likely also why Sir Charles is one of the biggest proponents of the theory that his era was the best era of basketball and that nobody will ever be better than Michael Jordan. Because Michael Jordan kicked his ass at every single opportunity he had. Not just in basketball but also off the court in golf and high stakes gambling.
Following Jordan’s exile season in baseball in 1993-94 and his return in 1994-95 when the Bulls got their asses handed to them in the playoffs by the Shaq and Penny Magic (note: Nobody ever talks about this series when assessing Michael Jordan’s career), the Bulls returned to the NBA finals in 1996.
They faced a loaded Seattle Supersonics team that was loads of fun to watch and boasted young phenoms like Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton backed by the veteran presence of Detlef Shrempf and Hershey Hawkins. Of course, for some reason George Karl (currently known for being the most bitter former coach in NBA history) forgot to put Gary Payton (NBA Hall of Famer and one of the best defenders ever. He was nicknamed The Glove for fuck’s sake) on Michael Jordan. So that was that.
The Bulls capped off their second three peat by beating the Utah Jazz back-to-back. Now the Jazz boasted Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone (second leading scorer in NBA history), but were an incredibly boring team to watch. It felt like the Jazz only made the finals two years in a row because the entire Western Conference forgot how to defend the pick and roll. Granted Stockton and Malone executed that play better than anyone ever has or ever will, but nobody wants to watch it that many times in a game. Needless to say, the result wasn’t in doubt either time. Karl Malone would later settle the score against Dennis Rodman in World Championship Wrestling is a bout that was way more entertaining than either of these series.
Now let’s look who LeBron faced.
The San Antonio Spurs three times in 2007 with the Cavs and then in 2013 and 2014 with the Heat.
The first time was a no contest because it was LeBron and Big Z against Tim, Tony and Manu. A four game sweep.
The second time was one of the best NBA finals I’ve ever seen. A thrilling seven game series that peaked with an amazing game 6 overtime won by a Ray Allen three that might be one of the best finals games ever played. This series featured future Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade playing at the height of their powers with last a last hurrah from Tracy McGrady and the aforementioned clutch performance from Jesus Shuttlesworth along with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as a truly elite defender. If you want someone to love basketball, this is one of the modern NBA Finals I would show them. There is another more recent one and LeBron is also is in that.
The third match-up against the Spurs was anticlimactic as Wade and Bosh were playing hurt, Ray Allen didn’t have a whole lot left in the tank and Kawhi Leonard showed us the future of the Spurs by becoming one of the most dominant forces in the league and the Spurs won in five.
The Heat went to their first finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Everyone expected the Big Three to thrash the Mavs and everyone was wrong when Rick Carlisle and Dwane Casey unleashed a monstrous defensive strategy on them anchored by Tyson Chandler playing the best basketball of his life, Jason Terry shot out of his mind and Dirk Nowitzki showed us all why he is the best European product ever to pick up a basketball and the Mavs shocked the Heat in six. Every single bit of Miami growing pains showed in this series. LeBron still hadn’t figured out his role on the team and tried to play second fiddle to Wade and nobody really knew how the supporting cast fit around the big three. Miami had become the villains of the league and pretty much everybody loved seeing them get theirs that year.
They completely vindicated themselves against the Oklahoma City Thunder. They defeated the young team in five games, but with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka on that squad many people expected that these teams would match up again and again and again and that eventually LeBron would have to pass the torch. Of course we all know how that unfolded.
So LeBron went 2 and 2 in Miami. Then returned to Cleveland where he matched up against Golden State two years in a row.
The 2015 finals weren’t really a fair match-up on paper as Cleveland was without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving matched up against one of the most exciting teams in the NBA and one of the greatest offensive forces basketball has ever seen. Going against, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala without two of your top three players seemed like an impossible task. Yet LeBron almost single-handedly forced the series to six games by turning in one of the greatest performances in Finals history, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists and somehow still not winning MVP in one of the greatest travesties of justice ever seen in sports (another story for another time).
This brings us to last years finals. A healthy Cavs squad rematches with Golden State with Cleveland looking for revenge and the Warriors looking to cement themselves as the greatest NBA team of all time. Seven thrilling games which saw the Cavs come down from 3-1 and win it in game seven largely off a play known as THE BLOCK from LeBron James. Remember when I said that the 2012 Finals was one of the modern finals I would show someone to make them love basketball this is the other one. Maybe even the best one. Certainly up there with 2012 and the both the 1984 and 1987 Lakers-Celtics series as the best I’ve ever seen.
So LeBron has gone 3-4 in the finals as compared to Jordan’s 6-0. Five of those times LeBron faced all-time great teams where Jordan did not ever. You can argue that LeBron had talent around him close to Jordan’s Bulls maybe three of those seven times (2012, 2013, 2016) and he won all three. Basketball is a team sport and this was always a pointless comparison but examining this further makes it even more ridiculous. Teams win championships. Individual players don’t.
Comparing Jordan and LeBron becomes even more of an exercise in futility when you take a look of how much their games differ. Jordan had to be the focal point. He was a scoring machine and also a top defender that wanted the ball in his hands to win games. When players wound up on a team with Jordan. They had to alter their games to play with him.
LeBron, while he absolutely can score with the best of them, is also a triple double machine. He is just as likely to make a pass and go for a rebound as he is to take the shot. It is quite telling that the shot that won the Cavs their first NBA championship came from Kyrie Irving coming on the heels of THE BLOCK. LeBron tailors his game to make his teammates better and it shows.
Jordan has THE SHOT. LeBron has the THE BLOCK. That says everything about the differences between them.
There’s also the fact that Michael Jordan doesn’t play basketball anymore. Michael Jordan retired in 1993. Then in 1998. Then in 2003. (Although we all try to forget the Wizards years).
He doesn’t play anymore. He has never played against LeBron James and he never will. There is very little point in arguing about who is better because it doesn’t matter. You can make that argument until the end of time and it means nothing because they will never ever play against each other. While Jordan’s legacy is now etched in stone, LeBron is still writing his. Comparing them is an exercise in futility especially while one is an active player and one is not.
Invoking the name Michael Jordan whenever LeBron James does something great just shows you can’t let go of the past. That you need your favourite era to be the best by irrationally tearing down the present.
Nowhere was this mentality more on display than during last year’s historic run by the Golden State Warriors. Remember when the Bulls set an all-time mark of 72-10 during the 1995-96 season? 20 years later the Warriors went 73-9. They now had the best season in NBA history.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth could not have been louder from the usual Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith circles. Modern basketball just isn’t as good. The Warriors are soft and couldn’t have played in the 90s. Nobody is guarding Curry’s threes. The excuses were plentiful. Charles Barkley (who remains Michael Jordan’s bitch even in retirement) talked about how much he hated the way the Warriors play.
When Golden State didn’t win the title, Scottie Pippen and other former Bulls who obviously had a vested interest in that outcome stated claiming that “without the ring it don’t mean a thing”.
Sour grapes is really all that nonsense is.
73-9 is a better record than 72-10. Period.
The quality of play is as good as it has ever been. There were as many bad teams in the NBA in 1996 as in 2016. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the 96 Grizzlies, Raptors, 76ers, Bucks, Timberwolves, Clippers, Mavericks, etc.
Don’t pretend basketball was some utopia in the era you came of age watching it and is somehow worse today.
It isn’t. It’s different to be sure but the fact is you’re watching it today with a much more critical and informed eye. You’re watching it an era of 24 hour coverage and social media. Today the NBA season never ends because even when the finals are over, it’s time for trade rumours, draft analysis, and endless arguments about who is better than who and how teams should go forward.
That didn’t exist 20 years ago. It was a different time where we just marvelled at the on-court product.
If social media existed back then, more people might be aware that Michael Jordan gambled way too much and assaulted teammates Will Perdue and Steve Kerr in practice. If LeBron James did that it would fill up ESPN coverage for months. It only existed in whispers and rumours to be confirmed later in books about the era.
I don’t remember people talking about “character issues” or “intangibles” so much when I was growing up, but there wasn’t that much TV time to fill. There weren’t that many hot takes on the internet and there wasn’t a need to fill all this time by analyzing virtually every facet of the game possible.
You remember previous eras as better because back then the magician hadn’t revealed all his secrets.
We know way more as fans and personally I enjoy having that access to information but it’s pretty clear how that has jaded many fans to the modern product and caused them to look back on previous eras as superior.
The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors will never play the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Arguing what team is better is futile. It’s a fun exercise to kill time but it’s really a pointless debate. I’m more interested in who wins the next Cavs-Warriors match-up and really if you love the game, you should try to focus on that more than arguing over what team or player of the past is better than which team or player of today.
Just enjoy the game the way it is now, or you can go to YouTube and relive the Bulls threepeats until your heart’s content. The choice is yours.
Basketball has never been better than it is today. The same will be true five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now and so on and so forth.
I just hope that you don’t see Klay Thompson making a fool of himself when some team goes 74-8. Somehow I don’t think you will.