Monday, May 29, 2017

Best And Greatest And The Difference.

It's a holiday weekend and frankly, I need to turn my brain off for just a second and avoid the chaos and conflict and noise our country is now perpetually caught up in ... so I'm'a start a fight the internet.  But, you know, not a FIGHT fight. It's just something I've had careening around in my head for about a year and I wanted to put it on wax, just to get it out there.  (Let's be real, saying I'm starting a fight on the internet would imply any substantial number of people will read this in the first place.)  

One of the most enticing elements of sports is the limitless potential for argument and debate it affords us.  Who ya got? Brady or Montana? Wilt or Russell?  Bryant or Saban? Maddux, Kershaw, Larsen, Koufax, Catfish, Nolan Ryan, The Big Unit, King Felix? We can argue about this stuff all day and well into the night and never actually hit on a definitive answer.  The fun is embedded in the discourse.  It depends on the perspective and age of the participants, and is a reliably gratifying way to pass the time when we want to hop down a rabbit hole for a while. In my recollection, there are only two legacies we collectively, as a sports-fan culture, never imagined being in doubt (or my generation didn't, anyway): Gretzky and Jordan.  I still don't think anyone has or ever will touch The Great One, but the people who grew up watching Bobby Orr probably said the same thing.  And that's why the whole mechanism of sports and generational shift and counting stats vs. advanced metrics and all the rest of it is so great. I can, and have, had the Orr/Gretzky debate with an octogenarian Bruins fan in a bar, and we both came away agreeing to disagree but respecting the other's side of the argument.

But then there's the Jordan thing, which that's been kicking up again recently, as the Cavs chase their second title in as many years and they prepare to square off against possibly the greatest collection of talent in basketball history: Is LeBron better than Michael?

I believe the question has already been answered. Twice, in fact.  I believe, and the answer will never change, no matter what happens in this year's NBA Finals or the rest of King James' career, that this is the truth: LeBron James is the single best basketball player I've ever seen, but Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. And I believe that both of those things can be true and exist simultaneously.

Let's get into this, and I'm not using numbers or metrics here, because looking at either of their career stats (not to mention LeBron's career is far from over) is like drops of water in the ocean or angels dancing on a pinhead.  Everything is going to boggle your mind either way.  King James just surpassed Jordan on the playoff all-time scoring list. Where do we go with that? What, if anything, does it signify about them as players? (And I am an avowed stats nerd, but I do think at a certain point when you get to this level of genius the numbers are so outlandish that comparisons, especially when adjusted for era and pace of play etc. don't yield all that much from a raw statistical standpoint.)  In other words, this breakdown means nothing, it is not honest journalism or coherent in any way.  As I said, this is a thought that's just been kicking around my brain, and I am writing from my gut, and if I were better or smarter or less drunk I'd go to Basketball Reference and back it all up with numbers, but I'm not because: turning brain off. So: The LeBron/Jordan Debate in my entirely subjective mind:

This goes to Jordan, and it's not close.  They were equally destructive and dominant driving into the lane, dunking all over fools and crushing everything in their path. But the hitch for 'Bron lies in the jump shot. LeBron's jumper has gone through several iterations, but every few years it inexplicably goes into a backslide where that horrendous and not-very-effective fall-away comes back and he just doesn't look right out there.  I'd like to think he's fixed it for good this year, but his shooting goes through such random hot-cold streaks that I can't be certain.  Jordan, by contrast, came into the league with a textbook jump shot, the kind of thing you'd teach on an instructional video.  He spent his career adding little pre-shot tricks and gimmicks to make it unguardable. The feints and leans and jab steps, the turn-arounds and step-backs; MJ built his game to confuse and destroy defenders, and later to ward off the ravages of time. And to continue decimating anyone in his path. Like an offensive coordinator in football, he disguised his intent by calling the same play out of different formations time and time again.  He could keep on using the same pristine weapon as long as he initially masked  it well enough, and he kept on wrecking shop even when his body had betrayed him and he couldn't elevate as high or hang in the air as long.

I want to get this up front: Michael Jordan was a superb passer; it is possibly the most underrated part of his game, historically speaking. But Jordan did not have the court vision or the passing facility LeBron does. LBJ sees the court in a way very few ever have, and his mental supercomputer operates on a level we mortals can't really comprehend. The geometry of the floor, the spacing and timing, it's all one giant erector set to LeBron. He's just putting the pieces together the way he wants, mining efficacy and elegance out of the building blocks more deftly than Jordan ever could.  Look, Jordan was an absolute GOD in every way; he was always playing the chess game three steps ahead of everyone else. Even writing this last LBJ-y paragraph has felt a little like heresy. But also this: where MJ was three steps ahead, LeBron has already tipped your king over on the board and called "checkmate." He can run point, pass out of the post, whip it across the floor in transition, dump pocket passes no one else can see ... he knows exactly where every teammate needs to catch the ball to get their best, quickest shot off, and he gets it to them in that precise location. Every time.  He finds the gradient of any defense and shades and probes against it until something advantageous opens up and then he either does the damage himself or executes the most perfect pass imaginable.  As a passer, Jordan was very, very good, but LeBron is transcendent.

I'm just calling this a wash.  LeBron has significantly more from a numbers perspective, but he's never played with someone like Dennis Rodman who gobbled up the boards at such an obscene clip that Jordan never had to carry that same responsibility. Look, if you told either LeBron or MJ they needed to grab all the rebounds humanly possible to win a game, they'd both do it.  LeBron might have a slight edge on sheer size, but again: he's never played with anyone close to The Worm. Draw.

I feel the need to keep emphasizing this: My aim here is not to denigrate Jordan in any way.  MJ was one of the most murderous, absolutely perfect and intractable isolation lock-down defenders I've ever seen.  You told him to shut someone down, he went out and did it ... within reason.  But there's a difference in pure genetics and biology and understanding of the game that can't be ignored here.  Jordan could guard just about anybody one-on-one, but LeBron is built like a linebacker with the speed and physicality to match and he can shut literally anyone down in a way Jordan's frame never aloud him to inside. The quickest most compact and powerful perimeter guys have as little a chance as the the burliest big men against LeBron.  And there's something else too: Jordan was never the best help defender. There are unquestionably some aspects in which the game has shifted from a tactical perspective from 1998 to now, but the same omniscient court sense that makes LeBron a better passer than Jordan informs his defensive instincts as well. (Again: maybe this isn't totally fair to Jordan. He had Scottie Pippen, maybe the most versatile and tenacious defensive basketball player ever, on his team. MJ was never asked to guard 1-thtough-5 or defensivley rotate around the floor several times on a single possession as James routinely does, both because the game didn't work that way and because he already had the guy that could do it for him.) But overall, in terms of size and bulk and speed and instincts, LeBron is just better.   

This is another category that maybe isn't completely fair to Jordan but even adjusting for that still tilts in LeBron's favor.  There is no way in hell Jordan could have slid to the four in those small-ball Heat lineups with Bosh at center and played sustained minutes there. LeBron is the only human, alive or dead, who could play four (or five) positions if necessary at both ends and make it work, let alone excel as he has. Jordan is the most perfect 2 Guard who ever lived, and he could paly other positions when needed, but LBJ is on a different level in this regard. This is not a Once-In-A-Generation talent we're watching. It's a Once-In-Several-Lifetimes-If-Ever-Again thing.

I can't recall for certain, but I think this argument (which is not wrong) started popping up around 2009 or 2010, when Kobe really started submitting his post-Shaq Alpha Dog resume and D-Wade was at the absolute peak oh his powers. It only intensified once the league fully embraced a wide-open game and maximizing the efficacy of shot selection and 3-and-D guys and so on.  It goes like this: "If you unleashed MJ in the pace-and-space era with the changes in hand-check rules, he would absolutely murder the league."  And that's probably right. We're talking unfathomably catastrophic numbers. 50 a game? 60? Jordan would have looked at Steph Curry draining 35-footers, calmly said "shit, I can do that too", then gone into a gym in the summer and made it so. Of course he would have.  Here's the thing: no one talks about the other side of that coin. Put LeBron James in the Bully Ball Era in your mind.  Picture LeBron, after taking a couple of hard fouls from the Bad Boy Pistons, just pissed-off and furious and turnt as hell screaming down the lane with a full head of rivet-busting steam.  Is there anyone from that late-80s/early 90s era that has a remote prayer of stopping him?  Naw, we put 'Bron in that time in NAB history, and we're still paying archeologists to dig pieces of Bill Laimbeer's skull out of the court. And if he couldn't get into the lane, he'd start spraying passes around, or settle on the low block and just roast-n-toast anyone trying to guard him. He would have WRECKED. SHOP. ON. EVERYONE.

LeBron James is the single best basketball I have ever seen in my lifetime. The most versatile, most perfect, most complete, most jaw-dropping athlete I have ever watched do anything.  To reiterate a little more forcefully, LEBRON IS THE BEST BASKETBALL PLAYER THIS PLANET HAS EVER SEEN.  Again , and I have to keep saying AGAIN, and again and again and again, I am not disrespecting Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Because:

As I mentioned up top, there is a line of demarcation we need to draw here.  There is all-caps "BEST" and there is all-caps "GREATEST" and they are related but distinctly different taxonomies and we can ascribe different attributes to them without tarnishing or diminishing the legacy or either.  We've made this mistake where either LBJ overtakes MJ or he doesn't, and this determination is fueled by some semi-randomized amalgamation of career stats and titles and moments. I think the categories are different and we can celebrate both and "LeBron Vs. Jordan" actually has two different answers. LeBron is, as I have said (and please fell free to disagree), the best basketball player I have ever seen.  He is not, and will never be, The Greatest.

It is literally impossible to overstate Michael Jeffrey Jordan as a both cultural entity at large and an international and universal envoy of basketball in particular.  Bird and Magic saved/resurrected the league when it was at a precipice and threatening to fall into oblivion.  Jordan catapulted it into the forefront of American and, shortly thereafter, global consciousness. The sheer totemic awesomeness of Jordan at the peek of his powers will never be duplicated. He was an entity that defied context, denied a box of historical context or import. Grab anyone from my generation (or the one immediately preceding it) at a  bar and start singing "Sometimes I dream that he is me ... " and they'll finish the lyric. The absolute earth-shaking totality of Jordan eclipsed and obliterated everything else.  Nobody could do what he did, the way that he did it.  Where Jordan really tops 'Bron, and everyone else for that matter, is the raw cradle of intensity within his chest, aided and abetted by his sheer athletic virtuosity.  He was a badass and swaggering and arrogant as all hell, and he gave zero fucks how good you thought you were or had been, he was going to destroy you.  Look at this:


Look at Larry Bird, one of the greatest to ever step onto the hardwood, like an old prize fighter out there. A man who knows all the tricks of the trade, ready to bait a contender into a game he isn't used to and knock him out not with strength but with sheer guile.  Then look at what Jordan does to him, when Bird realizes the kid has been working the speed bag all through training and those are the fastest hands he's ever seen coming at him.  It's not fair.  Jordan came into a league dominated by its elder statesmen and, like everyone before him, had to take his licks. (See: early-MJ Bulls-Pistons.) But then he decimated everything to such an absurd extent it was almost blasphemous.  There just wasn't anything in sports or on this planet like Jordan in the 90s. The ruthlessness, the dominance, and maybe the moments above everything else.  The Shot. The Shrug Game. Th Flu Game. The final steal-push-off-jumper sequence against Utah in 1998. I freely admit a degree of generational bias here, and I celebrate LeBron's 48 Special and The Block and his performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals (which I wrote lovingly about after it happened) and which I still maintain is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on a basketball court.  LeBron can or could have been the things that Jordan was. Certainly, he has the personality and self-awareness for it.  But then, maybe he can't. Not through any fault of his own, but because the media landscape has shifted so radically between Jordan and Now.

I think maybe part of MJ's overwhelming presence and adoration was tied to a lack of access.  We couldn't know his flaws and foibles and all the other mundane things that make everyone human at the end of the day because there wasn't an outlet delivering those elements to us. All the less-than-pleasant MJ stuff that cane out in "The Jordan Rules" did not have the combustibility of the internet behind it, so we kind of collectively ignored it. We can parse LeBron on far finer terms, with far greater scrutiny.  But even so, there was something about watching Jordan rip through the league with his unprecedented amalgamation of charisma and swagger and absolute brilliance that transcends everything LeBron has ever done or will ever do. You can count all the stats and all the Ringzzzz (though if Ringzzz are your primary metric then Bill Russell settled this whole thing before Jordan was even born) but ultimately I think Jordan was The Greatest. And it's because he transcended everything else and gave us the truest, most visceral iteration of basketball as both game and emblematic cultural touchstone we're ever going to see.  LeBron is the best I've ever seen.  Jordan is still the GOAT.  

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