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.

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