Can LeBron ever be as good as Jordan? Is he already?
Last week I wrote about LeBron James and his battle with Kevin Durant for the title of Fantasy Basketball MVP for this season. It was an interesting thought exercise, especially because when you really focus on their numbers it's ridiculous how video game they are. I concluded that while LeBron is the better player in real life, Durant would be the fantasy MVP because he has no roto weaknesses and his strengths are as amazing as LeBron's. That was fun, and it was the last time I planned to write about LeBron for awhile.
And then this week happened, when LeBron decided to go on a tear and break the NBA record for most consecutive 30-point/60% FG shooting games at six (and counting). This, in conjunction with the heightened attention of Michael Jordan's impending 50th birthday, has vaulted the water cooler conversation from "LeBron vs. Durant this season" to "LeBron vs. Jordan for history." The debate dominated the air waves this week, and since we're up against the All-Star break with no fantasy basketball for most of the next week, I thought this would be a good time for me to chime in as well. So let's jump right into the deep end, and then come back for the details later.
Yes, I think LeBron may very well be better now than Jordan ever was. At worst, I see no reason to say that Jordan was clearly better.
(I'll pause a moment so that you can flame me to your heart's content.)
Got it off your chest? OK, good, now allow me to retort. It's always interesting having debates involving Jordan because the battle lines are drawn so deeply for so many people. To many, Jordan is the undisputed GOAT and it's essentially impossible for anyone to ever be better than him. And while LeBron also has his fans, he has also inspired so much hatred in so many others with all of his hype and "The Decision" that many are forever inclined to see the worst in him.
To me, it's very hard to compare directly across eras because there are so many variables that an apples-to-apples comp isn't really possible. So what I tend to do is identify who the dominant player(s) are in any era, the transcendent players, and then compare their relative strengths and weaknesses vs. other transcendent players more so than saying clearly that one is definitely better. Jordan was the transcendent player of the 90s and LeBron is that guy for the 2010s. But they play in a different league, against different competition, with even different rules. How can we quantitatively compare them? To me, the answer is: we can't. All we can do is qualitatively look at each player, what they bring to the table, and how that type of play has traditionally translated over basketball history.
Jordan is the most dominant individual wing that we have ever seen in the NBA. He could score at volumes and efficiencies unheard of for a 6-6 player; he could apply so much pressure as both a primary scorer and ball-handler that when circumstances aligned he could seemingly choke the life out of opponents; and his individual mastery also included one-on-one defense, where he could use his strength, speed, and will to put the clamps on just about anyone his size or smaller.
One thing generally forgotten is that the "Jordan style" of player, historically, was not the archetype that had experienced the most TEAM success. Jordan's stylistic predecessors like Julius "Dr. J" Erving and Elgin Baylor had fabulous careers, amassed amazing individual numbers, and put on the most memorable shows of their generations but outside of Erving's ABA success, they weren't generally leading championship teams. Even Jordan didn't start winning championships until his seventh season, despite the fact that he had dominated the league individually for at least five years before that. So, what changed for Mike?
Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen.
I would never say that Jackson and Pippen should be used to diminish what Jordan accomplished, but at the same time they also shouldn't be ignored. Jackson has demonstrated that he has the perfect system to be able to maximize dominant wings like Jordan or Kobe Bryant, while still allowing the rest of the team to thrive. The triangle offense allows the wing talent to be harnessed for the good of the team. Look at what has happened over Kobe's career. When Jackson coaches the Lakers, they are always championship contenders. But when Jackson was replaced, even by other great coaches, the result is a train wreck. When Jackson was replaced by two-time championship coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Kobe's Lakers didn't even make the playoffs. Jackson came back, led them to the playoffs and eventually back to the championship, and then when he left again Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni (both coaches with lots of regular season wins and conference finals on the resume) have struggled to even keep the Lakers competitive.
And Pippen was the perfect lieutenant for Jordan, because he had such a versatile game that he could be maximized as both an offensive and defensive impact player without interfering with what Jordan wanted to do. Jordan could do the heavy lifting scoring, while Pippen got everyone else involved. Jordan could lock his man up with one-on-one defense, while Pippen anchored the team defense.
So where do Scottie and Phil fit into the Jordan/LeBron debate? Well, the trump card for the Jordan side of the argument is that his team won every championship in which he played a full season from 1991 to 1998. Jordan is therefore looked upon as being unbeatable. But the reality is that championships are team accomplishments, not individual, and even if Jordan was the biggest contributor to those championships you still have to account for the perfect storm of support that he had. And this has to cut both ways, because since The Decision, LeBron has also been going to battle with teammate advantages that make him much more likely to win championships than he was in Cleveland. The distinction, the thing to remember, is that having a better team doesn't make either individual better, and what we really need to do in this comp is look at which PLAYER was better and contributed more to their team's success, NOT just which TEAM was more successful.
And when it comes down to it, LeBron is taller and much bigger than Jordan ever was, which allows him to impact the game in ways that Jordan just couldn't. LeBron can legitimately play power forward, leading his team on the glass and defending opposing big men. He can (and does) have a "big man" type defensive impact, giving him the ability to anchor team defenses in ways that Jordan couldn't. LeBron is a better, more natural ball-handler than Jordan ever was. And LeBron has always had the more unselfish game. He's still ball dominant, but his willingness to pass and court vision allow him to thrive next to another ball-dominant player like Dwyane Wade more successfully than I'd see a Jordan/Wade pair working out.
Jordan was more individually dominant as a scorer than LeBron, but LeBron approaches him there while also being the easier player to build around. Both have been massive scorers on championship teams, but if LeBron is paired with other primary scorers he can also act as the primary distributor and point guard. Both have been the best perimeter player on championship teams, but if need be, LeBron can also be the best big man on the team. Michael Jordan is one of the most competitive human beings to ever live, and if I have one possession with everything riding on it, I'd rather him have the ball than just about anyone. But if I have to pick one player to build my team around, and my choices are Jordan or LeBron, at the moment, I'm leaning towards taking LeBron.
Around the League
Paul is back: The Chris Paul watch is over for now, as he has returned from his knee injury and is back to making an impact on the court. After a rusty three-point/two-assist performance in 20 minutes against the Heat, Paul has bounced back to normal to average 20 points and 10.5 assists on 60% shooting from the field with 3.5 steals and 2.0 treys over his last four games. He's playing as well as ever, and suddenly the moribund Clippers are back to looking like a threat out West. I've said it before, but I'll repeat it now: this could actually be a good time to sell high on Paul. I have no inside knowledge of his knee situation, but he has had knee issues for several years in a row now and his injury risk is higher than most superstars. Since Paul is clearly the best player on your team, you may sleep a bit easier if you can flip him into equivalent value that doesn't have quite the same injury cloud hanging over their heads.
Rose "wouldn't mind" missing the rest of the year: Derrick Rose tore his ACL in May of last year, and it used to be thought that an ACL injury required at least a full year to recover from. In recent years, though, there have been an increasing number of Adrian Peterson-like stories of players recovering in more like 78 months, and so the assumption has long been that Rose would return to game action on that type of timeline. When Rose was cleared to practice earlier this month, it seemed as though he might be on pace to return right after the All-Star break. However, Rose has done multiple interviews this week to dispel that notion. In the first interview, he said that he was still far from returning and wouldn't do so until he was 110%, and then in a follow-up interview, Rose reiterated his stance that he was going to sit until fully healthy and that he wouldn't mind missing the rest of the season if need be. This is good news for Bulls fans with an eye on the future of their team, but it is potentially terrible news for those that took a chance and drafted/held Rose for all this time with the intent of adding a lottery talent late in the season. Rose hasn't completely ruled himself out, so if you've held him for this long you may as well continue to do so, but his return is a much riskier prospect now than it seemed just a week ago.
Melo's arm: Carmelo Anthony suffered a right arm contusion on Wednesday that briefly threatened his appearance in this weekend's All-Star Game. Had decided to skip the game, there may have been more concern that the injury was serious and/or that Melo might need more time to recover. However, Melo has announced that he will play in the All-Star Game after all, which is a good sign that the injury is minor and shouldn't be an issue moving forward.
Kobe's transformation, good for Lakers/bad for roto owners: Over the first few months of the season, Kobe Bryant was in the midst of a scoring renaissance. He was scoring at high volume with the best shooting efficiency of his career. There was only one problem: the Lakers were losing. They were losing a LOT, and despite the fact that Kobe's play was actually a positive for the team, Kobe was getting a lot of the blame for not doing more to incorporate his talented teammates Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. In response, over the last month-and-a-half, Kobe has completely shifted his game, subsuming his individual scoring in an attempt to get the team jump-started. He went from averaging 33.8 points on 47% FG with 4.6 assists in December to 24.4 points on 45% FG with 6.2 assists in January to 19.4 points on 43% FG with 6.8 assists thus far in February. Since this more team-facilitating Kobe has corresponded with the Lakers doing the most winning that they've done all year, the bet is that Kobe will continue to try this new approach as long as possible. While this is potentially great news for Lakers fans, for Kobe's owners this is bad because he's not making up the roto value of the lost points with a large enough increase in assists. And his other numbers such as FG%, three-pointers made, steals, and blocks have also dropped over that period. Ultimately, if you're a Bryant owner and believe that he will be this "new Kobe" for the rest of the season then it could be in your best interest to trade him now while his season numbers/ranking are still inflated. However, if you feel like an old dog can't learn THAT many new tricks and that the old Kobe will come back to the surface down the stretch as the Lakers attempt to push for the playoffs, then you might want to hold onto him and try to ride this new "passing thing" out.
Celtics dropping like flies: I wrote two weeks ago, immediately after Rajon Rondo went down for the year with injury, that the Celtics would be at least as good without him if not better. Nine games in that prediction looks good, as the Celtics have won 8-of-9 and their only loss came after a draining triple overtime victory. However, there's a new factor that threatens my prediction: the rest of the team is dropping like flies. Over a 13 day period, Rondo (torn ACL), Jared Sullinger (back surgery), and Leandro Barbosa (torn ACL) all went down for the season. This leaves only 10 active players on the Celtics roster, only seven of which were truly rotation players pre-injury surge. Considering that three of those seven rotation guys are 35-plus years old, and that they will thus be relied upon more heavily moving forward, this is concerning math. So now, we're on a Danny Ainge watch. If this trend concerns Ainge too much, we actually could see him pull the trigger on a blow-it-up type trade in the next week which likely hurts the fantasy value of whoever gets traded. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are each valuable in their current role, but if traded to contenders, that value diminishes. On the other hand, if Danny rides it out and keeps the squad together, then the old vets become top-25 roto values down the stretch. Stay tuned.
Drummond fractured tailbone, out 46 weeks: One of my favorite predictions all season has been that Andre Drummond would get more playing time down the stretch and turn into a fantasy impact player. That was right on the verge of happening, as Drummond was scheduled to move into the starting lineup for the Pistons a week ago. Unfortunately, he fractured his tailbone just when that move was supposed to occur and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. That timescale puts his potential return to the court somewhere between early and late March. If he returns in early March, that would still be enough time for him to make a late-season impact just in time for the head-to-head playoffs. But if it's late March, the risk is that the Pistons decide to shut him down instead. Drummond is thus a risky player to hold onto, but he still has upside for teams with deep benches.
Tony Allen (34% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Allen was in this space a couple of weeks ago when Rudy Gay was traded, because in the past, Allen has shown he can step up his offensive game without Gay. In the weeks since, he has done that again, averaging almost 15 points on over 60% shooting from the field to go along with his steady rebounding and defensive numbers.
Chauncey Billups (32% owned): Chris Paul wasn't the only Clippers guard to return from injury this week. Billups has also returned after a long absence and returned to the Clippers starting lineup. His main value these days is as a 3-point shooter, but he is doing that extremely well with three made treys per game over the past week. He also has starting point guard upside if Paul does have any more knee issues.
Jeff Green (23% owned): I said last week that Green was a player to watch due to his increased role with Rondo and Sullinger injured. With Barbosa's injury, barring a trade, the Celtics are essentially relying on Green for starter's minutes (34 mpg over last week) even if he's still coming off the bench. He's a potential top 5075 roto player as a starter, so he's worth an add until the Celtics' situation is sorted out.
Charlie Villanueva (6% owned): Villanueva is a very up-and-down player, but with Drummond's injury it has opened up more playing time for him. He has taken advantage of this to knock down three treys per game since Drummond went out, a skill that makes him valuable as a big man.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.