Monday, May 30, 2011

Heir to Air?

Even though I believe Scottie Pippen's remarks were blown out of proportion, they still re-aggravated a longstanding question: Who's the next MJ?  Out of every player that has been compared to Jordan, only two are realistically within that realm: Kobe and LeBron.  This has led to a seemingly endless discussion of who's better than who.  Who's better: Jordan or Kobe?  Jordan or LeBron?  Kobe or LeBron?  The problem with these discussions is that they often blur the lines between past, present, and future.  People will use Kobe's legacy as reasoning for why he's better than LeBron currently, or they'll use LeBron's current production as reasoning why he's better than Kobe all-time, or they'll compare Jordan's career to what LeBron may do in the future.  Inconsistent parameters lead to a senseless discussion.  If you're using what Kobe did in 2006 to say he's better than LeBron in 2011, you're being foolish.  Analytical comparisons should stay in the same time frame.  Compare currently to currently or all-time to all-time, but don't go randomly between them.  With that said, let's sort through the Jordan-Kobe-LeBron debate.

As of right now, how do they compare all-time?  I'd rank them Jordan, Kobe, then LeBron.  Jordan's clearly number one, for obvious reasons.  Kobe's second because he already ranks among the ten greatest players to ever play the game.  He has the most compelling "next MJ" case of anyone in the last decade plus.  Despite what most people would like to believe, his resume stacks up nicely to Jordan's.  It's very similar, but does fall a little short.  LeBron is behind Kobe because his accomplishments don't match up.  Not just in championships (which I think is a pretty inadequate way of comparing individuals), but also in overall recognition (All-NBA Teams, All-Defensive Teams etc).  Kobe's the most skilled player in the world and was the best two-way player in the game for the better part of a decade (at least the best two-way wing player, depending on where Duncan fits in).  LeBron's track record just isn't long enough to surpass Kobe, at this point.

How do they rank currently (obviously excluding the retired one)?  I'd put LeBron above Kobe.  I think Kobe being injured in the postseason makes it feel like there's a bigger gap between them than there may be, but I'd still give the nod to LeBron.  One guy is 32 and has played 15 years in the league and the other is 26 and has only played 8 years in the league.  One guy's exiting his prime, while other one appears to be reaching his apex.  Putting Kobe above LeBron would be like if Jordan had continued playing into Kobe's career and someone said a 37-year old Jordan was better than a 22-year old Kobe.  I think people who put Kobe above LeBron in '11, or would've put Jordan above Kobe in '01, are not comparing the current state of both guys.  I think they're comparing the track record of the veteran against the prime of the other player.  Otherwise I think common sense would dictate that the guy in his prime would have the advantage. 

How will they rank in the future?  As close as Kobe is to Jordan, I don't think he'll ever pass him.  Whether or not the rankings get switched up depends on what LeBron does in the next few years.  In theory, LeBron should be able to pass Kobe and Jordan.  He's at least as talented as the other two.  And when you combine that with his superior physical talents, you'd assume he could pass them.  The chink in LeBron's armor appears to be his mentality.  The reason Jordan is better than Kobe and LeBron is because he was an assassin, but he also learned to trust his teammates.  For the most part, Kobe's too much of an assassin and LeBron's too much of a facilitator.  If LeBron had half the competitiveness and ruthlessness of Jordan or Kobe, he would have a legitimate shot at being the best player ever.  Kobe eventually learned to trust his teammates.  Will LeBron ever learn to play cold-blooded, on a consistent basis?  If he does, he'd have a good shot at passing Kobe and challenging Jordan.  

The one thing that could prevent that from happening is his decision to team up with Wade.  No, not because LeBron couldn't win without help.  All the greats need help.  Bird had McHale, Magic had Kareem, Jordan had Pippen, Shaq had Kobe, Kobe had Pau etc.  The difference is that those tandems had a clear pecking order.  As great as their sidekicks were, Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq and Kobe were the alpha dogs of championship teams.  Elite players should be the alpha dog of their team.  Who's the alpha dog of Miami?  That's what I think the problem is for LeBron.  He didn't get a great sidekick.  He got an equal.  If he would've teamed up with Bosh, I don't think anyone would've seen that as hurting his legacy.  It's that he teamed up with Wade.  LeBron should want to prove that he's better than Wade, just like he should want to prove he's better than Kobe, Durant, Carmelo, and Howard.   

Him teaming up with an equal seemingly reveals his desire to be the best, or lack thereof.  Kobe wanted to be 'the man' so bad that he forcefully ended a dynasty by pushing out Shaq.  LeBron doesn't appear to care about whether or not he's "the man."  And if he doesn't have that, how's he going to be better than Jordan?  That's why I think teaming up with Wade could hurt his all-time standing.  Because it wasn't just him getting help to win titles, it was him seemingly relinquishing the alpha dog role.  For him to rid that perception, I think he'd have to win multiple championships as "the man."  If he shares the spotlight with Wade, I think it hurts him.  

Is LeBron the heir to Jordan?  It's not impossible, but he would have to develop an assassin demeanor and be the preeminent player on his team if he wants to catch Air.

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