A decade after Michael Jordan’s retirement, it remains difficult to separate the man from the myth. Every basketball fan can recite his story by rote: a young man from humble beginnings, once cut from his high school team (or not), becomes the best in the world; an implacable foe (the Bad Boy Pistons) stands in his way. To pass his final test, he learns from a wise mentor (Phil Jackson) who imparts some valuable life lessons (the Triangle Offense, maybe a few books). Our hero reaches the top, but unseen forces drag him into exile (baseball) before a triumphant return. It’s Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, the archetypal story that the original Star Wars trilogy was based on, condensed into a 60-second commercial.
Ever since, the basketball industry has scoured the Earth for “the next Jordan,” some other young lead to cast in this story. The entire AAU basketball infrastructure, where almost every American player over the last 20 years has learned the game, was created by shoe companies hoping to identify the next great pitchman as early as possible. Some players invited the comparisons, others shunned them. Either way, they were inevitable: there was a model that worked fabulously well, on the court and on earning statements. In terms of narrative, the NBA was stuck in Jordan’s shadow, until LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach.
LeBron, who came into the league a year after Jordan’s retirement, was born to the throne, or more literally born with a combination of body and talent that had never been seen before. He had Jordan’s athleticism and Karl Malone’s size; at 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. At 18, he was drafted No. 1 overall by his hometown team, and expected to end a championship drought that stretched back to 1964.
Jordan won his first title in his seventh year in the NBA, automatically marking the timeline against which LeBron would be judged, obvious other differences aside. The Bulls drafted Pippen, Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc; the Cavs drafted Luke Jackson, Shannon Brown and JJ Hickson. When the Bulls needed to improve their roster during the Jordan Dynasty, they traded for Dennis Rodman and signed Ron Harper; the Cavs landed Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall. LeBron had his fair share of playoff heroics and disappointments in Cleveland, but never a season in which the Cavs rightly should have won the title. The other four starters on the 2007 NBA Finals team were Hughes, Eric Snow, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Basketball is not an individual sport, but LeBron was still judged by his team’s playoff failures.
When James reached unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2010, there were several paths in front of him. He could try to finish the journey in Cleveland, chase Jordan’s legacy in Chicago or start a dynasty of his own in New York. Few expected him to head to Miami, since the Heat already had a perimeter superstar with a championship pedigree. As Obi-Wan Kenobi told Darth Vader in Episode III: “You were the Chosen One! You were supposed to defeat [Dwyane Wade]. Not join him!” LeBron, who has “The Chosen One” tattooed on his back, was rejecting a search that had consumed basketball for a generation. What Would Jordan Have Done? Not this. Here, LeBron’s story jumped the track. Here is where it really gets interesting.
When Kobe Bryant hit free agency in 2004, his first priority was establishing that the Lakers were “his team.” His team had already won three titles, but Shaq had been the Finals MVP all three times. O’Neal was already 32 years old, but there was no reason to break apart a team that had either won the championship or lost to the champions in each of the last seven seasons. Nevertheless, Jordan never had a 7’1 300 Goliath on his team, and Kobe wouldn’t be seen as his equal until he proved he could do it on his own. The Lakers lucked into Pau Gasol, but Kobe’s career looked headed for a hubris-powered tragic conclusion in 2007, when he was losing in the first round, ice-grilling Smush Parker and demanding a trade.
It’s hard to imagine LeBron putting himself in the same position. There’s plenty to argue about when it comes to LeBron, Kobe and Jordan, but not who was the better teammate. At heart, LeBron is a passer, not a scorer. James has averaged 7 assists a game over the course of his career, one more than Jordan and two more than Kobe. Jordan had to learn to trust his teammates; LeBron had to learn to trust himself. The first “controversy” of his career came in 2007, when he set up Donyell Marshall for the potential game-winning shot at the end of a playoff game instead of taking it himself. In contrast, one of the apocryphal stories from Jordan’s first championship with the Bulls was Phil Jackson demanding that he pass the ball to John Paxson.
LeBron certainly doesn’t have to be a pass-first player. He’s usually the biggest, fastest and most skilled player on the court. If he wanted, he could gun for the scoring title every season. Over their careers, LeBron has averaged three fewer field goal attempts a game than Jordan. In his tenth season, he’s taking the lowest number of field goal attempts in his career. Carmelo Anthony led the league with 28.7 points on 45% shooting; LeBron finished fourth at 26.8 points on 56% shooting. It’s not quite as simple as extrapolating out from that, but it’s not all that much more complicated, either.
You can see LeBron’s impact on the game already. After watching his team get dissected by LeBron’s all-around game in last year’s Finals, Kevin Durant came back this season with a different mindset. Rather than going for his fourth consecutive scoring title, Durant has become more of a playmaker, averaging a career-high number of assists. Without LeBron, the NBA’s big storyline about Durant would be whether he could co-exist with Russell Westbrook. But Kobe’s old quest to make the team “his” is not Durant’s, and that’s in part because it’s not LeBron’s, either. The relentless pursuit and proof of “alpha dog” status is played out, and while winning isn't any less important, winning in one very specific way has never seemed less so.
The Heat are a much better and more enjoyable team as a result of all this, and of LeBron's willingness to do things differently. The ball moves freely, rarely sticking in one player’s hand. Rather than hunting for their own shot, Miami’s best players hunt for the most efficient opportunity. When a team’s best player is unselfish nearly to a fault, everyone else has no choice but to follow along. In contrast, Jordan, like Kobe, was willing to do “whatever it takes” for his team to win, except if it meant swallowing his ego and giving up the ball. Jordan punched his own teammates and famously demeaned everyone around him. LeBron showed, and continues to show, that there is another way.
In basketball, more than any other team sport, there’s an inherent conflict between individual and the team. An openness is wired into the game: in basketball, every player has the choice whether to pass or to shoot. One player can take over a game of change a franchise, but no player, not even Jordan, is bigger than the game, or could be. Jordan still needed four other players on the floor with him; Kobe needed a center, whether he liked it or not.
LeBron’s ascent and uncommonly benevolent reign has proven that, in looking to find the next player with Jordan’s “will to win,” we were always asking the wrong question. When we talk about whether Andrew Wiggins might be the next LeBron, we will consider strongly how willingly and how well he passes the ball. No matter what happens, or how many rings he eventually wears, that will be LeBron’s legacy. Jordan’s story is a good one, and its main character a great one. But it’s not the only story, and that hero’s journey is not the only one out there.
NOTE: Corrected for a mistake on Shaquille O'Neal's age in 2004.