MIAMI — Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel didn’t mean to set off a frothing Twitter storm after Game 6. But he compared LeBron James to Michael Jordan, and, well, that’s enough to boil blood.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row, but we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era,” Vogel said after James had 25 points, six assists and four rebounds in Miami’s 117-92 victory Friday that eliminated the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Jordan and Bulls fans shot that down immediately, referencing Jordan’s six titles vs. James’ two and pointing out Jordan never lost in the NBA Finals, whereas James fell in his first two appearances.
During Jordan’s ascent to greatness, the Detroit Pistons had the Jordan Rules, their defensive principles for limiting Jordan. Today, it’s the Jordan Comparisons, and two players deal with them: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
“Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it’s so humbling,” James said when told of the latest comparison. “It’s like — I really don’t know.”
His admiration for Jordan is obvious.
“Me and (Heat star Dwyane Wade) grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls team and the great Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys,” James said.
Before this goes any further, James will be remembered as one of the best players ever, right there with Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain. Add a few more, if you wish.
“To be able to play the game that we love at a high level for one another, for our teammates, it’s the ultimate,” James said. “When you hear the comparisons, you respect it. You’re humbled by it.
“You just feel like while you’re in the moment hopefully, while you’re playing the game, that you can make an impact enough to where you move on and people will start comparing you to ones that’s in the game at the present time.”
James’ growth on the court in the past few seasons is well-documented — his efficiency, his low-post game, his three-point shooting, his keen sense of how a play will develop before it happens.
But his growth off the court has been phenomenal, too. He has a sense of who he is, which allows him to speak out on issues, whether it’s Donald Sterling, the National Basketball Players Association or Trayvon Martin. He would have been reluctant to touch those issues earlier in his career.
But he is the face of the league and is comfortable with that.
“As he’s gotten older, he understands that the things that he is passionate about he can speak out on it,” Wade said earlier in the series. “Coming here that first year when he was judged for whatever he did, that allowed him to feel confident. ‘You know what, I’m going to be judged for whatever I do or don’t do. If I say something or don’t say something, they are going to judge me.’ So it allowed him to feel more confident when he was ready to use his voice.”
James will never equal Jordan’s scoring averages, mainly because they are different players. Jordan averaged at least 30 points a game in eight seasons of his career. James has done that twice and is unlikely to do it again.
But James also does more than Jordan did in other areas, such as rebounding and passing. James is on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 25 points, seven rebounds and 6.5 assists a game for a career.
James and Jordan were tremendous defenders and made their teammates better. The reason these comparisons exist is because we like to rank transcendent, once-in-a-generation stars.
One thing to remember about Vogel’s comments is that he used the word “era.” When Jordan played, it was a different game and time, just as it was a different game and time in the era before Jordan and the era before that. In today’s collective-bargaining agreement, with luxury taxes and player movement, it’s more difficult to keep the core of team together.
Against the Pacers, James averaged 22.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists and shot 55.9% from the field. He was unstoppable in the restricted area at the basket, making 31-of-38 shots (81.6%). Other than him getting into foul trouble in Game 5, Indiana did not find a reliable way to stop James.
But who does?
Either the San Antonio Spurs (who lost to the Heat in the Finals last season) or the Oklahoma City Thunder (who lost to the Heat in the 2012 Finals) will get another chance to stop James as he tries to win his third consecutive NBA championship.
If he does, the Jordan comparisons will continue. If winning titles is the only thing stopping someone from thinking James is the Jordan of his era, well, James is only 29 and surely has several great seasons left.