Heat's LeBron James is Not Michael Jordan, He's Karl Malone

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It’s easy to want to compare LeBron James, the self-proclaimed “King,” to Michael Jordan, who’s known by his own royal handle, “His Airness.” It’s true, at least statistically speaking, both players warrant a nickname fit for a king. But like Nas said, “There can only be one King.”

For now, forever and until the NBA ceases to exist, Michael Jordan will be that king. We can talk about the numbers until our heads turn blue, but it’s clear that through their first eight seasons, respectively, Jordan’s individual accolades are far superior to LeBron’s. Take, for example, each player’s PER, or Player Efficiency Rating, which is a measure of per-minute production. Through eight seasons Jordan carried a 29.8 PER compared to LeBron’s 26.9. OK, so PER is not an end-all-be-all indicator of one player’s greatness over another, but it’s a good start. But in this time of need, I won’t refer you to the numbers or ask that you check out Jordan’s win-shares against LeBron’s. What I will do, however, is tell you that if you’ve seen both players—yes, actually seen—you can surmise that Jordan’s style, skill-level and competitive nature can be matched by only Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, not “The King.” LeBron James stands close to Jordan on the greatness scale, no doubt about it, but his true comparison after 8 seasons might be more “Mailman” than monarch. 

I think we can all agree that it’s not so easy to make straight-up player comparisons when you’re trying to pull two or three players from different eras. Think about the business of basketball and how different it is now from when Jordan and Malone were in their mid-20s. Think about the maturity level of some of the players today, the one-and-done kids or the straight out of high school pros. Think of what LeBron went through in his climb, going from being a pimply 18-year-old high school kid one day to being a pimply 18-year-old multi-millionaire the next. Jordan and Malone never went through the hype machine that so scrutinized LeBron James. It’s that kind of makeup which pushes a kid to have a one-hour special about where he’s going to sign—remember, when Jordan returned to the NBA after his brief stint in baseball he sent the league office a fax reading, “I’m back.” It’s the kind of makeup that allows for a kid to mock his opponent as if he’s feigning illness instead of grabbing him by the throat and suffocating him on the court, figuratively speaking. In that regard, LeBron is no Michael Jordan. Nor is he Karl Malone. Heck, he’s not even John Stockton.

Stylistically speaking, LeBron does resemble Karl Malone; more so than he does MJ. When you watch LeBron James in the open court, you’re not witnessing Jordan. What you’re seeing is a combination of great athleticism on a NFL linebacker’s body. I once sat down with Patrick Baumann, the Secretary General of FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, and asked him about LeBron James and how he felt his game would translate in the international game. Baumann told me, “He’s a great player, and one thing I know, if I were on the court and he were running at me in full speed, I’d get out of the way!” Not exactly a Jordan-esque comparison, if you ask me.

LeBron James’ game is built on power and speed, on God-given ability; a recipe for basketball greatness. He doesn’t seem to have the “clutch” gene that Kobe Bryant has, let alone the “clutchiness” that all-time greats like Jerry West or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan could turn on at a given moment. In fact, he’s best served as “a decoy,” similarly to what the great Charley Rosen once decried of Karl Malone. Don’t believe in the “clutch gene”? Well then take this simple test. The Heat are down by two points with seven seconds to play, who do you want taking the shot? That’s an easy one, right? Dwyane Wade. Replace “Heat” with the “Jordan-era Bulls” and you’ll never get any answer other than Jordan. Take the “Malone-era Jazz” test and you might say John Stockton or even Jeff Hornacek.

Let’s not read into this piece and think that I’m suggesting that like Malone, LeBron will retire ring-less. I won’t even begin to claim that he won’t win a title. In fact, I’d be shocked if he retires with any fewer than two championship rings. But what I can tell you is that unlike Jordan, he’ll win those rings while playing on someone else’s team. Where he and Malone begin to part ways here is that Malone chased ring in 2003, his final year in the league, while LeBron did so in just his 8th season in the league.

If we want to bring statistics back into the discussion, let’s look at LeBron’s fist eight seasons versus Malone’s first eight. At the base the numbers are fairly close. Where LeBron distances himself from Malone is in his Assist Percentage (AST%). Naturally, Malone (13.0) played off the ball, with Stockton running the point, while LeBron (34.2) has spent most of his career playing point-forward. Thus, leading to LeBron posting a 80.2 Offensive Win Shares (OWS) to Malone’s 52.7. Meaning, LeBron’s offense made more of an impact toward his team winning. Conversely, Malone contributed at a higher rate on the defensive side of the ball than LeBron did, per their comparative Defensive Win Share. Aside from the play-making, which skews the overall numbers a bit, the numbers are close. Malone was a better rebounder and, believe it or not, a more effective shooter—he boasted a higher True Shooting % and Effective Field Goal % than LeBron through his first eight.

I’ll admit that the comparison, like most, isn’t perfect. But it’s fair and it’s close; closer than the Jordan comparison. Maybe it’s better to simply check out the tape.

Watch LeBron’s highlights, and make sure to check out the 2:20 mark.

Here is a Karl Malone reel.

I recognize that we could probably pick-and-choose our way through putting a highlight reel together where LeBron looks like Jerry West. But through eight seasons, I’m leaning toward the Mailman/LeBron comparison as a matter of style. To be fair to LeBron, he has made two NBA Finals appearances in his first eight seasons, while Malone hadn’t made it to the Finals until he was 33 years old. From there, though, we can make the case of who LeBron went through versus who Malone had to get through. That’s for another day.

Remember, comparisons change at the drop of a dime. How often were we making the LeBron James-Magic Johnson comparisons early in his career? Then we moved to making LeBron the next MJ. I’m turning the page and focusing on Malone. For now.

I’m sure some will see the base comparison to Malone and find holes, which are certainly there, and take umbrage in it, but it’s not meant to be a slight. It’s simply meant to dethrone this idea that LeBron is “The King.” He needs a new identity, a new nickname. And if you’re not comfortable with going the blue-collar route, maybe we can go green and refer to him as “The Environmentalist.” Don’t environmentalists believe that human activity causes harmful changes to an environment? It fits, now let’s see if it sticks.
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