By Jack M Silverstein
3:33 PM CST, February 20, 2013
It's bad luck that we'll never get to see Michael Jordan play against LeBron James in their primes. With MJ turning 50 earlier this week, we got to relive Jordan's greatest hits on every platform imaginable.
And hey, the Miami Heat are in town Thursday. No better time to take a harder look at the career comparison of James and Jordan. The idea that LeBron could one day be considered greater than MJ seems insane, but when Phil Jackson, Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas say it, there's got to be some truth there, right?
Doubtful. That said, it is possible for LeBron to distinguish himself from Jordan. In fact, he can do so in six ways.
1. WIN 4 MVPs IN 5 YEARS AND 6 MVPs IN 8 YEARS
One of the problems with the NBA's MVP award is voters often look for reasons NOT to give it to the league's best player. During the Bulls' six championship seasons, voters gave MJ only four MVPs. However, it is likely that if you'd asked every voter for the league's "best" player, they would say Jordan every year.
So if LeBron can win four MVPs in five years, or top MJ's five MVPs and do so in, say, eight seasons, that would speak volumes to the degree of his dominance.
LIKELIHOOD: 7/10. James is the frontrunner for the 2013 MVP, which would give him four in five seasons. 6 in 8 is much harder, but if anyone can do it, it's LeBron.
2. WIN ASSIST TITLES
Jordan's G.O.A.T. credentials are as much about his breadth of achievement as they are about dominating one category (like winning six rings in eight years). LeBron has never had an all-around season like MJ's 1988. Imagine the skill set required to win the MVP, the scoring title, defensive player of the year and the dunk contest in the same season. In 2012, that was the equivalent of James, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Durant and Jeremy Evans rolled into one.
Where does that leave LeBron? His passing numbers have always outdone Jordan's. MJ's career high came in 1989 (8.0 assists per game). If James could nab five more assists per game and win assist titles, he would have achieved something Jordan did not.
LIKELIHOOD: 4/10. He entered the All-Star break 11th in the league in assists with 6.9, and with Rajon Rondo out, Chris Paul is now the league leader with 9.6. But could LeBron win a minimum of three assist titles to match the number of steals titles for Jordan? Difficult.
3. PLAY 25 YEARS
MJ played 15 seasons of professional basketball while missing four and a half seasons in retirement. LeBron entered the league three years younger than Jordan and, at 28, is in his 10th season. If Jordan could play out his career over 19 seasons, and Kobe Bryant can be an MVP candidate at age 34 in year 17, it's conceivable that the even younger and stronger LeBron could cruise to year 20 and still be an all-star.
Under that scenario, it's easy to imagine LeBron making it to year 25. If LeBron sets the new benchmark for seasons played, that's a significant milestone, and pretty damn cool.
LIKELIHOOD: 7/10. The success at an advanced age being enjoyed by stars such as Kobe, Tim Duncan and Garnett is well-documented, so barring an MJ-like "I've got nothing left to prove" crisis, LeBron should easily get to 20 seasons, and maybe to 25.
4. START PLAYING CENTER
Much was made during last season's playoffs about LeBron spending time in the frontcourt. If he could make an effective switch to a full-time power forward or center defensive role for an entire postseason series, that would really be something.
Let's see LeBron defend Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan or Dwight Howard in the Finals after guarding, say, Amare Stoudemire, Brook Lopez or Carlos Boozer in the East playoffs.
LIKELIHOOD: 6/10. Difficult, but not impossible, especially since he is Miami's best interior defender.
5. BECOME TEAM USA'S G.O.A.T.
There is one significant area where LeBron already has MJ beat: the Olympics. LeBron is one of only three U.S. men's basketball players to participate in three Olympics, and he has a chance to win another medal in 2016.
As for Jordan, he won gold in 1984 and 1992 but passed on the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Skipping these Games is not necessarily a bad mark on Jordan's career, but the Olympics are an opportunity for James to be remembered on his own terms, and not simply based on how he compares to Jordan.
LIKELIHOOD: 8/10. He is already past Jordan here. And while anything can change, James' last public statement about playing in the 2016 Rio Olympics was positive: "If I'm healthy … and if I have the opportunity to be out there, I will do it."
If LeBron leads the Heat to a four-peat, he would accomplish something no one since Bill Russell could do. To use a bastardized version of one of LeBron's most infamous quotes: Not Kareem, not Magic, not Larry, not Shaq, not Kobe, not Michael.
LIKELIHOOD: 5/10. LeBron has to get to three before this could be discussed, placing him in that rarefied gauntlet only Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2003 have faced head on recently. If he wins the 2013 and 2014 titles, what a season 2015 would be. Hoverboards and four-peats for all!
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @ReadJack.
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