x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

LeBron James can provide a challenge to Michael Jordan as basketball's greatest ever

Michael Jordan celebrated his 50th birthday on the same day as this year's All Star Game, knowing one of the participants is the most obvious contender to take his crown.

Hall of famer Michael Jordan is widely regarded as basketball's greatest of all time.
Hall of famer Michael Jordan is widely regarded as basketball's greatest of all time.

The basketball gods chose to synchronise the NBA All-Star Game last Sunday with Michael Jordan's 50th birthday. The cosmic overlap invited debate on whether Jordan's distinction as Greatest Of All Time might someday be usurped by one of the participants.

Already, LeBron James has infiltrated the long-reigning topmost triad of Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, converting it to a foremost foursome. (Sorry, Kobe. Close, but no cigar.)

That Jordan has no peer is an open-and-shut case - nobody could get open nor shut down an opposing player like him - although not for the reason most often cited. A half-dozen league titles buttressed his claim to pre-eminence but did not establish it.

Rather, Jordan barged to the front of the line by exhibiting a skills set never before witnessed and fitting them into a team concept with smashing results. That, alone, should be the framework for considering "greatest" candidacies.

He could score by any means necessary. He could power through defenders, dance around them or levitate over them, floating to the rim as if being transported by invisible overhead cables. When they converged on him like magnets to steel, he found the open teammate.

He was mean, cocky, thin-skinned and vindictive. Such traits do not friends make - a satirical newspaper imagined Jordan celebrating the big 5-0 at a party with the only five people whom he has not alienated - but they can translate well to the sports arena.

Bird and Johnson excelled at most facets but each proved mortal in one - Bird on defence, Johnson with shooting. There were no ticks in the "needs improvement" column on Jordan's evaluation sheet.

Then along came a kid whose body, beard and basketball know-how conveyed someone well beyond his years.

The downside of being James was having to bear the weight of ridiculous expectations, condensed in his nickname: Chosen One. Because of his mien, complete and instant mastery of the game was anticipated.

This was a burden dodged by Jordan, a late bloomer who put in three college seasons and was a maturing 21 years of age when he deposited his first NBA paycheque. It was a more patient era, when instant stardom was less a presumption than a pleasant surprise. Jordan, like everyone else, was granted time to develop.

James also suffered from comparisons to Jordan, at least the Jordan who sinks game winners. James is descended more directly from Johnson, a pass-first player who strived to involve his teammates.

When James followed his instincts and dished the ball instead of hog it, as Jordan did with impeccable results, he was excoriated.

Look at him now. James is handing out about 60 per cent more assists in the fourth quarter than the first.

The case for James is more about passing the eye test than hanging up statistics. But if verification demands numbers, chew on this mouthful:

He ranks third in the league in scoring, tied for 11th in assists, 12th in steals, tied for 15th on three-point accuracy and 26th in rebounds.

What puts James in Jordanesque stratosphere is a versatility unfathomable until he came along. Put him at point guard, shooting guard or small forward, and he dominates. At power forward, he would thrive. As line-ups continue to shrink, he would persevere at centre.

One last stat: nine years a professional, James has not settled, having improved his fieldgoal marksmanship each season since 2006/07.

There is the significant, if overstated, matter of championships. James has but one. Acquire a couple more - a likelihood if the Miami Heat's core stays intact - and we can spend Jordan's 60th birthday with some legitimate debate on which player is the best ever.



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