Throughout the past 15 years, the mainstream media has constantly compared LeBron James to Michael Jordan. For example, Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post stated that he “grew up watching Jordan and grew wise (I hope) watching James, I still think it’s easier, at this point, to laud Jordan as basketball’s invincible hero”. However, it is unfair to compare these two players when their style of play is/was vastly different.
Michael Jordan Vs LeBron James (Offense)
Over the course of 8 years, the Chicago Bulls successfully implemented Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. In the triangle offense, one of the perimeter players would bring the ball up to the three-point line and passes it to another player posting up in the mid to low block. Once that happens, the person with the basketball would shoot a turn around jumper. Another example of the triangle offense is when one of the perimeter players would bring the ball up to the three-point line and passes it to another perimeter player. The second perimeter player will either dump the ball into the post or give it to a third perimeter player, and he will throw it into the post. After this occurs, the individual in possession of the ball would hold it for a couple of seconds to see if a teammate can successfully cut to the basket. The teammate who was supposed to cut to the basket usually came from one of the wings or corners. For instance, if the teammate came from the corner, the individual in possession of the ball would perform a backdoor pass. On the other hand, if the teammate came from the wing, the individual in possession of the ball would perform a drop pass. However, if the teammate weren’t able to successfully cut to the basket, the individual in possession of the ball would shoot the ball or kick it to the perimeter.
As a result of this system, Michael Jordan never had a defined role within the Chicago Bulls offense. Before his first retirement, Jordan alternated between the roles of a bystander, cutter, isolation and low post player. There were some possessions, where Michael received the ball on the wing or corner, and he would dump it into the post. Once that happens, Mike immediately cut to the basket in hopes of getting the ball back. If he were successful, Jordan would attempt a layup, dunk or shoot a short jumper. If he were unsuccessful, Michael Jordan would either fight thru the crowd to get in position to box out for the rebound, or he would go to the perimeter in hopes of getting the ball back. On the other hand, there were possessions where Mike would isolate the defender after the team got an offensive rebound or when the low post player passed the ball back to the perimeter. When this occurs, he will pay attention to his defender to determine the next course of action. If the defender gave him a few feet of space, he would pull up to shoot the wide-open mid-range jumper. But, if the defender played him tight, he will attempt to drive towards the basket for a score, to draw a foul or attract a double team. However, when Mike returned from his first retirement, he became more of a post up player. For example, Jordan would jog to the mid to low block and post up to call for the basketball. Once this happened, Michael Jordan would usually attempt a turnaround or fadeaway jumper.
On the other hand, LeBron James has played in a completely different system to that of Michael Jordan. Throughout the past seven NBA seasons, teams who obtained the services of LeBron James have incorporated an offensive system; that is meant to showcase his ability to pass the ball and get to the basket. As a result, he usually walks the ball up until the three-point line and evaluates how the defenders are positioned. For instance, if a defender is playing off of a three-point shooter, he is supposed to pass the ball to the wide-open shooter. On the other hand, if all the defenders are staying close to their man, he is expected to evaluate the size of his defender. If the defender is smaller than him, he should post up in the mid to low block and back him down until he can to a spot where he can shoot a jumper. But if his defender is the same size as him, he should use his speed and strength to get around him to attack the basket. However, there will be some instances where the defense will collapse on him, and he should pass the ball to the perimeter for the wide open three. Furthermore, on occasion, the team will break out some different sets within their playbook to prevent from becoming a predictable offense. For example, the team may have LeBron act like he is going to post up at the free throw line and have him pass the ball to a teammate doing a backdoor cut to the basket.
Michael Jordan Vs LeBron James (Defense)
As a result of LeBron’s playmaking duties, he has neglected the defensive side of the floor over the past few years. This is because LeBron uses defensive possessions to catch his breath to have enough energy for the next offensive possession. For instance, James will take the weakest offensive player on the opposing team and stand near the painted area until a shot is taken. Once the shot is taken, he will move towards the rim to get the rebound and start the next offensive possession. On the other hand, Michael Jordan kept his defensive intensity because he didn’t have to be a playmaker on every possession. For example, he would crowd the space of the ball handler forcing them to pick up the dribble and turn sideways. Once this happens, he would go for the steal or run to a spot on the same side the ball handler is looking at to cut off the potential pathway. After this happens, the ball handler has two choices, take a contested shot or pass the ball.
In conclusion, it is unfair to compare Michael Jordan and LeBron James because they played in two different systems which fundamentally changed their approach to the game.