LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and “Making Teammates Better”

The Lakers are a burning Dumpster fire of a franchise, and it looks like for the first time since 2005, the NBA playoffs will happen with no LeBron James present.

Despite this, LeBron is having another top-notch season statistically, posting 27.4 points per game (above his career average of 27.2) and, considering his 35.3 minutes per game are a career low, he’s actually posting the highest scoring rate on a per-minute basis in 16 seasons in the league.

He’s posting a 26.0 PER, .595 True Shooting, .186 WS/48, and 4.5 VORP, all despite playing in just 50 of the Lakers’ 69 games.

Per 82 games, LeBron’s on pace to post 7.4 VORP, slightly but not catastrophically below the numbers he posted in his second stint in Cleveland.

On an individual level, LeBron is as great as ever, but he’s giving back ground in the GOAT debate with Michael Jordan because he’s increasingly seen as hanging his teammates out to dry in an “MJ would never do that, he elevated the Bulls” kind of way.

Or, put another way, the argument goes that you can’t be the greatest of all time unless you not only surpass your competition’s individual accolades—James passed Jordan on the career scoring list earlier this month and might still catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time scoring title, LeBron’s got nine Finals appearances including eight in a row, that latter accomplishment unmatched by anyone who never played with Bill Russell, and he might record a career triple-double of sorts when he gets to 10,000 career rebounds and assists—but elevate your teammates in the process.

Then again, Jordan never dragged teams like the 2007 and 2018 Cavaliers to the Finals by himself; Horace Grant would probably be the third-best player on the 2007 Cavs even though he retired three years earlier and turned 42 in ’07.

On “Making His Teammates Better” As A Concept

Let’s take this from another angle. I think we can collectively agree that LeBron’s teammates didn’t become better basketball players as a result of playing alongside King James. The Cavaliers’ 19-win season in 2010-11 says more about LeBron than it does about them, and the largely intact Lakers roster that won 35 games in 2017-18 and might not even get to that mark this year (they’re 31-38 with 13 games to go and would have to go no worse than 5-8 to beat last year’s team) stands as the latest testament to “as LeBron goes, so goes the teams he’s on.”

Even when you consider the likes of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (in Miami) or Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (in Cleveland), those teams were rightly criticized for and probably lost five Finals between them because of their lack of depth below the superstar level.

Since LeBron doesn’t even have a second superstar and plays in the much more difficult West, you’re getting exactly what you’d expect when given the ancillary fact that LeBron has missed nearly 30 percent of the season with injury.

Michael Jordan’s Track Record

There’s a good reason Scottie Pippen never won anything without Jordan, and it’s not just because, y’know, he didn’t have Michael Jordan.

Pippen was never the leader Jordan was, and the 1994 Bulls crashed and burned in Game 7 against the eventual East champ Knicks in part because of Scottie’s attitude.

Even though that Bulls team still had B.J. Armstrong, Grant, and Bill Cartwright from the 1993 squad, the role of Michael Jordan was played by…Pete Myers, who started 81 games at shooting guard and averaged 7.9 points per game while posting a minus-0.1 VORP in 2030 minutes.

Jordan’s VORP in ’93: 8.9, equivalent to around 24 wins by himself over a replacement player like, say, Pete Myers.

The ’94 Bulls went 55-27 a year after going 57-25.

So maybe Pippen is criminally underrated even by the standards of the generally accepted belief that Scottie is criminally underrated.

My point is this. When Jordan came back, he took a roster that had gone 34-31 without him in 1994-95, led them to a 13-4 record and a second-round playoff series with Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and the eventual NBA Finals Orlando Magic, before going 72-10 the following year and stampeding to the next three championships.

And that ’95 Bulls team? They had Steve Kerr and Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc and Pippen and Luc Longley and Jud Buechler and everyone from the core of the title teams except Dennis Rodman.

Jordan elevated those guys. Look at the careers that most of them had without Jordan.

Kukoc played all the way through 2006 and was never anywhere near as effective, finally stinking out the joint for a mid-aughts Bucks team that got him when their title window closed.

Pippen did OK for himself in Portland, getting denied a shot at his own title as much by the refs as by the Lakers. But he was never anything close to Jordan level, as we saw in 1995.

Myers, for what it’s worth, played in only 40 more games as a pro after the Bulls got rid of him, consigning him forever to the status of “bar trivia answer.”

Harper got two rings as a veteran non-factor on the Lakers, never anything close to the player who was Jordan’s defensive backcourt sidekick.

Kerr…well, he got Tim Duncan and David Robinson to elevate him in Jordan’s absence, not a bad way to land when you’re a role-player, and he did his part in the 2016 Finals to help ensure his 1996 Bulls remained the greatest team of all time.

Longley regressed to being hot garbage in Phoenix for two years before his career petered out in New York in 2000-01.

All of those guys had careers that can be neatly divided into “played with Michael Jordan and looked like All-Stars” and either “crashed out of the league” or “lucked into the freaking Spurs and ended up great coaches and now they have more rings than a jewelry store.”

On the Other Hand…

Contrast LeBron’s teammates. This year’s Lakers have a regressing young core that might’ve developed into something worthwhile but for the fact that LeBron showed up and ruined it for them.

Kyrie Irving, if he can ever get his head out of his ass, is doing more as his own man in Boston than he ever did as LeBron’s sidekick.

Kevin Love was miles and miles better in Minnesota than he ever was in Cleveland, as playing with LeBron actually made him worse (and now that injuries seem to have him on the downside of his career, he looks a bit Longley-ish in his denouement.)

And Dwyane Wade was 28 when LeBron joined him; his decline was immediate and precipitous as he and LeBron never learned how to share the ball.

All the evidence that Jordan “made his teammates better” once he got the selfish-scorer act out of his system by the 1991 season is right there not only in the eye test when you watch the games but in the way players were indisputably better with Jordan as a teammate.

LeBron, meanwhile, seems to vampire up the basketball energy from anyone who plays on the same team as him.

And while if you’re going strictly by individual accolades and citing team and context only to handwave LeBron’s six losses in the Finals (because you can only drag a bad team so far before you run into Tim Duncan or Stephen Curry), LeBron’s case as the GOAT is a solid one…

…you have to overlook one hell of a counter-argument that comes from any kind of serious examination of His Airness in the context of the six title teams he was on.

*UPDATE 3/17: A previous version of this piece said Ron Harper won two titles with the Clippers. Not even in Donald Sterling’s fever dreams. Pace and Space regrets the error.