To mark the return of NBA TV’s “Open Court,” roundtable discussion show, the juiciest part of the first episode has come out — Charles Barkley says LeBron James could be better than Michael Jordan. If you’re upset with those comments, it’s because 1) you despise LeBron James 2) you’re upset a player from Jordan’s era would take another generation’s best over MJ or 3) you believe the game’s peak lies frozen in amber in 1998. But Barkley is right.
First, a look at Charles, because you have to consider the source. Barkley is paid because of his mouth, and being paid for your mouth means quantity of his words can easily outweigh their value. It’s easy to fall into shockingly honest Barkley fatigue because of it. Barkley, though, makes for great TV because he seems to earnestly not care about making great TV. I do not believe he says what he says for ratings. It’s like finding a natural stream and bottling pure water off for retail; that stream would always be there, but TNT and NBA TV executives were smart enough to stick a camera in from of Barkley. A comparison to Jordan is sacred, though, and is a discussion whose threshold even Barkley wouldn’t cross without absolute conviction.
Let’s look at his point.
“I do think he can be better than Michael. I thought I would never compare somebody to Michael Jordan. But this guy, LeBron James, he does everything well. Michael did everything well. LeBron James is just bigger, stronger, faster. That’s the only difference.”
We hear too often about the “bigger, stronger, faster” as confirmation of someone’s greatness on physique alone, when Barkley himself is a sample case of why it doesn’t matter for success. For James, though, it is the essential difference that could be the difference in his case for being better than Michael at the end of their careers. The numbers can be skewed because of his two-year head start in the NBA over MJ, and the time he’ll be playing that Jordan used as his first retirement. In per-game statistics, they’re so close to one another, with differences in the areas you might expect: the smaller Jordan averages a steal more and a rebound less than LeBron, while shooting percentages are each within three percentage points.
That condensed excellence is a huge factor into why we believe so much that Jordan is the best ever. I believe one reason why Kobe Bryant, even with his five titles, isn’t in this discussion is because of the extra time he’s had in the NBA relative to Jordan. And also, and not in a small way, because of this: Whereas Bryant was hugely successful as an individual by mimicking Jordan’s high-scoring, good-defense game, he didn’t change the NBA’s dynamics like LeBron can. It goes back to the size and what he showed he can do with it, a sneak peek of which he delivered last June. I remember the days that Jonathan Bender was entering the league, ushering in a crop of 6-10 small forwards who were ready to reinvent how that position was played. James is now that player who can change how all positions are played with physical attributes to float between center and point guard, the title to prove it and the confidence to do it again. He could average a triple double this season, hands down.
It’s the latter point that is most important because, as long as we’re talking similarities between Jordan and James, a huge gulf sits between Jordan’s need for competitiveness seemingly to function and James’ appearance of accepting the status quo at times. Jordan didn’t need confirmation what he was doing was right, because he’d do it anyway. Even though he’s five titles down to MJ, James can play like a gambler with house money and eager to test the limits. That confidence of a title is enormous and won’t fade like the glory from James’ three MVPs. Barkley saw the upper limit, or what he thought it was, and now sees the person who can change it. It’s not heresy to say LeBron can be better than Jordan, it’s an acceptance that time didn’t stop with MJ’s follow through at the Delta Center in 1998.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.