LeBron James and Magic Johnson were and are both once-in-a-generation players. In fact, they will stand the test of time to be among the best of any generation. Any number of skills can make a player become the best of his time, but what stood out about Magic and what stands out about LeBron is how wide that definition can be. Usually we think of a player by his best attributes (Reggie Miller: three-point shooting) and it’s a fairly narrow discussion. With LeBron and Magic, however, it becomes one of what can’t they do exceptionally well, because make no mistake, they can do it all. Both could play all five positions, if needed, and not a shade too poorly either; even out of position these two could (and do) make opponents pay for a lacking execution. So who is more versatile: LeBron, who turned Miami’s small ball strategy into a title-winning formula, or Magic, who became Showtime?
We took up arguments from both sides, but whom do you believe?
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At some point during the first nine years of his prodigious career, LeBron James became almost as well-known for his passing skills as his scoring. Rather than “Michael Jordan 2.0,” he was commonly referred to as a freakish hybrid of Jordan and Magic Johnson, equally capable of dropping 40 in the blink of an eye and playing the facilitator with passes even Rajon Rondo wouldn’t dream of — maybe even in the same game.
Even before he finally won a title this year, James was clearly the most talented and versatile player in the game. There really wasn’t even a close second, and likely won’t be for quite some time. But when you consider his place in a historical sense, particularly against someone as singularly transcendent as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, things get a bit dicier. We are, after all, comparing James to the point guard who put up 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and three steals in a championship-clinching game six — while starting at center.
And yet, I still side with James.
(Just to get this out of the way: yes, I’m 22 years old and never got to watch Magic play live. Yes, I’ve watched James with a fervent eye ever since he was drafted in 2003, and his insanely dominant playoff performance this past season is still very fresh in my mind. So you can call me biased, and I’ll understand. But this is really just basic logic.)
Let’s get some rudimentary stats out of the way first. Over his 13-year career, Magic Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game — not far removed from a triple double every game. To many, those three numbers would shut down the argument for good. Especially since James, despite his higher career scoring average (27.6 points per game), has never broken double digit assists per game for a season and averages the same amount of rebounds as Johnson did. Based on these measures, Johnson easily comes off as more “versatile.”
But those numbers are really only half the story, if that. Because 300-plus words into this thing, we still haven’t mentioned defense — not even once — and it is in this regard that James charges ahead of the field like Usain Bolt in the back stretch of the 100. Consider that during one road trip last season, James guarded everyone from Kobe Bryant to Pau Gasol, Paul Millsap, Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace. Consider that he was instrumental in keeping the league’s most devastating scorer — Kevin Durant (sorry, Kobe fans) — relatively quiet in the Finals. Consider that in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, he held MVP Derrick Rose to 6.3 percent shooting from the floor. That is not a typo.
Magic Johnson would have trouble just staying in front of Rose, let alone holding him well below 10 percent shooting. For all of his brilliance on the offensive side of the floor, James is perhaps even more impressive on defense, and that’s what ultimately separates him from Johnson. He can do literally everything on a basketball court but shoot free throws consistently (which is oddly fitting: he’s worst at the one facet of basketball that presumably anyone could perfect).
And if you want to romanticize Magic’s near triple double averages (he was .6 assists shy of
averaging one throughout the entire 1979-80 playoffs), take a peek at James’ 2012 playoff stats: 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists per game.