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.
An NBA player’s versatility can be measured by his ability to adapt to different circumstances without forfeiting the desired end result: to win a basketball game. Through personnel and coaching changes over time, a truly versatile player will need to wear many masks, but whatever role the player needs to play, the team is successful. Perhaps no single player was a better example of this ability to adopt different roles with the same team, than Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Throughout his 12-plus year career, Magic played many different characters: wide-eyed rookie, team savior, facilitator, offensive focal point, organizational maestro, on-court coach and many others, but through it all he won. Maybe LeBron James has shown this same ability to adapt within the last year with the Heat, but he hasn’t worn so many different hats for his team through so many different changes, and he certainly doesn’t have (at least yet) the championship hardware that’s the ultimate signifier of versatility on the basketball court.
Any discussion of Magic’s versatility has to start with his rookie campaign for the Lakers. He was playing behind Norm Nixon in LA’s backcourt, but he still managed to average 18 ppg with more than 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game. In the NBA Finals against Dr. J’s Sixers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with a bad ankle sprain in Game 5. Up 3-2, Los Angeles traveled back to Philly and Magic (assuming a leadership role as a rookie) symbolically sat in Kareem’s seat on the plane ride east. Coach Paul Westhead started Magic at the 5, and he responded with one of the greatest individual games in, not just NBA Finals, but NBA history: recording 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists as the Lakers won Game 6 and the series. Magic snagged his first NBA title while also becoming the first NBA rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP.
Magic’s flexibility within the Laker organization went on from there. After a disappointing sophomore season that saw him tear cartilage in his knee and miss 45 games, a new coach, Pat Riley, was brought in, and Nixon was traded to make room for Magic at the point. Playing his first full season as a starter, he averaged nearly a triple-double and the Lakers again defeated the Sixers in the Finals with Kareem leading the way and Magic happily churning up and down the court leading the team at a breakneck pace.
During the mid-80’s Kareem was always the focal point of opposing defenses, but it was Magic’s overall play that drove the engine. His ability to intercept opposing passes (he averaged over 2.5 steals per game in each season through his first five years) and snag a rebound on one end before leading the Showtime fast break on the other, in part led to five Finals appearances and three NBA titles in his first six years in the league. Then, as Kareem’s body broke down, the best point guard in the league stepped up his game even more by assuming more of an offensive role during the 1986-87 season. He averaged a career high 23.9 ppg that season on the way to the first of his three MVP trophies and lead his Lakers over Bird’s Celtics in the Finals while also claiming another Finals MVP award. The Lakers would repeat the next year, but after the Pistons foiled their attempt to three-peat, Kareem retired and a year later, Riley left.
Anyone without a historic ability to adapt and the versatility to do many different things would have folded or looked for excuses. Instead, with a new coach and a new set of faces beside him on the Lakers, Magic and his aching knees led his young team back to the 1991 NBA Finals. He would lose to MJ, of course, and then announce he had HIV the following season before retiring, but it was just another role Magic played for the Lakers in his quest for another title.
All told, in 12-plus years playing against stiff competition in the modern game (this was not Russell’s 11 titles in 13 years during the 1950s & 60s), after three coaches, the loss of a superstar teammate’s prime, a ton of team turnover and the pressure from playing in Los Angeles, Magic ended up going to nine NBA Finals and winning five of them. That’s versatility; LeBron has a long way to go before it’s even close.
What do you think?
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