Legend vs. Star: Magic Johnson vs. LeBron James


By Matt Moore

We live in an immediate society. The internet, social media, the ever-accelerating news cycle, everything means that the next 30 seconds is 10 times more important than the last 30 seconds regardless of what actually happened in the past 30 seconds. As a result, we lose perspective on what stands truly relevant from the past. The NBA is no exception. So in an attempt to merge the two worlds (since, as a blog, we love/hate/want to be BFFs within the next 30 seconds), we’ll be bringing you a look at players past and present, in relation to one another.

Even though we’ve tried desperately to hammer this home throughout this series, this one, due its participants, requires an even stronger preface than previously stated. So please, for the love of Auerbach, read this and let it sink in.

There is no real comparison in terms of greatness between LeBron James and Magic Johnson. By the time Magic Johnson was 27, which James will turn this December, he had not one, not two, but three championships under his belt. Magic was beloved by everyone who ever met him, everyone who played with or against him, even by his biggest rival, the man he will always be measured against. He brought the Lakers to the forefront of the NBA and helped avenge a disturbing pattern of L.A. being owned by the Celtics. He wowed with his passing, he dazzled with his scoring, he stunned with his rebounding, and he owns three of the most famous moments in NBA history. He played center in the Finals in a crucial game for crying out loud. He managed to build his business assets and party like a rockstar without ever getting caught or having it blow up in his face, he managed to be cocky while having everyone believe he was humble pie. He credited teammates and dealth with media storms by hiding out instead of exacerbating it. Magic won, constantly and consistently. Magic never had people question whether he shrank from the moment. He’s Magic freaking Johnson.

This post is not a debate on who was better. It’s to examine their games and careers and see where they are alike and where they are different. We’re only now beginning to be able to put the 2011 NBA Finals into consideration for how it affects James’ career, and while he’s going to have a half-dozen more chances to rewrite the tale, the early returns are damaging.

And this is where it’s important to bring up statistics. It’s often said that most “statheads” or “geeks,” “statnerds,” “sabretricians,” or whatever youw ant to call them preach an all-or-nothing approach. As in, if I believe that using points scored per possession is a wiser approach than points per game, or believing a better indicator of how much a guy rebounds is the percentage of available caroms he snags than rebounds per game that I automatically toss out all other indications. That somehow because I think PER is a good indicator of efficiency, not of value, but efficiency, that I’m somehow going to think that the players better than Kobe Bryant in PER are better than Kobe Bryant at basketball. It robs those of us who want to take all the evidence possible to concoct an opinion of the ability to toe the line. You’re either with the numbers, or against. You either value big shots in big games for big wins, or silly numbers on a chart. And it works both ways, as too often numbers-heavy analysts will lose sight of the fact that sometimes a play does leave a team demoralized and they never recover. Happens in real life, happens on the floor. There’s a middle ground.

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That middle-ground is in beautiful stark relief when we consider James and Magic. Here’s a nice start for you.

Through their first seven seasons, James has scored nearly 7,000 more points in a little over 4000 more minutes. Per 36 minutes, James has averaged 24.8 points per game, Magic 18.6. James averaged a line of 27.7-7.1-7.0-1.7-1.8 with 3.3 turnovers per game, Magic 18.6-7.3-10.6-2.1-.5 with 3.8 turnovers per game. James has a career PER Of 26.9, Johnson had one of 23.5 through seven seasons (Magic was one year older at that point). In short, James’ overall production has been better up until this point. But to get there you have to consider the years where Magic was sharing the ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he was finding his way, when he wasn’t producing other-worldly numbers. James was the man from day one.

Instead, take a look at James’ eighth season in the league versus’ Johnson’s. The gap closes considerably. James scored less than a point more per 36 minutes, less than a rebound more per 36 minutes, and Johnson’s 12.1 assists to James 6.5 is stunning. The PER gap closes to 27.3 for James versus 27.0 for Magic. And Johnson had a 47.2 Assist percentage, meaning nearly half of all the Lakers’ Showtime assists in 1986-1987 came from Magic. James’ closest to that was a 41.8 percent mark in 2009-2010, his last with Cleveland.

But the difference that presents itself most clearly to me is connected to the metrics, but not self-evident. Magic Johnson’s greatest gift was his ability to excel above and beyond what was necessary, specifically in the role his team required of him. Magic filled a need better than any player in NBA history. If it was rebounding, he’d crash the glass. If it was setting up teammates, he’d drop double-digit assists. And if called upon, he could score at will (Johnson is, across the board, a better shooter than James, though last season James was only 1.2 percentage points behind Johnson in his seventh season). The 1980 Finals’ Game 6 where Magic Johnson started at center is the easiest reference point, but that overlooks a decade of play wherein Johnson played point forward better than anyone ever had or ever will, most likely. His versatility is his strength, and it is both a bond and fracture between he and James’ game.

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When James signed with the Heat along with Chris Bosh, immediately everyone started conceptualizing how this three-headed monster would work. Very early on, Erik Spoelstra confirmed that we would see both James and Wade run point. And throughout the season, James indeed plyayed as the primary ball-handler. His versatility is a huge strengthpoint, in that James is a gifted passer who can make impossible passes, has terrific vision, and can use his size and strentgh to overwhelm an opponent to the breaking point, just before dropping the ball off to a teammate for an easy score.

The problem is that James too often seems intent on fulfilling an agenda. When Johnson played, it was without purpose, flowing within the rhythm of the game. James instead is like an orchestra conductor who wants the entire symphony to stop on a dime and switch to whatever new piece of music he’s selected. Teammates should get out of the way because he’s coming through. Now they should cut to the basket because he’s looking for the baseline cutter. Now they should work to spot up. Now they should try and free him off a pick and roll. If a point guard’s responsibility is to not only manage the game, but to identify the opponent’s weaknesses and attack them, no one has educated James to that point. It may be a matter of James always believing it is he who should dictate what the defense should do and not the other way around, but that kind of dogma is best fit when you have a system to rely on. Phil Jackson never changed his gameplan because the Triangle would take care of itself (and because he had Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant to lean on, but let’s not get into that). James has never operated in a rigorous discipline like that. He’s always been granted decision-making power, the trust to deliver, as Magic often was. The problem is that Magic always knew how to identify where he needed to be, how he needed to play. James too often simply tries to slam the square peg into the round hole. The fact that he’s as successful as he is wiht it is a testament to his ability.

In a way, you almost have to blame Jordan for part of the discrepancy. That’s the man who James has always looked up, modeled himself after. And that’s who we’ve expected him to be as a basketball society. The pull-up jumper, loop-de-loop layup, free-throw-line dunk contest winner, we want all of that, again. And James too often seems trapped in emulating it. He dabbles with the post, then feels like he’s done enough time there and goes back to the crossover pull-up jumper. He never takes the time to recognize “Hey, Shawn Marion is 33 and DeShawn Stevenson is much smaller than me. If I post up, Chandler has to help and that probably means I’m going to the line 30 times.” Some think that’s because James is lazy. It’s hard to see how an individual who is as good at basketball as James is, who is in the physical condition he’s in could be lazy. Instead, it’s an expectation Magic never had to face. Deferring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar only made him more popular. Deferring to Dwyane Wade makes James weak. He’s supposed to hit the mid-range jumper, the fadeaway. He’s supposed to be Jordan. In reality, his career would benefit in no way more than trying to emulate Magic. On and off the court.

Johnson was a media darling. That smile permeates through the years. Magic partied through the years as athletes do, but managed to never allow his image to get out and be tarnished. Part of this was because the internet didn’t exist. Part of this is because Johnson always had a firmer lock on his image, despite James being the one with the marekting company built around him. Johnson had an epic rivalry. James instead embraced two of his rivals in playing with them. Johnson always managed to find the perfect way to play in the clutch, whether it was scoring, passing, rebounding, or defense. James is seen as a quitter who fails in the clutch. Johnson retired with the same team that drafted him and has a statue outside the arena. James abandoned his home-state team and people burned his jerseys.

Of course lost in all this is that Johnson walked into one of the most successful franchises in NBA history, and was partnered with the player who would go on to become the all-time scoring leader in league history. James instead entered a perennial underdog and had such great talent come beside him as Wally SzczerbiakBen Wallace, andMo Williams. It doesn’t change or affect James’ decisions or how he’s percieved, nor should it. But these things should be mentioned in full disclosure.

All this time, James has been trying to build himself around Jordan, or create his own iconic image. Maybe instead he should have focused on the leader of Showtime, the man whose talents most closely resemble his.

All data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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