Toughness in the Age of LeBron
"Jordan played against men," New Orleans Pelicans (nee Hornets) head coach Monty Williams said in March when asked to compare Michael Jordan and LeBron James. "LeBron plays against young boys. That's the difference."
In one curt statement, Williams was able to articulate the entire philosophy to which the NBA old guard's base subscribes. This is a group that bristles with every Jordan comparison and smirks every time someone describes the current playoffs as "physical." They've witnessed the Bad Boy Pistons mess up the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 80s and the 90s Knicks teams rough up Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They know exactly what Lionel Hollins talks about when he says "The depth of athleticism now is better. The depth of basketball IQ, of competitiveness, of manliness, was better then." They nod knowingly to Karl Malone, playfully chiding Mark Jackson after complaining about the alleged physical play against Stephen Curry: "That's not physical, are you kidding me? Mark played then. That is not physical."
There is a huge contingent of old school NBA players and fans that share the same sentiments about today's game because they share the same values, formed by the same memories, romanticized under the same nostalgic mist. NBA players were tougher then. It used to be a "man's game." Hard fouls used to be a part of the game. You don't join forces with your rivals; you vanquish them. Jordan played against men.
LeBron plays against young boys.
These are the unavoidable truisms that are invoked each time the whole Jordan vs. LeBron debate is reawakened every postseason, which has basically turned into LeBron Watch for six years running now. We have seen James single-handedly carry a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team, average a 38-8-8 in a playoff series, find open teammates with laser precision, shoot close to 60% every game, and win a championship. But it's not enough. Not yet. LeBron James will need more of these superhuman feats if he wants to finally end all the Jordan comparisons. Not only is he up against the legacy of Michael Jordan; he's up against a self-perpetuating generational mythology.
James may one day match Jordan's stats, championship rings, MVP trophies, and iconic moments but bastions of the NBA old school will always have one caveat up their sleeves: "Jordan exceled in a tougher era."
So what exactly was this "tougher era" they speak of?
Back when manly men ruled the harsh lands of the NBA, you were allowed to hand-check opponents on the perimeter and pummel opponents coming down the lane without fear of being called for a flagrant foul. You were also not allowed to play zone defense. This meant going up against your man, one-on-one, like an Old West shootout. Real men don't need help on defense and certainly don't need help on offense. Tough-guy basketball was Charles Barkley backing down his man for 10 seconds, Hakeem Olajuwon pulling "the dream shake" on some poor lonesome defender, and Michael Jordan exploding to a clear path towards an inevitable dunk. They pejoratively call that stuff "hero ball" now, but real men earnestly love the word "hero" and would have none of your sarcasm.
The league has since outlawed hand-checking, broadened the definition of what a "flagrant foul" is, then phased out the illegal defense rule, replaced it with the meeker defensive three-second rule, which basically allowed zone defense to infiltrate the NBA after seven decades of macho basketball.
What we are witnessing right now is a league in flux - since Thibodeau and Carlisle-style defenses have exploited the new zone-defense-friendly rules a couple of years ago, offenses are now beginning to adjust, as seen in the spread-out, small-ball hybrid sets of the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets, among others. The NBA now mirrors the European leagues it once influenced, with a growing emphasis on the drive-and-kick game and the corner three-point shot supplanting the mid-range jumper as the new second option. You can't just overpower defenses anymore; you have to out-think them.
This new-look NBA, with all its complexity and constant counters and misdirection that push the game closer to unfamiliar Byzantine levels akin to American Football, just doesn't feel macho enough. Its elaborateness is not easily reducible to simplistic mythology, harder to wrap around spaghetti western metaphors.
It is, however, tougher to score in. League average scoring in the 1992-1993 season (Jordan's peak, the golden age of centers), for instance, was at 105.3 points per game, according to Basketball Reference. This season, the average is at 98.1. Maybe they just had players then? Not exactly: the decline in scoring can be explained by the decline in pace. The average number of possessions in '92-'93 were 96.8. This season, it's 92. Even free throw attempts have plummeted; from a team average of 2,273 in '92-'93 to 1,818 this season. Yet despite all this, points per possession remain pretty much even.
Teams and players today have to be pretty awesome to still be able to score efficiently despite fewer possessions and fewer free throw attempts brought about by more sophisticated defenses, which discourage macho one-on-one plays that Michael Jordan had practically built his entire legacy upon.
The poster boy of this new drive-and-kick, ball movement, advanced metrics generation is no other than LeBron James, whose combination of unstoppable penetration skills, highly-improved three-point shooting, and intelligent passing has allowed him to dominate. This is a player who worked on his three-point shooting during the past offseason after recognizing the mid-range jumper's deterioration into the least efficient shot in the NBA's new zone-defense era. In an increasingly strategy-heavy league that is moving farther away from one-on-one heroism, James has stood out by being smart, versatile, consciously adaptive, and less reliant on hero ball, to the detriment of his early, and perhaps long-term, reputation.
That may not look like the league that exists in the glorified memories of the old school, where competitiveness is synonymous to physical and macho play, but in this new age of LeBron, the rules of the game have changed. It's time for our definition of "toughness" to change accordingly.