Everyone wants to look at LeBron James’s career through a microscope, comparing his accomplishments to that of Michael Jordan. His Airness has more rings over the course of his career, and you could make the case that he never had to leave his team and form a “Super Team” to do it — although the 1996 Chicago Bulls were as super of a team as there ever was.
While it’s fair to compare what they’ve each achieved on the basketball court, contrasting the two players is an apples-and-oranges kind of conversation. You can better compare these five former NBA stars to James.
1. Adrian Dantley
Small forward Adrian Dantley was an NBA star in the late ’70s and into the ’80s. The muscular athlete could score by getting to the basket, play defense, rebound, and even get some assists. Sounds familiar? Dantley’s game wasn’t exactly like James, but there are similarities. In his best season, as a member of the Utah Jazz back in 1980–81, Dantley averaged 30.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and four assists per game to go along with 1.4 steals.
The 6-foot-5 forward was a bit shorter than James, coming in at just 6-foot-5 and 208 pounds. He was under-appreciated for the kind of player he was, in large part because he played the majority of his career on non-title contenders. He did get his chance as a 31-year-old on the 1987–88 Detroit Pistons, but that team fell short in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. By that time, he was no longer one of the top players in the league anymore — and not even the best player on his own team.
2. Scottie Pippen
Often cited as the better comparison in the Jordan debates, Scottie Pippen is much more similar to James. He also plays small forward; he can score, rebound, play defense, and dish out the assists, too. In 1993–94, Pippen’s best season (Jordan was away playing baseball), he averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.9 steals per game. Pip played shutdown defense, ran the offense, and was the best player on a Bulls team that won 55 games that year.
The skills are extremely similar, but Pippen was nowhere near as dominant in the game as LeBron is. They say that James wouldn’t have won anything without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, or Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but what about Pippen? The best he could muster without Jordan was a second-round exit against the New York Knicks. He was a great player, and the skills certainly align in many ways, but Pippen was no LeBron.
3. Julius Erving
Another Hall of Fame player with skills reminiscent of James is Julius Erving. “Dr. J,” as he is known by fans, was a lean but muscular small forward. At 6-foot-7, he had incredible athleticism and could make dazzling plays on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Erving played the first five seasons of his career in the ABA before joining the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976–77, making a name for himself in the NBA.
Erving’s best season in his NBA career was in 1979–80, when he averaged 26.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.2 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. He was known as much for his style on the court and personality as he was as a player, which is part of what makes the comparison between Erving and James feel so right. He went on to win his first and only NBA championship with the 76ers in 1982–83.
4. Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson may never have been the scorer that James is, but James has never been the facilitator that Magic was. This may, in both cases, involve personal choice; both players had insane talent in both respects. Johnson’s best season arguably came in 1981–82, when he averaged 18.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 9.6 assists per game while also leading the league in steals per game at 2.7.
Johnson was a point guard, while James plays small forward (and some power forward). But that doesn’t really matter, in this comparison. Both players saw themselves as facilitators of the offense; they had the ability to score when needed, and they were great rebounders for how much they were involved in other aspects of the game. They may not have played the same position, but James and Magic are as close in style of play on the court as you can get.
5. Oscar Robertson
Often mentioned as the guy who was LeBron James before LeBron James, Oscar Robertson was a 6-foot-5 point guard who could facilitate the offense, score like the best shooting guard in the game, and rebound like the best center. In 1961–62, Roberson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game. That’s right; the man averaged a triple-double over the course of an entire NBA season.
Robertson finally won an NBA championship after moving to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970–71, teaming up with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson played 10 seasons in the NBA before finally moving to a better team with a better star alongside him to get an opportunity to win a championship. He was traded, of course, and didn’t do a TV special to announce his decision to make the move, so it’s not exactly the same. But as far as skills on the court go, Robertson is as close as you can get to LeBron James.
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