LeBron James had yet to take a breath as a Los Angeles Laker when the legend questions began bouncing left and right. Would he measure up to the Laker greats? Would he deliver a title, as they all have done? Five months into his Lakers career, the wheat has separated from the chaff and who LeBron is at 34 is becoming very clear, particularly which Laker legend(s) he is imitating, and which Laker legend(s) he is not.
He is not Kobe Bryant, not menacing and maniacal and not 24-7 intensity. He is not Shaq either. Not demanding the ball every single possession, even as his free throws are Shaq like. He doesn’t have Shaq’s loquacious humor and fun loving spin on the game, himself, his teammates and the world. Shaq didn’t fracture locker rooms. He is not silky like James Worthy, though they both share elite athleticism and finishing talent. He has a lot of Magic Johnson’s game but he disappears more than Magic ever did. Magic was everything and the players rotated around his sun. At times, LeBron has a Magic-esque performance and then at other times he lets Brandon Ingram lead with the ball or Rajon Rondo lead with the ball while he surveys the court.
In their first seasons with the Lakers, Kobe, Shaq, Worthy and Magic were playoff contenders. May of 1997, Kobe and Shaq lost to the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs that was memorable because it ended with Kobe Bryant’s successive airballs. James Worthy’s first season with the Lakers ended abruptly when the number one pick in the 1982 draft broke his leg in April. The Lakers without Worthy made it to the NBA Finals but were swept by the Sixers. Magic was the missing piece in 1979-80 and won a title his rookie year in Philadelphia, a brilliant performance that no one saw because NBA games were on tape delay back then. Most of the country missed Magic playing all 5 positions because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured.
In the February 14th edition of Newsweek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a tribute to LeBron James the hero, a loving expose that will please many LBJ fans as Kareem makes the case for LeBron as the greatest ever. It’s an opinion piece and Kareem’s opinion is as valid as any other Hall of Famer. The irony of the piece is not the article itself but the backstory, the similarities between Kareem and LeBron.
Kareem won a title and then wanted out of a midwestern city (Milwaukee). LeBron won a title and wanted out of a midwestern city (Cleveland). Kareem only wanted to come to L.A. LeBron only wanted to come to L.A. In Kareem’s first Laker year, he averaged 28 points, 17 rebounds and 5 assists. He made 53% of his shots. In LeBron’s first L.A. year, he is averaging 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. He is making 51% of his shots. Kareem’s PER in 1975-76 was 27.2. LeBron’s PER in 2018-19 is 25.7. Kareem was younger when he come to L.A., 28, with only one title in his pocket. LeBron was 33 the summer he left Cleveland, with three NBA titles.
Their first year, both Kareem and LeBron were the Lakers lone representative at the All-Star game. Kareem didn’t make the playoffs in his first year as a Laker, and LeBron probably won’t either.
The saying to much is given much is expected is a Lakers truth. When you are a generational talent and wear the Lakers jersey, more than championships are expected. Leadership, competitive instinct, team dominance is the Lakers way.
Magic, Worthy, Shaq and Kobe fell in line. LeBron’s path is a little more hazy and is like Kareem’s first year. In 1975-76, the Lakers won 40 games. This year’s Lakers will probably win 42 games, not good enough for the postseason.
Kareem’s Lakers didn’t make the playoffs until the Lakers won the coin toss and drafted Magic Johnson. It took the Lakers four years after signing Abdul-Jabbar to get an elite player to play alongside their dominant center.
The best thing to happen to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Magic Johnson.
The best thing to happen to LeBron James is ____________ anyone’s guess. But if it takes four years to acquire an elite talent, the LeBron experiment will have failed. Disastrously.