Consequences of Comparisons
"Devin Booker is the next Kobe Bryant." With one careless statement people began to love and hate a young man who wasn’t even involved in the discussion.
That is the modern sports media. Believe it or not, sports media used to add to the conversation. Giving us insights into the unknown world of some of the most fantastic people on earth. Now, athletes address these topics on their own platforms to stop the storms before they begin.
Athletes are Amazing
Make no mistake, being an athlete requires physical genius. In 1983, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner described 9 types of intelligence. Athletics requires at minimum Bodily-kinesthetic, Spatial, Intra-personal, and Interpersonal intelligence. Meaning that they know how to move their body, recognize and memories images, understand themselves, their opponents and teammates. Information like this adds to the conversation and appreciation of sport.
Unfortunately, the modern sports media isn’t about adding to sport. Content generation is king and therefore if you can’t find a story you create one. Start the conversation. One such conversation has infected the sports world and blinded us to the genius of one of the all-time great athletes and individuals in sports history. LeBron James. Instead of appreciating the multiple levels of genius we have been fighting over it. Now, I will explain how we got it wrong in the hopes that we do not repeat it.
We love sports for the stories. Athletes achieve greatness, fans create their own mythology, and the media gives everyone some perspective. It’s a crowded space with a few go to personalities who have guided us along this path. Logically, if you are new to this space your access is limited. The established entertainers and executives want the big names.
The Reality: All Sports Entertainment. All Athletes are Entertainers.
The easiest way to make a name for yourself is to start lower on the totem poll. Perhaps, you can rank college and high school entertainers. That space too crowded? Rank the middle school entertainers. Our thirst for entertainment knows no bounds. Communities are heavily invested in their local sports. Major Networks and companies shell out millions for the Little League World Series. There are even reality shows like Friday Night Tykes. We live for this content. They are like mini pros. It would be great if we could follow that mini pro all the way until they became a pro prospect, pro, and maybe even a champion.
Everybody’s a Scout these days.
Scouting became the gateway for aspiring professionals. It used to be real scouts in college and the pros. Now, with all the rankings media personalities try to find the next big thing and hold on for dear life. That 10 year old may lead to a 20 year career. Access to forbidden territories and even their peers. Once rankings come out, or the season has ended there are dozens of reports on the best kids around the country. With that, scouting reports and proclamations of “The Next LeBron" or “The Next Steph Curry” get released. Dozens of predictions for the next great thing. Which, at young ages is impossible to predict.
Look no further than Julian Newman. I never heard of him before a post on Instagram. Apparently he was the next great thing according to young casual fans. He'll never be an NBA player. A youth athlete may not even like the sport that made them famous in two years.
Predicting talent and development is difficult enough with actual professionals let alone children. Yet, it never stops. Once the ball gets rolling smaller websites pick it up. Many of them make money off such rankings and reports. Making money off of "amateur" entertainers so arm chair scouts can get a head start in clambering for their high school, college, and pro teams to get on this kid. As if they personally discovered this diamond in the rough. Lord knows if that kid doesn’t live up to these adults expectations.
Do Athletes Have Value? Charging a Subscription to Rate Entertainers labelled as “Amateur Athletes.”
I’m old enough to remember when this was a free. Which is why this whole notion that college athletes are amateur is absurd. Major media companies like ESPN, FOX, CBS, etc. all charge a fee for their interpretations and predictions of these amateur athletes. Again, they have staffs exclusively for this purpose. Not to mention websites dedicated exclusively to this purpose.
At any point in this country someone is making money off of the general public viewing a youth athlete for entertainment. Also of note, grown men and women that coach can get raises based off the ranking of child entertainers they recruit. Keep that in mind the next time someone says that the athletes “have no value.”
If You Can’t Explain it, Throw a Name at it.
It’s difficult to convey our thoughts to each other. Think about the game of Telephone. One word or phrase can change meaning even amongst a group of friends. Communication is difficult. Misunderstanding happen all the time. It’s the reason why Charades is an entertaining game. So now, how can I communicate that this entertainer is significant beyond the rest of their peers? A comparison. It is the quickest way to get the average person to understand your point.
Calling Devin Booker the next Kobe - Kobe is Hall of Famer. Greatness personified. Mamba Mentality. Now, just like the game of Charades, what were they trying to convey? What did they really mean when they made the comparison?
Unlike the entertainers, media and critics have ambiguity on their side. They will never admit they were truly wrong. Instead, they just adjust their definition and explain away the comparison. Perhaps, they were this generations Kobe because they can shoot and score. Perhaps they have a personality that the general public just doesn’t know. Maybe they both had last names that began with the letter B. It is a trap for the kid and a boost for the person that “still got it right.” Which doesn’t mean much today.
Just take a look at all these predictions during the draft. Professional scouts and the media are little more than an eco chamber. The most daring assessment of a prospect is that they will or won’t be better than their peers. As brave as they are with comparisons, they are deathly afraid of getting it wrong. Even though they'll never fully admit it.
When Grand Comparisons Go Wrong
LeBron James may be the greatest athlete the NBA has ever seen. With a unique set of size, speed, and strength paired with phenomenal skill. He may also go down as the greatest all round player of all-time. That’s a conversation I am perfectly fine with having. Until some people get ahead of themselves. Trying to get the clicks and likes for making the grandest claim possible for a player we all know is great. He's not just great, now "I'm the first to predict" he'll be greater than any player you might consider a G.O.A.T.
I Was Unjustly Called a Lebron Hater for a Decade
The problem and the reason I was originally called a LeBron hater, is that he was compared to Michael Jordan. Besides his dominance physically and the number he wore they are not the same person let alone the same player. LeBron’s entire mentality is different from that of Jordan. To say he's the next MJ completely warped the conversation around who he was as a person and as a player.
Half the fans were ready to crown him and the rest were ready to burn him at the stake. Again, he was not involved in these conversations.
LeBron wasn't saying he was better than MJ. He admired MJ and Kobe. If anything, LeBron’s personality and career resemble another Hall of Fame player. Each sharing the personality and charisma from the Midwest.
Correcting the Comparison
The late great Kobe Bryant sought to be the next MJ. Emulating his moves, playstyle and smooth personality on his quest for greatness. Let’s also not forget that they had other similarities as well - they weren't #1 Picks.
Neither was the first overall player taken in their draft.
In fact, neither was identified as the can’t miss prospect. Just a piece to the puzzle. Neither Jordan nor Kobe walked into the pros being one of the highest profile players in the league.
They both had an imposing will that could dominate the game at any moment on both sides of the floor. They would go down swinging. Rather lose with their hands on the ball than making the "right" pass.
They were known as difficult teammates and had no issues with setting the tone for the team. They were hated and loved by their teammates and fans alike but universally respected. That does not describe LeBron James at all.
Magic and LeBron: Destined for Greatness
LeBron James career on and off the court immediately resembles Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic was prodigy in basketball. All round stat machine and winner. Recording a state title in high school, leading up to a Big Ten title his freshman year and an All-American season and National Championship in just his sophomore year. His games were prime time TV and the championship against Bird the most hyped of all time.
Magic's Career Path
Magic was a 6’9” Point Guard, the tallest in NBA draft history when he was drafted and could do anything on the court. He was the de facto #1 overall pick. Infectious personality and fun to watch, he was a player that did everything you needed on the court.
The ultimate team player unafraid of sharing the spotlight with big name stars and future hall of famers. The way Magic blended his game, famously playing Center in the finals and winning Finals MVP as a rookie because his team needed him to. Magic also was never known as a great shooter. No problem scoring but he was not called upon to just spot up and shoot.
Lebron's Career Path
LeBron James was also the best player in High School playing some of the most anticipated games in the history of High School sports. A prime time player in high school that was also the consensus #1 overall pick. An immensely gifted athlete who could do everything you need him to on the court. 6’8” Point Guard that immediately became a star. Quickly become the leader of his team.
LeBron was also not the best shooter in the world. While the game has changed and he was able to take more 3-pointers, it was not his strongest attribute and is acceptable by today's NBA statistics.
LeBron plays unselfish basketball perhaps to a fault. Making the best basketball play as opposed to taking on the whole team by himself. Perhaps, not because he can’t. Instead, he is savant on the court which makes him both loved and hated.
The comparisons don’t just stop there. Let’s look at their playoff records. In 2018, the website fivethirtyeight did a comparison of MVPs that appeared in 5+ finals. The infographic below is from their report. Despite being years old, we see a pattern between Magic Johnson and LeBron James.
According to fivethirtyeight Magic had an expected win percentage of 45%. Which, adding the two seasons after this report LeBron’s expected win percentage would also be around 45%. Magic went 5/9 and LeBron’s current record is 4/10. Kobe and MJ interestingly enough are around 69% for Kobe going 5/7 and 66% for Jordan going 6/6 respectively.
Adding to the proper comparisons, high finals appearances and low predicted finals wins is no mistake. Similarly, Kobe and MJ having a high expected win rate and actual wins is no mistake.
How is this possible? Well, here's how it happened.
The 80s: Strength of the East vs. the Best of the West. The 2000s/2010s: Strength of the West vs. A Beast in the East.
Jordan and Kobe, LeBron and Magic, have another glaring similarity. The conferences they played in had a significant factor in their finals records. This is not to disparage anyone. The NBA goes in cycles.
When Jordan and Kobe were going on their runs their respective conferences were THE conferences of the League.
Jordan had to battle the Celtics, Pistons, Knicks, Pacers, Shaq and Penny Magic, and whoever else came to power in the Eastern Conference. The series were tough and losing was an actual possibility.
Magic and LeBron played in the weaker conferences of their day.
Their teams were dominant powerhouses and during the playoffs more often than not they were the odds on favorite to make it to the finals. Thus, when Jordan and Kobe made the finals they were expected to win. When Magic and LeBron made the finals less than half the time they were expected to win.
But wait... There's More!
Magic and LeBron each had season where star players were lost to injury and they carried the burden only to fall just short of their goal. Perhaps driving their teams further than expected given the unfortunate injuries and absences. Stop me if you heard this before, Magic was also swept in the finals by their rivals in the Philadelphia 76ers on an injury plagued. Magic also went on to improve his jump shot on the way to greatness despite an having a bad postseason series against Boston.
Laker Fans hated Magic for a moment too.
The last point in this comparison is the often forgotten period where each was hated by their respected fan base. Years later, it will be but a footnote in his great career but LeBron being hated and booed only to return and win a championship also resembles Magic in a sense.
People forget that Paul Westhead was unexpectedly thrust into the head coach position after Jack McKinney had an accident. After a disappointing year Westhead wanted to change Magic’s role on the team and in the Laker’s offense. Frustrating the cornerstone of the Laker’s franchise and resulting in his firing. Which led to Pat Riley getting the head coaching gig.
Magic was booed by Laker fans. Jeered around the league and unjustly missing from the All-Star games starting lineup.
Winning cures all and when the Lakers went on to repeat. Eventually winning three out four during the late 80s.
Fun Facts: Jordan and Kobe were drafted in even years (84 and 96). Magic and Lebron in odd years (79 and 03). The pairs were drafted 12 and 24 years apart.
Rule #1: Take Comparisons Lightly
I hope this has helped put to rest the Jordan and LeBron conversation. Taking the comparison in the lightest form possible, LeBron became the face of the league and helped evolve the game. Yet, most of his career has been mired in conflict between fans. Some waiting for him to succeed while others enjoy watching him fail.
I Got Caught in the Cycle too
My casual sports friends and even a few diehards assured me that LeBron have a better career than Jordan. Right before he lost to the Mavericks in a series he was supposed to win. My response, for which I would was routinely labeled a hater, is that we should wait and see what happens.
Life’s not a video game. Plenty of greats ran into obstacles. I always bring up the greatness of the late Elgin Baylor who was a LeBron in his own time.
Fortunately, I've survived long enough into his career to hear people switch their opinions. Not because he wasn’t successful, but because this young entertainer didn’t live up to their specific expectations. He didn't play like Jordan. Didn't have the same mentality. Lost in the finals too much. My opinion never changed in the matter. However, to the masses I went from a LeBron hater to a LeBron supporter. All the while saying the exact same things I’ve always said. Can't categorize his career until his its over.
It's like trying to predict what a painting will be before it's done.
We should be able to enjoy talent in its prime.
Young entertainers should be allowed to perform without the expectations of a bunch of adults promoting their own self-interests. Yet, I know that’s never going to happen. Instead, perhaps the next time you watch a little league, high school or college game you can respect that young persons genius. Appreciate what they bring and reserve your judgement. Don't be angry at the little leaguer for making it pro but not becoming Justin Verlander or Hank Aaron.
Perhaps they will achieve greatness. Maybe even all time greatness that redefines the sport but the odds are against them. Everything has to be just right. In sports and in life criticism can be a crucial element. If your goal is to help them improve then challenging them to be greater is a positive act. However, to criticize them and hate them for your illogical or unrealistic projections is toxic behavior.
A behavior that only leads to pain, suffering, and the dark side of sports. Especially when you don't hold yourself to those same standards. Keeping that in mind, remember when you hear sports takes a lot of them are based on trying to double down on something they said earlier.
Think before you speak. It's okay to be wrong.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.
About the Creator
NCSA Strength and Conditioning Professional certified as a CSCS, TSAC-F, and CPT. I have my FMS Certification as well, and spent over a decade working with athletes in various sports. Including youth, high school, college, Olympic and Pro.