If there’s one thing that the 2012 Olympic basketball experience taught us, it’s that everything is always going to be compared and contrasted to the past. The 2012 v 1992 team comparison was far played out, but it embodied the mind of the casual sports fan. People are interested in the historical context that sports portray, they want to know how their favorite player measures up to watermarks set in the past. And, with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony’s tenth season in the NBA approaching taking a look at what we expected of them and where they currently at feels like a worthy approach as opposed to when their careers have ended.
Each player has taken his own path, with LeBron James recently winning his first NBA title and Carmelo Anthony being the key superstar on the infamous New York Knicks. But, the two have been connected far beyond their current status and Team USA partnership. So let’s flashback to the 2002-03 season, Shaq and Kobe just failed to four-peat, without even making it to the conference finals. Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs go on to win the NBA Championship in David Robinson’s final season against the New Jersey Nets all while setting the record for lowest TV Ratings for an NBA Finals since 1981. Oh, and His Airness just re-re-retired. Things were about as bleak as they can be for a still thriving multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Bleak, I say!
Yet, there was a great hope on the horizon. LeBron James was the talk of the town (nation), he had the world at his feet (and a brand new Hummer) and was the premier high school player in the nation. Carmelo Anthony and his signature braids, meanwhile, were fresh off of leading Syracuse to an NCAA Championship as just a freshman.
This was it. Jordan was finally passing the torch, and the new school Magic & Bird were sitting heir apparent to the NBA throne.
LeBron was the new Magic Johnson, he moved gracefully for a man of his size and possessed the vision and passing skills to boot. If there was a man with the ability to re-create Showtime basketball, it was going to be LeBron James. He could finish the defensive play, transition into the fastbreak, lead the break, and even finish it with authority. So it was written, so it shall be.
If LeBron was the new Magic, ‘Melo was going to have to be the new Bird. Despite being slightly smaller, Anthony looked to be the guy capable of playing either forward position. ‘Melo had the smoother jumper of the two and seemed slightly off the par of athleticism that LeBron was setting, but made up for it with footwork and craftiness. This was the rivalry we had all been waiting for.
But, it hasn’t actually played out to be the great Bird-Magic campaign that some expected. It turns out that only one of Bird-Magic’s quality has appeared and it’s not who you think.
For most people Carmelo has turned into new school Bernard King. King was a more efficient scorer inside, but Carmelo’s outside shot and free throw proficiency helps even out the true shooting percentages. Otherwise, the per 36 minutes number look very similar between the two, and both feature(d) for the New York Knicks. But, if we dig a little further, maybe Carmelo actually more closely resembles another prominent player in Dominique Wilkins.
‘Melo has nowhere near the above the rim presence to his game that Wilkins displayed, but in practice they are very similar. ‘Melo has a slightly sweeter jump-shot to counteract Wilkins’ aerial displays, which evens out the true shooting percentages, similarly to King-Anthony, but here effective FG% helps tell the story a little better. Styles of play are more similar here than with King-Anthony where King did most of his damage near the basket while Carmelo seems to settle for jump shots far more often, this shows through in Usage percentages where both Anthony and Wilkins are above 30% as they have the ball in their hands more often due to featuring more on the perimeter.
LeBron on the other hand has lived up to this superstar status set by the legendary duo. However, he hasn’t turned into Magic Johnson, but more or less a cyborg version Larry Bird. This isn’t completely due to natural gifts, but personal decision. Despite sometimes being ball-dominant, LeBron has stated multiple times that he does not want to play point guard. A quick glance at assists averages between LeBron and Magic show that over a large period of time they do not play similarly. Sure, LeBron is one of the best passers in the league and a willing one as well, but he’s not the facilitator that Magic Johnson willed to be. LeBron fits more like Larry in terms of style, despite the two being physically dissimilar, but Bird was a craftsman in terms of setting up teammates while knowing how to get the job done scoring the basketball in a variety of ways. When you check the true shooting and effective field goal percentage Larry and LeBron are nearly identical.
So instead of being blessed with the new Magic-Bird, the NBA was given a freaky Friday version of Bird-Dominique. And, that is by no means a disappointment. Hopefully, it can start providing us with more memorable play-off shoot-outs like this one:
Special thank you to Basketball-Reference for the statistics and to jwoodzii of YouTube for the video.
Also, note that this is not an exact comparison as the players are inevitably not the same, but a commentary on the style of play that they have chosen to use in the first nine years of their career and a view of how their rivalry has developed and compares historically.