When Doug Collins, as astute a basketball observer as there is in the game, looks at LeBron James, there is no question which former great he sees.
"I've always felt LeBron James is more Magic Johnson than he is more Michael Jordan," Collins said this week.
It was a huge compliment, not a slight. Though James can be a 30-points-a-night scorer and can take over a game, Collins thinks he is best suited for the role he often plays in Miami: facilitator.
With the ball in his hands, particularly on the break, James is virtually unstoppable. He can pass to Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. He can drive. He can dish. Or he can finish.
That is what keeps Collins up at night as he prepares his 76ers team for its first-round playoff series against the second-seeded Heat. Game 1 is Saturday in Miami.
"I think he is more of a triple-double guy than he is a 30-points-per-night guy," Collins said. "I think he's much more comfortable doing that. I think that's what he loves to do. I think in Cleveland he had to score that many points for them to be the team they are, but I've always said, to me, one of the best parts of his game is his passing. If you get him on the break, you can't stop him. Obviously, that's going to be a real key for us."
Moving from Cleveland to Miami was not the easiest transition for James. He went from being the main scoring option to being one of three. It took time for James, Wade, and Bosh to learn to play together, to figure out who would take the shot when the shot clock was ticking down, or who would have the ball when the game was on the line.
Collins distinctly remembers seeing it finally click for James. It was Dec. 2, and the Heat were playing in Cleveland for the first time. It was James' homecoming, and the fans who once had cheered him jeered him. James responded by making 15 of 25 shots from the field and scoring 38 points, tying what to that point had been a season high.
Going into that game, the Heat were 11-8 and far from the juggernaut most people expected when James announced "The Decision" that rocked Cleveland. But that win helped catapult the Heat, who won 18 of their next 19 games, while the Cavaliers, 7-10 heading into the night, lost 34 of their next 35.
"That was the first time I really saw that bounce and that LeBron that I've seen through the years broadcasting," Collins said. "He had an incredible night. The franchises went in total opposite ways that night."
In 79 games this season, James averaged 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. It was his lowest scoring average since his rookie season in 2003-04, while the rebound and assist totals mirrored his career averages of 7.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists.
To Collins' point that James can be a triple-double player, James had four triple-doubles this season, as well as 26 double-doubles - 18 with points and rebounds, eight with points and assists.
Comparisons with former greats is always a dicey proposition, but since Collins brought it up unsolicited, it is worth a look. During his 13-year NBA career that included one brief return four years after retiring because of HIV, Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 11.2 assists. During his prime in the 1980s, Johnson averaged a double-double in points and assists for nine consecutive seasons, including 1983-84, when he averaged a ridiculous 13.1 assists per game.
During his equally magnificent career, which included an unremarkable stint in Washington, Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Jordan had eight seasons in which he averaged more than 30 points a game, including his third year, when he averaged 37.1 points per game.
The glaring void in James' resume is his lack of a title in his first seven seasons. Johnson won the first of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie in 1980. Jordan won the first of his six championships in 1991, his seventh season. Both Johnson and Jordan won multiple NBA Finals MVP trophies, Johnson three and Jordan six.
James desperately wants to join their company, and his quest continues with the Heat's first-round series against the seventh-seeded Sixers. Collins said it is imperative that the Sixers keep their turnovers to a minimum, particularly those off live balls, because when James has the ball on the break, it is almost a guaranteed two points.
"If they get out dunking and running, I mean it's going to be a highlight show," Collins said. "[James] and Wade will lead the brigade and the parade if we allow them to do that."
And then it won't matter whether he is more Johnson than Jordan. He truly will be King James.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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