By Mike McGraw
Back when he played for the Bulls, Michael Jordan certainly had a knack for low-key manipulation.
He could tweak Jerry Krause, Jeff Van Gundy, Charles Barkley and many others while never threatening his status as the most popular athlete on the planet.
Things haven't gone as well since June 14, 1998. Jordan didn't make the playoffs in his comeback with the Wizards; the team he owns, Charlotte, is a doormat; and his 2009 Hall of Fame speech was widely criticized as being arrogant.
But with attention focused on his 50th birthday last weekend, Jordan was back.
First, when put on the spot to declare the best NBA player of this generation, he took Kobe Bryant over LeBron James. Next thing we know, Bryant blocked James' shot twice in the waning moments of Sunday's All-Star Game.
If James is outplayed by a 34-year-old Bryant, how could anyone argue James is better than Jordan?
Sure, there are flaws in that logic, and Jordan probably didn't anticipate that result when he made his statement. But he sure did come out of it looking like the true king of the NBA.
TNT analyst Steve Kerr, a former Jordan teammate, gave his take on the Michael, LeBron, Kobe triangle before heading to Chicago for Thursday's Bulls-Miami game at the United Center.
"I thought it was fascinating," Kerr said in a phone interview. "To me, it showed that really Kobe and Michael are a lot more alike with their mentality than LeBron.
"I think LeBron is more easygoing than the other two guys. I think Kobe and Michael share the same sort of maniacal competitive trait that is borderline psychotic, that can turn an all-star game into this personal battle.
"LeBron, in a way, was sort of above all that, like, 'You've got to be kidding me? It's an all-star game, who cares?' I think there was a part of Kobe that kind of decided, 'You know what, this is my last shot at LeBron this year. I'm probably not going to see him in the Finals, so I'm going to take my best shot.'"
Jordan got his shot blocked by Bryant in the 2003 All-Star Game, but that happened when Jordan was eight days from turning 40. Every time the Bulls play in Philadelphia, the 76ers show a young Allen Iverson crossing over Jordan on the video screen.
In general, though, Jordan seemed to get the best of every individual battle. When he lost, it was because teams like the Detroit Pistons ganged up to stop him.
Even when the post-baseball Jordan got his pocket picked by Orlando's Nick Anderson during the 1995 playoffs, that play only seemed to fuel the 72-win season and the second three titles.
"If the rules were the same now as when Michael played, he'd average 40 a game with ease if he wanted to," Kerr said. "The way people used to try to manhandle him and rough him up -- you can't do that anymore.
"You can barely touch a guy. As incredible as Michael was 15 years ago and as unstoppable as he was, it would be much more glaring now. I think it's important that we remember that."
James is in the midst of an amazing personal stretch. While leading Miami to 7 straight wins before the all-star break, he averaged 32 points and shot an amazing 69 percent from the field.
Jordan was very complimentary of James in his television interview. Asked to pick between Kobe and LeBron, he answered, "Five (championships) beats one every time I look at it. And not that (James) won't get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one."
For years, many analysts, Kerr included, have suggested James has more in common with Scottie Pippen than he does Jordan. Like Pippen, James is a multiskilled team player and ace defender who does more than score.
Of course, James has kicked it up a few notches.
"(James) is more of a point forward than a scoring guard," Kerr said. "What he's done the last couple years has kind of become a Super Scottie because he's capable of doing a lot more offensively than Scottie did in terms of taking over a game.
"LeBron is just amazing and breathtaking to watch. I think he's great for the NBA. We're so lucky that we're even having this conversation, that we can even mention somebody in the same breath as Michael. And I think (Kevin) Durant is right there, too."
The Bulls certainly have plenty of respect for James. They tried to sign him in 2010 and ended up getting buried by James and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals a few months later.
For the time being, though, Jordan has six titles, Bryant five and James one.
During all-star weekend, James made a good point, saying no one would argue Bill Russell is better than Jordan or Robert Horry is better than Oscar Robertson. There's more to the game than rings.
"When you make comparisons with these elite level guys, almost inevitably if you compliment one guy, it feels like you're sort of demeaning the other," Kerr added. "I think that's the wrong way to approach it.
"We're talking about probably the three of the best seven or eight players in the history of the game, and they're all phenomenal in their own right. They're just different."