It was only a couple of years ago that Charles Oakley said he wouldn’t put Michael Jordan and LeBron James in the same sentence.
Now Oakley, a close Jordan pal from their Bulls days, has changed his tune a bit.
“(James is) one of the smartest guys I’ve seen in this game. He dictates offense, defense; he can do it all,” Oakley told the Palm Beach Post. “Everyone says Michael’s the greatest. We’ll give him his props. But LeBron is a better athlete, and he can do more than Michael on the basketball court.”
There is no debating Jordan is the greatest of all time. Not yet. And he was as good a defensive player as there was during his era, on top of his incredible offensive skills.
James’ biggest problem was finding his will to win, but now that he has there may be no stopping him. With his sheer size and brute strength, he can play all five positions and play them well. He can defend anyone, he can rebound, he can pass like Magic Johnson, and he’s unstoppable offensively, a freight train going to the bucket.
If James wins three or four more titles — and why wouldn’t he? — the conversation about the greatest of all time is going to become much more complicated.
While entertaining for us, while fascinating for NBA historians, the narrative is of no consequence to the Bulls, who now find themselves — perhaps ironically — in the spot Michael Jordan put the Eastern Conference in the ’90s, when he ruined franchise after franchise.
In May 2006, I wrote that, “James is within a year, or maybe two, of taking over the East and making it his personal playground for the next 10 years.”
LeBron was 21, and I was off by a bit. James took Cleveland to the Finals in 2007, and then it was Boston, Orlando and Boston in the Finals before James went to Miami and has captured the Eastern Conference the last two years.
Miami seems a lock to get back to the NBA Finals again this season and probably next, before James has a chance to opt out in 2014. That is of much more interest to the Bulls than whether James will ever reach Jordanesque heights.
If LeBron stays in the East, possibly returning to Miami or Cleveland, rather than move to the Lakers as so many believe, well, the Bulls’ situation will be as hopeless as it was for every contender in the East when Jordan was destroying dreams 20 years ago.
It lends perspective to the Derrick Rose return and the incessant conversation regarding his brother’s recent comments about the Bulls’ lack of stars and desire to win.
You can debate John Paxson’s tendency toward falling in love with his players and sitting on them too long.
You can debate the Bulls’ reticence to go deep into the luxury tax.
You can debate Reggie Rose’s accuracy.
You can debate the wisdom of Derrick Rose returning this year.
Some may even debate Rose’s need to be “110 percent,” when others have made it back on the floor with greater speed.
What is indisputable is that Rose is the Bulls’ future.
What can be argued is whether the future is now when it looks to all the world as though LeBron James has demolished the Eastern Conference, taking it apart, piece by piece.
Rose or not, 110 percent or not, the Bulls don’t match up with the Heat this year and probably won’t next year, leaving them two more playoff seasons before they can remake their roster and begin to think again about how to get past LeBron James.
By July 2014, Rose will be approaching his 26th birthday and in his prime, at the height of his physical powers, with — providing health — many great years left in him.
James did not win his first title until age 27. Jordan didn’t win his until age 28. Rose won’t be 28 until the fall of 2016. The Bulls will get a chance to significantly change the roster in the summer of 2014.
So nothing that happens in the next few weeks or months matters, provided Rose comes back at full strength both mentally and physically at some point in the next year or two.
What matters much more is what LeBron James decides he wants to be, what he wants to do and where he wants to do it.
For the Bulls, that is the harsh reality — but it is reality.
źHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.