NBA 2020-21: Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 season was one of his greatest ever, where he took home his final league MVP. In his 18th season, LeBron James looks on track to emulate that unimaginable campaign. The King’s 2020-21 campaign has a striking resemblance to Michael Jordan’s last MVP season
It’s safe to assume that most all-time rankings feature Michael Jordan and LeBron James at the top. Much like His Airness, the King continues to defy father’s time and has continued to build his legacy deep into his 30s.
This season, James has been able to deliver night-after-night, game-after-game despite having a target on his back with the Los Angeles Lakers being the defending champion – something Jordan did in 1997-98.
James is once again in the discussion to win the league MVP, and his case to claim the award is becoming eerily similar to Jordan’s case the last time he won it in 1997-98.
Here are a few stats that reflect LeBron is on the path of emulating Jordan’s greatest season:
Through the first 31 games of the season, LeBron hasn’t missed a single one.
If he continues this pace, he’s on track to play in every regular-season game for only the second time in his career, an impressive feat considering the miles on his body and that this is his 18th season.
Playing in all 82 games was not a big deal for Jordan. (To be fair, it wasn’t a huge deal for the league’s biggest stars in the 1990s). Jordan played all 82 games eight times in his career, including the 1997-98 season, his fifth time defending the NBA title in seven years.
The one difference between the two is the minutes they played.
Jordan averaged 38.8 minutes per game in 1997-98. Believe it or not, that didn’t even lead the league. Jordan finished 17th that year in minutes per game – 17th! It was a different era, one where stars not only appeared in almost every game but carried a heavy minute load.
This season, no player is averaging more minutes per game than James Harden (37.8). LeBron, who is averaging 34.7 minutes per game, sits just outside the top 20.
No. 1 option and role players
All through Jordan’s championship-contending years in Chicago, he played with a perennial All-Star and All-NBA selection in Scottie Pippen – possibly the best co-star in NBA history. But for the first 35 games of the 1997-98 season, Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls without Pippen.
With some help from Dennis Rodman, Jordan led the Bulls to a more than respectable 24-11 record through the games that Pippen missed, including a 49-point performance very early in the season in a double-overtime win over the LA Clippers.
For James, the depth the Lakers added in the offseason has eased his ball-handling responsibilities and helped the team rack up big wins early. But as the season has progressed, he hasn’t had the luxury of sitting out the fourth quarter.
There could be a number of factors at play – a short offseason, new players adjusting to the team’s system and All-Star Anthony Davis not quite playing up to his own high standard – that have forced the ball into his hands late in games to pull off some clutch heroics. And unlike last regular season, he’s consistently answered the call. He came up big three times in a four-game road trip to San Antonio and Memphis.
— NBA (@NBA) January 6, 2021
In the double-overtime contest against the Detroit Pistons, he scored eight of the team’s 17 in the second overtime session to ensure the victory. A couple of days later against Oklahoma City Thunder, he scored or assisted on the team’s final five points in overtime to seal the victory.
And in the second of the two overtime games against the Thunder, it was his clutch steal with 3.0 seconds left that helped the Lakers survive.
Aged but still the best
With averages of 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, Jordan was named the league MVP for the 1997-98 season. At 35 years old, he was the oldest player at the time to ever receive league MVP honors (Karl Malone broke that record a year later).
At the age of 36, James is averaging 25.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists through 31 games. If he wins MVP, he would surpass Malone as the oldest player to ever take home the award. Adding a fifth to his trophy cabinet would also tie him up with Jordan and Bill Russell for second-most MVPs ever.
Despite being in their mid-30s, Jordan and James still ranked among the most valuable players in the league as per the advanced stats. In 1997-98, Jordan ranked third in the league in box plus-minus according to Basketball-Reference.
Through 31 games this season, James ranks sixth in box plus-minus. Additionally, James leads the league in ESPN’s real plus-minus, a stat Jordan ranked fifth in 1997-98.
Can James pull off a similar season?
The numbers, impact, and narrative have elevated LeBron as an MVP favorite this season. He faced some of the same adversity Jordan did in 1997-98 and has the numbers to back it up.
Both LeBron and MJ were considered still the best in the game in their mid-30s. Both had to deal with their co-star’s missing time with injuries.
Both were coming off long and deep playoff runs and had the pressure to repeat again.
The LeBron-Jordan debate will be one that lasts for ages, maybe never giving us a true answer. But this season, the King is traveling a similar path to Jordan for his fifth MVP award, and we as fans get to sit back and enjoy it.