NBA

LeBron James: The King's 2020-21 campaign has 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 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.

Let's take a look at some of the ways the two seasons have mirrored each other thus far.

Ironmen

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. To boot, he's the reigning Finals MVP coming off the shortest offseason in NBA history.

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.

Different times.

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 quarters.

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.

He single-handedly outscored the Cavaliers 21-19 in the final quarter of his season-best 46-point performance.

He came up clutch in each of the Lakers' three consecutive overtime games in early February.

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.

With each passing month, LeBron's minutes have gone up (as indicated below) and with Davis expected to miss more time, it could go even higher.

To add to the team's worries, no single role player on the Lakers has set themselves apart as a consistent reliable No. 2 that James can depend on with Davis on the sideline.

So similar to Jordan, James has answered the call when the team has needed him despite his age and miles on his body, which has been the case for the majority of this season. But can he take it up a notch or even maintain this level of play, and lead from the front in the absence of Davis, something that will only increase the workload he has to operate with?

As the Lakers stare at the toughest remaining schedule in the league, this non-Davis stretch could make-or-break James' MVP campaign.

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 honours (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.

Reigning MVP or not, both Jordan and James in their mid-30s were still widely considered the best player in the league.

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 in 1997-98.

Quite similar!

Can James pull off a similar season?

The numbers, impact and narrative have elevated LeBron as an MVP favourite 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-stars 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 travelling a similar path to Jordan for his fifth MVP award, and we as fans get to sit back and enjoy it.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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