Who knew that Michael Jordan’s basketball camp for kids — his “Flight School” — would provide such a great window into Jordan’s analysis of the current state of the NBA?
Jordan has been taking questions from campers this week, people have been videotaping them, and soon after Jordan gave a bad opinion about ranking Kobe over LeBron on a list of all-time greats, he tossed out another take that, if you read into it a bit more than you probably should, would seem to further reveal a relatively lukewarm view of LeBron’s greatness.
Jordan was posed a witty question based on the “Could Kawhi get buckets on Kawhi?” Jordan Brand marketing campaign for Kawhi Leonard. A camper asked: “Can Kawhi score on Kawhi?”
Jordan answered — “I would assume not” — then went on to say that Leonard is “the best two-way player in the game right now”:
Which more or less means that Jordan thinks Leonard is the best player in the NBA at the moment … right?
The “two-way” distinction has been used a lot in recent years when discussing the value of certain NBA players at the top of the sport. But when we use it, what do we really mean? Basketball is intrinsically a two-way game. It is 50 percent offense, 50 percent defense. Sure, a dominant offensive player is probably more valuable to a team than an equally dominant defensive player, but both sides of the court matter. To say somebody is the best two-way player in basketball is to say he is the best in the game, no qualifiers necessary.
So Jordan thinks Kawhi is the best player in the NBA, which is certainly a less incorrect take than his Kobe-over-LeBron stance. Jordan isn’t the only one with that opinion. With LeBron coasting through some, if not most, of the 2016-17 regular season on the defensive end, preserving his energy for offense and for the playoffs, Kawhi probably was the best two-way player last season, on the balance of October through May, weighing every regular season and playoff game equally.
But the regular season and playoffs aren’t equal, and LeBron showed in April, May and June that he is most likely still the best player in the game (despite what Kevin Durant thinks). He is still a defensive force when he needs to be.
Kawhi is similarly outstanding on both sides of the court, and perhaps we would view him and LeBron as contemporary equals if the Spurs star hadn’t landed on the foot of Zaza Pachulia in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, knocking him out of the playoffs. Kawhi was irrepressible throughout the first two rounds. Maybe he’ll have passed LeBron by this time next year. But right now? Not yet.
But if you’re keeping score at home, Jordan has now said that LeBron is neither a top-two player of all-time (assuming Jordan would have himself in the top two) nor the best (“two-way”) player in basketball right now. And two years ago at the same camp, Jordan said there was “no question” he would have beaten LeBron one-on-one in his prime.
Perhaps Jordan is aware that some were questioning whether LeBron was threatening MJ’s G.O.A.T. status as he romped through the Eastern Conference playoffs this past spring.