Michael Cooper played with Magic Johnson, against Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Whether he's partial to those he knows best or not, the former Los Angeles Lakers guard doesn't rank LeBron James at the same level as the trio who helped define and grow the NBA's popularity in the 1980's and 90's.
The interesting part comes with Cooper's rationale as to why the Miami Heat star doesn't compare.
"I think obviously Michael Jordan was a spectacular player, but the best players to me [were] Bird and Magic at that era and particularly at that time when basketball was at its largest amount of growth," Cooper told CSNwashington on Sunday evening at the Verizon Center.
The longtime WNBA coach spoke after directing the Atlanta Dream to a win over the Washington Mystics - and before Miami's 104-87 loss in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The Heat lost the series 4-1 to the San Antonio Spurs with each defeat by at least 15 points.
"LeBron is definitely a good player and he has two championships under his belt. I think LeBron is the type of person who can definitely win you a championship, get you there, but the key to those other two players is they made other players around them better. I don't think LeBron is at that stage yet because if he was those two games [Games 3 and 4] he would have made [Mario] Chalmers a better player. He would have made [Chris] Bosh a better player."
The debate about where James, a two-time league champion and four-time regular season Most Valuable Player, ranks among the all-time best players intensified recently after he led Miami to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year.
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James scored 31 points in the Game 5 blowout loss and averaged 28.2 for the series. As was the case throughout the finals, his teammates struggled offensively. No other Miami player scored more than 13 in the finale.
In games 3 and 4, Chalmers scored six points on 2 of 11 shooting. He was benched in Game 5. Bosh, a nine-time All-Star, scored 13 in Game 5 after a combined 21 points in the previous two games.
With the series loss, James fell to 2-3 in the NBA Finals.
Many in the historical comparison game bypass all others and ponder James versus Jordan, who is often considered the NBA's best player of all-time.
The 1987 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Cooper won five championships with the Lakers during his 12 NBA seasons.
"[LeBron] has to definitely be ranked up there with the best that ever played this game. But when you're talking and your breath doesn't include Magic or Bird or Elgin Baylor or some of the great ones, then you're not talking the right language to me."
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