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Monday, August 06, 2007

The Legacy Question

Perhaps there has been some kind of mild meld among sports reporters because the legacy question seems to be the theme of the day. J.A. Adande writes that Paul Pierce is "worried about how, ultimately, the story of his career will be written." Pierce told Adande, "It's hanging in the balance. People don't know what to think. I think I have the potential to be a Hall of Fame player. I think I have the potential to be one of the best ever to play the game. It's right here for me. It's all on how hard I work and how far I want to take it."

Pierce has a straightforward plan designed to improve how is legacy is perceived: "Win more games. That's it. People know what I can do as an individual basketball player. The legacy is all about how many games you win, what you do as a team." Now that Pierce's Boston Celtics have acquired All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Pierce will certainly have an opportunity to do that. Adande notes that Pierce "considers himself on a level with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James." I suspect that every All-Star--and even some players who are not All-Stars--believes in his heart of hearts that he is as good as Bryant, Wade and James; you don't make it to the NBA, let alone excel there, without having a lot of self-confidence and pride. Of course, just because a player really believes something does not make it true. James has already made the All-NBA Second Team twice and the All-NBA First Team once in his first four seasons, along the way producing a playoff game for the ages last year versus Detroit and carrying his team to the NBA Finals. In his first four seasons, Wade has earned two All-NBA Second Team selections, one All-NBA Third Team selection and won a Finals MVP while leading his team to a championship. Bryant is widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as the game's best player. He has made the All-NBA Team eight times in 11 seasons, including four First Team selections and two Second Team selections. Bryant has also won two scoring titles, along the way accomplishing some scoring feats that have not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain played--and he has done all of this while making the All-Defensive Team seven times, including five selections to the First Team. Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams. Pierce has never advanced past the Eastern Conference Finals in his eight year NBA career and has never been selected to the All-Defensive Team or to the First or Second All-NBA Teams; he did earn back to back All-NBA Third Team selections several years ago. Pierce will have to do a lot as his career winds down to match what Bryant, James and Wade have already accomplished.

If Bryant never played another NBA game he would easily be a first ballot Hall of Famer. That is why it is so funny when someone suggests that his "place in history" is somehow hanging in the balance. There is no objective way to put Bryant in the same legacy boat as a guy like Pierce, who has never won anything and whose individual accomplishments don't hold a candle to Bryant's. It also makes no sense to compare Bryant's career arc to Pistol Pete Maravich's. Yes, Bryant could enhance his legacy by being the primary star on a championship team but the reality is that Bryant has already won three championship rings. Do John Havlicek's six rings that he won alongside Bill Russell not count? Did anyone suggest that Havlicek had to win the two championships that he captured after Russell retired to "validate" the earlier ones? If Bryant had been a bit player on the Lakers' championship teams then it would make sense to say that Bryant needs to win a title on his own (so to speak, because no one really wins a championship by himself)--but Bryant was an All-NBA performer on those championship teams, putting up 40-point playoff games, playing great defense and being the primary ball handler/playmaker.

Maravich was a wonderful player, one of my all-time favorites. He was ahead of his time, often getting criticized for things that would be applauded today, and he never had the chance to play on a great team while he was in his prime. Isiah Thomas has called him the greatest showman of all-time. I believe that Maravich is very underrated and I have no doubt that he could have been a key contributor to a championship team if that opportunity had presented itself--but Bryant's career is already one year longer than Maravich's was. Bryant is a vastly superior defender, shoots a better percentage from the field and the free throw line, rebounds better, is much more durable and even is within one apg of Maravich's career assists average--in fact, if you take out Bryant's first two seasons, when he wasn't a starter, his apg in the next nine years is virtually the same as Maravich's ten year average. Bryant is already a greater NBA player than Maravich was, whether or not Bryant is able to win a fourth championship.

In 1999, an Associated Press panel voted for the Basketball Player of the Century. The top ten finishers--the players who comprise what I call pro basketball's "pantheon"--were Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Robertson and West each won one title and each did so while playing alongside a center who is in the pantheon. Baylor never won a championship. Bryant already has more championship rings that those three players put together. Bird won three NBA championships, while Erving won three professional titles (one NBA, two ABA). So the question is not whether or not Bryant will surpass Maravich--he already has--but whether or not Bryant will do enough to earn admittance into the pantheon; it could be argued that Bryant already should be considered a member of this group, but one championship ring as the primary guy would absolutely clinch such status for Bryant. The only other active players who could even be considered for pantheon status are Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 PM

18 comments

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18 Comments:

At Monday, August 06, 2007 9:57:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Excellent post, David.

Kobe's legacy, if he were to retire tomorrow, SHOULD be the following: a winner, great clutch player, one of the Top 20 players ever in terms of how well his career went, and probably as good as anyone who ever picked up a basketball from a "skills" perspective. It's puzzling that so many writers are acting like Kobe's career is on the verge of going down as a disappointment. I think the main explanation for this is that Kobe is just not liked very much, and as a result, he's deprived of the credit he deserves. (Another part of the problem is the narrowminded, ignorant point of view that every team has one player who is "the man", and everyone else on the team is a role player being "carried" by "the man", and doesn't deserve much credit for the team's success. Blame the fascination that the NBA and its fans have with individuals rather than teams.)

Due to Kobe's lack of likability, there has been some rewriting of history. When the Lakers were winning championships, I recall that Kobe was generally observed to be just as important to the team as Shaq, or very slightly No. 2. Virtually everyone agreed that Kobe was indispensable. After years of feuding, a rape trial, and Shaq's departure (among other things), the 2000-2002 Kobe has suddenly turned into a decent player who "rode Shaq's coattails". Kobe shouldn't need another title to get the respect he deserves, but he probably does.

There are other examples of players whose legacies suffered a similar fate. Take Kareem (who, like Kobe, was disliked for most of his career). If you watched games of the 80s Lakers (especially from 1980-85), or read articles or books written during that time, or watched highlight films made during that time, it's very clear what a dominant player Kareem was, what a huge part of the Lakers' success he was, and (from 1980-85) how much the Lakers' offense revolved around him. If you read or watch something about the 80s Lakers produced in recent years, the tone is decidedly different. Kareem's contributions have been belittled and overlooked, and his "legacy" has suffered. For instance, I was watching a film on the Lakers' history from a 2004 DVD set, and about all that's said about Kareem is that he arrived in a trade after the Chamberlain/West era, he was great at shooting sky-hooks, but he couldn't carry the Lakers to the promised land. Then Magic Johnson is drafted, and Kareem essentially disappears during the rest of the film.

I've always wondered something about the plethora of writers who have suggested that Kobe needs to prove he can win without Shaq in order to be considered one of the best players ever. Do most of these writers actually hold these opinions themselves? Or, are most of them writing how they think OTHER people will view Kobe? If it is the latter, it may be an example of a media phenomenon where such a large number of writers suggest that the general population will see something a certain way, that it causes the general population to see things the way they suggest they will.

 
At Tuesday, August 07, 2007 4:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The ironic thing is that my objective, fact-based take on a player's career is much more likely to be described as "hating" (or "loving," depending on the player and the perspective of the commenter) than the accounts of writers whose perspective is either biased or largely ill-informed.

Kobe's "problem" is that he just rubs a lot of people the wrong way for a variety of reasons. Kobe's competitive drive and hunger to dominate seem to turn people off but MJ was just as cutthroat and competitive as Kobe but he smiled more and put on a media/fan friendly veneer that is apparently more palatable to the general public; Tiger Woods and other great athletes are also fiercely competitive while still being widely admired (and liked). Yet Kobe is accused of being "joyless" and of being too hard on his teammates; I find that quite amusing because I have talked to enough of MJ's teammates and coaches to know that he was hardly patting people on the back and extolling the power of positive thinking.

I liked Pete Rose as a player because he had this burning, fierce desire to win; Kobe is basically the same guy in that regard, but he is not and likely will never be as popular as Rose is, even after Rose brought shame upon himself by betting on baseball. Some people seem to resent Kobe because they feel like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but other players are the offspring of former players and are not nearly as resented. Of course, Kobe's legal problems in Colorado probably turned many people against him--yet Ray Lewis has become a very popular player despite being charged with double murder and ultimately pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in that case, a case that has never been solved. So there are some reasons why Kobe is not liked but there are other players who have similar profiles who are not as disliked. The whole thing is very subjective and that subjectivity filters into how people "analyze" Kobe's career. You are absolutely right that Shaq and Kobe were looked at as 1a and 1b during the championship years and that Kobe was perceived--quite correctly--as an indispensable part of the championship mix.

You are right that Kareem's status has been downgraded. I think that part of that is because of how the 80s are perceived to be Bird versus Magic. There is no room to give anyone else billing (except for MJ, who took over in the late 80s and into the 90s). Dr. J's role in the NBA has been diminished, too, though probably not as severely as Kareem's has.

I think that some writers really do believe that Kobe has to "prove" himself. Others say it because they don't like Kobe, so they look for a reason to downgrade him. Others have heard this said so much that they at least halfway believe it. Others believe that it will make them more popular among editors and the reading public to espouse this idea; while a lot of people like to imagine or assert that they are independent thinkers, there is a lot of "group-think" that goes on in the media (and not just in the sports world).

 
At Tuesday, August 07, 2007 3:24:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

MJ was way more cutthroat and competitive than Bryant. There is no comparison and you cant say MJ was as cutthroat and competitive as Bryant...it should be Bryant is as cutthroat and competitive as MJ.

Bryant makes as many people better as Maravich, which is no one.

Who cares about legacy? I know its the in thing to talk about but who cares about it. Or the Hall of Fame? Or whose 1st or 2nd ballot? Its a joke.

 
At Tuesday, August 07, 2007 4:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

Your comment reminds me of the time when someone asked Bill Russell how he would have done against Kareem and Russell said, "Young man, you have the question backwards." Of course, MJ came before Kobe, so perhaps I should have said that Kobe is as competitive as MJ, not the other way around. Competitiveness is perhaps a subjective quality. Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times, who has covered the NBA for a long time, told me that Kobe is more "driven" than MJ, which I suppose could be interpreted a number of ways; obviously, you and anyone else is free to disagree with Heisler's opinion or mine. My larger point is that MJ and Kobe are both highly competitive, driven players but that this was considered a positive for MJ but is considered a negative for Kobe. Whether or not you agree that Kobe is as competitive as MJ it is clear that Kobe's competitiveness is not viewed as positively as MJ's was/is.

Kobe was the leading playmaker and best perimeter defender on three championship teams; to suggest that he did not make his teammates--and his team--better is simply incorrect. For the past few years, the Lakers have been a competitive team when Kobe plays and simply awful when he is not on the court.

Maravich had the misfortune of playing on some bad teams, both in college and in the NBA. Still, his teams had better records when he played than when he didn't. He was a skilled passer. In fact, some of his passes bounced off the hands of open players who did not realize that they were open or simply could not catch the ball very well; Kobe has had that same experience passing to the likes of Kwame Brown.

The subject of legacy interests me because I am a historian and a student of the game. I certainly have criticized the Hall of Fame for various things but induction is still a significant honor.

 
At Tuesday, August 07, 2007 7:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous 2

if kobe retire tomorrow hell go down as a great player. top 20 or so but not top 10 or 15 players all time. he could be with those players when he wins a championship as the lead guy. people will always say he was great but he was lucky he played with shaq when he did. now if he win a ring or two without shaq all kobe haters are shetup forever, and anybody else who don't like kobe. it may be unfair to giveone player the credit on a 12 man team but thats how people see it.

shaq had the biggest impact on those lakers championship teams, kobe a close second but not the same impact as shaq, granted shaq couldn't win the ring without kobe but he could take the same team farther than kobe could without one another thats why i said he had a bigger impact.

but no question kobe special and i think he could win a ring, if he has the right players around him, like him and jermanine o'neal and lamar odom could be a potent team.

but kobe been great no question. pete marivich was super great though a grea showman who never won because he played with nobody.

 
At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 12:03:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I am a historian and student of the game as well but I dont care about legacy.

I know what you meant with the MJ and Bryant comparison. What does Heisler know? I know he has covered the league for a while but how does he determine who is more competitive. Please. I know what I see. Im looking at the last few years with Bryant. Hes not making those teams better. They should have beaten the Suns when they were up 3-1. There is no excuse for that.

He was the primary playmaker but he had Shaquille which made his NBA life a lot easier.

 
At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 4:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous 2:

We basically agree. I've got Kobe in the top-20 all-time, whether or not he wins any more rings. A case could be made for him to be in the top-10 all-time right now but a case could also be made against that. If he wins a ring as the undisputed main guy on the team, I think that he clinches a spot in the top-10.

 
At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 4:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I didn't mean to imply that you are not a student of the game; I was just explaining that that is why "legacy" questions interest me, as I think that they interest most students of the game.

Heisler is not infallible, nor is any other observer, but I think that if you are around the game for decades that you pick up something. "Competitiveness" and drive are subjective things. He has his take, I have mine and you have yours.

The Lakers did not blow a 3-1 lead because of a lack of drive or competitiveness on Kobe's part. Don't forget that he scored 50 points in the game six loss. The Lakers were one defensive rebound away from clinching that game and the series. Is Kobe a better player if Kwame Brown or Odom get that rebound? Is he worse because they didn't? The only reason that that Lakers team could be competitive with the Suns in a seven game series is because of Kobe's greatness. He elevated that entire team well beyond what it could have done without him, much as he almost singlehandedly drove the Lakers into this year's playoffs with his run of 40 and 50 point games down the stretch.

 
At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 9:25:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Im not saying thats why they didnt win the series. But if you are one of the best of all-time (which you guys will have him in the top 20) you have to finish that series.

 
At Wednesday, August 08, 2007 5:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Julius Erving is one of the 10 best players of all-time but his Sixers squandered a 3-1 lead to Boston in the 1981 NBA playoffs. Larry Bird's 1983 Boston Celtics were swept 4-0 by Milwaukee. Magic and Kareem's Lakers lost in the 1981 playoffs to a Houston team that did not even win half of its games. One player cannot control everything that happens on the court, particularly in a playoff series against an excellent team. Kobe did everything that he could reasonably be expected to do to "finish" that series.

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 3:44:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Blowing a 3-1 lead when you have a superior team is one thing, but I don't think Kobe (or anyone) should be crucified when their team was clearly inferior and lucked into that position in the first place.

Michael Jordan's Bulls jumped out to a 2-1 lead against a clearly superior team in 1989 (just like Kobe's Lakers in 2006). The Bulls then lost 3 straight and were eliminated. Is that somehow better than having won one more game before dropping the 3 straight? If Jordan had somehow managed to lead his team to one more win before they were outclassed, would that have tainted his reputation? Would Kobe be deserving of a better place in history if the Lakers failed to win Game 4 and dropped 3 straight one game earlier than they did?

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 4:20:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It's amazing how many people act like they know what kind of leader MJ was, and how he dealt with his teammates. A common arguement is that Jordan was "respected" by his teammates, so they played hard for him. Kobe's teammates, however, supposedly don't have any respect for him, so they don't play hard for him, and that's why Kobe will never be able to lead a team. It's just incredible how much people will dress things up in order to advance or tarnish the image of a certain player.

Indeed, MJ was much more savvy than Kobe in dealing with the media and projecting an image. Another factor though, is the explosion in media coverage of the NBA. Of course, Jordan never had a scandal as big as Kobe's rape accusation, and there was no established superstar on his team that Jordan feuded with. Still, I wonder if Jordan's apparently cutthroat nature and off-the-court scandals could have been covered up enough under today's media scrutiny to preserve his image.

I agree with you that Dr. J's status has been diminished over time. Part of it is people judging everything nowadays by stats. Another reason is that Michael Jordan sort of took Doc's place in most people's eyes as "the" elite basketball high-flyer. Perhaps the biggest reason though is that Dr. J played most of career under obscurity (compared to the attention pro basketball got during the primes of Magic, Larry and Michael). I've always thought that Dr. J's accomplishments stack up well against Bird's. He has 4 MVPs, 6 finals appearances, and 3 championships against Bird's 3, 5, and 3. If you take away Doc's ABA years and Bird's first 5 years in the NBA, they still stack up well: 1 MVP, 4 finals appearances, and 1 title vs. 2, 3, and 1. Most people seem to take it for granted though that Bird was the superior player. I don't think this would be the case if Dr. J played under the same spotlight as Bird.

You're right that in the minds of the fans, the 80s was just Magic vs. Bird. This is because it was the most appealing story to the media, and it's been replayed over and over as the years have passed. It's sad that everything has to be simplified so much. It goes back to my previous point about how most fans have the notion that each team has one player who is "the man", and everyone else on the team is just a "sidekick".

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 4:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Although I would not go so far as to say that the Lakers "lucked" into a 3-1 lead--I don't place a big emphasis on luck when discussing games of skill--it is certainly obvious that on paper the Suns had the much superior team. It says a lot about Kobe that he led such a rag-tag unit into the playoffs and took them to the brink of upsetting a legitimate title contending team. Your examples from MJ's career reinforce this point.

There is also an issue of sample size. In a one and done format like the NCAA Tournament, an inferior team can win a game against an opponent that it would never beat in a three, five or seven game series. That is why a seven game series is the best determinant of which team is truly superior (some statisticians would say that an even longer series would be ideal but that of course would run into practical difficulties in terms of length of season, etc.). Think of it this way: if I played one on one against Kobe, first player to score wins and I get the ball first then I would have a slight chance of making a basket and winning; the longer the game is scheduled for (two points, four points, ten points, etc.), the lower my chances of winning go. By any rational consideration the Lakers had less than a 50% chance of beating the Suns in 2006 and the longer the series went the more likely it was that the "correct" outcome (from a statistical standpoint) would happen. If Odom gets a defensive rebound or Kwame does a better job of contesting Thomas' three pointer then we might be talking about one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. The point is that any way you look at it, Kobe performed at a very high level throughout that series.

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 5:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

My previous comment was in response to your answer to Madnice but the chronology of when comments are posted can get a little jumbled due to the comment moderation feature.

I think that MJ and Kobe are both good leaders and are in fact carved out of a similar mold in that regard. The big differences, as I mentioned and you agreed, is how they have managed their public images and how much the media coverage has increased/changed. Although MJ has never been charged with a serious crime like Kobe was, there are plenty of sordid situations that he has been associated with in terms of his marriage and also in terms of his gambling. Interested readers either already know about these things or can find out about them pretty easily if they are so inclined; that kind of stuff will never be the focus of discussion here. The relevant point is that MJ has been much more successful in maintaining a good public image than Kobe has.

In some of my articles about ABA statistics and why they should be accorded full status in pro basketball record books I have made some of the same points that you mentioned about Dr. J. His overall career stacks up very well with Bird's and if you take away the first five years of each player's career (i.e., Dr. J's ABA years), their careers are also similar. Neither Dr. J nor any other great player can be fairly evaluated without counting the stats from his first five years. Most great players have some, if not all, of their most productive individual seasons--particularly in categories like rebounding, steals and blocked shots--during that time (even if it could be argued that their games continued to mature and develop past that point).

In my interviews with Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones, which can be found on this site, I touch upon how Dr. J was a very unique leader--an "encourager," as Jones put it. MJ, Kobe and many other great players tend to lead harshly. Dr. J was every bit as competitive as those guys but he had a much different way of expressing and communicating that competitiveness. To be honest, in all of my research about great athletes--both in interviews that I have conducted and in all of the books and articles that I have read by others--I cannot think of another athlete in a team sport who was as great as Dr. J and as "nice." Look at the "pantheon" and you find a lot of guys who would very quickly make their displeasure known if their teammates did not perform up to their standards. This is not to say that they are "bad" guys but Doc was special, as any of his teammates and coaches will attest.

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 2:30:00 PM, Blogger roger said...

kobe a good player, he has had a hall of fame career, but he aint all time great player to me personally, he's a person that is too confindent in himself and not enough in his teamates. thats always been a probem with him since shaq days, he compromised at one point with the lakers too win rings but that was only for a few years.

also he should have never been compared to jordan in the first place no one should, every player is a diffrent player than another player so he should be judged on his own merits, kobe doesn't play like jordan if you were to compare i think dwade plays more like jordan and similar to him. kobe a whole diffrent player than jordan was. my thing with kobe is he has not won a playoff series since shaq left and not shown the leadership too me that shaq, jordan and others have shown.

he will have to win a ring or two to validate his career to me other than that he is no better in theory than, ai, kevin garnett, t mac, and others who are talented players but never elevate their teams and just stat stuffers.

 
At Thursday, August 09, 2007 5:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Roger:

Your comment is interesting and kind of reflects some of the issues that we have been discussing here. Kobe is too confident in his own abilities? That's funny, because other players who are confident in their abilities are praised for this trait--guys like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and others.

Kobe won three rings with the Lakers and was on a fourth team that made it to the Finals. He spent more of his career playing at that level then he has spent in the more recent situation of being on a rebuilding team. Why assume that the past three years are more indicative of Kobe's inclinations than everything that preceded these seasons?

No one here is saying that Kobe is as good as MJ. They are similar in certain personality traits but I have always maintained that MJ is a greater player. Kobe shoots the three more often--and better--than MJ did, so from a style standpoint D Wade is a bit more similar to MJ.

Why does Kobe have to win ANOTHER ring--he has three, don't forget--to "validate" his career? That makes no sense. Oscar has one ring. West has one ring. Baylor has no rings. Those three guys are no question about it top ten players of all-time--and Kobe has more rings than they do put together. If Kobe wins a fourth ring, presumably as the undisputed number one player on the team, then he absolutely clinches a spot in the top ten of all-time. It could already be argued that he deserves such a spot now; I could make a case either way, but he is definitely top 20 all-time already.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2007 8:31:00 PM, Blogger roger said...

he has 3 rings but he wasn't the ring leader on those so how do we know he could carry a team as the lead guy? he failed so far he know diffrent from garnett, mcgrady, iverson and others know put them with shaq when he played with shaq i wonder if they could win 3 rings as well.

if kobe win another ring as the guy theres no question, he belongs in top 10 players ever now no way no chance he belongs there right now, you may think so most writers don't though perriod. I know some writers don't like kobe and thats part of it too but i just don't think he belongs with those players. he has no mvp's or anything either. great player no question but top 10 not quite yet.

 
At Sunday, August 12, 2007 10:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

How do we know that Shaq can win without an All-NBA guard? Or that Kareem could win without an All-NBA guard? Or that Oscar or Magic could win without Kareem? Show me one guy who just wins a title by himself. You might say Rick Barry in 1975 or Dr. J in 1976 (ABA) but even those guys had good teammates, even if none of them are considered all-time greats.

Like I said, I could make a case for and a case against Kobe being top-10 all-time right now--but his career isn't over yet. I'm most comfortable saying that he is in the top 20 with a good chance of moving up. Shaq and Duncan are the most dominant players of the post-Jordan era, while Kobe is the best player in terms of overall skills.

 

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