The Legacy QuestionPerhaps 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