The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part V--The Modern Era's FinestAs I explained before, "The basic premise of the Pantheon series is that instead of crowning one player as the greatest of all-time we should look at and appreciate the body of work produced by 10 players who could legitimately claim that title. Those players, who were the top finishers in the AP's 1999 vote to select the greatest player ever, are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. The Pantheon series examines the careers of each of these players, focusing on peak value and durability; the final part will assess the accomplishments of several active players who may soon be Pantheon-worthy, if they are not already."
The ten Pantheon members who were profiled in the first four parts of this series are all retired. It is easier to assess complete resumes that have stood the test of time than to evaluate players whose careers are still in progress. However, there are at least four active players who have performed at a Pantheon-like level: Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan are the two dominant NBA figures of the post-Michael Jordan era, winners of four championships each. O’Neal averaged at least 21.5 ppg and 10.7 rpg in each of his first 13 seasons, including a run of 10 straight years when he did not score less than 26.2 ppg. O’Neal averaged 23.4 ppg, a career-high 13.9 rpg and a career-high 3.9 bpg en route to winning the 1992-93 Rookie of the Year award. Players generally put up their best rebounding and shot blocking numbers early in their careers but it is a bit unusual that O’Neal never matched his rookie performances in both categories; that dovetails with the perception that for most of his career O’Neal has been more interested in scoring than in playing defense and rebounding. Another perception about O’Neal is that he tends to coast—relatively speaking—in the regular season and is a much more focused player in the playoffs; he averaged 15.4 rpg in both the 2000 and 2001 postseasons and, not coincidentally, his Lakers won the championship both of those years.
O’Neal had an immediate impact on the Orlando Magic’s record: they improved from 21-61 to 41-41 in his first season and then won 50, 57 and 60 games in the next three seasons. The Magic had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 1994-95 and made it all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Houston Rockets. Considering how dominant O’Neal is capable of being, it is odd that his teams have been swept out of the playoffs six times: in addition to the 1995 Finals, O’Neal’s 50-32 Magic lost 3-0 to the 47-35 Indiana Pacers in his first playoff appearance in 1993-94, his 1995-96 Magic lost 4-0 to the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, his 1997-98 Lakers lost 4-0 to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals, his 1999 Lakers lost 4-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round and his 2007 Heat lost 4-0 to the Chicago Bulls in the first round (O’Neal’s teams also lost 4-1 in the 1997 and 2004 playoffs).
After four seasons with Orlando, O’Neal signed with the L.A. Lakers as a free agent. He earned the first of his eight All-NBA First Team selections in 1997-98 (he finished second in MVP voting in 1994-95 to David Robinson, who made the All-NBA First Team at center that season). The Lakers did not lack for talent—in 1998 they became the first team to send four players to the All-Star Game (O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel) since the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers—but O’Neal’s playoff resume was pretty thin before Phil Jackson became the head coach of the Lakers in 1999-00. Jackson made O’Neal the hub of the Triangle Offense and demanded that O’Neal get in shape so that he could be active as a rebounder and defender. O’Neal responded and he and Bryant led the Lakers to a 67-15 regular season record. The Portland Trail Blazers pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination in game seven of the Western Conference Finals but the Lakers survived that test and then defeated the Pacers 4-2 to claim the franchise’s first championship since 1988. That was probably O’Neal’s peak value season: he won his second scoring title by averaging a career-high 29.7 ppg, he set a career-high with a 3.8 apg average and his rebounding (13.6 rpg) and shot blocking (3.0 bpg) were close to career-high levels. In the playoffs he averaged 30.7 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 3.1 apg and 2.4 bpg, earning the first of his three Finals MVPs.
O’Neal and Bryant famously were not close off of the court but on the court they were an unstoppable inside-outside duo and they led the Lakers to the next two NBA titles. Their dynasty began to unravel in 2002 because of a most unexpected and unlikely reason--an injured toe; O’Neal could have had surgery early in the offseason to repair his troublesome toe but he declared, “I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time.” While O’Neal recuperated on “company time,” the Lakers got off to a slow start. Bryant averaged 40.3 ppg in February 2003 and scored at least 40 points in nine straight games—the longest such streak by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain—while trying to keep the Lakers above water but they never quite rounded back into championship form and eventually lost to Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. The Spurs went on to win the championship and have captured two more titles since then. The Lakers made it back to the Finals in 2004 but lost to the Pistons, after which owner Jerry Buss declined to give O’Neal a maximum contract extension for maximum dollars and shipped him to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant.
The Heat felt that they had a wide enough window of opportunity to win multiple championships with O’Neal and Dwyane Wade leading the way but they ended up with just one, a 2006 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks. Miami got swept out of the playoffs in the first round in 2007 and became the worst team in the NBA in the first half of the 2008 season, prompting the Heat to send O’Neal to Phoenix in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. It will be interesting to see if O’Neal can cap off his career by playing a meaningful role in helping the Suns to win the first championship in franchise history.
O’Neal tagged Duncan with the nickname “The Big Fundamental” and that designation certainly is very appropriate: Duncan’s footwork is impeccable and his entire game is very fundamentally sound. Like O’Neal, Duncan won the Rookie of the Year award by helping his team make a huge jump in wins; the 1997-98 Spurs went 56-26, a record improvement of 36 games over the previous season. To be fair, it must be noted that perennial All-Star and former MVP David Robinson missed all but six games in 1996-97 but returned to action in 1997-98. Duncan and Robinson won a title in just their second season together, sweeping the O’Neal-Bryant Lakers out of the playoffs along the way. Robinson showed a lot of class and grace by seamlessly ceding the primary role on offense to Duncan, a marked contrast to the way that O’Neal seemingly resented every shot that Bryant took and every headline that his younger co-star received. Duncan missed the 2000 playoffs with an injury and the Spurs lost in the first round. O’Neal and Bryant got their rematch against Duncan and Robinson in 2001 and completely thrashed them, winning the final two games 111-72 and 111-82 in San Antonio. The Lakers beat the Spurs 4-1 in the 2002 playoffs; by that time, O’Neal-Bryant had a 3-1 championship edge over Duncan-Robinson and clearly owned the bragging rights in the post-Jordan era. As indicated above, that all began to change after O’Neal’s delayed surgery. Duncan and Robinson won the 2003 championship in Robinson’s final season and then Duncan reaffirmed his greatness by leading the Spurs to titles in 2005 and 2007.
Duncan has never been quite as physically overpowering as O’Neal but he has been much more durable and consistent and he has had a much greater impact at the defensive end of the court. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team in each of his first eight seasons and he has earned nine total First Team selections but he has also made the All-Defensive First Team seven times (in addition to three Second Team nods), something that O’Neal has not done even once (he made the Second Team three times). Duncan won back to back regular season MVPs in 2002 and 2003 and has matched O’Neal by winning three Finals MVPs. His peak value season was 2001-02, when he averaged a career-high 25.5 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 3.7 apg and 2.5 bpg. Duncan is several years younger than O’Neal and is still operating at or near an MVP level, so it is quite possible that he will finish his career with more championships than O’Neal.
Sometimes it seems like people forget that Kobe Bryant is already a three-time NBA champion, which means he has as many rings as Larry Bird, one more than Wilt Chamberlain and two more than Oscar Robertson or Jerry West. It’s not like Bryant just went along for the ride when the Lakers won those championships; he was an All-NBA player, an All-Defensive Team member and an MVP candidate for those teams, the leading playmaker who also was counted on to score in the clutch, a role that O’Neal could not regularly handle due to his poor free throw shooting. Bryant has been widely recognized for years as the best player in the NBA in terms of his overall skill set—quite simply, he has no weaknesses, while even the great O’Neal and Duncan struggle in a few areas (free throw shooting for both, conditioning and defense for O’Neal).
Bryant has repeatedly gone on scoring binges that surpass anything done by players not named Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor or Michael Jordan. His 81 point game against Toronto a couple years ago electrified the basketball world and is second only to Chamberlain’s legendary 100 point outburst. Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to average 40-plus ppg for an entire calendar month more than once and he trails only Chamberlain and Jordan on the career list for most 40 point games. His abilities as a scorer are so obvious and overwhelming that it is very easy to overlook how complete his total game is. During the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant willingly accepted a lesser scoring role in order to concentrate on completely shutting down the best perimeter player on the opposing team and his competitiveness played a key role in Team USA’s gold medal triumph. Bryant’s peak value season is probably 2005-06, when he had his 81 point game en route to winning the first of his two scoring titles with a career-high 35.4 ppg average. He also averaged 5.3 rpg and 4.5 apg and earned selection to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. The Lakers now have built a solid team around him for the first time since trading O’Neal away, so this year’s Western Conference playoffs could feature some intriguing matchups between O’Neal’s Suns, Duncan’s Spurs and Bryant’s Lakers.
Some may argue that LeBron James has not been around long enough or accomplished enough to warrant being included with O’Neal, Duncan and Bryant—let alone the 10 Pantheon members—but I think that if James’ career ended right now he’d be looked at as a Gale Sayers-type, a player who put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers in a brief period of time. While Bryant channels the scoring exploits of Chamberlain, Baylor and Jordan, James reprises the combined scoring/passing ability showcased by Oscar Robertson. He already has two top five finishes in MVP voting and may very well capture his first MVP this season. James has averaged 27.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 6.5 apg so far in his career and his playoff numbers are even better: 27.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 7.1 apg. His 48 point performance at Detroit in game five of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals will forever be one of the signature playoff performances in league history. James’ only weaknesses now are defense and perimeter shooting. He has made great strides on defense—even demanding to guard the opposing team’s top player down the stretch at times—and he has demonstrated a willingness to work hard on his outside shot. Bryant and James are the two best players in the NBA right now and it would be a real treat for basketball fans if we get to see them battle against each other in the NBA Finals.
Observant readers may recall that in Part I of this series I mentioned a fifth player, Dwyane Wade, as a possible future Pantheon member. Part I came out in the wake of the 2006 NBA Finals, when Wade put on a performance for the ages while leading the Miami Heat to the franchise’s first championship. Since that time, Wade has battled injuries and his Heat suffered a first round sweep at the hands of the Chicago Bulls, which seemed like quite an embarrassment for a defending champion to endure—until this season’s debacle, when Miami stunningly became the worst team in the NBA. Wade has yet to make the All-NBA First Team even once, nor has he ever finished in the top five in MVP voting; in fact, he has never received even one first place vote in MVP balloting. Those are subjective measurements but the reality is that Wade has not established himself as an elite player in today’s game, let alone an all-time great. It is not yet clear if Wade will create a legacy that stands on its own or if he will mainly be remembered as the driving force behind O’Neal’s fourth title but someone who was not able to sustain that high level of play.
1) Part I of this series can be found here, Part II is here, Part III is here and Part IV is here.
2) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:
The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I
The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II
3) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:
posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM