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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

It is Wrong to Call LeBron James "LePippen"

In less than two weeks, Scottie Pippen--the point forward for six Chicago Bulls' championship teams and arguably the greatest wing defender in pro basketball history--will be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame both as an individual player and as a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team (the "Dream Team"). Pippen literally came out of nowhere--no offense, University of Central Arkansas--to earn recognition as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.

Those who competed with or against Pippen--including Magic Johnson, who I spoke with about Pippen during All-Star Weekend--understand that even though Pippen has received many accolades he still is underrated. Pippen is often referred to as Michael Jordan's "sidekick" but that label really sells Pippen short. Pippen made the All-NBA First Team three times and he twice finished in the top five in MVP voting, so he was an elite level player in his own right. It actually says a lot about Pippen's unselfishness that he did not chafe at the "sidekick" role but rather embraced the opportunity to showcase his all-around game while Jordan annually led the league in scoring and received much of the glory. Chicago Bulls' Coach Phil Jackson wisely used Pippen as a point forward, which enabled Jordan to sprint up the court and obtain good post position before the defense could get set. Pippen's ballhandling skills and deft passing kept the Triangle Offense flowing; after Jordan retired in 1993 to play baseball, Pippen did not try to dominate the ball as a scorer to the extent that Jordan did--though Pippen did lead the Bulls in scoring that season--but Pippen helped the Bulls remain a championship contender with his great defensive play and his tremendous understanding of how to run the Triangle. B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant each earned their first and only All-Star selections that season. I do not like the cliched phrase "making your teammates better" but the way Pippen played throughout his career--and particularly during that special 1993-94 season--is a great example of how great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well.

LeBron James already has obtained some individual accomplishments that Pippen did not, including two regular season MVPs (2009, 2010) and one scoring title (2008). For most of his career, James has clearly been the best player on his team but when he made his already infamous "Decision" to leave Cleveland for "South Beach" many people mocked James by saying that he took the easy way out, that he will be Dwyane Wade's "sidekick" on the Miami Heat and that therefore James should never be compared to Michael Jordan but is simply "LePippen." I have made it quite clear that I think that James handled the entire free agency process poorly and that he should have either stayed in Cleveland or else found a more graceful way to leave--but regardless of what anyone thinks of James' actions his basketball skills should still be evaluated objectively. LeBron James is a better basketball player than Dwyane Wade: James is bigger, stronger and at least as quick, he can defend more positions, he is a more creative and effective passer and he is a better shooter. It remains to be seen what roles James and Wade will play for the Heat next season but unless something fundamentally changes James will still be a better player than Wade regardless of who the media decides to designate as "Batman" and "Robin."

It is well documented that James quit during game five of this year's playoffs versus Boston but it is odd that people seem to have completely forgotten how poorly Wade played in the 2008 season as the Heat completed a two year collapse that is unprecedented for a championship team that was not dismantled. Wade received some criticism at that time but his performance in the 2008 Olympics and in the next two NBA seasons muted complaints about his tendency to get hurt and his sometimes erratic playing style. Kobe Bryant was a whipping boy for the media for a while but after adding two championships and two Finals MVPs to his resume he is a "made man" (to borrow Cris Carter's description of the much criticized Eli Manning after Manning led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title). Take away all the spin that has been said about Bryant, James and Wade and the reality is that, when healthy, Kobe Bryant is the best all-around player in the NBA but for the past couple regular seasons LeBron James has been more productive and consistent than Bryant. Wade is a remarkably athletic and explosive player but he is several inches shorter than James and Bryant and there is no getting around the truth that height does indeed matter in the NBA.

The fact that Wade was in Miami first does not make James a "sidekick" any more than Moses Malone was Julius Erving's sidekick for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers; Erving won the 1981 MVP as a 76er, Malone won the 1982 MVP as a Rocket and Malone won the 1983 MVP (while joining Erving on the All-NBA First Team) as the Sixers rolled to the championship.

It not only is silly to call James a "sidekick"--at least until we actually see what roles James and Wade fill for the Heat--but it makes no sense to supposedly denigrate James by comparing him to Pippen. Scottie Pippen did not elect to leave a team in his prime years to join a team with an established star who was his own age (the "crime" that the "LePippen" chanters are charging James with committing); in fact, as mentioned above, Pippen embraced the challenge of being the lead guy after Jordan retired. Teammates and opponents alike laud Pippen's versatility and unselfishness. Regardless of how many awards James wins and how much money he accrues he should hope and pray that when his career ends he will be as well respected by his peers as Scottie Pippen is.

LeBron James is a more explosive scorer than Scottie Pippen but he still has a long way to go to match Pippen as a champion, a leader and a player who will do whatever it takes--including play an NBA Finals game with two ruptured disks in his back--to help his team win an NBA title.

If someone wants to denigrate James by calling him a "clever" name then "LeQuit" or "Quitness" fit the bill but leave Scottie Pippen's name out of the LeBron James conversation, at least until James is an All-NBA performer for one championship team, let alone six.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 PM

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Classic Confrontations: Boston vs. St. Louis

This article was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest under the odd title "Intense While it Lasted."

Before the 1956-57 season the Boston Celtics traded two future Hall of Famers--center Ed Macauley and forward Cliff Hagan--to the St. Louis Hawks for the number two overall pick in the draft. Celtics coach Red Auerbach did this in order to select center Bill Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to consecutive NCAA championships. The pre-Russell Celtics were somewhat like the current Dallas Mavericks--a potent offensive team loaded with All-Stars that had great regular season success but did not defend or rebound well enough to win a championship.

Russell was a tremendous student of the game. He knew all of his opponents' tendencies and he mastered intricacies such as keeping his blocked shots in play to ignite the fast break and having enough awareness of his body position to avoid fouling the offensive player when he went for the block. His only weakness was an unpolished offensive game, but Auerbach told Russell that he would never bring up Russell’s scoring average in contract negotiations.

Russell joined the Celtics in December 1956 after leading the U.S. basketball team to the gold medal in the Olympic Games. Russell's defense and rebounding turbocharged the Celtics' fast break, masterfully choreographed by point guard Bob Cousy, a perennial All-Star who won the 1956-57 NBA MVP. Indiana Pacers' broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who played against Russell as a member of the Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers before coaching the Pacers to three ABA titles, says that Russell's Celtics had the best fast break ever, explaining that the Celtics' fast break was unique because of how perfectly suited the entire roster was to play that style: "Red knew that he had the boards because of Russell, but he had Cousy who was a master on the fast break. You let him get that outlet pass and get the ball in the middle and he could do wonders with it. They had runners--Tommy Heinsohn was a great runner. The first 'sixth man' in the NBA was Frank Ramsey. The most underrated guard I ever played against was probably Sam Jones. This guy could do it all--defend, score and he was a money player."

The Celtics and Hawks rivalry is special because after the big trade the teams met in four of the next five NBA Finals. Russell led the Celtics to 11 titles in his 13 seasons but the Hawks posed a significant challenge to Boston’s nascent dynasty, defeating Boston once and twice extending the Celtics to seven games. Hawks' coach Alex Hannum later coached the only other team that defeated Russell’s Celtics in a playoff series--the Wilt Chamberlain led 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1956-57 the Celtics escaped with a 125-123 game seven Finals triumph over St. Louis. Hawks' star forward Bob Pettit, the NBA's first regular season MVP (1955-56), had 39 points but missed a potential game tying shot at the buzzer after a length of the court pass by player-coach Hannum. Russell finished with 19 points and 32 rebounds, while fellow rookie Heinsohn had 37 points and 23 rebounds.

Russell sprained his ankle in game three of the 1958 Finals and the Hawks won 111-108 to take a 2-1 lead. Russell sat out games four and five, which the teams split. He was immobile and ineffective in 20 minutes of game six action and Pettit scored 50 points to lead the Hawks to a 110-109 victory; he scored 19 of the Hawks' last 21 points. Pettit's performance tied Cousy's single game playoff scoring record set in 1953, but Cousy's mark happened in a four overtime game. Auerbach refused to blame the loss on Russell's injury: "You can always look for excuses. We just got beat."

In 1958-59, rookie Elgin Baylor led his 33-39 Minneapolis Lakers to a 4-2 upset of the 49-23 Hawks in the Western Division Finals, only to be swept by Boston in the Finals. Boston blitzed through the 1959-60 regular season with a 59-16 record, but St. Louis extended the Celtics to seven games in the Finals before bowing 122-103. Russell's game seven line read 22 points, 35 rebounds and four assists.

In the 1961 Finals Boston triumphed 4-1 over the Hawks in the only lopsided playoff matchup between the teams. The teams never met again in the Finals, primarily because of the emergence of a new "classic confrontation" that would eventually occur more frequently than any other Finals pairing--Celtics versus Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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