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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who's The Boss?

A slightly different version of this article first appeared as a cover story in the 2006-07 edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball.

It's the question that basketball fans have debated for decades in bars and at office water coolers: If you could build a team around any one player in the NBA, who would you take? The answers have ranged from Mikan to Russell to Wilt to Oscar to Kareem to Dr. J to Bird to Magic to MJ. As Rick Pitino might say, those guys are not coming through the door today. So, who's the man now? Who's the boss?

First we have to set some ground rules. Can you be the boss without winning a championship? It is theoretically possible—many people considered Oscar Robertson to be the game's greatest all-around player years before he got his only ring when he was past his prime and paired with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still, there has never been someone who merited serious consideration as the league's best player who did not eventually win at least one ring, even if he got it near the end of his career; Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each won MVPs in the Michael Jordan era but that was more a matter of voters being tired of picking Jordan than a statement that the ring-less Barkley or Malone were better than His Airness.

Current players who have both the championship pedigree and the highly developed individual skills to merit mention as being the best player in the NBA include Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have not won any championships but also certainly must be included in the discussion.

The word that first comes to mind to describe Wade is "explosive." He explodes vertically for soaring dunks and horizontally with his array of crossover moves that leave defenders with broken ankles and dented egos. When his game is flowing he is too quick for big guards and too powerful for small guards. He finished sixth in the 2006 regular season MVP voting but surely moved to the top of a lot of people's lists after his tremendous run in the 2006 playoffs, culminating in one of the best Finals performances in league history. He averaged 34.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.8 apg and 2.7 spg in Miami's six game victory over Dallas and the way that he took command of the series has already been mentioned in the same breath as standout Finals efforts by MJ and Magic. That is pretty heady company for someone who is entering his fourth season in the league. Prior to 2006, one trump that Kobe Bryant had over Wade was playing a key role on three championship teams. Wade still trails Bryant in total titles but he has a Finals MVP, an honor that Bryant has yet to win. Veteran NBA assistant coach Tex Winter literally had a front row seat for Jordan and Bryant's Finals exploits, so he is uniquely qualified to place Wade's Finals MVP in historical context—and he was very impressed by what Wade did, so much so that he has been forced to reconsider his opinion that Bryant is the game's best player.

While Wade's game has literally grown by leaps and bounds, Kobe Bryant still remains in many ways the perfect basketball player, an amazing combination of size (6-6, 220), speed, jumping ability, competitiveness and extreme focus. He made numerous big plays during the Lakers' three championship seasons and his performance during the Lakers' rebuilding campaign in 2005-06 was truly epic. He averaged 35.4 ppg during the regular season, the best scoring average since Jordan's 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. He carried a team that most observers thought was bound for the Draft Lottery to the playoffs and to the brink of an upset over the Phoenix Suns. Bryant redefined "unguardable" on January 22 when he poured in 81 points versus the Toronto Raptors, the second best single game scoring mark in NBA history.

During the first round playoff series versus Phoenix, Bryant's scoring average went down to 27.9 ppg but he shot better from the field, grabbed more rebounds and passed for more assists than he did in the regular season. Bryant willingly shot the ball fewer times so that the Lakers could use Coach Phil Jackson's "Inside Man" strategy against the undersized Suns. This enabled the seventh seed Lakers to extend second seed Phoenix to seven games before being eliminated. Bryant still managed to hit the winning shot in game four and produced 50 points in an overtime loss in game six, when Bryant's scoring output kept the Lakers close enough that one defensive rebound at the end of regulation could have clinched a series win for L.A.

Despite playing shooting guard, Bryant led the Lakers in assists from 1999-2000 to 2002-03 and again in 2004-05. He was the primary playmaker on each of the Lakers' three championship teams when he played alongside Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant is also good at passing the ball out of double-teams—a pass that often leads to an assist for the recipient if he promptly reverses the ball to the open man on the weak side of the court.

Tim Duncan's game is about as exciting as watching a metronome—but there is no arguing with his resume, which includes three NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and two regular season MVPs. He annually ranks among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Duncan makes the game easier for his teammates in many ways: he gets them open shots by drawing double teams, he erases their defensive mistakes by blocking shots, his dominance on the boards allows them to get a head start on the fast break and his ability to draw fouls gets the Spurs into the bonus early, providing extra free throw attempts on what would otherwise be non-shooting fouls. Duncan has been durable for most of his career, although nagging injuries last season led to the worst scoring average (18.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.484) of his nine year career. Classical basketball philosophy values a good big man over a good little man (little being a very subjective term regarding Bryant, James and Wade) but rules changes limiting defensive contact versus perimeter players have greatly increased the impact that slashing swingmen can have on a game. If you are looking for what Al McGuire used to call an "aircraft carrier," then Duncan is your guy in today's NBA.

While Wade, Bryant and Duncan already have championship resumes, LeBron James made his postseason debut in 2006. He made a big splash right from the start, putting up 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists while playing all 48 minutes in a 97-86 win over Washington. James is the second youngest player to have a postseason triple-double and just the third player to have one in his first playoff game. His fingerprints were all over Cleveland's six game series win over the Wizards—35.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.7 apg—and the Cavaliers' surprisingly competitive seven game series loss to defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit. James averaged 26.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 6.0 apg versus the Pistons and delivered the best quote of the playoffs when he said "They're not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs" to describe the Cavaliers' state of mind after taking a 3-2 series lead. He is significantly bigger than Bryant and Wade, so while those two are more accomplished at this point James has more "upside," as a scout might say. The phrase "one of a kind" is a cliché but how else would you describe someone who is nearly as big as Karl Malone but has the ball handling and passing skills of a guard? Just as striking as James' physical attributes are his poise, court vision and maturity.

Dirk Nowitzki seemed to be well on his way to making his case to be the game's best player when his Dallas Mavericks eliminated Duncan's Spurs in a seventh game in San Antonio, but his lackluster performance in the NBA Finals versus Wade's Heat ended that notion for now. There is no doubt that Nowitzki was not in peak form in the Finals but he did average 27.0 ppg, 11.7 rpg and 2.9 apg overall in the playoffs. While some described this as a breakout season for Nowitzki, he has averaged 25.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.4 apg during his playoff career, so it's not like this year was the first time that he excelled in the postseason. In 2002 he became the first player to have 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in four straight playoff games since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1977. Nowitzki had 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in two consecutive seventh games in 2003, something that only Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Elvin Hayes, Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit have accomplished in NBA history. Nowitzki can drain threes, run the floor and control the glass, a highly unusual combination of skills for a seven-footer.

Steve Nash has not won a championship and, at 6-3, 195, is not nearly as physically imposing as the previously mentioned players—but he won the regular season MVP in 2005 and 2006, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan as the only players in NBA history to win the honor in consecutive years. Nash is a wondrous player who uses his tremendous ball handling skills and court vision to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. He is also an excellent shooter. While his impact at the offensive end of the court is unquestioned, Nash is a defensive liability. Also, although he does not miss a lot of games, Nash's durability—particularly after the grind of a long season—is suspect.

The bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any of these guys as "the boss" on your team. Wade is the popular choice at the moment because he has a new championship ring on one hand and the Finals MVP trophy in the other—but an excellent case can be made for Bryant, Duncan, James, Nowitzki or Nash. Duncan is probably the most underrated player in this group, due to the understated nature of both his game and his personality. Bryant's reputation has waxed and waned over the years, often for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. The theory behind the International Race of Champions (IROC) is to take the best drivers from various series, put them in identically outfitted cars and see who wins. The NBA doesn't work that way, but because of his drive and willpower, I suspect that Kobe Bryant would emerge as "the boss" if he and the other contenders were placed in an IROC-style competition that provided each player with equally talented rosters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 AM



At Thursday, October 15, 2009 10:13:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Do you personally feel that Tim Duncan's game is unexciting, or are you just referring to what basketball fans generally feel? To me, it's a pleasure to watch Duncan, especially when he is posting up and methodically picking opponents apart.

I actually think Duncan was the best player in the league in 2007. He simply dominated the playoffs. It's true Kobe didn't have a chance to dominate the playoffs since his team was weak. But still, my reasoning is based on the classical theory of a good big man being more valuable than a good wing player, which you referred to. Rule changes have changed this a bit, but I still believe that it holds, especially on the defensive end. I don't think Kobe ever had as much impact on the defensive end as Duncan in his prime (and that's not a knock on Kobe's defense).

Of course, Duncan has been slowly declining since 2007 and right now you have to put Kobe and LeBron ahead of him.

Speaking of Duncan's decline, Gregg Popovich has apparently been instructing Duncan to take more perimeter shots recently, hoping it will prevent Duncan from wearing down. Certainly, Pop is more qualified than I am to make such a decision, but I can't help but feel that he is surrendering one of his biggest weapons in taking Duncan out of the low post. Popovich has similarly instructed Manu Ginobili to shoot more jumpers, and not drive as much. You can't blame Popovich when considering Ginobili's inability to stay health last year. But in turning Ginobili into a jump shooter, what do the Spurs get from him that they don't already get from Michael Finley? Maybe Popovich wants Duncan and Ginobili to play cautiously during the season and will set them loose in the playoffs. What is your take on this?

At Friday, October 16, 2009 5:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I was speaking to the general perception that Duncan is not exciting, while also noting that he has been incredibly productive. That said, while I very much enjoy watching Duncan and I greatly respect his game I am not sure that I would describe his game as "exciting."

I agree that Duncan dominated the 2007 playoffs. When I was covering the 2007 Finals for NBCSports.com I had an interesting argument/discussion with another writer about who should be the Finals MVP (neither of us actually had an official vote). I said that Duncan should receive the honor because he set the table for the Spurs at both ends of the court, while the other writer insisted that Parker had been much more productive during the Finals. Parker won the award but I still think Duncan should have won it, though Parker certainly had a great series, too.

Just to be clear, this is a reprint of an article that was published in the fall of 2006--before the 2007 Finals and before Duncan's recent decline.

Both Jordan and Bryant reduced wear and tear by increasingly relying on their jump shots, so Popovich probably has the right idea. In the playoffs when the Spurs face a critical possession Duncan can certainly still go to work in the low post but during the regular season it makes sense for him to use the jumper a little more often now.

My understanding is that the Spurs are trying to get one more title with Duncan as the main guy before they sign a younger big man--perhaps Bosh--to take over the primary role while Duncan plays the David Robinson secondary role.

At Friday, October 16, 2009 2:14:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

MJ and Kobe both had/have more of an arsenal than Ginobili as far as scoring without driving to the basket. Ginobili doesn't post-up or have the footwork or moves of a Jordan or Bryant. So in limiting Ginobili from driving to the hoop, I feel like we'll see more of a spot-up shooter (kind of like Michael Finley, though not that extreme), than a premier jumpshooter like Kobe who can systematically pick a team apart from the perimeter.

It could just be me, but I always got the impression that Ginobili's drives to the basket opened up his perimeter game. When he's splitting through defenders and taking it to the rim, he seems to go into a zone and start hitting jumpers from a variety of angles. When he can't get to the rim, he's not as active and takes more predictable jump shots.

Speaking of Duncan dominating the 2007 playoffs, wasn't the Finals MVP award once called the Playoff MVP award? At least it's referred to as Playoff MVP by CBS in their early 80s broadcasts. I think a Playoff MVP award makes more sense. There would have been no doubt that Duncan deserved the 2007 Playoff MVP. Kobe Bryant might have even picked up a Playoff MVP award during the Lakers' three-peat (and we wouldn't have had to endure so many years of delusional people questioning Kobe's contributions to the three-peat since he was never Finals MVP).

At Friday, October 16, 2009 3:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that Ginobili does not have the post up or midrange game of MJ and Kobe but I think that Popovich's idea is that by having Ginobili shoot more jumpers in the regular season Ginobili will stay healthy and thus will be able to drive to the hoop more during the postseason.

I just did a quick check and noticed that in the 1988 NBA Register Larry Bird is said to have won the "Playoff MVP" in 1984 and 1986 but in the 1995 NBA Guide that honor is called "Finals MVP," so the formal name change took place some time between 1988 and 1995. Even when the award was called the "Playoff MVP" it was always given after the Finals to the best performer in the championship series and I think that is why the NBA decided to change the name to more accurately depict what the award represents.


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