I’m going to be writing some articles, including non-basketball articles, for Bleacher Report. Feel free to check them out.
The western conference finals served as yet another example of why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions as quickly as we do. The biggest surprise for a lot of people was that the Spurs — who were supposed to be the deeper team — were unable to get a bench advantage. On that note, this will be by last analysis of the Harden/Ginobili rivalry.
Ginobili: 13 points, 4 assists, 6 turnovers, 6 fouls
Harden: 11 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds
No contest in this one. Harden and the Thunder bench lit up the Spurs, while Ginobili and the Spurs bench were unable to hold onto the ball and avoid turnovers. The 6 turnovers and 6 fouls are the stats to note in this one.
Ginobili: 34 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 5 turnovers
Harden: 20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 0 turnovers
Again the Spurs were sloppy. Turnovers were much more of an issue for them than was anticipated. I would give Harden the edge in this game for having effectively a 7 possession advantage (5 turnovers less and 2 steals more). More importantly, however, Ginobili was pushed into a starting role in this game. The Spurs lack of depth and inability to handle the Thunder starters forced Coach Popovich to have Ginobili start. Ginobili played well, but the Spurs bench — lacking their leader — did not. This was a huge change and negatively affected the Spurs in games 5 and 6.
Ginobili: 10 points (on 4-12), 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, -14
Harden: 16 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, +9
Harden simply had the better game in this one. All five Spurs bench players were in the negatives. The Thunder bench outplayed the Spurs bench, and their starters held their own as well. Overall, the supposed depth advantage was not there for the Spurs, Harden was the better sixth man, and the Thunder came away with the series (4-2).
The Spurs won 20 games in a row before losing 4 in a row. This has never happened before in an NBA playoff.
For the first time this series, it wasn’t a close battle between the two sixth men. Here are the stats.
Harden: 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, +19
Ginobili: 8 points (on 1-5 shooting), 6 rebounds, 1 assists, 4 turnovers, -4
The Spurs bench was unusually weak in this game, and the whole team was sloppy. I guess if you’re going to end a winning streak, you might as well lose by 20 (102-82). Game 4 will almost certainly be a better game.
The result: Miami 115-111 in overtime, up 2-0 in the series
I’m sure Boston fans are upset at the moment without having to be in the city. Boston kept Miami under control for most of the game but came up short in overtime after a few very bad calls, the worst being the non-call on Wade bashing Rondo in the head. But that aside, here’s what happened in the game.
Rondo was ridiculous
In the past week I’ve been saying that Rondo is the key to this series and needs to play nearly every minute. Well Doc Rivers apparently agrees. Rondo played all 53 minutes of this game, which is an impressive feat, and put up absurd numbers:
44 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 steals
He embarrassed every Heat player who tried to guard him, including Lebron. What surprised the announcers more than it should have was his jumper. Rondo’s a solid jump shooter and showed us that again tonight, shooting 16-24.
Lebron at the line
This wasn’t literally hack-a-Lebron, but it was close. Lebron’s awful 7-20 shooting night turned into a 34 point game due to going an incredible 18-24 from the line. The Heat as a team shot 47 foul shots to the Celtics’ 29 (though the Celtics did a good job making 26 of 29). Dooling and Pietrus both fouled out in overtime. Pierce fouled out in regulation. Foul trouble and lack of depth was a big issue.
2-0 vs. 1-1
The Celtics had this one and have to be upset with themselves. Other than the 35-22 third quarter where they came out (like in the third quarter of game 1) with no energy, they made Miami’s defense look pitiful. Going back to Boston at 1-1 would have felt good. Going back down 2-0 must feel almost hopeless.
Rondo scored all 12 Celtics points in overtime while not turning the ball over and getting punched in the head by Dwayne Wade.
Nothing has been argued about more often and more avidly during these 2012 playoffs than the legacy of Lebron James. Though it may feel like Lebron’s legacy is going to be decided here and now, the fact remains: it won’t. If the Heat win this year, it won’t make Lebron the greatest of all time (yet). And if they lose, regardless of the fashion, Lebron is still a 27 year old MVP with more years of title contention in front of him.
At the end of this year’s playoffs, public opinion and media portrayal of Lebron will be one extreme or the either — the second coming of Jordan or “LeChoke.” But those feelings will fade by the 2013 playoffs, if not before. And many more playoffs will come and go, each contributing to Lebron’s legacy.
In a recent article, I ranked Lebron as the 15th most accomplished player in NBA history, and in a follow-up poll, the majority of voters found this ranking to be reasonable. With that in mind, I intend to take a look at what Lebron will have to do with the rest of his career to have a long lasting legacy that will move him up the ranks.
Perception and Reality
A theme that cannot be ignored in the modern NBA is perception from both the media and the general public. The media Lebron deals with is much bigger and hungrier than what Jordan dealt with and orders of magnitude bigger than anything Russell could have imagined. The air of perfection achieved by some of the past greats can simply never be achieved by Lebron at this point (Dwight Howard can likely relate). While we remember a young Michael Jordan for being called God in disguise by Larry Bird (in 1986) we remember young Lebron for the Choke, the Decision, and boasting about ring number eight before securing ring number one. It will not being enough for Lebron to be comparable or even to be the best; he’ll have to be truly dominant to overshadow the illusions and perceptions surrounding him.
As of now (results of the 2012 ECF and finals pending), here is my list of the top 15 most accomplished NBA players:
Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Wilt, Russell, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, Hakeem, Oscar, Jerry, Karl, Moses, Lebron
Let’s take a look at what Lebron will have to accomplish with the rest of his career in order to move up this list, not only in ability and in reality but also in perception.
In my opinion, Lebron is already fighting with the (unrelated) Malones — Karl and Moses — for 13th on the list. The comparisons against each are, however, quite different. Moses was a dominant big man and was the undisputed leader of the Rockets, where he won the 1979 MVP. He then went to the 76ers, where he was their undisputed leader and won two MVPs (1982 and 1983) as well as a title and finals MVP in 1983. His dominance and longevity were both impressive, and he was the first player to lead the NBA in rebounding for five straight years. His 1983 title was especially impressive due to the era, being right in the prime of the Bird/Magic rivalry. It was the only title in a nine year stretch that was not won by Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics.
The other Malone — Karl — was much more similar to Lebron. Not only did he never win a title; he wasn’t even the undisputed best player on his team, playing alongside John Stockton for almost his entire a career, a player who almost made by top 15. Karl had great longevity and put up tremendous stats, becoming the second all-time points scorer. He won two MVPs, although both were arguably undeserved (1997 over Jordan and 1999 over Duncan). Nevertheless, his 25 and 10 career average across three decades is nothing to sneeze at. Karl Malone goes down on many lists as the greatest to never win (Lebron will of course knock on wood that he doesn’t take that spot).
To pass the two Malones in the public eye, Lebron will have to do something that neither of them has done. I believe there are three ways he could do this:
1. Become a true statistical legend by becoming the all time leading scorer and/or adding a couple more scoring titles.
2. Remain dominant and add a fourth MVP.
3. Win multiple titles. This would be a knockdown argument against the ringless Karl or the one-ringed Moses, both of whom were slightly less dominant statistically.
In order to reach the 11 spot, Lebron will have to pass Jerry and Oscar, two men who are perceived to have been a bit more legendary than they truly were. In both cases, they were helped by playing in an era of smaller players. Jerry West had no trouble scoring and grabbing rebounds as a 6’2” guard in that era. His averages of 27.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, and 5.8 rpg are impressive, but one has to wonder how he would fare against an athletic, 6’6” shooting guard. West won a title and a finals MVP but not in the same year. His 1969 finals MVP was the only one ever won by a loser. By current voting standards, the MVP should have gone to Russell, but Russell will have to make due with simply having the award itself named after him. West won again in 1972 with a lot of help from Wilt. His longevity and consistency helped him reach 14 all-star games, but he never quite got that regular season MVP.
Oscar Robertson, at 6’5”, was a monster in his era. His career numbers of 25.7 ppg, 9.5 apg, and 7.5 rpg are never going to be matched. He won an MVP in an era containing Russell and Wilt. His Royals, however, were unable to do much in the playoffs. Oscar’s lone title finally came riding the wings of Kareem Abdul Jabar in 1971 with the Bucks. The biggest knock on Oscar, and a valid one, is that his complete physical dominance would not exist at all in today’s game. While he might still be a great player and a great scorer, he would face much tougher defenses and most likely not put up such unique numbers. Even more so than some others from that era, Jerry and Oscar benefited from the small sized guards and perimeter players.
To pass these two icons will be hard for Lebron. In fact some people still place these two guys in the top five and will hate to put Lebron over them. However, there are two feats Lebron might accomplish that would likely do the trick.
1. Add longevity to dominance and win five or six MVPs. Five would match him with Jordan and Russell. Six would match him with Kareem. I don’t know the conversion rate from MVPs to titles, but MVPs carry weight.
2. Win two or more finals MVPs. Having multiple titles as the dominant player would give him an edge over Jerry (who needed Wilt to get his) and Oscar (who needed Kareem to get his).
The Boys of the ’90s
While they began their careers at different times, Hakeem, Shaq, Kobe, and Duncan were all playing good ball in the late ’90s and all had a chance to play against each other. These guys had different types of careers. Hakeem was a great two-way player and an incredibly skilled center, winning an MVP and two finals MVPs. The biggest knock on Hakeem is that all that hardware came while Jordan was playing baseball. Shaq was one of the most dominant offensive centers ever, although not a fantastic defensive center. He won four titles and three finals MVPs. Even as late as 2006 he was arguably more important to the Heat than Dwayne Wade. Kobe and Duncan are the two superheroes of the post-Jordan era, with five and four rings respectively. Kobe has felt the full force of media scrutiny, probably more than he has deserved, while Duncan (for better or worse) has somehow dodged nearly all media attention. Kobe, one of the most athletic players of all time, and Duncan, perhaps the most consistent and reliable player in history, cover two ends of that spectrum. If Lebron can pass these guys in the hearts of the public, he’ll be considered the best post-Jordan player. Here’s what he’ll need to do.
Four finals MVPs; that’s the benchmark. Regular season MVPs and scoring titles simply aren’t going to cut it. Despite Kobe only have one MVP, everyone knows there were about five other years where he could have won them. By winning four finals MVPs, Lebron would do something that has only been done by Jordan, and by doing it late in his career he would demonstrate Duncan-like longevity.
The Old Timers
Russell and Wilt were without a doubt the two most dominant players in NBA history. That’s never going to change, and Lebron will never achieve anything like what these two achieved. The biggest reason for this is that it’s simply no longer possible. In the 1960s there were as few as nine teams in the NBA and as few as three or four of them were any good in a given year. The Celtics made ten straight finals and faced only three opponents — the Lakers, Hawks, and Warriors. Defeating a couple of good opponents is much easier than rising up over 25 to 30 solid teams. Sources of randomness like injuries mattered so much less in that era, when the Celtics (and to a lesser degree the Lakers) were essentially an all-star team. Russell, as the leader of the Celtics, won 11 titles and reached 12 finals in a 13 year career. Runs of that nature will never again be possible in a large league with a salary cap.
Wilt, on the other hand, kept down by the Celtics for most of his career, did get two rings and a finals MVP. However, what he’s really known for is statistical dominance of a kind that can no longer exist. Feats like the 100 point game and the 50 ppg season will never happen again, not because of lack of good players but because of too many good players. Wilt’s 100 point game was done against the kind of incompetent and hopeless defense that no longer exists in the NBA. His 50 ppg season was put up against an absurdly top-heavy league.
So what can Lebron do to battle against the mystique of Russell’s 11 titles or Wilt’s incomparable statistics. I think he’ll have to do something like this.
All-time scoring leader, five finals MVPs, five MVPs. The five titles would match Magic and Kobe and as a meaningful number in the modern era would carry weight even against Russell. By becoming the all-time scoring leader, an achievable feat especially for someone who came straight out of high school, he could match Wilt’s dominance with Kareem-like longevity.
The Best of the Humans
Bird, Magic and Kareem are the best of the humans to the play the game. Jordan gets true God status in the public eye and is a different beast. Magic and Bird are best known for being dominant in an era where the league was full of good players, taking 8 out of 9 titles between them from 1980 to 1988. Their playing careers were mirrors of each other to an amazing degree, with them facing off first in college and both ending their careers with the 1992 dream team. There may never again be so perfect a rivalry.
Kareem, on the other hand, had a career more like a cross country race than a sprint. He played forever and at a high level the whole way through. He retired as the all-time leader in points scored, games played, minutes played, field goals made, field goal attempts, blocked shots, defensive rebounds, and personal fouls. His six titles matches Jordan and his six MVPs is unmatched.
Lebron can still pass the humans though. In my opinion, it would require six finals MVPs. He would match Jordan in that category, but more importantly would likely remove the “Robin” status he has in many of the eyes of the public for abandoning Cleveland. He needs to win the titles with good play in the finals, and he needs to be the unquestioned leader of his team(s). If he does all this, there may still be some who keep him down on the lists, especially below Magic (who has his own mystique from the sudden ending of his career); but six would put him in everyone’s conversation.
God in Disguise
How do you pass someone whose legacy is at this point an abstraction of perfection more than anything else? Can you even remember a shot that Jordan missed? It’s hard at this point. For many people, it will be impossible for Lebron to pass Jordan. The trick with perfection is that it’s as much about what you don’t do as it as about what you do. Jordan only had 11 healthy seasons with the Bulls (and a few irrelevant ones with the Wizards), so he may get passed in bulk accomplishments. But Jordan got all of his accomplishments in the “right way.”
He was drafted to a bad team with no history and built them up out of nothing.
He was great as a rookie and great when he retired (and when he retired again, and when he retired yet again).
He had no memorable bad games.
Whatever Lebron accomplishes will be tainted with the memories of his earlier career. He abandoned Cleveland in ruthless fashion. He has two memorable and poor finals appearances. He gave up on his team in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. He misunderstood the nature of competition, claiming he could rattle out eight titles without having to try. These are mistakes that will stick with him.
At the end of the day, the only way I could see Lebron threatening the mystique of Jordan would be to achieve an almost impossible level of dominance and become a modern era Russell. I believe to do that requires:
8 or more finals MVPs (5 or more in a row)
This may seem impossible, and it probably is; in my opinion, Lebron’s place in history will never be a topic of wholehearted agreement.