A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Little Dipper

with 3 comments

Lebron JamesSince the beginning of his career, we’ve compared Lebron James to the greats. He has the dominant scoring ability of Michael Jordan. He has the combination of size and passing of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But I believe the best comparison may end up being Wilt Chamberlain.

Both Lebron and Wilt are among the athletic greatest talents any sport has seen. They are men among boys physically. On top of this they possess superior basketball IQ and skill. Both players are larger than life stars.

What makes judging Wilt’s career so frustrating is a comparative lack of domination compared to other greats. The Big Dipper ended up with 2 titles, one in ’67 with Philadelphia and one in ’72 with the LA Lakers. His contemporary Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 years. Most noteably Russell came out on top in ‘68 and ‘69 when his team had aged and Wilt seemingly had the superior talent beside him. First with Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Wali Jones in Philadelphia, and then with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in LA. Yet Russell’s Celtics were a better team who won with defense, effort and supporting each other’s games. Wilt can be excused for not winning titles the first half of his career with less help than Russell, but in 68 and 69 he has no excuse. The truth is these two seasons take Wilt out of the greatest of all time discussions. If a greatest ever candidate, he wins in those seasons. Period.

One could blame lack of depth or coaching for the Lakers ‘69 failure, and one could point the finger at teammates disappearing in ‘68. But I’ve always felt Wilt lacked the championship character of stars like Russell, Jordan, Bird and Magic. That desire to win and competitiveness. That commitment to their team winning. Wilt was as much about Wilt as the team. He notoriously loved his statistical accomplishments and his lavish off court lifestyle. His teammates in Philadelphia were great players playing with Wilt. His teammates in LA were superstars playing with Wilt. The Sixers and Lakers were great stars playing together, rather than simply a great team.

Lebron’s career path screams Wilt Chamberlain. 0 titles in the first half of his career can be attributed to a lack of help. But now he has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, giving him more supporting talent than any star. Yet the Heat are lacking something. Sure, their record is near the top of the league at 43-19, a 57 W pace. But a 2-10 record against other top 7 teams shows vulnerability and fragility. This week highlighted this, the Heat blowing a 24 pt lead against Orlando and then getting drubbed by 30 against the Spurs. There is a line in the sand between the Heat and the Celtics, Bulls and Spurs who are great teams with one goal in mind. Whereas the Heat are great stars on the same court. The Spurs rely on each other’s games supporting one another. The Heat rely on each other’s game fitting on the same court.

Can this be attributed to Lebron? As the team’s biggest presence the team takes after him. It is undeniable he does not have the Michael Jordan, Larry Bird “win or die” gene. If he did the lackluster effort in Game 5 against the Celtics last year wouldn’t have happened. If he did reports of Eric Spoelestra scolding him for not playing seriously wouldn’t have happened. If he did I suspect the Heat would be playing with a competitive fire enough to crush the league. Winning a title is not all that matters to Lebron. Winning wasn’t all that mattered for Wilt either. Teams take after their best player and the Heat are no exception.

So much of the game is mental. A team who’s slightly more focused, slightly more intense, a team with players slightly more committed to taking a statistical backseat for the good of the team – will find themselves more succesful. When I watch this year’s Chicago Bulls play I see a team commitment to a championship run. I wish the Heat played like them.

Lebron is set to go down as one of the game’s all time players no matter what he does. As with Wilt, his stats and MVPs will give him defenders even with a comparative lack of team success. But the difference between Lebron and a player like Jordan may come down to the former lacking that singular championship desire. As a result Lebron’s most apt nickname may end up being the Little Dipper. Which at least for me is a mixed compliment.

3 Responses

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  1. Interesting, if not entirely original thesis. (no offence intended)

    Leadership is a reasonably important aspect to this, I agree. James has the swagger and the confidence (and the production), but not the desperation that rubs off on his team-mates or the ability to absolutely and passionately loathe your opponents on the court.

    Part of that I attribute to his basketball upbringing. Jordan was famously set aside a couple of times, and is a spiteful prick who takes not winning as a personal insult (as well as some pretty ignominious early years in Chicago). Russell was the same with the legacy of pretty hideous racism during his time in a pretty hostile town.

    OTOH, James has been identified as a prodigious talent since what… his early teens? He struggled his first season in the NBA, but not thereafter. He has helmed successful teams pretty much the entire time. It’s all been easy for him personally, and he’s been an undisputed great from very early on (Shaq being named top 50 NBA so early is a parallel). So whether he’s had to develop the hard, naked desire to win that characterises GOAT candidates (with Kareem being a possible exception to that). The Wilt comparison s strongest here. Neither had to conuntenance personal failure until well into their professional careers.

    But then there’s Magic. And here’s where an alternate narrative emerges. Magic was rather famously anticlutch for the first part of his career, relying on a pretty damn stacked team (arguably moreso than Miami) to get through. Later in his career, however, the easy smile camouflaged an absolutely ruthless executioner, buttressed by a hard-as-nails competitive coach and some mentally and physically tough teammates (Rambis, Cooper, to a degree Worthy).

    Miami’s not Cleveland. But neither is it LA, and there’s a distinct lack on the roster of mentally indomitable guys who are primarily there to piss off opponents and scream at their team-mates. Whilst a team may take tone from it’s megastar, the character of a franchise is determined by far more than a single player, and I think it’s SOMEWHAT unfair to judge James from the attitudes of his team-mates.


    March 6, 2011 at 5:38 pm

  2. There is a lot of validity to your last 4 paragraphs. On one hand, it’s fuzzy judging “mentality” from afar. On the other, James looks a little different, or doesn’t come up with the same type of plays MJ or Bird did. Maybe.

    I think there’s a lot of learning going on Miami. I think the Heat can address some size and depth issues in the offseason and will be the title favorites next year. If James plays wells and has a bunch of iconic moments, the script will flip as it did with Magic Johnson. So I’m holding off judgment on something like this until then.

    The arguments remind me a little of what was said about Peyton Manning…


    March 6, 2011 at 8:03 pm

  3. Standard rendering of false myth.
    ’68 Sixers had 2 starters walking with hamstrings in the ECF, and their 6th man didn’t play at all because he ( Billy Cunningham) broke his arm.
    Reporters at the time were unanimously awestruck by Chamberlain but when he refused to speak publicly they turned on him.
    69 Finals Chamberlain ruined his knee in game 7.
    Those facts are glossed over by people who refuse to recognize that Chamberlain wasn’t just the greatest of all time… He was a geologic event unmatched in 5,000 years of sport history.
    People have been throwing rocks at Collosus’ toe since 800 B.C. and still do


    May 28, 2011 at 9:31 pm

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