A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Responding to Magic’s Lebron comments and Bill Reiter’s takedown of ESPN ranking Lebron the #1 player in the league

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LeBron James

Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

On the eve of Magic Johnson providing another meaty quote about Lebron’s 2011 Finals, Bill Reiter at foxsportsflorida.com wrote a very good and clear article about the fallacy of still putting James on a pedastal after a frankly embarrasing shrinking act in the playoffs. As Reiter quotes, Magic said to a crowd at the University of Albany:

Veering from his point that it’s better to be remembered for off-court accomplishments, Magic said, “There’s going to always be great players in basketball. There’s going to always be guys who win championships in the NBA — except LeBron.”

Followed by: “Everybody’s always asking, ‘Who is better between Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron?’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Kobe, five championships; LeBron, zero.'”

Followed by: “Stop trying to compare him to Michael Jordan. Come on, man, six championships for Jordan. You know that Michael averaged over 30 points every playoff series? Don’t try to touch that.”

Reiter responds in part by saying

If only stats mattered, and rising to the moment did not, Joe Montana would not be the greatest quarterback of all time. His winner-take-all intangibles would pale in comparison to someone like Dan Marino.

If this logic held, Wilt Chamberlain would be the Michael Jordan of the NBA. No one ever has, or will, compete with Wilt on the statistical plane. Yet there’s a reason serious basketball people look at Jordan, Magic, Kareem, Russell and a slew of others with a higher level of respect.

That’s why “Mr. October” means something in baseball.

Closing matters. Winning matters. Otherwise it’s all just a glorified version of fantasy sports.

This is so clear — as is the fact LeBron so ferociously undermined his own natural talent with mental weakness and big-game frailty — that stating that fact no longer constitutes dangerous ground for most informed basketball and sports people.

I completley agree with both Magic and Reiter, for many of the same reasons I have Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest statistical player in history, not only below his rival Bill Russell on my personal all time rankings but also Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. What makes great players and should really determine these rankings, is exactly what Lebron did not show in the postseason. I respect the work of staticians recently to look past narratives of just crediting who won and lost, thus missing great performances in failure or poor performances in victory – A good example, nobody calls out Larry Bird for averaging 15pts a game at 42% shooting (including 8, 8 and 12 pts in a crucial Game 3 to Game 5 stretch) in his first NBA Finals, nor do they credit Julius Erving’s work in the 1980 Final averaging 26, 7 and 5 on 52% shooting, highlighted by terrifying Game 5 and 6 performances only stopped by the greatest playoff performances of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson’s careers back to back. I get it. It’s not fair when a player does everything he can and gets no credit for it, as Lebron did in 2009 in the Cavaliers loss to the Magic.

But there should be no ambiguity about how much production in the Finals matters – Removed from who won or lost, the players who show up should get credit and the players who shouldn’t should be slammed for it. What we’ve seen with Lebron in 2010 and 2011 should take away any delusions about his place as the best player in the league, just as Wilt Chamberlain’s playoff failures should eliminate any chance of him being called the greatest player of all time, just as David Robinson should not have been called the best player in the league after Hakeem significantly outplayed him in their 1995 Western Conference Finals. The best player in the league has to prove it on the biggest stage. In this case, not only is there a Hakeem to Lebron’s David Robinson, but they’re on the same team: Dwyane Wade, who Reiter also lists as his top player in the league.

What’s been forgotten in the Lebron slamming in the Heat’s post mortem, is Wade once again put in a phenomenal Finals performance, elevating himself almost as much as in the 2006 Finals until an injury. It is Wade who had the 1980 Julius Erving performance that is forever marred by not getting the ring. To me the situation is fairly clear. Wade and Lebron have very similar functions on the court as league best scorers, primary facilitators and standout help defenders. Neither are outstanding off ball players. Lebron is the more gifted player but Wade has usually been right behind in production because of how hard he plays. Overall, their function on the court is very similar. I understand the reluctance for ESPN and others to place a Dirk Nowitzki over LeBron James when it appears the latter’s playmaking and defensive value puts him on an entirely different level of multifacted impact. But Wade does virtually all of the same multifacted things. When you consider how massive the gap in their aggregate Finals production has been so far, why shouldn’t he be considered the best player in the league? He’s Lebron with less regular season production but one who is reliable in the playoffs and especially in the Finals.

The truth about Dwyane Wade is very few player’s media resumes would be improved as much with the removal of a single player. If you eliminate LeBron James, it would be a near lock Wade would the face of the league, the guy everyone projected the Michael Jordan of this generation comparisons onto. He would likely have no rival for the title of big fish of the league. Lebron took that mantle and it has left Wade in the shadow for years, but I believe it’s time we took a step back and asked “Why not Dwyane Wade?” when asking who the best player in the league or even of this generation is. Because Lebron does not deserve the title. Those who shrink in the playoffs should not be considered the best player in the league. Doing so subverts the real goal of the sport – Not to simply look like the best player, but to give your team the best chance of winning the NBA title. After last two seasons it is hard for me to accept an argument for Lebron giving his team a better chance to win the title than Dwyane Wade. Being mentally apt to show up in your biggest games of the season is a “skill”, and an important one, and Lebron hasn’t proven this. As far as I’m concerned, Lebron now has to earn the title of best player in the league and best player of his generation. Until he does, he does not deserve to be called better than Dwyane Wade, nor does he deserve to be called better than the transcendent stars and workers of the last generation in Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. Until he proves himself he is David Robinson, wondering how despite physical talent worthy of being called the greatest of all time, he is staring up at 90s contemparies Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley in the historical annuls, let alone Michael Jordan. Greatness does not come from talent but from what is earned. After 2010 Lebron deserved the benefit of the doubt despite his bizarre Game 5 collapse, but the 2011 Finals erased all delusions – the guy has work to do before he reaches the reputation the media has created for him.

On a Final note, Reiter mentioned this is why being called Mr. October matters in baseball. Last night Albert Pujols hit 3 HRs (joining Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to do so in a World Series). For each player deemed the best of his generation, what a contrast in their performances with the championship on the line. Yes, you have to earn being called the best player of your generation and one of the best of all time.

Written by jr.

October 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm

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