Essay: A Battle For Best Player Alive
Back when I was in high school, at least twice a month I elected to get my hair cut at a communal barbershop located just outside Cambridge’s Central Square. Each time I visited I was greeted with vivacious conversation surrounding one of three topics: Basketball, boxing, and African-American artistry. The discussions were almost ceremonious in their consistency; questions were posed, debated, and ultimately resolved by whoever happened to be holding the long, potentially threatening, wooden broom. Men of wide ranging knowledge such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. were regular participants, and the chatter which made the shop palatial would put any talking head program airing on popular television today to permanent shame.
Arguments ranged from whether boxing was dead, dying, or on the verge of a Floyd Mayweather enabled resuscitation to which Spike Lee movie was most celebrated (speaking out of turn during one especially haunting trip, I attempted to insert He Got Game into the ongoing and rapid paced dialogue. I was met with stares and silence that suggested I escort myself out the front door), but my favorite discussion, which I caught bits and pieces of more than once, was who most deserved the rights to Michael Jordan’s long held title of Best Player in the World.
It was the early half of the decade. The league was thirsting for a Jordan replica, but instead championships were being decided by Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan; each boasting the largest rallying camps behind them for best player alive. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, and, seeing as we were in Boston, Paul Pierce, all had their backer(s) too, making the debate that much more indefinite. The NBA wasn’t in its most prosperous era but the people in my barbershop genuinely cared about the prestigious title. There could only be one right answer and each man—whether he was getting clipped in the chair, standing up and doing the cutting, or sitting on the sidelines pretending to skim the magazines—had his own way of thinking.
Asking who’s the best living basketball player, today, will stir up enough different opinions to physiologically fill up the width of a solar system. With the magnitude of statistics now available and the internet’s vast permeation of changing thoughts from one minute to the next, the question is nearly impossible to answer. But thanks to the uniqueness surrounding these playoffs—with a definite changing of the guard happening right before our eyes—an answer might present itself sooner than later.
We’re now down to four elite squads who, together, have winced through extensive weightlifting sessions and gutted out ritualistic running regimens since October. Not coincidentally, each team is led by a great player. Not a good, run of the mill, member of the All-Star team. A great player. Chicago has league MVP Derrick Rose, Dallas has 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Miami has two time MVP (2009, 2010) LeBron James, and Oklahoma City has two time scoring champ Kevin Durant. (In choosing between LeBron and Dwyane Wade, I sided with LeBron for a few reasons: Based from a pure talent viewpoint he’s the best player of this generation; if he were placed on any team in the league in exchange for that team’s best player, they’d immediately be greeted with a playoff berth, including Minnesota and Sacramento; and if LeBron went on an absolute tear, averaging 30, 15, and 12 from here on out, but Wade failed to put up a consistent 20 a night and the Heat fell short of their title, LeBron would still be the scapegoat. This, in a nutshell, is why he’s better.) All four players were either first or second team All-NBA for the 2011 season, and each finished in the top six for 2011 Most Valuable Player. These four players are battling it out for something more than an NBA championship: Pole position on the label of best player alive.
The 2011 playoffs have forced the league into a crossroad of sorts: Now that the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs are gone, nobody knows who the best team in basketball is. Each series could go either way and any of the four teams could win the title; to say it’s unpredictable would be to not fully understand the word’s meaning. Much like the current situation on HBO’s excellent and addictive Game of Thrones, the league’s longstanding hierarchy has been mutilated, and in its void a chaotic realm is brewing. When nobody was looking, the young guys (specifically Durant and Rose) snipped their way through basketball’s weathered safety net of expectation and all hell broke loose.
But wouldn’t you say that none of these teams are normal underdogs; none are truly capable of giving us a screenplay worthy fairy tale ending? Or, looking at it from another perspective, maybe they all can. Before this season began who thought Chicago and Oklahoma City would be seven wins away from a title? When Caron Butler went down with a season ending knee injury, how many people pulled the plug on Dallas? And I know nobody wants to hear this—I’d rather run over my golf bag with a monster truck than write it—but when Erik Spoelstra informed the nation that his team was a tad overly emotional after falling short in a casual Sunday afternoon game against the Bulls, more than a few wrote them off as well. Now they’re all here. All even with the literal championship trophy within reach and the figurative award for best player alive on the line. This is what basketball fans live for.
Your world changes when you win a championship. People look at you differently, and, not that I know what it feels like, but the standard of excellence you previously held for yourself takes a sudden and steep increase every time you look in the mirror. Thanks to Michael Jordan, a higher standard is now expected of all players who’ve seen and stood on the mountain’s top. Multiple championships become natural birthrights and the expectations are raised to almost impossible levels.
Here’s a crystal ball forecast on what would happen to each of the four stars should their team scratch and claw its way above the rest. Apart from Dirk, if the other three were to walk away with a title this season, who’s to say they wouldn’t rule the basketball world for the foreseeable future. It’s almost like a presidential election in that a victory in 2011 could all but guarantee the same through 2015 and beyond. Of course, for Mr. President, that first year is always the most fun. Then it’s time to rule, a position much more attractive from the outside looking in then the inside looking out. Come June for one of these four special individuals, the world will never be the same.
What happens to Dirk if he wins:
No matter what happens from this moment forth, Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest naturalized basketball player to ever walk this planet. Winning a ring so late in a great player’s career would normally be more about where said player belongs historically, but with Dirk, a player of such expertise and consistency, the ring would change his modern day perception as well. Nowitzki’s never had a supporting cast that’s enabled him to seriously contend for a title. During the 2005-06 Finals run, the next two best players were Jason Terry (then a starter) and Josh Howard. To win a championship this season—Jason Terry, a player who’s made zero All-Star teams, still being the second best player—would be a remarkable testament to Dirk’s status as a still dominant 32-year-old force. If Dallas wins it all and we take teammates into account–talking about what these four guys did and the help they had amongst them—Durant has Westbrook, a second team All-NBA point guard who for all his publicized downfall still has a consistent capability to take over for stretches; LeBron has Dwyane Wade, the league’s best shooting guard; and Derrick Rose has Tom Thibodeau’s stonewall defensive strategy to brace his fall should the MVP miss a string of jumpers; a component that’s been highlighted in these playoffs as Chicago’s most valued commodity.
The older Dirk grows, the more efficient he becomes. There’s debatably no player in the world who you’d fear more going shot for shot against down the stretch of a tight playoff game. Much is made of the deadeye spot up accuracy and unbelievable ability to knock that one footed fade away down almost every time he releases it, but what’s underrated is his ability to put the ball on the floor. An option still remaining in his game that strikes fear in opponents. Almost all aspects of Dallas’ semi-renaissance directs back to Dirk: The emergence of J.J. Barea, and wide open threes for Peja, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry to name a couple. Dirk makes his teammates better not by passing—although nobody dishes from the double team better—but by shooting and keeping defenses honest. Dirk did what nobody else could in taking down the Lakers with his systematic precision, and if he gets the elusive ring this year, nobody would argue he isn’t the best.
What happens to Durant:
At the younger than young age of 22, Durant is a two-time NBA scoring champion. In these playoffs he’s leading everybody once again, averaging 29 points per game. His jumper is uncanny in the fear it consistently instills in opponents, and at this point, the long two and spot up three are his most deadly weapon—61% of his shots taken in the 2011 were from 16 feet and out. But this isn’t an assessment of shot selection, it’s a futuristic judgment on pecking order. If the Thunder win a championship with Durant as their best player, why wouldn’t he be deemed the best in the world? Unless an unforeseeable scenario occurred, Durant would be the primary reason for the Thunder’s success. He’d put the team on his back, commandeer a historical run against both Dallas and either Chicago or Miami, and almost overnight, reshape himself from best scorer to an even higher, more respected level of NBA superstar. What’s super scary about this possibility—similar to Rose but extrapolated even further because of his body type—is his room for improvement. Durant is the Michael Phelps/Usain Bolt of basketball in that his body is a metaphysical prototype—even more so than LeBron James. He’s listed at 6’9” which might be the biggest lie in the history of tape measurement (he’s more like 6’11”), can go the length of the court in four dribbles thanks to swinging strides straight from the Jurassic period, and was born with arms that are REALLY long. Combine all three and what you have is a player who can someday become the most dominant defensive influence in the league. We’ve already seen that nobody can block his shot, and even that aspect is ever evolving. Winning in the finals, whether it’s going through an 11th hour desperate LeBron James or cracking Chicago’s Fort Meade level defensive code, Durant will be on top of the basketball world. The only player better would be a year older version of himself.
What happens to Rose:
Some guys enter the league with an unlimited skill set and they’re content. From day one they were able to pick apart opposing defenses with lighting quick penetration, sense double teams and find open teammates, and, for the most part, score when called upon. These guys are a rare, special breed of player, but they don’t quite have the mentality of greatness. They might make a few All-Star teams here and there and you’ll see their face plastered in commercials, but when it comes to winning and being the best, they just don’t cut it. Derrick Rose is not this player. Ever since entering the league he’s improved at an astonishing rate, and his offseason work ethic is no more evident than in the playoffs. In his first two postseasons, a total of 12 games, Rose made two three-pointers. This year he’s at 21 and counting. His PER has gone from 13.3 to 19.4 to 25.2, and his usage rate, which was already hovering at a hefty 31.5 last year, leapt to an astronomical playoff leading 35.4. Rose won the MVP this season, becoming the youngest player in league history to do so, but his detractors were numerous and partially accurate. Rose’s numbers were nice but hardly groundbreaking, and an argument can be made that he isn’t even the greatest player at his position. But due to the heavy weight we all place on preseason expectations, his team’s startling success played a major role in Rose’s legitimacy as an MVP candidate. He’s the least likely of all four players on this list to be unanimously agreed upon as the game’s best player. He’s an explosive point guard who attacks the basket with admirable fearlessness, but is he complete? His defense isn’t up to par with the Rondos or Pauls of his position, and while it was thought midway through the Pacers series that the Bulls would struggle unless Rose averaged somewhere near 35 points per game range, the team’s identity has rolled over towards its team defense. Though I’m sure he hardly cares, this doesn’t bode well for Rose when composing an argument for who’s the best player on the planet. With that being said, if he wins a championship, Rose’s season would be as remarkable as they come, and the sport’s future would undoubtedly be his to rule.
What happens to LeBron:
Because he’s the premier basketball player in the world, and thus carries its expectations on his shoulders (at least it must feel that way when the lights turn low), the juicier question here is what happens to LeBron if he loses? If the Heat’s experimental bud doesn’t bloom into an expected June flower, how can LeBron maintain the prestigious title of Best Player in the World? He may still be the most skilled, athletic, and talented, but best? To be the best at something means you’ve risen to the top. It’s leering above everyone else—the rest—and pronouncing dominance. If the Heat fall short and fall to either Chicago or Oklahoma City, after vanquishing their most daunting opponent in Boston, it’d be devastating. LeBron’s stringing of multiple championships would be cast aside, overlapped by either Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant’s era. The league would belong to one of the two and LeBron’s time will have come and gone. It’s for this reason why this particular title run is more crucial to LeBron than anyone else. If he does manage to pull out a title LeBron’s legacy, and perception, is irrevocably improved. Yes, he wasn’t the best player on his own team in the second round series against the Celtics, but he hit the biggest shots, most notably the game tying three-pointer from the corner during the final few minutes of a pressure packed Game 4. When that shot fell through the net, all league executives, except a certain one with graying slick hair, took a collective shot of Johnny Walker. If LeBron and the Heat do in fact pull themselves together and manage to become better as a communal sum than as individual parts, all signs would point towards the unselfish James as the primary reason why. But thanks to all the hoopla and grandiose thrill surrounding the league’s most talked about team, one ring would draw more criticism than ever before. One down, six to go.
In society we don’t go around criticizing run of the mill bit pieces. When the Lakers lost and Steve Blake played like a lost child, nobody went overboard on the analysis. If Blake fails…well, in a way, he’s supposed to. He isn’t great, and so his shortcomings are accepted. A player of LeBron’s stature faces the most heat because of his awesomeness. He’s still regarded as the game’s premier player and the face of his sport despite the playoff struggles, and the more criticism he hears, the greater a player we should take him to be. Should Miami lose this year, incessant chatter will surround LeBron’s brand, but how it weighs against the storyline impact of whoever wins it all will be telling in how far LeBron’s fallen in the eyes of a basketball nation.
What he’s done with what he’s been given to this point in his career is more impressive than what any player has ever accomplished in the history of the league. Michael had Scottie, a Top 20 All-Time defender, member of the Hall of Fame, and still underrated basketball genius, and Kobe never won a championship without one of the league’s 10 best players accompanying him. Everyone knows about the help Magic and Bird had. Now it’s his rightful time to win a championship and be recognized as the undisputed best. If he doesn’t take the title maybe the widespread disapproval should quiet down a bit. In such a case, he wouldn’t deserve it.