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Is NBA Greatness Nature or Nurture?

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Is NBA Greatness Nature or Nurture?

It's a question as old as time: Are great basketball players born or made? 

Scottie Pippen may be the best example of someone whose professional "upbringing" elevated him into a stratosphere he likely never would have reached otherwise. 

His college play was impressive enough that he was taken with the fifth overall pick, but since he played in the NAIA at the University of Central Arkansas, nobody knew who he was. Then, after going through the rigors of practicing against Michael Jordan everyday and later learning the Zen wisdom of Phil Jackson, he developed into a top-50 player in NBA history.

So goes the mythology anyway.

It's altogether possible that Pippen would have become an all-time great no matter what. The attempts to attribute his growth to playing alongside Jordan may just be another tale advocated by the MJ lore-building lobby.

On the other side of the equation is Shaquille O'Neal

No player is truly born great. They all have coaches, mentors and failures along their path to stardom. For some—like Jordan—the influences are obvious (led by Dean Smith, his coach at the University of North Carolina).

O'Neal, on the other hand, is a player whose success has always been somewhat marginalized because of his innate gifts.

Though Kobe Bryant may not be the most objective judge, it is telling that his words to O'Neal in a video message broadcast during Shaq's Lakers jersey retirement included a backhanded compliment that may help further propagate this view. 

"You are the most gifted physical specimen I've ever seen play this game. Size and agility. And just natural talent."

Not to get all Kobe-Shaq feud melodramatic, but the implication is quite clear: O'Neal had the physical tools to be among the most dominant ever without really learning the finer nuances of the sport that guys like Larry Bird and Bryant spent decades trying to master.

Although LeBron James was born with the winning genetic lottery ticket, he has been dealing with the same criticism throughout his life.

It is apparent that there is a highly skilled mind beneath the Iron Man-like exterior, but until he won a ring, there were still many who overlooked his unique passing ability and dexterous footwork in the mid-range. They saw a freight train who wasn't mentally strong enough to just stay on the rails and run over all comers.

There is little doubt that the system in which he now plays in Miami has helped him improve. His teammates also allow him to thrive. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rightfully receive the bulk of the attention, but the Miami Heat knew what they were doing when they spent money to surround James with shooters.

Yes, he can make cross-court, drive-and-kick passes to the opposite corner that nobody else in the world can, but if there weren't knock-down shooters in those spots, his talent wouldn't leave the defense with so few options. Likewise, if he was the only ball-handler on the team, even his abilities would become more predictable and easier to defend.

The surrounding cast is ideal, and the up-tempo style coach Erik Spoelstra has fostered allows James to work to its maximum potential. Everything is tailor made for LeBron's abilities.

By contrast, while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had to be the catalyst of every play in a slow-down, half-court attack. He was asked to run the show, and it was a burden that clearly led to bad possessions.

When he wasn't able to muster the energy to drive towards the hoop, the offense was stagnant, and there were rarely any other creators to pass off to while he caught his breath on the other wing. There was hardly ever a great post option to dump the ball into.

It seemed as though James just needed to take every fifth offensive play off, so he would lazily hoist a step-back mid-range jumper rather than force the defense to react to the offensive movement that only he seemed capable of manufacturing within a stagnant system.

The finer points of whether James can be one of the best few players ever within a good system in Miami as opposed to just being a top-10 player of all time in Cleveland may not illustrate just how much influence surroundings can have.

But there is a Pippen-esque player rising in the NBA now who can help shed more light on the concept: Paul George.

Like Pippen, few people had ever heard of George when he entered the NBA. Let's just say that California State University, Fresno didn't get a lot of national airtime. Still, his talents and physical tools made him a top-10 pick in his draft class, and his evolution into an All-Star began soon after.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Could Scottie Pippen have reached such heights without playing alongside Michael Jordan?

In his rookie season, a rocky two months followed a good start for the Indiana Pacers, a long stretch of bad play led to the firing of head coach Jim O'Brien. George had started to get some minutes under O'Brien, but it wasn't until Frank Vogel took over the interim role that he became a full-time starter.

From day one, Vogel preached "smash-mouth basketball" and centered the team's strategy around a "power-post offense" and tough-nosed defense. George, a Mr. Fantastic-armed born ball deflector with the foot speed to stay in front of Derrick Rose and the size to bother James, immediately had an identity.

He was free from being overwhelmed by the many tasks most rookies try to complete. He would become the Pacers' ball-hawking wing defender, guarding the opposition's best perimeter threat when the team needed key stops.

If he could get points in transition or by making timely cuts in the half court, more power to him. But the team would be pounding the ball inside and spending the vast majority of its perimeter-oriented plays trying to free Danny Granger.

It was a role well-suited for George that continued into this second season.

By being on a team where he had to focus on defense, he was able to refine that side of his game much more than most lottery picks do in their early years. He learned nightly as he floundered and then succeeded in covering players like Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant.

Beneath it all, he had the raw talent that could allow him to score in this league, but he was able to slowly unveil his offensive skills in small bunches and find ways to incorporate them into the team's system as opposed to Vogel building a platform to showcase his abilities.

As a second-year player, he could have scored 14 points per game. In Washington or Toronto, he likely would have been asked to, and he might have done it on 41 percent shooting with a ghastly assist-to-turnover ratio.

Instead, he blossomed into one the league's best perimeter defenders and taught himself how to rebound while resigning himself to getting buckets mainly from transition and spot-up jumpers.

That role has become a foundation of him learning how to unleash his best skills on the NBA.

So when Granger was sidelined for (virtually) this entire season this year and George was asked to carry a larger load, he was able to simply expand upon an already developed arsenal. He already knew what he was capable of and just had to add in the ability to create—something that he was able to experiment with in small doses in his early years.

Like Pippen before him, he entered the league with a versatile toolbox of talents. It seems certain that any team, coach or system would have been able to find a good use for them. 

But by landing where they did when they did, each player was put in an optimal position to succeed.

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