LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose: Still Plenty of Room for Debate

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LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose: Still Plenty of Room for Debate
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Note to self: Don't ever attempt to answer LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose questions in a Twitter Q&A format—at least, not with the thought that a complete answer is possible in 140 characters or less.

That's what I did last week, with the commensurate birth of a thousand more questions to my declaration that I greatly admire what LeBron has accomplished but that "I'd still go with D.R." That answer was actually the conclusion to several involving the two of them, but I don't blame anyone for still wondering just what the hell my position is. I tried, in short, to say James is the best player in the game today but that, as I said two years ago, I'd take Rose for reasons beyond talent.  

With the NBA, in its infinite wisdom, deciding to launch the 2013-14 season with a James-Rose matchup, the time seemed right to expand my comment and, if nothing else, attempt to answer more questions than I inspire.

Measuring James against anyone, of course, is the easiest and quickest way to start a firestorm of commentary; if the energy created on message boards by James vs. Kobe Bryant debates alone were harnessed, nuclear fusion would be obsolete.

The Bryant comparisons are sure to continue, just as the ones to Michael Jordan are unlikely to go away completely, because it's comparing James to ghosts. But there's a thirst to find a current superstar capable of challenging LeBron, if for nothing other than to illustrate his superiority.

The most obvious is the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant since they are both listed as small forwards and are both marquee names. But as much as they have in common, it's painfully clear Durant isn't, and never will be, the defender that James is, thanks primarily to his inherently scrawny build. That James knocked off Durant for his first championship two years ago and then marched to a second while the Memphis Grizzlies beat up and booted the Thunder from the Western Conference semifinals doesn't help, either.

Carmelo Anthony, a small forward with a physique more comparable to James, has been held up to the mirror and found wanting as well.

Now, apparently in the eyes of the league's schedule makers, it's Rose's turn, even though it's an inherently more difficult comparison because of their difference in position, age and size. It's also largely by default, seeing as James and Father Time have vanquished everyone else and some would qualify it as Rose's turn "again." This is, after all, the same Rose who two years ago, in his third season, led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals as league MVP only to get bounced by James and the Heat before they, in turn, were upset in the NBA Finals by the Dallas Mavericks.

Something I said then prompted the question last week. I maintained at the time that James did not prove his superiority over Rose as much as the Heat proved theirs over the Bulls. More than anything, I didn't consider it a fair fight, because James didn't have to carry the same responsibility Rose did as primary playmaker, go-to scorer and defensive spearhead. James showed he could play all those roles well, arguably better than Rose, but his team's success didn't depend on him playing them all the time, and he didn't. The value of having another superstar scorer and floor leader in Dwyane Wade ready and willing to share the load, allowing James to take a backseat for stretches or focus on one task, is immeasurable.

Some have tried to suggest that because Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have demonstrated the ability to take over in regular-season games that they somehow qualify, but in that series they proved convincingly otherwise.

In any case, James successfully switched over to guard Rose several times on fourth-quarter possessions in the series and posted far better statistics, and the Heat won in five games. I don't dispute any of that; my issue is the meaning given to it.

While James did a masterful job on those stops, it's not as if he and Rose were out on an island. The Bulls had no one other than Kyle Korver that the Heat were concerned with shooting the ball, and they played Rose accordingly. Rose had already proven that he could drive past James at will, but he understood on those last possessions that he'd run into a wall of other Heat defenders. Therefore, he elected to back James up as much as he could and attempt to shoot over that 7-foot-something wingspan.

It didn't work, although he did get a shot off that caught rim each and every time. He took the shots he did because of the circumstance, not because James alone forced them.

As for the statistics, well, I'm always going to be leery of those in a Rose-James comparison for one simple reason: Rose does not care in the least what his stat line looks like if it produces a win, while no player in the game may be as conscious of his stats before, during and after a game as James. If there's a reason I find stories that use statistics to measure James vs. other superstars meaningless, it starts there.

The biggest reason I'd "still go with D.R." is their history when it comes to challenges. James, until recently, had an ample record of shrinking from them. The fact that he has grown enough to face some of his biggest and become a two-time champion is what I admire, along with the fact that he has evolved into the Heat's undisputed leader.

"Admire" actually isn't a strong enough word; the internal demons he's slayed to become the player he is today are what make him, to me, an inspiration. He's also, from my experience, an extremely likable and personable human being.

But only that last part came naturally to him. Heat president Pat Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra and Wade saw what we all saw in LeBron—the league's best athlete with the most breathtaking array of skills—and collectively convinced him to make the most of it. But even they couldn't quite do it.

It took being embarrassed on the league's biggest stage by the Mavericks, seeing his marketing image graffitied and mocked relentlessly from every corner before he stopped trying to win his way and pursued finding a way. That finally pushed him to develop a game below the free-throw line—I can't in good conscience call it a post game since he faces up the first chance he gets and rarely shoots over either shoulder—and translated his superior gifts into genuine superiority.

Rose, on the other hand, has fallen short more than a few times—but never by his own hand or psyche. Granted, he does not have the same physical assets as James. He's short five inches in height, that much or more in wingspan and roughly 50 pounds in weight. For those reasons alone, he can't dominate a game in all the ways that James can. He also doesn't know what it takes to be an NBA champion, a priceless understanding that James now has.

Is James the best player in the game right now? Absolutely. He's the best player on the league's best team until proven otherwise.

This is the turn where I lose a lot of you. Despite that acknowledgement, if asked who I would pick to start my team, my answer is no different than it was when first asked back around the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. Or back when I shifted the question of who is better to whom I would pick to start my team.

Why? Because I never can be completely sure if James will fully utilize his advantages. He has certainly improved, but even during last year's Finals there were times when he backslid. Rose, on the other hand, has never needed anyone to coax him into expanding his game or accepting a challenge. That, in part, is why the evolution of his game over his first three years in the league dwarfs the improvement James made over the same period. After losing an entire season to a blown ACL, having everything from his loyalty to his teammates to his mental toughness questioned, all while watching James win his second title, Rose has returned with the same relentless make-no-friends and take-no-prisoners attitude that he had before he went down.

While James is careful not to invite any direct comparisons or throw the gauntlet at another superstar, Rose wasted no time throwing one at James, saying in July he considers himself the best player in the game. (Rose has recently reverted to the politically correct statement—LeBron has to be considered the best—but if an asterisk were ever in order based on tone of voice, this was it.)

That's quite a statement, especially knowing he'll be seeing the man whose crown he's claiming on the very first night of the season in front of his home crowd.

I don't know if all that is enough to overcome James' inherent physical advantage and the Heat's collective title experience. Maybe the knee injury is proof that while Rose may have a bottomless reservoir of desire and dedication, he simply doesn't have the physique to reach his goal. And it's not as if the Bulls, as an organization, are killing themselves or their resources to bolster the talent around Rose. Not, certainly, to the degree that the Heat have to complement James.

And that brings us to the real crux of this issue: selecting a "best" player is, and always will be, personal and subjective. There's no exact metric to definitively say James is better than Rose or Kobe is better than LeBron anymore than there's one to measure Bill Russell vs. Michael Jordan vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That's why it sparks such heated debate—and it's why, whenever I'm asked the question, I've tried to personalize it by saying, "Well, if I were starting a team…" I'm not arrogant or obtuse enough to believe my answer to the question is the universal one.

Maybe it's a flaw of mine that I put such stock in elements as difficult to quantify as leadership, will and desire. Maybe, just maybe, Rose's superiority in those categories isn't enough to offset James' physical advantages. I'm essentially taking what I've seen and experienced over two decades of watching and talking with the best of the NBA's best and saying, "This is what my gut tells me."

I know that sounds quaint with the current assumption that numbers trump the eye test and are far less influenced by feelings and emotion and other subjective elements. I see numbers being just as flawed by unchartable variables when it comes to player comparisons, in basketball perhaps more than any sport. The true value of today's analytics—and they are a new and important part of the landscape—is best saved for another time.

For now, allow me to take one more stab at the question posed in the Q&A, "Do you still think Rose is better than LeBron?"  

I can't as of right now. I expect that to change. If not tonight, sometime very soon.

 

And-Ones

• Kevin Love finished first in what he labeled the "White Guy Award," as the NBA player who maximizes his physical ability—i.e., is remarkably effective despite not being very fast or big or high-flying—and Jared Dudley was the only player of color to make the list in a preseason poll of GMs. Goes to show how little thought the GMs—if they even actually fill out the survey—put into it. Here are several other candidates who easily trump Love in overcoming limited athleticism: Jared Sullinger, Kendrick Perkins, Andre Miller and my hands-down top choice, Chuck Hayes.

• Ask a Clippers fan what they hoped Blake Griffin would return with this season, and most would say, "A jumper." But Griffin told me recently that his focus this summer has been on the other end of the court. "I spent a lot of time with the new coaching staff working on being better on defense," he said. "Getting back, providing help defense, improving on pick-and-roll coverage. A lot of it was watching film and going over footwork stuff." Improving his free-throw shooting (66 percent last season) was in the mix as well, though, because he often found himself on the bench in the final minutes because coach Vinny Del Negro couldn't afford to have him fouled and sent to the line. "I want to be able to close out games," Griffin said.

• 2012 second-round pick Draymond Green, who shot 21 percent from three-point range his rookie season, made 7 of his 10 attempts this preseason and immediately informed Steph Curry that he is now the third member of the "Splash Brothers," the moniker given Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors backcourt that finished first and third, respectively, in three-pointers made last season. "He really thinks he can shoot with us," Curry said gleefully.

• Milwaukee Bucks coach Larry Drew isn't a small-ball disciple, but that's how the Bucks are expected to roll for the start of the season. With Ekpe Udoh (knee) and Ersan Ilyasova (ankle) not likely to be available for another week and Zaza Pachulia working his way back from an Achilles tendon torn last season, their anticipated strength—size—has evaporated. The good news: They open with the Knicks, Celtics and Raptors, none of whom are particularly deep in size, either.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report

Note: All photos via Getty Images

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