The Definition of "Greatness" in the NBA
On one side, the aspect of ‘team’ is stressed; on the other,
a ‘greatest ever’ is singled out from a team!
After Kobe Bryant won his fifth NBA championship ring last June, the floodgates were opened—again! Was Bryant now the greatest? There was even growing talk that Bryant was now dangerously close to matching, if not exceeding, Michael Jordan’s place as the "greatest ever."
When the greatest players of all time are actually mentioned—from Rusell to Jordan—almost invariably, the "making everybody better" part comes into play. Now comes the strange contradiction—the ‘making everybody better’ label is placed because basketball is a team game and one man’s superlative skills and strength of mind supposedly enhances the play and will of the others.
I completely support this (even with my limited team games experience in my academic years) for I have seen first-hand the influence a superior player can make. Now, this one player can certainly be the greatest in his team (though it actually leaves me dumbfounded as to what exactly "greatest" means).
What actually humors me is the assumption and belief that this one player, who "continually makes everybody better," can so easily be called the greatest of all time.
“The greatest of all time.” How do you measure this particular bar? How do you measure and compare eras and generations? How do you quantify and attempt to assess the circumstances, the situations, the various levels of media intrusion, the excruciating weight of expectations and pressures?
Is a great majority of the NBA machinery telling me that Michael Jordan is the greatest ever because he never lost a Finals series and that he had other-worldly skills? Am I to accept that Magic Johnson is a lesser player than Jordan because he lost four NBA finals series despite the All-Star composition that he usually had?
Or that Kobe Bryant is still miles behind Jordan just because he was the "second option" in his first three championship seasons behind what now masquerades as the shadow of the most dominant player since Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal?
It's also funny that when people bring up the "Bryant is the greatest" argument, they always stop short of saying the by-now-boring catchphrase—"he makes everybody better." The common assumption is that Bryant’s offensive game is so powerful and magnetic that he has eclipsed all former legends and is now entrenched in a land of his own. Alas, the unimaginable heights of hypocrisy!
How is Jerry West Mr. Clutch if very few of his clutch shots actually helped his Laker team beat the Celtics and win championships? How is he among the greatest ever even though he lost eight Finals series? Is Bill Russell in this conversation just by being the winningest-ever champion in NBA history?
And this is where I convince myself—Jerry West had a heart greater than his ultimate numbers, a level of will and strength far, far greater than his statistics. Can you imagine losing to a team year in and out in the final series of a season and facing the endless questions about temperament and strength of character day in and out, and still go out and play like a man possessed?
Can you even imagine how West did it year after year, until he finally won his ring in the early 70s with a bunch of teammates who had similar motivations? THIS is why he is in my top 10—not because the press calls him Mr. Clutch or this or that. Because he had character.
Bill Russell was the heart and soul of his Boston Celtics team, though he never had the offensive numbers to show for it. But is it his fault that his defense was his greatest attribute? No! Russell fought year and year in the highly sensitive environment of racial tension, and he was a consistent performer, and a durable winner. A true champion. Did he have the numbers to validate this argument? Yes, on the defensive end, he was a monster.
The same with Jordan, but slightly different. Jordan had supernatural numbers till his first retirement, after the 1992-93 season. How supernatural, you might ask. Compare those numbers with the "greatest players" before and after him and you will see what I’m actually talking about. For a 6'6" guard, a minority in the ever-growing dominance of the big-men, he was a freak. And it wasn’t just his rookie season. Till his first three-peat, Michael Jordan was the complete NBA player.
The second version (1996-1998) was the same, but in a different way. He was now the most mentally sound, intelligent, crafty, and smartest player in the NBA, and had the game to prove it. Imagine a near 35-year-old matching his craft and being consistently better than all the young Turks, night in and night out. One can’t even imagine what actually constituted that indefinable will.
Yes, one can easily counter that he had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman for teammates, but you’d be risking your own stupidity in saying that. Do you know how old these three were in their last three seasons together, in a time when the league had supposedly the finest young talents? If you do, please shut up!
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were another amazing duo—no need to glance at their numbers. Their impact and legacy needs no statistical backup. But our assessment of their greatness does - Johnson and Bird were constantly in the "greatest ever" discussion, which is ludicrous.
Johnson had a team of All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers all throughout his playing career, AND still lost four finals series. The same with Bird, who had one of the most amazing skill levels in NBA history, but who was also blessed with future HOF’ers such as Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and other skilled fighters such as Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson. Yes, Bird won consecutive MVPs for the regular season for three years and his team was one of the best then, but he had help.
It is a two-way street, a complimentary exercise. If Bird, Johnson, Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar (to name a few multiple champions) didn’t have their back support (read: Worthy, Cooper, McHale, Parish, Ainge, Pippen, Grant), would they be as celebrated?
And what does this mean? It means that, as seminal their influences were to their teammates, the Johnsons and Birds and co. also needed their secondary mates. And this is not to discount Johnson and Bird’s legacies (they’re in my all-time top 10 too!)—this is just to show how fickle the press can be. After all, in a time when perception is conveniently made a reality, and the newspapers and TV air times have to continue to get bigger, the press will stop at nothing to get ahead.
No man has ever won championships singlehandedly in the history of the NBA; this applies to all the greatest players. Just ask Jordan and Lebron James about it.
I have mixed feelings about James’ latest change of station. On one hand, I feel there’s nothing wrong with his going to another star player’s team (a lot of great players have done so in the past to improve their championship chances), but on the other—like so many people—I condemn the way he did so.
The televised live interview with ESPN (to "break the silence") and the unthinkable atrocity that he rendered to a city that has adored and loved him for so long, actually hurt his growing reputation more than any of his so-called lack of efforts in his last playoff series against the Boston Celtics.
Hurt is stronger than bitterness and James has a much, much bigger burden now. It is not just living up to the gargantuan expectations that people make of him, but actually winning a championship or two with his new "super" team, and, not in the least, co-existing and surviving with a championship-proven talent in Dwayne Wade.
I have no doubt that Kobe Bryant will happily (with much glee, I assume) take on Miami and its new "Big Three" because Bryant is a competitor par excellence. He is an intelligent, ruthless animal on the floor and has a sometimes too-obvious ruthless vindictive streak in him.
And rightly so. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson—they all had it. The burning desire to prove that they were as good as they were celebrated for.
But all of the NBA’s greatest ever players had help, and this is why I don’t support the "greatest ever" argument. They all were the best players during their time. And we should leave it at that.
One might counter by saying that a few of these guys have actually been called the greatest ever by their own peers. And it is true. Jerry West has consistently put Jordan above everyone else. Red Auerbach, the shrewdest mind in the game during his time, called Bird the greater player above his own special child, Russell.
But let the greatest players and the greatest teams be. Let them be. Let the old Bulls, 76ers, Lakers, and the Celtics be. Let Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell, Chamberlain, and everyone else be.
The past was magical, all right. The present must be given a chance.
A rightful chance.
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