Exposing the 7 Biggest Myths in NBA Arguments

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterAugust 8, 2012

Exposing the 7 Biggest Myths in NBA Arguments

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    Like any sport worth its salt, NBA basketball is prone to sparking intense arguments amongst its fans, from casual observers to lifelong diehards. The advent of statistics, along with an increased understanding of what it takes to play the game and how it's changed over the years, has only added fuel to these rhetorical fires.

    So, too, has the rise of new superstars and the etching of aging ones into the annals of the league's illustrious history, not to mention the lengths to which some writers, like Bill Simmons and Chris Ballard, have gone to dissect and document it.

    Debates lie at the heart of what gives any league longevity and relevance beyond the temporal boundaries of watching games as they're going on during the season.

    And it's in these summer months, when free agency is all but over and training camps are still what seems like an eternity away, that old debates return to the fore and new ones are forged and framed, with an eye turned squarely to the future.

    So, when the roundball rowdy in your life tries to show you up with any of these seven cockamamee notions, be sure to shoot 'em down like Adam and Jamie on Mythbusters.

    Respectfully, of course. No basketball debate is worth skewering a friendship over.

LeBron James Is a Coward in the Clutch

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    For all of his otherworldly talent, LeBron James simply couldn't get the job done when it mattered most.

    At least that was the knock on him until he led the Miami Heat to the NBA title in 2012.

    But did one postseason run really change LeBron's constitution as a crunch-time player? Might his spectacular performance in the playoffs have been a positive aberration?

    Or has LeBron been the King of clutch all along and, in turn, have his shortfalls been given too much weight when measured against his successes?

    As Grantland's Bill Barnwell pointed out in June, the concept of clutch is often rather vague and arbitrary in the way it's defined. How much of a player's "clutchness" is dependent on the situation (i.e. time and score), and how much is it tied to the ultimate result of the game?

    Barnwell highlights a slew of LeBron's most "clutch" performances—his double-overtime domination of the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, his 45-point outburst against the Boston Celtics in the final game of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2008 playoff run, his buzzer-beater against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, his equalizing three-pointer in Game 4 of the 2012 East Finals against Boston and (of course) his Game 6 masterpiece in a Heat win over the C's, among others—not all of which led (directly or indirectly) to the most memorable of results.

    The problem, then, would seem to be one of perception, which may or may not have changed now that LeBron has a championship ring on his finger.

    Per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, LeBron scored 14 points and registered a plus-minus rating of plus-16 in just 11 "clutch-time" minutes (last five minutes of a game, score within five points) during the 2012 Finals after coming up with no points and a minus-16 rating in 18 such minutes during the 2011 Finals. 

    Does that make LeBron any more "clutch" now than he was then? Or will the basketball world view him as such now that he's no longer the ringless King?

    Or, better yet, is the importance of a concept as amorphous as "clutch" overblown to begin with? 

Who's Best? There's No Debate

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    Clutch or no, what is (or should be) clear at this point is that LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet right now, and probably has been for some time now.

    Eight straight All-NBA and All-Star appearances, three out of four league MVPs and a Finals MVP have certainly helped to build a resume worthy of the history books.

    But it's how LeBron has risen to those heights—by being the most consistently superb performer across nearly every face of the game—that merits his consideration ahead of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, among others. He has the rare ability to make a 27-point, eight-rebound, six-assist, two-steal evening look positively pedestrian, if only because that's what he puts up on a nightly basis.

    Speaking of statistics, according to Basketball Reference, LeBron led the league in player efficiency rating, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes last season. He was also the only player to rank in the top 25 in points, rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage.

    In other words, LeBron was really, really, really good.

    No player in the league today (or, perhaps, ever) can so much as sniff LeBron's combination of size, speed, strength, skill, athleticism and sheer grace on the court. He's an elite scorer who's even better as a facilitator, as he's shown with Team USA, and affects the game in so many ways in both ends of the court.

    And, at 27, James is just entering the prime of his career, that most marvelous of temporal intersections between physical and mental acuity on the court. He's still improving and expanding his game, too, as he demonstrated with the addition of an excellent low-post repertoire last season.

    This isn't all to say that King James' time on the throne is bound to last. Durant is already hot on his heels, with up-and-comers like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love likely to join the conversation for so long.

    These things are always cyclical, of course, but for now, LeBron can comfortably lay claim to being the best in his business.

What Makes Kobe Bryant "Untradable"?

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    Kobe Bryant has already moved on from the "best right now" conversation to the "where he ranks all-time" debate, but has yet to rescue himself from the game's current elite and, on a similar note, is, and should remain, untouchable with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    At least that's the prevailing wisdom. The Black Mamba finished second in the NBA in scoring last season at the age of 33 after being narrowly edged out by Kevin Durant down the stretch.

    But, as Grantland's Bill Simmons (ever the astute "Kobe hater") noted in April, Bryant's numbers are beginning to resemble those of another 1996 draftee known for hogging the ball—Allen Iverson. The numbers are surprisingly comparable, as are their profiles as players, per Simmons:

    The truth is, Kobe turned into a taller Iverson last season and it's staying that way. He's a 42 percent volume shooter who plays an ungodly number of minutes, shakes off every injury, fills the box score (good and bad), keeps coming and coming, and fervently believes he's always the best guy on the floor (even when it's not true).

    There are some caveats, of course, not the least of which is that Kobe's percentages were depressed last season, at least in part by a wrist injury he suffered during the abbreviated preseason.

    Much of Kobe's status as a Laker for Life can also be credited to the five titles teams on which he was either a or the central figure.

    Iverson, on the other hand, had a great run with the Philadelphia 76ers, but never quite proved himself to be capable of serving as the best player on a championship-caliber team.

    The Lakers' reluctance to move Kobe likely has less to do with a lack of desire to do so and more of an inability to find any takers, though one plays into the other. Bryant will be the highest-paid player in the NBA over the next two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35.

    Is there another team willing to take on a future Hall-of-Famer in his mid-30s who's owed more than $58 million over the next two seasons? And if there is, would said team be willing to give up the sorts of assets that would make such a trade worthwhile for LA?

    Trading Kobe (or even considering it) is a matter of value. That is, Kobe's value to the Lakers, both on and off the court, is much greater than it would be to just about any other franchise in the league. The Lakers, then, would be unlikely to find any deal in which they'd get a satisfactory return.

    Not to mention that the current team—with Steve Nash joining Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace—is more or less designed to compete for titles through the 2013-14 season, after which the Black Mamba may well take his talents to Europe.

Russell Westbrook Should Shoot Less, Pass More

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    Once Kobe goes, Russell Westbrook seems like the perfect candidate to take over as The Player Who Gets Ripped Most For Taking "Too Many" Shots.

    He drew plenty of ire for his supposedly reckless habits last season, when his assist numbers dropped precipitously and he attempted nearly as many shots per game as his Oklahoma City Thunder teammate and three-time league scoring champion Kevin Durant.

    Apparently, being the fifth-leading scorer in the NBA has its downside, even if it doesn't in Russell's reality. The Thunder went 24-11 when Westbrook took 20 or more shots and were 31-12 when he scored 20 or more points in a game last season.

    As with the criticism that so many stars face, the grenades being lobbed Westbrook's way stem from an "error" in perception. That is, Westbrook has been pigeonholed by many as a point guard, if only because he has the size of a point guard, tends to initiate OKC's offense and plays alongside one of the most prolific scorers in the game today.

    And because he averaged at least eight assists per game during his second and third NBA seasons.

    But by trade, Westbrook isn't so much a traditional point guard as he is, say, an uber-athletic scoring combo guard who's at his best when Thunder coach Scott Brooks gives him free reign on the court. More importantly, he's a budding superstar who's capable of carrying a team for stretches, just as he did during his 43-point bonanza in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals.

    Only when the basketball world stops trying to fit Westy's square peg into the round hole of point guards and starts learning to appreciate what he is (rather than ripping him for what he isn't) will Russell be unshackled by misplaced expectations.

Size Is Everything

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    You know what else we learned from the 2012 Finals? That size is no longer crucial to winning it all, at least traditional size at the center position.

    Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had nary a seven-footer in his rotation, with 6'11" power forward Chris Bosh and the 6'9 Joel Anthony serving as the closest facsimiles. Even LeBron (all 6'8 of him) saw some time at the five.

    More remarkable, though, is that rather than succeeding despite a lack of size, the Heat seemed to come away victorious because of it. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, a fine defensive big man in his own right, was made to look obsolete, if not entirely detrimental to the cause, against Miami, though that may have had something to do with a groin injury that wasn't revealed until after the series concluded.

    Still, the Heat managed to take advantage of changes in the rule book and in the undercurrents of basketball culture over the years that have, in essence, devalued the low-post big man and shifted the advantage toward the perimeter.

    This isn't all to say, though, that the old paradigm for success has been broken, that teams should abandon the employment of seven-footers. Quite the contrary, actually—there's no more surefire way of guaranteeing success than with an elite big man through whom a team can run its offense and who can control the game on the defensive end.

    If anything, the Heat were the exception to the rule, a team that brought three elite players together via free agency prior to the reshuffling of the game with the new collective bargaining agreement.

    But to their credit, the Heat proved that ultimate success can be achieved without the benefit of a giant in the paint, even if doing so still qualifies as the "hard way."

Wilt vs. Russell

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    The NBA owes much of its legacy as a big man's league to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who combined to dominate the sport from the mid-1950s into the early 1970s.

    But who was better? Which of these two rivals and basketball behemoths sports the superior case for greatness?

    As Bill Simmons discusses in Chapter Two of The Book of Basketball, the nod goes to Russell, and it's not quite as close as most might think.

    The Big Dipper tends to get the benefit of the doubt, even though he won two titles compared to Russell's 11, because he was presumably the more gifted of the two, played on supposedly weaker teams and had some tough luck in big spots.

    To be sure, Chamberlain was a tremendous talent, a 7'1" specimen whose size, skill, athleticism and agility forever changed and helped to modernize the sport. He could do anything and everything on the court, going so far as to lead the league in assists during the 1967-68 season and average better than 50 points and 25 rebounds over the course of the 1961-62 campaign.

    Though Simmons does plenty to properly contextualize those eye-popping statistical achievements in Chapter Three.

    On the other hand, Simmons (an unabashed Boston Celtics diehard) shows that Russell's C's were surprisingly even on talent in comparison to Wilt's teams, that Russell was a gifted offensive player in his own right whose gifts shone through more prominently on the defensive end (where he was arguably the greatest of all time) and that Wilt's statistical edge in head-to-head battles was the result, in part, of Russell playing possum with his opponent.

    And moreover, that their playoff stats were much more comparable...and that Russell's teams actually won, while Wilt's teams suffered time and again from Chamberlain's mental shrinkage in crunch time.

    Because, you know, winning matters in basketball. 

A 6th Ring Makes Kobe MJ's Equal

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    Then again, if two legends are on equal footing as far as titles are concerned, can they actually be considered equals?

    That'll be the question if/when Kobe Bryant adds a sixth ring to his collection, putting him on par with Michael Jordan and his six titles with the Chicago Bulls.

    Except, for the Black Mamba to challenge His Airness for the title of the top shooting guard in NBA history, much less the greatest player, he'd have to rack up many more tokens of achievement than "just" another piece of digit-bound jewelry. Consider that:

    1. MJ led the league in scoring 10 times, while Kobe's done it twice.

    2. MJ won five MVPs, while Kobe has but one, and both probably deserve(d) more.

    3. MJ was the Finals MVP during each of his championship seasons, while Kobe took the honor on two occasions, ceding the first three to Shaquille O'Neal.

    4. MJ was named the Defensive Player of the Year on one occasion, while Kobe has yet to take home that particular trophy.

    To Kobe's credit, he's already matched Jordan's litany of All-Star (14), first-team All-NBA (10) and first-team All Defensive selections (nine) and surpassed MJ's collection of All-Star Game MVPs with his fourth in 2011. Kobe might also fly by No. 23 on the NBA's all-time scoring list when all is said and done.

    All of which means less when you consider a few more points, that:

    1. Kobe jumped straight to the NBA from high school, while MJ spent three years at North Carolina before he was drafted.

    2. MJ forfeited a year-and-a-half of his prime to play minor league baseball for the Chicago White Sox, thereby leaving two titles on the table for a pair of Bulls teams that nearly cracked the Eastern Conference Finals without his (full) services.

    3. MJ could've kept playing immediately after the lockout in 1999, perhaps even at a high level, if his final seasons in Chicago and his two campaigns with the Washington Wizards in 2001-02 and 2002-03 were any indication.

    In other words, Kobe may match Jordan's ring total, but he'd probably have to play another lifetime of NBA basketball to so much as see eye-to-eye with MJ in the history books.


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