Three Random Thoughts on the NBA, 3/6

In Defense of GOATs

The LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument has been at or near the forefront of basketball media pretty much since the day LeBron overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals to defeat the best regular season team ever, the 73-win Golden State Warriors, in what can only be described as the most heroic performance in NBA finals history.

This gave LeBron not only a third ring, and not only a first ever for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, but also gave him something that Jordan never had–a finals come back, and one against a team that was favored to win the championship from the time the season tipped off all the way until Kyrie Irving’s three broke Golden State’s hearts.

The debate has picked up recently, perhaps as LeBron’s peak comes to an end (although it probably isn’t), and as more and more people believe that, taking everything into consideration, he may in fact be the best to ever do it. Bill Simmons’ The Ringer dedicated an entire week to Jordan and LeBron, and the debate is practically a daily fixture on sports talk TV and radio nowadays, with Fox Sports celebrities Skip Bayless, Nick Wright, and Colin Cowherd practically rehashing their same arguments every morning.

I have long maintained that LeBron is the best that I have ever seen play the game, but accomplishments and resume do count for a lot in a GOAT debate, since technological advances allow athletes across all sports to do things that their predecessors never could. What matters is how individuals competed and excelled against their opponent during their era.

Jordan presents the best combination of ability and accomplishments of any player. Also, he presents a virtually unblemished record (at least on the basketball court) that LeBron could never match. Jordan almost defines greatness and his iconic stature in basketball lore means he will be difficult to supplant as the GOAT anytime soon.

That’s my view in a nutshell, and I don’t want to dive back into the arguments that can be used to defend one or the other as the greatest. Instead, I want to point out one argument that I’ve heard in both directions that I think could be seen as validation of a GOAT argument rather than a detractor.

It has become a common narrative that while Jordan had a more treacherous path through the Eastern Conference, James has had much tougher matchups when it comes to the finals. This would help explain why the former is a perfect six-for-six in the finals, whereas the latter has reached a stunning eight, but only won three titles. While this is mostly true, it is also unfair to both players.

James had to take out some good teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while Jordan also beat some potential dynasties in the championship round. However this are all written off: James beat the ‘old’ Pistons in the ‘07 playoffs, and Jordan’s first title was only possible because the Lakers were well past their glory days.

The 2007 Pistons faced off against the Cavaliers in their fifth of six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, which included two trips to the finals and one NBA championship. Within two seasons, Detroit was swept in the first round by those very same Cavs and the franchise has not won a single playoff game since.

The 1990-91 Lakers were competing in their eighth championship series in ten years, during which time they had captured four rings. Magic Johnson entered that season as the two-time defending NBA MVP. After that season, the Lakers had their first decade-long run without an NBA finals appearance in NBA history.

In both cases, these franchises noticed that James or Jordan were about something different. The teams that had nearly dominated the league or the conference for an extended spell was no longer good enough. Not with these guys around. They were generational talents. Of course, the Lakers situation is a little bit different because Johnson had to quit the game due to his AIDS diagnosis, but both teams revamped their roster because they could not compete with LeBron James or Michael Jordan.

The same thing happened with the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s, who had won the Eastern Conference three straight times before getting swept by Michael’s Bulls in 1991, as well as the late 2000s Boston Celtics, them of three Hall of Famers and two finals appearances, who lost two consecutive tough series’ to LeBron’s Heat before blowing it up.

A number of other teams have put together experiments with the hope of knocking that era’s greatest off the mountaintop, but almost none have accomplished the ultimate goal, and eventually decided to give it up.

In fact, the San Antonio Spurs in 2013-14 were in only second finals appearance in seven season when they bulldozed LeBron’s Heat, four games to one. They were, by almost any account, older than the teams that we now consider ancient for the sake of the GOAT argument. Since they won, we don’t consider them to be old anymore, even though they haven’t been back to the last round since.

If the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers again this year, we won’t say that they did so because LeBron was aging. Twenty years from now though, who knows what the narrative will be.

Cluster in the Middle

Last week I wrote about how there were a number of struggling NBA teams that were going nowhere. Not now and not in the near future. The dilution of talent among NBA lottery teams also means that the NBA draft may be a little more boring than usual.

Not to worry, the NBA playoffs are here to save the day.

The playoff pictures in both conferences are eerily similar. The top two teams have separated themselves from the pack, and then there a bunch of teams within a few games of each other. In the East that is seeds three through eight, while in the West the third and tenth best teams in the conference are only three games apart.

In a time where the NBA finals are seemingly a foregone conclusion (Houston may have something to say about that), the byproduct of the superteam era is a superior regular season product.

Every game, from here on out, matters. Every team is fighting; whether that be for lottery odds, playoff position, or home court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs. Consider: When I last published, the Pelicans were eighth in the West. Now, they sit in the fourth. The Portland Trail Blazers have jumped from seventh to third. In the East, the Pacers have soared into fourth, and the Bucks have tumbled to number eight.

None of the teams are particularly great. Nate Silver’s NBA model predicts that the Boston Celtics will be the only NBA team to win between 50 and 59 games, with 50 usually serving as a barometer for a great team and 60 representing an exceptional one.

What the NBA is left with given this concentration of talent is a number of very solid teams. These teams will face off each other in a high number of remaining games, with each game possibly representing a one or two spot change in the standings.

These head to heads will be of particular importance because the tiebreaker is likely to come into play for playoff seeding. No team in the NBA can have any idea of this point in time of what their path to a championship might look like.

When the Warriors added Kevin Durant last season, fans lamented the possibility of an endless string of matchups between them and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals. At least that gave the league one saving grace. Instead of waiting for the second round, or perhaps even the conference finals, for a good series, we will have intriguing and enticing matchups throughout the postseason.

An MVP Moment

Every MVP season must be crowned with an MVP moment. It may not be that player’s best play. It may not even be their most important one. It is simply the one that encapsulates their MVP season the best.

Last season, Russell Westbrook set the record for triple-doubles with his 42nd in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 80th game of the season. He capped off that 50-point performance with a deep three to steal a win. It was the most Westbrook moment of a wholly Westbrook season. He had dominated the opposing Nuggets not only with his 50 points, but also with a triple-double. Although he has never been seen as a marksman from downtown, Westbrook created a reputation for himself as one of the league’s best from downtown in the clutch. That play was Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 season in a nutshell.

The year before that, Steph Curry cemented his second MVP season with a long three–his record-tying 12th of the game–to beat the rival Thunder during a primetime game. Curry had made tough shot after tough shot down the stretch of that game, it seemed as if everyone watching knew that his shot from between half-court and the three-point line was going to drop. Commentator Mike Breen and Curry’s own enthusiastic responses solidified what everyone knew about the Warriors point guard–he owned that season.

James Harden, twice the MVP runner-up in the past three seasons, is far and away the frontrunner to win the honor this season. Still, he hadn’t yet had his MVP coronation moment.

Until this week.

Harden’s season hasn’t been about clutch performances. Frankly, the Rockets haven’t had enough close games. It hasn’t been about dominant stats, either. Harden’s put up eye-popping numbers ever since he was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston.

Instead, this season is marked by Harden’s sheer dominance as a one-on-one basketball player. He leads the league in isolation possession, and has almost twice as many isolation points as the next highest ranked player, LeBron James. He is an absolutely unstoppable offensive machine, who will get a shot off or get to the tin any time he wants,

On Thursday, Harden went to one of his patented moves, a stepback jumper with a slight push off. Harden has embarrassed a number of defenders with this very move, but none quite like. After Wesley Johnson tumbled to the ground a good 15 feet away from Harden, the Rockets star gathered himself. He looked down and saw Johnson’s eyes looking back at him. Instead of shooting the three right away he stared at his fallen opponent for what seemed like a minute to me and must have felt like a lifetime to Wesley Johnson.

Then, as Johnson’s teammate Milos Teodosic tried to spare Johnson from the ultimate humiliation, Harden let the shot fly. And of course, he drained it.

Harden’s move likely ranks alongside Allen Iverson stepping over Ty Lue and Shawn Kemp pointing at whoever that guy Shawn Kemp pointed at was (seriously, I have no idea who that guy was) after dunking all over him, as the most disrespectful plays in NBA history.

Harden must be angry after these years as second best. In both 2015 and 2017, he had valid arguments for the MVP award, and, both times, he was passed over. He let all of that anger out in that one play. He will be this season’s MVP. He already had the narrative, the team success, and the individual numbers to seal the award. Now, he has the iconic play, too.

 

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