Michael Jordan’s rise to the mountaintop as well as his ability to remain there while fighting off would be challengers has made him one of the most popular athletes the NBA has ever seen. During the time he was busy winning titles in the late 1990s, no one really questioned who the best player in the league was; that title belonged to his Airness and no one could truly challenge his throne as the undisputed king of the league.
However, his retirement hit the league hard. All of a sudden, the title of “best in the NBA” was up for grabs and no one really stood out for a small stretch as the undisputed top dog in the NBA.
The funny thing about it all though is that most people believe that Kobe Bryant immediately stepped into the spotlight to overtake the void left by Jordan. Although nothing could be further from the truth, it’s easy to understand how several people could come to that conclusion.
My friend Karim last week casually mentioned that Michael Jordan changed how we viewed the league for a fairly lengthy period of time. Indeed, given the fact that we had grown accustomed to the former Tar Heel’s dominance from the shooting guard position, we naturally gravitated to players in his mold with the hope that they would “rescue” the league and give them their one savior.
This inability to let go in many respects led basketball fans to anoint players such as Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Jerry Stackhouse, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter as MJ’s successors. But even worse, we needed for our best player to fit the Jordan mold; thus every great shooting guard would get a legitimate shot at the thrown. Hence, we added Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and later on Dwyane Wade to the list of guys that we could see becoming not only the face of the NBA, but its best player.
As a result, great players that played different positions were underappreciated. Seems ridiculous right? If such is the case, how is it that very rarely have we heard people make the statement that Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were the best players in the NBA at some point in time in the last 12 years?
While most people were busy focusing on the debate of Kobe versus Iverson versus McGrady, O’Neal was busy dominating the NBA like few had done before him. Between his brute force, size, quickness, speed and agility, he was simply unstoppable. He terrorized defenders with his scoring prowess and anchored the paint defensively and intimidated opponents. Have a look at his production from 1999 to 2003 (MVP season in bold):
Shaquille O’Neal may not have been the most skilled player, but make no mistake he was at some point the best the league had to offer.
Tim Duncan on the other hand has never been a player that attracted much attention or glamour for his game. Unfortunately his array of polished post moves and consistent production have never quite captured the eyes of the public. And yet, many will tell you that he is the best power forward of all time because of his ability to completely disrupt opposing offenses with his knack to cover up for his teammates’ mistakes (all the while avoiding fouls) on defense as well as unmatched offensive skills. Indeed, Duncan took Hall of Fame caliber power forwards into the post such as Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett and ate them all up for lunch, breakfast and dinner during the last decade. Have a look at his numbers from 1999 to 2004 (MVP seasons in bold):
An excellent player who has always provided steady production.
Tim Duncan could potentially be the best power forward ever, but Kevin Garnett’s play over the course of his career did make you wonder at various times if he would at one point in time challenge for the Big Fundamental’s spot. The Big Ticket gave you an unmatched level of emotion and intensity, defended every position on the court (he could easily switch in pick and rolls and his team would not miss a beat), cleaned the glass, got his teammates involved and made them look better, scored in the high post and scored in the low post. Also, Garnett had exceptional ball handling skills for a power forward (Andray Blatche must be jealous) and in his prime he was quite possibly the best at guarding Dirk Nowitzki (never gets mentioned for whatever reason). Have a look at KG’s numbers from 2001 to 2006 (MVP season in bold):
In all, these three players have combined for four MVP trophies, six NBA Finals MVP trophies, five NBA All-Star Game MVP trophies and eight championship rings. And yet, you would be hard pressed to hear anyone state that they were the best players in the league last decade because of the ghost of Michael Jordan.
But then something funny happened roughly around three years ago: LeBron James. His talent had always been obvious, but far too many times he would leave something off the table. Either he did not seem fully invested into the regular season; gearing up only for big match ups or he would treat defense as being an optional part of the game. He was still a great performer, but the title of best player in the NBA could not go to an athlete that seemed to routinely take nights off.
During the 2007-08 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers won a mere 45 games as their star player coasted throughout most of the season. He was however exceptional during the postseason as he finally seemed to embrace his talents as his Cavaliers squad took the Boston Celtics to the limit in an entertaining seven-game Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
If James was possibly the best player in the league that season, the following campaign no longer left any doubt in the minds of several basketball fans. His jump shot still needed work, but the Akron native was unquestionably the total package.
In the past three seasons, LeBron James exhibited an exceptional ability to score efficiently, get his teammates involved, complete flashy and yet tough passes that made several point guards jealous and shut down the best perimeter player on the opposing team. He would even occasionally guard frontcourt players and do more than hold his own. For instance, he would dig in and defend Dirk (back he was much more perimeter oriented), or switch in the pick and roll and defend a Glen Davis or a Tyson Chandler.
For all of his talents, basketball is still a sport that favors production and James made his mark on that front. If we observe King James’ statistical output, it rivals (in some cases surpasses) those of legends such as Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Have a quick look at how his numbers compare favorably to them (listed by scoring average):
As a result of his play and his production, James was named the league MVP twice and is considered by many to be the best player in the game today.
That in itself is an impressive feat because James has finally allowed basketball followers to break from the traditional mold. The comparisons to Michael are still there, but by and large we have to come accept that LeBron is more a cross of Magic, Pippen and Malone. The end result is that slowly but surely we will naturally gravitate to looking at stud players at different positions and anoint as them the best in the league if the label fits; as opposed to merely giving the title to the best shooting guard the league has to offer.
In an odd development, LeBron’s rise will not only help conquer the ghost of Michael Jordan, but it might just allow for current and future guards to escape the comparisons with Mike.