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The RMOG BLOG, “The NBA's 4 Horse Race & Is Lebron the Best Ever?”

February 16th 2013 19:52
Well, we’re about ¾ of the way through another NBA regular season (I emphasize regular because the playoffs are like an entire freakin’ season of their own these days). And even with quite a bit of ball to still be played, you'd be hard pressed to argue that this season is anything but a 4 horse race. Before we get to that, I want to touch on the topic of the week, which is one simple question…

Who’s the greatest basketball player of all time?
This has come up because Lebron has ascended to heights you could argue we’ve never seen, and Michael Jordan is about to turn 50. I’m gonna say right away, I loath this entire debate. But since I chose to address it, here’s where I stand…

For me, when it comes to the greatest non-center I've ever seen play the game, the list goes 5 deep. People who were around for the days of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Pete Maravich, Dr. J and Oscar Robertson may have a different take. I was not, so I will stick to the five I actually got to see.

*I want to emphasize that these are in NO particular order. I'm NOT ranking them 1-5

JORDAN (the player and the brand) -- the greatest combination of athletic dominance and cultural significance in any sport ever in my opinion. Kids who didn’t grow up in the era of the shoes and the titles and the commercials and the Dream Team and the free throw with his eyes closed and the buzzer beaters vs. Utah and Cleveland and Jordan jogging down the court with his arms out as if to say “I don’t know, I’m just that good” and the fights on the playground over who got to be MJ, could never understand the level of cool/awesome/phemonenal/domin ant that “Mike” was. Most kids who did grow up with all that could never bring themselves to say someone was “better than MJ.”

MAGIC – Possibly the most under-appreciated basketball player of modern time. It’s an absolute joke that he’s almost never in the Jordan-Lebron-Kobe conversation. He and Bird were as important to the NBA as Jordan ever was. Now, I realize people would have you believe Lebron is the first of his kind. And I'll admit, Magic couldn't play above the rim the way Lebron does. But you talk about an unseen prototype. No one had ever witnessed someone Magic's size move the way he did. Just to give you an idea, let me tell you a story about the 1980 NBA Finals...
Kareem got hurt at the end of Game 5. Magic, A ROOKIE POINT GUARD, started Game 6 at center. Yes, a rookie point guard played center in the closeout game of the Finals. Not only did he play, he dominated. And just for good measure, he played all 5 positions at one time or another that night. Here was his line -- 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists. The Lakers won the title. Did I mention he was a rookie point guard playing center? I guess Lebron ISN'T the only player who could defend all five positions.

BIRD – Call this racist if you want, if Bird looked like MJ, he'd be remembered as a greater player. But he was a goofy looking white dude who couldn't jump very high or run all that fast. So his legacy is automatically downgraded. And his brand of basketball wasn’t particularly pretty to watch. It was very blue collar, workman like. But he was as skilled/tough a competitor and as great a winner/leader as you’ll ever find. A good barometer of someone's greatness, if they played for your team's rival, is how much you hated them. As a Laker fan, I detested Larry Bird. Which is the best praise I could give him today.

KOBE – he has three big knocks against his legacy…
1.) He’s the closest thing we’ve ever seen to Jordan. Their games are incredibly similar. So we can basically do a side-by-side comparison and say “Jordan was a better defender, but Kobe was a better long range shooter…and blah blah blah.” This chips away at both of their legacies.
2.) He plays in the information era. Jordan (a degenerate gambler, harsh teammate, and infidel) was every bit the asshole Kobe is, it just wasn’t all over Twitter and Facebook.
3.) Kobe’s absolute best “by far better than everyone else in the league” years were on the post-Shaq Laker teams, which were AWFUL. So he wasn't playing for a contender at the highest peak of his prime.
It's funny that people's snapshot judgment of Kobe is "5 rings." Like, that's the go-to. What everyone seems to forget is that even though he's only (only) got 5 titles, he's been to the Finals SEVEN times. That's insane. And he's obviously been the 1st or 2nd best player on all of those teams.
Here’s all you need to know about Kobe’s greatness. In 2007, when the Suns were the NBA's elite, Kobe came within six seconds of beating them in a 7 game playoff series, basically on his own... Well to be fair, his running mates were: Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton, so...

Which brings us to...

LEBRON – The infatuation with Lebron is that we’ve never seen anything like him. As I eluded to before, he’s Magic-esque, in terms of size paired with agility, but it’s not like the parallels between Kobe and MJ. LBJ's just a freak of nature; a linebacker who plays basketball. And I think that's part of the allure. Bo Jackson stirred up the same kind of excitement in people. Because, like Lebron, his physical abilities were unprecedented. To a much smaller degree in terms of greatness, Cam Newton fits that mold. It's like a mack truck that can maneuver like a sports car. It just makes you go, "How in the hell did he just... what am I even... what..."
I don't need to go into the specifics of what makes Lebron great, because we're all watching it unfold right now. I'll just say this – if Lebron retired today, with just the one ring, he’s as good a basketball player as there’s ever been in my view. Better than Jordan, Magic, Bird and Kobe? I can’t go that far. And I can't fathom what Lebron or anyone who comes after him could ever do to change my mind. “Tied, but not better” is as far as I can go. My brain doesn’t have the capacity for anything else.

I come to these five because they all had/have something that superseded mere skill and ascended them above the other greats of their era. And to argue that you'd definitively start your franchise with ONE, over the other four, is really tough. I believe a compelling case could be made for any of them.

Before I get to the four horse race this NBA season has become, I want to address the Lakers...
It's time to throw the hope that they'll squeak into the playoffs out the window. Because even if they do, they're gonna get swept by OKC, SAS or worse yet, LAC. The Lakers goal is not to be a bubble team. They're goal is to be great and compete for a title every single year. Obviously they can't do that as presently constructed.
So I would advise every Laker fan to root against the team in every game for the rest of this season. Because things are only going to improve next year if:
1.) Mike D'Antoni gets fired. Which will probably require missing the playoffs and Kobe demanding his dismissal.
2.) Dwight Howard gets traded at the deadline. There's NO chance he'll come back to play with Kobe. I don't care how much more money he can make in L.A. The only question is, will the Lakers be smart enough to get something for him?
*If you're wondering why "missing the playoffs and getting into the draft lottery" isn't on that list, it's because they traded that pick to Phoenix for Steve Nash (could end up being #1 overall).

Now onto the 4 teams I think have a legitimate shot to reach the Finals...

EAST
Miami is obviously the overwhelming, prohibitive favorite. I can't make a good case for anyone even giving them a test.
CHI - they couldn't do it when D-Rose was the MVP and the Heat weren't as good as they are now
BOS - no Rondo = no chance
NYK - I know Chauncey Melo once led DEN to the Conf. Finals, but I have zero faith in him as a playoff performer (an Amar'e trade could make them interesting again)
NETS - Josh Smith could make them interesting as well, but not interesting enough to beat MIA
IND - could possibly take a game or two from Miami because of their size, but not the whole series

WEST
OKC - The favorite and I think they'll win the conference. But MIA has exposed them. They've got to find a way to score points outside of Durant and Westbrook. I liked the Harden trade at the time, but I'm rethinking it now

LAC - Even without a trade there's a lot to like about them...
1.) Probably the deepest team in the league
2.) Blake's improved mid-range game makes him very difficult to defend
3.) They've got the third best player in the world running the show
4.) They have tremendous on-court, locker room leadership in CP3, Chauncey and Grant Hill. That's vital come playoff time

SAS - They've kind of become the Patriots of the NBA: smarter than everyone else, a crusty chap-ass coach, really good in the regular season, but haven't done it in the playoffs for quite some time now. Neither a first/second round exit nor a run to the Finals would surprise me.

*Keep an eye on Denver and Golden State. Neither can actually win the conference, but they're both really well coached and very athletic. With the right draw, I think they could create real problems in the playoffs.

As for the Finals...
Barring a Lebron injury, it's Miami's to lose obviously. If I had to bet, I'd predict a MIA/OKC rematch. And unless the Thunder can figure out an inside game with Ibaka and Perkins (The Heat's biggest weakness), I think it's a [4-1 or 4-2] Miami victory. OKC isn't as good as they were last year and the Heat have only gotten better.

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