Posted Dec 10, 2012 1:17 PM
There was something so familiar about the look Thursday, the veteran team moving the ball as if it had a pin in it and it would blow any second, finding wide open shooters who didn't miss from increasingly long distances. The bench exploding in joy, the visiting team's fans taking over Miami's American Airlines Arena, the home fans leaving without so much as a boo.
Yes, the Dallas Knicks were back in town.
The Dallas Mavericks won an NBA championship two seasons ago by taking the Heat apart, meticulously, and then finally beating them at their own small-ball game. Then it was J.J. Barea and Jason Terry destroying the Heat's backcourt, with Brian Cardinal playing meaningful minutes off the bench as a stretch four and Rick Carlisle's defense-first coaching keeping the Heat from a championship.
The Knicks used Ray Felton and J.R. Smith to shoot, and Steve Novak to do the Discount Double Check Belt Dance as he came back upcourt after drilling another 3-pointer. They even had Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler playing the roles of Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler. A couple of years older, sure. But it was a pretty good imitation of their formal selves.
The Knicks' 112-92 rout of the Heat was their second in as many games this season, and it sent the league to buzzing all weekend. The Knicks aren't just good. They have the capability to be special.
Now, I can count as well as the next know-it-all, so I know it's just early December, and that the Heat may well not reach altitude until playoff time. Miami is banged up; Shane Battier played just eight minutes Thursday in his first game back from a groin pull, and guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are just coming back from their own injuries, leaving LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with yet another thing to do.
And, of course, the Knicks are older than dirt.
Who knows if 40-year-old Kurt Thomas, 39-year-old Kidd, 38-year-old Rasheed Wallace (two years out of retirement), 38-year-old Marcus Camby (who's already hurt) and 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni (from Argentina) can hold up over an 82-game season -- not to mention an extended playoff run? The roster is the oldest in NBA history, matter of fact, with an average age among their top 13 players of 32 years, 240 days, according to Stats LLC.
But the Knicks feel a lot like those Mavericks did early on. Dallas got off to a 24-5 start before Dirk Nowitzki got hurt, and Caron Butler went down for the season with a torn ACL. But the depth held up and the Mavericks finished with a 57-win season before rolling to the title.
The Knicks have, for the time being, made owner James Dolan's recent basketball decisions look smart. That would be a first.
Dolan has bumbled and stumbled for a generation, and in the process, the Knicks' brand suffered mightily. But he chose to let Jeremy Lin and Linsanity walk out the door to Houston when the Rockets backloaded a three-year, $25 million offer sheet to Lin. The Knicks instead took a chance that Felton's disastrous season in Portland was an aberration, acquiring him in the summer in a three-team sign-and-trade deal with Portland and Houston.
The Knicks had to jettison Chauncey Billups through amnesty in order to be able to give Chandler a $56 million contract last December. That move left New York vulnerable in the backcourt at playoff time. With Lin out with a knee injury, the Knicks had to counter with Toney Douglas and Landry Fields in the backcourt against the Heat, with no frontcourt reserves to help out after Amar'e Stoudemire famously sliced his hand open on a fire extinguisher after Game 2 against Miami in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
"Last year, we didn't have enough," Chandler said. "Amar'e and Carmelo had to play big minutes, and they wore down. But I give management credit for going out and getting all these guys."
This season the Knicks are off to an Eastern Conference best 15-5 after beating the Nuggets Sunday. They won in Miami without Carmelo Anthony, who cut his left middle finger diving for a loose ball in Charlotte on Wednesday. They're playing great defense and relying on their depth and smarts, selling out for Mike Woodson the way the Mavericks did for Rick Carlisle.
They are Dallas 2.0.
"I was just talking to the light-skinned guy over there about that," Chandler said late Thursday, pointing to Kidd.
Both the Mavs and Knicks were/are built around superstars who gradually added more to their games, filling in the cracks as needed for their teams.
Nowitzki was the greatest shooting big man the game has ever seen, but Dallas wasn't going anywhere as a team until he added a post game and got on the glass. Anthony's scoring prowess from all over the floor is well-documented; he's third in the league in scoring at 26.8 ppg. But he never has given more effort at the defensive end than he has this season.
Offensively, Woodson has put Anthony in isolations, as he did often with Joe Johnson in Atlanta. But Anthony also gets looks in the mid-post and screen-rolls, either with Chandler or Thomas.
The Knicks can get by for a while without 'Melo, but not for long. The Bulls showed Saturday what a good defensive team can do to an Anthony-free Knicks by holding them to 85 points in Chicago's eight-point win. The difference now is that the Knicks, with Anthony, can win those grind-it-out affairs so common in the playoffs.
Everyone has bought into playing defense in New York. It's the ultimate compliment to Woodson, the Larry Brown disciple who was Brown's lead assistant in 2004 when the Pistons upset the Lakers in The Finals. Brown wanted Woodson to succeed him in Detroit, but Woodson went on to Atlanta, where he helped the young Hawks evolve from a joke to a solid playoff team.
Woodson was in Atlanta six seasons, and after a 13-69 campaign in 2004-05, the Hawks' record improved every year: 26 wins, then 30, then 37, then 47, and finally 53 in 2009-10. Since taking over for Mike D'Antoni last March, Woodson is 32-11 in the regular season.
"He makes the game of basketball fun," Felton said. "In practice, he's serious, he's about his business, but he's always cracking jokes. He's like one of the players out there. You can't even tell he's a coach sometimes. He really blends in with us, and that's key. Basketball's supposed to be fun. It's not something that's supposed to be devastating."
The Knicks were ridiculously hot Thursday from beyond the arc, hitting 18 of a remarkable 44 3-point attempts. But good shooting comes and goes. New York won the game with defense.
Go back and watch how the Knicks pre-rotated to open shooters, how Smith and Felton chased Ray Allen and Mike Miller off of the 3-point line all game. Crowded, his favorite spots taken away from him, Allen put the ball on the floor and made a couple of tough shots, but the Knicks can live with Allen as a driver instead of a deadly shooter. That was a team that was well-coached and in shape.
"We ran a lot in camp," Woodson said Thursday. "Our conditioning is right where we need to be from a conditioning standpoint. I thought that had a lot to do with it."
The defense starts with Chandler, the defending Defensive Player of the Year who has done nothing to cause the Knicks to question the big payday they gave him.
Chandler came to camp in Dallas in 2010 fresh off a gold medal-winning performance with the U.S. team, which won the World Championships in Turkey. This year, he's coming off a gold medal-winning performance with the U.S. Olympic team, which won in London at the Summer Games. By New Year's Day 2011, Nowitzki was saying Chandler was the best teammate he'd ever played with, marveling at Chandler's post defense and coverage on screen and rolls.
This year, Chandler is leading the league in field-goal percentage, shooting a ridiculous 70.9 percent. He's threatening Wilt Chamberlain's single-season mark of 72.7 percent, set in 1972-73 with the Lakers. He and Felton look like they've run the screen-and-roll together for 10 years.
"I tell him all the time, 'If you set a good screen, nine times out of 10 you're going to be the guy to get the shot,'" Felton said. "'Cause I'm gonna attack that big man. The guard is out of the play. He's gotta make a decision. So if he comes to me, I'm gonna throw it up to you, give you a little drop off pass, or it's gonna be at the rim, and you're gonna dunk it.' He's just doing a really good job of hitting that guy, and I'm just taking off, and he's following."
Stabilizing the point was mission one for the Knicks in the offseason. Felton and Kidd often play together, giving New York multiple ballhandlers and an ability to move the ball. Felton has picked up where he left off in New York; playing for Mike D'Antoni the first half of the 2010-11 season, Felton was terrific. But he was sent to Denver as part of the Anthony trade, then sent to Portland in the 2011 offseason for Andre Miller when the Nuggets opted to build around Ty Lawson. Felton then famously didn't plan for the lockout ending when it did, and came to camp in Portland woefully out of shape.
Starting from behind, he quickly fell out of favor with then-coach Nate McMillan, and was bounced from the Blazers' future plans in a nanosecond.
"Everybody just forgot about the other five years that I had," Felton said. "It kind of sucks. But I guess that's how it goes, sometimes. Everybody's entitled to a bad year, I think ... I busted my behind to get myself in shape, and toward the end of the year [in Portland] I think I picked my play up. But there was still a lot of junk talked, a lot of stuff said in that summertime. I definitely wanted to come out and let people know that I'm still here. Ain't nothing changed. I'm still that point guard that can run a team and can play ball."
Kidd is in Felton's ear every day, about everything. Last week, before Felton had a homecoming game of sorts in Charlotte in front of his family, Kidd told him to calm down, to rev the engine a little lower.
"I asked him, 'Who's your favorite quarterback?,'" Kidd said. "And he said, 'Peyton Manning.' And I told him to look at how Manning runs his team."
Wallace does for the bigs what Kidd does for the guards, and as has happened everywhere he's played, he's become a locker room favorite. His presence allows the Knicks to play small effectively, a key to beating the Heat down the road.
But will the Knicks still be viable in four months?
Stoudemire, of course, has not played a minute after undergoing surgery in late October to remove a cyst behind his left knee. He's worked out on the side and is traveling with the team (and looks to be in great shape). Wallace missed Sunday's home win over Denver with a sore left foot; Kidd has already missed three games with back spasms; Camby has been out with plantar fasciitis most of the season. And the Knicks are still without promising second-year guard Iman Shumpert, who tore his ACL in the playoffs against Miami last spring.
And what will Stoudemire's mindset be when he's back? The Knicks are rolling with Anthony at power forward and Ronnie Brewer at the three. Stoudemire has never looked comfortable playing next to Anthony. Would STAT be willing to come off the bench and anchor the second unit? Or will Woodson have to figure out what D'Antoni couldn't: how to get them both going at the same time.
It actually happened once or twice last season, including Game 4 of the Knicks-Heat first-round series. With Anthony going for 41, and Stoudemire adding 20 and 10, New York beat Miami to (temporarily) stave off elimination.
The Knicks have already seen this season that there's another way to beat the Heat, with longer-lasting results -- and implications all around.
"Innocence is a seed. The ground has to be ready, the season has to be favorable, time has to pass. But sooner or later that seed will flourish, and any team can begin what I call an innocent climb: a time of growth that unexpectedly changes the whole face of an organization."
-- Pat Riley, The Winner Within
There have been so many false starts and so many false prophets in the Bay Area over the last few decades that it's hard to believe that there is something serious happening with the Warriors, that Golden State is really on the verge of a legit turnaround after two winning seasons out of the last 18.
Yet, as Riley wrote, there are so many seeds in the ground. There is Steph Curry, finally (hopefully?) healthy after missing most of the last two seasons recovering from two ankle surgeries. There is Harrison Barnes, the smooth rookie from North Carolina who is well aware that the six teams that passed on him in last June's Draft all have worse records this morning than the 13-7 Warriors.
There is David Lee, playing again as he did in New York, running and dunking and rebounding. There is second-year guard Klay Thompson, who like all great shooters is prone to slumps and misfires. Yet he was ready late in the Warriors' win over Washington Saturday -- spotted in the deep corner, he caught the ball with a second on the shot clock off a Draymond Green offensive rebound and drained a clutch three.
There is rookie forward Green, who inexplicably fell to the second round after almost every team that worked him out or interviewed him said he was one of the classiest and best kids they'd ever talked with. There is yet another rook in starting center Festus Ezeli. He has stepped in for the injured Andrew Bogut and been credible on the glass, a strength of the Warriors, who are top five in the league in rebounding and rebound margin.
There are the requisite veterans: guard Jarrett Jack and forwards Carl Landry and Richard Jefferson. There is the hard-charging young coach in Mark Jackson, certain that he will change the culture in the Bay, just as P.J. Carlesimo (46-113 with the Warriors) and Eric Musselman (75-89) and Mike Montgomery (68-96) were when they came aboard.
More importantly, there have been impressive wins -- a sweep of the Nets, including Friday's road win in Brooklyn, along with wins over the Clippers, Mavericks and Hawks. Those have helped the Warriors to their best start in 20 seasons, including three straight wins to start a seven-game road trip. (The Warriors haven't had a winning record on a road trip that long since ... 1971!!)
But, will the seeds take deep root or be cast away like so many have over the decades when the first ill wind blows? Do the Warriors have something that is built to last? A real identity, something that was last found, fleetingly, when Don Nelson conjured up the high-energy squad that upset the defending Western Conference champion Mavs in the first round of the 2007 playoffs?
The Warriors' new braintrust has come online to much fanfare over the last two years, since new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team from Chris Cohan. They continued the trend of bringing former agents to the team side, hiring Bob Myers, a former VP at the SFX agency with uber-agent Arn Tellem, as assistant general manager, and promoted him to GM last spring.
They brought in Rick Welts, one of the most respected executives around, to run the business side, and brought Jerry West in as a consultant. (West's real job was to grease the skids for the state of the art, privately financed arena in San Francisco that the Warriors hope will open in 2017, near the Giants' PacBell Park.)
But nothing will matter until the on-court product finally meshes. So far, so good.
"So many teams have to take on so many personalities in the course of an 82-game season," Jack said. "Probably the only team that doesn't is the Spurs. They're probably a team that throughout the injuries, the travel, whatever it can be, probably keeps the same personality. Even when they sat the guys out the other day. Not saying we're trying to emulate them, but those kinds of traits."
It starts with Curry -- like Barnes, the seventh pick in his (2009) Draft. Curry got the ball and the nod to run the show over the likes of high-scoring Monta Ellis (traded to Milwaukee last season in a three-team deal with San Antonio that brought Jefferson aboard).
But Curry's right ankle seemed as weak as Gwen Kellerman's in The Out of Towners. He changed shoes, he changed the way he ran, and none of it seemed to help as he sprained his ankle again and again. He had surgery in 2011 and again last April, but the Warriors are always on the alert; he rolled it in the preseason and missed the last two exhibition games.
Yet the Warriors gambled that Curry has turned the corner, giving him a four-year, $44 million extension in October. And Curry has responded with the best basketball of his young career, including four straight games with at least 20 points and 10 assists earlier this month. He had 28 Friday against Deron Williams in the Warriors' win at Brooklyn.
"I feel good, healthy, that's first and foremost, after this last year and a half of being in and out of the lineup," Curry said. "It definitely feels good to not have to worry about my ankle and be able to play. Plus, to have the contract out of the way, it's just a good feeling. We're playing well and have some momentum, and I want to be a part of that."
Jackson insists that Curry's ankle injuries have been more freak than foundational, and that Curry exacerbated the sprains by trying to come back too soon; hence Jackson's call to shelve him at the end of the preseason.
"He's playing at an elite level, and that can't be debated," Jackson said. "I'm ecstatic for him. Because the fact is, he's an incredible man, and he's playing healthy for the first time in a long time. And people are developing an appreciation for how good he is."
Curry is not wearing any orthotics in his shoes or relying on some esoteric tape job on his ankle, and he's found a brace that seems to be doing the job ("I got more braces than shoes," he says. "That's the one thing that I won't forget"). A healthy Curry can not only drop bombs from deep, but can put the ball on the floor and attack the basket, as he did against the Wizards in the second half Saturday.
"Last year, I think I played pretty well, but you only saw it five games out of 15, five games out of 20," Curry said. "Just being able, night in and night out, to be on the floor and just be aggressive, both scoring the ball and distributing. We have a great, deep ballclub that kind of highlights different parts of my game."
No backcourt in the league is even close to the 104 combined 3-pointers that Curry and Thompson have made this season, and their combined range creates all kinds of driving room.
"In transition, we're pretty deadly, with [Thompson] and Harrison and Draymond and those guys running the wings, being able to shoot the ball like they can, and spacing the floor," Curry said. "We have a lot of options, especially with Carl and David Lee, those guys, everybody demands some kind of attention and is a threat on the floor."
The Warriors cleared the starting small forward spot for Barnes by dealing Dorell Wright to Philly in a three-team deal with the Hornets that brought Jack from New Orleans. Barnes struggled early, but he's starting to earn his keep on the glass at his position, and he already has one viral-quality dunk over Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic.
Green has had to soak up minutes in place of Jefferson, out since mid-November with a calf injury, and Brandon Rush, lost for the season with a torn left ACL in Golden State's home opener. Green is that classic, lamented NBA creature -- the undersized power forward. But his energy and relentlessness make him a contributor. And nobody plays four years for Tom Izzo if he doesn't get after it.
Green says he isn't angry about slipping into the second round despite finishing as Michigan State's second all-time leading rebounder and helping the Spartans to two Final Fours -- "It's hard to say you're angry about being drafted," he says. But Green's winning ways since he led his Saginaw (Mich.) High School teams to consecutive state championships give him more NBA credibility than a host of others taken before him.
"No matter what I've done in college, there's a lot of people who still doubted me, and don't think I can do it at this level," he said. "It definitely gave me even more firepower to come out and work through whatever, be able to go hard every single day. Because you still have a lot left to prove."
The Warriors have also invested in old rookies. Green played four years in East Lansing; Ezeli was a five-year guy at Vanderbilt. Another rookie, guard Kent Bazemore, played four years at Old Dominion. Curry played three years at Davidson. And Barnes, who many thought would leave North Carolina after his freshman season, at least stayed a second season in Chapel Hill, earning first-team all-ACC honors. The vets believe eschewing the one-and-done guys has made for a more mature locker room.
"I played against a Tom Izzo team," Jefferson said. "I know how disciplined they are. I knew I was in for a battle against those guys. So when you get a guy like Draymond, you're like, 'You know better. You know when we're [BSing] at shootaround, when practice is not going right.' You've got to tip your hat to Bob Myers and the front office for bringing in veteran young players, so to speak."
But the Warriors still have a long, long way to go. Things would be much more solid if they could count on Bogut, whose defense and passing as a big man may be unparalleled league-wide. But the center's return from ankle surgery is being measured now in weeks, not days. (It did not help the Warriors' standing with their fan base when they didn't disclose that Bogut had a microfracture surgery on the ankle in April, and not the simple procedure the team initially claimed had occurred. They only acknowledged the more serious operation this month, after the timeline for Bogut's return kept being pushed back.)
Without Bogut, the Warriors have held things together in the middle with Ezeli, former starter Andris Bierdins and Landry. Even Lee has played in the hole from time to time. It's not a long-range formula that is likely to succeed, though the undersized Lee has been occasionally spectacular: 17 points and 19 rebounds against Dallas, 31 and nine against Denver, 30 and 15 against the Nets.
Jackson has put Bogut out of mind, not because he's unsympathetic, but because the Warriors have to take root with what they've got. Every player other than Biedrins was in Oakland the day after Labor Day, ready to practice.
"We had a chance to implement our system," Jackson said. "We had a chance to embrace our identity. When you have a chance to teach these young guys the day after the Draft, have them in the gym, I have an incredible staff that preaches what we want to do on the floor. And those guys were ready. And I had a great group of guys that sacrificed part of their offseason, and they were in the gym every day. It makes you a better basketball team."
For the first quarter of the season, the Warriors have been better than they've been in two decades. But they're only on the first rung of success. They could make this a special trip by finishing strong, with games remaining at Charlotte, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta. But they've accomplished exactly nothing, other than to take a tentative first step out of the NBA basement.
"Nobody knows what the ceiling of this team can be," Jack said. "I tell the rookies, there's two types of guys in this league: guys that love the lifestyle, and guys that love to play basketball. We got guys that love to play basketball."
(Last week's record in parenthesis; last week's rankings in brackets)
1) Oklahoma City (3-0) : It's obvious, of course, but if Russell Westbrook continues playing the way he's been playing the last couple of weeks, nobody in the West has much of a chance.
2) San Antonio (3-0) : The Spurs are putting on a passing clinic of late -- 71 assists in their past two games, and a league-leading 18.8 assist ratio.
3) Memphis (2-1) : Grizz lost by double digits for the first time Saturday in a 93-83 loss to the Hawks.
4) New York (2-1) : After beating Denver at Madison Square Garden Sunday, Knicks are the NBA's only remaining unbeaten team (8-0) at home.
5) Atlanta (3-0) : The Hawks are the only team in the league that has yet to allow an opponent to shoot 50 percent. That's a pretty good coaching job out of Larry Drew.
6) L.A. Clippers (4-0) : Six-game win streak has featured a dynamic offense (108.8 ppg during the run), and that they've won the last three without Chauncey Billups (tendinitis) speaks to a maturity among the core group.
7) Miami (1-2) : The Heat are currently 23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions. That is not championship level. That is not second round of the playoffs level. That must change.
8) Golden State (3-1) : The Warriors haven't had an All-Star since 1997, when Latrell Sprewell made the game in Cleveland. But that could change the way Steph Curry and David Lee are playing.
9) Chicago (3-1) : Now it's Kirk Hinrich (elbow) on the shelf. Sloan, Paxson, Kerr haven't played in a while, but they're available
10) Utah (3-1) : Quality depth keeping Jazz competing, and winning, including a second decisive victory this season over the Lakers on Sunday.
11) L.A. Lakers (1-3) : James Worthy said something interesting Sunday night, after the Lakers lost yet again, and got pounded by Utah's Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter: They don't look like they're having any fun playing basketball with each other.
12) Brooklyn (0-3) : Nets are small and relatively defenseless without Brook Lopez, who's missed the last five games with a sprained right foot. This is Lopez's third right foot injury in less than a year.
13) Boston (2-1) : What was Kevin Garnett thinking on that last possession against the 76ers Friday?
14) Philadelphia (1-2) : Sixers look to be a body or two short in reserve, but even if they wanted to make a deal, not sure what they would be willing to offer.
15) Milwaukee (2-2) : After a very slow start, Ersan Ilyasova starting to show some signs of life.
Washington (1-2): The Wizards aren't going to have too many happy days this season, but beating the defending champions on Tuesday was one of them. And Bradley Beal is showing signs of why the Wiz took him third overall in the Draft. But with John Wall still out and next man up A.J. Price now down for six weeks after breaking his hand Saturday, the Wiz are in desperate need of a point guard.
Charlotte (0-4): It's the Morning Tip jinx! Since the Bobcats won their seventh game of the season, matching their total from all of last year -- and got some MT love -- they've dropped seven straight, including losses by 45, 15 and 30.
Where is Kobe Bryant on the all-time best ever list?
After Kobe Bean passed the career 30,000-point mark last week, becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to reach that mark (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan), and the youngest ever to accomplish it, the question has greater resonance than ever. There is no doubting his prowess, even at 34 and in his 17th season, to score whenever he wants, against whomever he wants.
In my mind, the best Bryant can do is fifth all-time. It will be, it says here, a photo finish for fifth between Bryant and Magic Johnson.
In the meantime, the NBA's Mount Rushmore is Bill Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Jordan. Period. End of sentence.
Bryant needs at least one more title to tie Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar's six rings. But even if the Lakers right themselves and win it all, can anyone say Bryant is the equal, or better, than Jordan? Or Wilt? Or Kareem?
Before we go further: fifth is not an insult. Fifth is ahead of Larry Bird and Magic (three titles for Bird, five for Magic). It's ahead of Oscar Robertson and his triple-double average. It's ahead of K.C. Jones (10 championships: eight as a player, two as a coach) and Sam Jones (10 titles, all as a player). Fifth all-time is ahead of George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas an Karl Malone.
Fifth is ahead of Tim Duncan.
Fifth, he noted parenthetically, is ahead of Shaquille O'Neal.
But The Big Four are The Big Four.
Obviously, Bryant will not win 11 championships, as Russell did in Boston. We don't really need to have an argument about whether William Felton Russell was the best basketball player of all time, do we? If your argument involves statistics of any kind besides championships won, I'm not sure there's any point in proceeding further. Russell's Celtics -- and they were Russell's Celtics -- won 11 titles in 13 seasons. No other team has come close to that level of dominance, and everything is relative; there were great players and great teams in that era as well, and if there weren't as many of them, that still meant you had to play the ones who were there a lot more.
Which brings us to Wilt.
You can make a reasoned argument that Kobe's rings trump Chamberlain's points, rebounds and blocks. For all of his greatness, Wilt's teams only won two titles. He had inexplicable lapses at key moments in the playoffs, most notably playing a very passive Game 7 of the 1970 Finals against an injured Knicks center Willis Reed.
But Chamberlain was one of a kind. The numbers simply dwarf those of any other human that played the game. Again: Wilt didn't play in the only era in which there were no other good players. He played against the best player of all time, Russell. He played him 142 times. He averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds against Russell, the greatest defensive center who ever lived.
And we haven't gotten to Wilt averaging fiddy a game in 1961-62. Actually, 50.4 points per game. Or getting 100 in a game. If it were easy to do, someone else would have done it in the last 50 years. Or in the 15 years before Chamberlain did.
He averaged at least 21.1 rebounds in each of his first 12 NBA seasons. He led the league in assists in 1967-68 just to prove a point, that he wasn't as selfish as his critics -- and there were many -- made him out to be. Kobe can score at will. He can't rebound at will and block shots at will. Wilt could.
The guy was a winning machine.
Abdul-Jabbar is so often marginalized by people these days, almost an afterthought: Oh, yeah. The guy with 38,000 points. It is amazing. His high school team, Power Memorial in New York City, won 71 straight games (before, the author notes, Power was beaten by DeMatha High of Hyattsville, Maryland, in 1965 -- the author's alma mater and the greatest high school sports dynasty in the history of the United States). Power was 95-6 in Kareem's three years there. Then he went to UCLA and went 86-4 in three seasons, winning three national championships.
Then he went to the NBA, won six NBA titles and six league MVP awards, along with two Finals MVPs. His PER averages -- had that stat been kept when he played -- would have led the league nine times during his career.
He put the '85 Lakers on his then 37-year-old shoulders, the game after the Boston Massacre, when it looked like the Celtics were, again, going to vanquish Los Angeles in a Finals, and went for 30, 17 and 8 assists. The Lakers won the game, went on to win The Finals, and finally began to turn the tide against the Celtics in a championship series.
In addition, Abdul-Jabbar perfected a shot so lethal -- the sky hook -- that no one has even tried to use it in the two decades since he retired. (Maybe it's like picking up Picasso's paint brush; what would be the point?) For me to put Kobe ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, he'd have to win at least a couple more titles and get within shouting distance of Kareem's 38,387 career points.
Finally, there is Jordan.
This is no doubt a generational argument. If you're under 30, you probably can't imagine there could be anyone who was deadlier or more ruthless than Bryant, or a more intimidating foe. And he is one of the top two ever in all those regards, though Robertson could peel paint off of a teammate he didn't think was living up to his standards with the best of them.
Except Jordan is first.
His will was unlike anything I've ever seen before, or since. It is worth noting that it was Jordan whom Bryant idolized as a kid, and with good reason -- because Jordan was That Dude. Everything that Bryant has done in his career -- and done brilliantly -- covered ground that Jordan had already trod.
ESPN's Bill Simmons last week highlighted the statistical comparisons between Jordan and Bryant, and included Magic in the argument as well. The regular season numbers clearly favor Jordan, Simmons noted, but Bryant holds the edge in many of the playoff categories over Jordan. (Of course, this is when one might note that Jordan played probably in fewer playoff games because Jordan's Bulls won playoff series earlier than Bryant's Lakers. For example, Jordan was in six Finals. The Bulls never needed a seventh game to win any of them. Kobe has played in one Finals Game 7.)
Is it close between the two? Yes, it's close. I humbly submit it would not be close if Jordan hadn't taken almost two seasons off to play baseball, during the prime of his NBA career. I humbly submit that Jordan beat back every challenger of his time -- Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Malone, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins -- and so the suspicion is that if the Bulls had faced Olajuwon and the Rockets (in 1994 and '95, when Houston won it all), they would have figured out a way to beat them, too.
I never saw any of Jordan's teams lose a Finals game by 39 points. That is not as much a criticism of Bryant as it is a testament to Jordan's rage. It is hard not to imagine Jordan not getting into a fight on the bench with one of his teammates -- during the game! -- if the Bulls had ever fallen behind by that much.
In each of Jordan's six titles, there was no question that Jordan was the most important player on the Bulls. Bryant was brilliant during the Lakers' ThreePeat from 2000-02, but those teams were driven by O'Neal's dominance in the paint. Scottie Pippen was a Hall of Famer, dominant in his own right as a perimeter defender, but he never bent defenses like a fence post in a Category 4 hurricane the way Shaq did.
Kobe Bryant is one of the five (or six) greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. There is absolutely no shame in that. He has earned everything he has gotten with his skill, and his will, and his intelligence and his work ethic, all first-rate. And there is some 14-year-old out there somewhere who plans to break all his records.
Lessons from way across the pond? From Julia Morgan:
As a Brit living in Singapore I have been following the NBA for the past six years. It has been my teacher on all things basketball which enables me to help my daughter with her basketball.
I was, like you, surprised by David Stern's quick reaction (to Gregg Popovich's benching of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, et. al., for the Heat game -- Ed.) which appeared to have been done in the heat of the moment. I agree with you he micro manages - look at the Chris Paul trade. However he is at least willing to look beyond his sport for ideas on how to grow basketball internationally.
He has long looked at soccer (football) as a model. I can understand his reasons for wanting to play under-23 basketball, but he fails to grasp the rest of the world is not at the NBA level. It needs still to learn from the masters and the Olympics is a great way to showcase that. However, he should look at the UK Premier League and the European championship knock out competition to see how the Europeans use their deep squads of 24-plus players to compete in the league, domestic cup competitions, as well as European cup competitions not withstanding demands from Africa in February for African Cup of nations, World Cup qualifiers, European cup qualifiers, to understand that the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Murinho, Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola all play their reserve teams some nights so their top players can be rested for the big match. It does two things -- it allows the first team time to rest and focus and two the second team the opportunity to play, show their improvement and gain experience.
Good points, Julia, about how the deeper rosters in soccer allow their coaches (Alex Ferguson is the manager of Manchester United, Murinho of Real Madrid, Wenger of Arsenal, and Guardiola is the former manager of FC Barcelona) to develop rosters over a long season, even if it means losing the occasional match. The big differences, of course, are that NBA owners will never allow rosters to get large enough for true "second teams" to be developed (more salaries, more coaches needed to coach the additional players, etc.) and that the NBA regular season schedule just doesn't afford many off days for the practice time that would be of most benefit to younger players.
Do you celebrate your wedding anniversary three months before it happens? From Alberto Tortella:
Is Woodson Coach of the Year or is it too soon?
Way too soon, Alberto, but Woodson is certainly one of the early favorites. You can put Larry Drew, Gregg Popovich and Scott Brooks on that list, too. But let's all check back in six months, when we'll have a better idea.
Déjà vu is French for "Blacked out locally." From Andres Schimelman:
I just wanted to say that I completely agree with all the points you made regarding the Stern vs Spurs situation.
To me, it comes down simply to the fact that you can't punish someone for doing something that is not outside of the rulebook. If you want to fine or suspend somebody, then change the rule.
But even besides that, there are other points to be made. With the exception of Spurs fans living in Miami, I really don´t think that a lot of people were complaining after Thursday´s game that they didn´t get to see Duncan, Parker or Ginobili (or Danny Green for that matter), no matter the score (which eventually was down to the wire, therefore a better show for the fans). And in the official release, the NBA criticized the fact that it was an "early regular season game" which to me and to Pop apparently, doesn´t matter at all.
I think it really came down to Stern being angry that the league got maybe a little "outsmarted" by Pop, and decided to punish THE model franchise in all of sports for the last 15 years in terms of competition, in terms of how to handle itself and in terms of winning overall.
Finally, in my opinion, the fact that it was a nationally televised game surely had a lot to do with the sanction. If this game would have been on League Pass, I don´t think we´d be hearing a lot about "the spirit of the game" and "honest competition."
Well, we certainly didn't hear anything like that last April 26th, when the Heat started Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Eddy Curry against the Wizards in the regular season finale. Or when the 76ers sat Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams against Detroit. Or when Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were in suits and got DNPs at Sacramento. I think we agree, Andres, that the timing of Pop's decision was a significant factor in Stern's decision to discipline the Spurs so severely. Which begs the question -- if a team can devalue the experience of an NBA game in the final week of the regular season by sitting its key players without penalty, why do fans have to pay full price for those devalued tickets?
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and names for the royal baby (I'm guessing Tyrone or Madonna aren't going to make the cut) to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
(Last week's averages in parentheses)
1) LeBron James (27 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 9 apg, .567 FG, .600 FT): Gets a triple-double in a blowout loss to the Knicks, works out for half an hour after the game, then meets the media. Dude puts in a full day's work.
2) Kevin Durant (31.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, .475 FG, .895 FT): In case you were waiting, "Thunderstruck" is now out on DVD. I smell stocking stuffer!
3) Kobe Bryant (34.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, .4.5 apg, .458 FG, .844 FT): This is going to be a very interesting eastern road trip for the Lakers, starting Tuesday in Cleveland. Very interesting, indeed.
4) Carmelo Anthony (28.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, .391 FG, .750 FT): Returned to the starting lineup Sunday after missing two games with a cut finger and scored 34 against his former team, the Nuggets.
5) Tim Duncan (13.3 ppg, 8 rpg, 2.3 bpg, .486 FG, .800 FT): Yes, it was Halloween, and this was obviously not the funniest joke. But TD gets the benefit of the doubt here. He's not a malevolent person.
19 -- Three-pointers made by the Spurs Saturday against the Bobcats, setting a franchise record for makes behind the arc. San Antonio shot 19 of 34 on threes in the 132-102 rout, with eight different players making at least one three-pointer.
1,159 -- Games since Kevin Garnett failed to get a rebound. Garnett was held without a rebound in Saturday's victory over the 76ers, the first time that happened since he went boardless on January 21, 1997, in a game against the Raptors.
58 -- Consecutive free throws made by the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, dating back 16 games to Nov. 3 against the Warriors, before a miss Sunday against Toronto ended the streak.
2) It's December. Championships are not won in December. But Oklahoma City looks like a freight train right now. The Lakers played well Friday night in OKC, but they weren't close to beating the Thunder, not at all.
3) By the end of this week -- the 15th -- players who signed free-agent contracts this summer will be eligible to be traded. Let the season of wholly-unsubstantiated, doesn't-work-under-the-cap, almost-always-agent-driven speculation and rumor begin!
4) After a bruised spinal cord injury looked like it would end his career a couple of years ago, good to see Marquis Daniels back in the starting lineup at small forward for the Bucks.
5) This is quite cool.
6) And, this too.
7) Thank you, deity who also enjoys watching RGIII, aka Neo, play football.
2) Just sayin': Steve Nash is a 38-year-old point guard with a bad back whose effectiveness falls off precipitously after 28 minutes or so, coming off of a broken leg. Putting the burden on him to save the Lakers' season seems like an awfully big, and unfair, task.
3) The Wiz should be asking some serious questions about how John Wall could be injured this badly during the summer, outside their supervision, when he was supposed to be working on coming to camp with a better jumper.
4) Just wondering when this is blamed on Kevin Pritchard, too.
5) Oh. My. Don't mean to laugh at the young man's misfortune, but he should own this moment and not be defined by it.
6) And that would appear to be that.
7) It was Dec. 9, 1980, 8 in the morning. I was on the couch in the living room, half asleep, watching the Today Show, listening to Jane Pauley recap the events of the past evening, when John Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment building. They played this song. It was the first time I'd ever heard it. I have been a Lennon Freak ever since. How I hate Mark David Chapman for depriving the world 32 years ago of more from this man, who was just about to start his third act musically.
The Heat's solid if unspectacular 12-4 start was marred this week by an inexplicable loss to the 1-12 Wizards on Tuesday, followed by a home beatdown Thursday by the Knicks. Two losses in a row in Miami, of course, is cause for consternation, which the Heat players and coach Erik Spoelstra dismiss as "noise" from the outside. The defending champions rose to the occasion last June in overwhelming Oklahoma City to win the title, but as they all said last week -- including their All-Star center, who now accepts he's the team's center -- that was then. This is now.
Me: What the hell happened in Washington?
Chris Bosh: Yeah, we lost. For us, it's all about the starts for us right now. That's our challenge. With them, we have to ... it's the NBA. No matter what the record is, you can be beaten any night. We let them get off to a very good start, a lot of layups. And once you get layups, confidence starts building up. The crowd got more into it as the game went on, once they saw they had a chance. Those shots that we usually were hitting were not going down to save us this time. It cost us the game. It should be a wake-up call for us right now to really get off to better starts, just kind of play with leads, play with leads more often, just do a better job on defense.
Me: I know Spo doesn't like to talk about positions, but with the injuries to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, LeBron and Dwyane may have to handle the ball more. How does that affect the geometry of the court?
CB: We rely on them to post up a lot. When they're handling the ball more, we're requiring them to make plays a lot more -- which they do. But it's more of a balance this year, because they can go from handling if they want to, to really just running the lanes and getting it on post-ups and duck ins weakside, and really taking advantage of their size with other guys. Being at that (point) position full-time, it only makes sense that you're going to be outside a little bit more, and they're going to be slashers as opposed to being post ups and slashers. It kind of changes the dynamic of the team. But we always find ways, and that's what this game is about—finding different ways to win. We have some guys that have to fill in and just figure it out. It's no excuse not to win ballgames.
Me: You know you're going to get everyone's best shot every night. Has there been anything about the defense of the title that has surprised you so far?
CB: The surprise going through it is the process. It's not so much that people are giving us their best shot, and all that stuff. We knew that teams were going to be up to play us, just like all the time. When you go through it, it's every day. That's the challenge. And you have to meet that challenge. We've had a few ballgames that we've let go that we felt we should have won, and it's because of the lack of a good start that cost us those games. We still have a pretty good record. It's an okay record right now. We need to take that in our minds, and really just focus on that and just tell ourselves if we play better basketball, play better defense, get off to better starts, I think we can be a much better team.
Me: Regardless of whether you won the title or not, you're always building. So is November a month where you kind of expect to test-drive some players and concepts to see if they work?
CB: Yeah. And to see what's not working sometimes. 'Yeah, this isn't working right now; we have to change this, we have to change that.' I don't think our approach is a problem; I don't think our intensity is a problem. It's just being in the right place at the right time. Communicating better. And just doing a better job. Everybody from top to bottom has to feel like they have to do better. We know it's December now, and we know that we're playing for later on down the road. But there's no better time than now to just start improving on everything we have to do.
Me: Is there a calmness to LeBron now, or is still on that edge, trying to prove things to people?
CB: It's a little bit more calm. It's more controlled. I think sometimes before he put his head down, and he was just going. Now, I think he's thinking about being more of a complete basketball player. With all the talent and the depth we have on this team, we want to take a little bit of pressure off of him, so he doesn't feel he has to get 30 points and 20 rebounds every night. I think that's the part of being a good team. We do realize he's the best player in the league. But he can't be that unless we're at the top of our game. He's calm, but there will be a time where we have to be a lot more intense. It's early. Intensity is something you have to bring and work on every day. We always want to keep that edge. You always have to find different types of motivation to keep you going, and really just be effective on the court every night.
Me: You have any doubt he's greedy when it comes to wanting multiple titles?
CB: Nah. I don't have any doubt about that. We all have that hunger. We may have lapses sometimes, but I tell you one thing -- if we make a mistake, we don't worry about it. We get better from it. We get back up and we get back on that court, and we try not to make it again.
Feel like time has stopped still stunneddddd over this fight
-- Celtics forward Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34), Sunday, 1:12 a.m., after Juan Manuel Marquez's sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao. Tough night in the Spoelstra household as well, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had made sure he'd cleared his postgame schedule in order to watch his fellow Filipino, PacMan, face Marquez for the fourth time.
"We have yet to see four quarters of angry, hatred basketball like we used to play when people hated us. And that's partly my job as a captain. And I carry a chip on my shoulder, and I've got to get it back, and it's going to have to translate to everybody."
-- Miami's Udonis Haslem, after Thursday's embarrassing home loss to the depleted Knicks, on what the defending champs seem to currently be lacking.
"I don't know if guys knew who he was. It came as a big shock to them when he was killed."
-- Kobe Bryant, after his Lakers teammates attended a screening of the Stephen Spielberg biopic "Lincoln" last week. I wasn't there when he said it and so I hope he was kidding, but given the state of basic historical knowledge in this country, I'm not sure.
"The one thing I'm certain of is New Jersey has no idea what it's doing and doesn't care because all it's interested in is making a buck or two, and they don't care that it's at our potential loss."
-- NBA Commissioner David Stern, in deposition acquired by the Associated Press for a story on the state's efforts to introduce sports betting at its Atlantic City casinos and racetracks statewide, over the objections of the sports leagues. The NBA, NHL, NFL and NCAA filed suit against New Jersey in August, arguing that the state had to abide by a 20-year-old federal law prohibiting sports gambling authorized by states. But the law exempts four states -- Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon -- that already had sports betting in place. New Jersey is arguing that the law is discriminatory, in part, because it doesn't apply to those four states.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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Matt Winer and Steve Smith report from Las Vegas on the USA Basketball team.