Category Archives: Comparing Players / Teams

Sometimes I think I’m the only basketball fan left who thinks Carmelo Anthony was ever any good, let alone who thinks he’s capable of helping a currently-competitive team. I regularly talk to friends (even though I have only 3 readers, I have more than 3 friends) who think Carmelo ruined the Knicks.  I’ve got friends – nearly all of them Knicks fans – who think Carmelo was a terrible basketball player, even in his prime.  A small number of them think Carmelo ruined the league. At least one of them blames Carmelo for global warming, one blames him for the  government shutdown, and another one said “If not for Carmelo, then Trump never would have gotten elected.”

Carmelo’s not a winner, they say.

Well, sure.  He’s not a winner.  If you discount all the winning he did, that is. But let’s not do that. To fairly evaluate Carmelo’s legacy, let’s start by acknowledging the winning wins that Carmelo won.  He burst onto the national scene as a freshman phenom, bringing a Hall of Fame coach his only national championship in one year at Syracuse. So, if Carmelo’s “not a winner,” then he’s not a winner who just happened to win a national championship in one year playing college hoops.

Perhaps it was a coincidence. Plus, it was only one year.

Looking beyond that one year, we see that Carmelo is also USA Basketball’s first four-time men’s Olympian, the first four-time men’s medalist and the first men’s player to win – yes, WIN – three Olympic gold medals.  Carmelo didn’t do all of that winning while riding coattails.  In the U.S. Olympic men’s career record book, he ranks first in points (336), field goals made (113), field goals attempted (262), rebounds (125), 3-point field goals attempted (139), free throws made (53) and free throws attempted (71); and second in 3-point field goals made (57). [Don’t take my word for it, the details are here.]

I wish I was as bad at winning basketball games as Carmelo is.

But what about the NBA? If you believe that NBA winning is the only kind of winning that’s really winning, then neither his NCAA nor his Olympic winnings will mean anything to you.  So, let’s ask… did Carmelo do any winning in the NBA worth mentioning? Nah, except for all the winning he did in Denver during his 7+ years there.  In the season before landing Carmelo, the Nuggets were a pathetic 17-65.  Then he arrived, and in his first season they went 43-39.  For each of his 7 full seasons there, they were in the playoffs. In other words, they WON enough games to make the playoffs. Aka #winning. And, in 08-09, they WON a few series in the playoffs.  Maybe it’s a coincidence.  Or maybe Dahntay Jones and JR Smith were a lot better than people give them credit for.

Perhaps, but I’m not convinced. (No offense to Dahntay Jones.)

Lastly, there’s his time on the Knicks.  Carmelo’s the only Knick since Patrick Ewing left who was the best player on a team that won the Atlantic Division. I swear, they won it. The whole division. There’s a banner hanging from the rafters and everything.  He’s also the only Knick since Ewing left to be the best player on a team that won a playoff series. (Oh, by the way… Spare me the ridiculous fantasy about how far they were destined to go around a core of Amar’e Stoudemire, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari. The only people who should get excited thinking about such a team are knee surgeons, physical therapists, and tattoo artists.)

That’s some worthwhile winning, if you ask me.

Before going further, I should put my biases on the table.  My parents met at Syracuse, both of my uncles went there, and one of my aunts, and also my mother-in-law. So, I cheer for the Orange, and I continue cheering for their players when those players move on  to the NBA.  Thus, I’m predisposed to like Carmelo.  And, I grew up a Knicks fan. Patrick Ewing’s Knicks were a central part of my childhood, and I completely lost interest once they pushed Ewing out the door.  After more than 10 years of having no reason to root for the Knicks, Carmelo arrived, and made them competitive again.

There, you know my angle. Let’s proceed.

Why the Carmelo hate? To be sure, part of it is substantive. Carmelo’s an imperfect player.  His defense is not a strength.  And his assist numbers don’t suggest a guy who makes his teammates better.

But, I humbly submit, he’s an all-time great player in spite of those imperfections. I think there’s a few reasons why he gets so much hate.  For starters, he entered the league with sky-high expectations, during an era when it would be very difficult to win.  When he entered, multiple top-15 players of all time were already established forces, such as Kobe, Duncan, and Dirk.  If he was going to win, he needed to be better than those guys — or at least needed to have more talent around him than those guys had. And, he entered in the same draft as LeBron and Wade – only a few years ahead of Curry and Durant.  Once we acknowledge that Carmelo wasn’t as good as Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, or Durant, then why is it even fair to expect him to win a championship? Unless he was on a team with meaningfully more talent than their teams had, there’s no reason to think he would win a championship. Not only did he not wind up with more talent around him than those guys had, but those guys started JOINING UP WITH EACH OTHER during his prime, making it even less likely that he was going to win. LeBron joined with Wade.  Durant had Westbrook, then he joined with Curry.  Carmelo had Landry Fields.  Why does he get crushed for falling short of an expectation that was never reasonable?

Another part of what drives the Carmelo hate is that defensive prowess (or lack thereof) is harder to measure than offensive production.  It’s widely understood that Carmelo isn’t a great defender.  But how bad is he?  Because we don’t have a great way to measure, it’s easy for his detractors to say that his defensive shortcomings wash away his offensive skills. It’s my humble opinion that many of those detractors push the point too far.  Of course, defense is important.  But, for starters, Carmelo has averaged 6.5 rebounds per game over his entire career.  I’ve always been taught that rebounding is a part of defense, because the possession isn’t over until you secure the rebound.  Plus, Carmelo has scored 25,551 points.  His defense would have to be quite terrible to nullify so much scoring.  Consider the guys 5 spots above him on the all-time scoring list, and the guys 5 spots below.  That list of 10 guys includes: Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett, Alex English, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Vince Carter, Patrick Ewing, and Ray Allen. It’s quite an impressive group. I’ll put aside the defensive shortcomings of Alex English, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen, and stipulate that Carmelo’s the worst defender amongst that group of 10.  Even so, he’d have to be a uniquely terrible defensive player to be among that group of scorers and have his scoring be nullified by his defense. I’m talking like foul-a-shooter-in-the-act-of-shooting-during-the-same-possession-you-already-got-called-for-defensive-three-seconds-and-do-it-multiple-times-per-game level terrible.  I mean, woh crazy crazy terrible. He wasn’t a top defender, but he wasn’t that bad.

More than anything, though, I think two things drive the Carmelo hatred. One of those things is hindsight.  We basketball fans do a funny thing: we admire the skill of young superstars, and expect that they’ll one day earn a ring if they play at a high enough level for long enough.  But, once those players age, if they never got over the hump, we’re quick to discard them as failures.  The line between a superstar with potential to carry a team to a title and a player we dismiss as a superstar-in-disguise who actually never had that potential is very thin.  Carmelo joined a 17-65 team, and had them in the playoffs during his rookie season.  That’s much more than Anthony Davis did (in the ’12-13 season, New Orleans was 27-55), or Damian Lillard (also in ’12-13 Portland was 33-49), or Giannis (in the ’13-14 season, Milwaukee was 15-67). We still talk about those guys as players who have the potential to win, but, if they never win a championship, will that make them “losers,” too?  What about Russell Westbrook?  James Harden?

Most importantly, I think what drives the Carmelo hatred is our inability to celebrate any achievements other than rings. More than at any time during my basketball fandom, the collective body of basketball fans seems to celebrate the top 4 teams in the league, and also the bottom 3.  They buy into the idea that “you’re either on the short list of favorites to win a title or you should be tanking.” Once you buy into that idea, then there’s little room to appreciate a guy like Carmelo.  Without a great supporting cast, it was a longshot for him to be on a top 4 team (remember, during an era including Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, LeBron, Wade, Curry, and Durant among other all-time greats).  And having him meant you weren’t going to be anywhere near the bottom 3.  So, if the only things worth being are “top 4” or “bottom 3,” then Carmelo doesn’t bring you to anywhere worth going.

I don’t buy into that mindset. By that line of thinking, 23 teams in this 30 team league are wasting their time by even showing up for games, and most games that get played have no reason for being played. The thing is, I like watching games, both in person and on TV. The games have got good food, loud music, pretty cheerleaders, t-shirt cannons, mascots, and entertainment during timeouts. I don’t begrudge the teams who play in those games for showing up, putting on their uniforms, and trying to win.  In fact, I’m glad they do.  It allows me to watch the sport I love played at a high level.  Call me crazy, but I believe the radical belief that anyone who is able to score more than 25,000 points while showing up for those games is a pretty good basketball player. Even if he’s lousy at defense.

Say what you want, but Carmelo’s presence alone made the Nuggets competitive for 7 years.  After that, he brought the only excitement to MSG that we’ve seen since Ewing left. If you want to convince yourself that these achievements count for nothing, then all I say is Hate On, Haters.  I look at Carmelo and see a flawed but great basketball player – good enough to win a championship in the right circumstances. The fact that he never found himself in those circumstances doesn’t wash away his many achievements.

 

 

 

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Greetings, everyone! I’d like to extend a warm welcome to all of you – you basketball fans with the courage to seek basketball analysis in the deepest, darkest corner of the basement of the internet. It warms my heart to see you all here. Really. I’m honored that you all came. All three of you! It’s wonderful to have you.

You deserve congratulations! Through your bravery, traveling to the deepest, darkest corner of the basement of the internet, you have found the resolution of the LeBron v. MJ debate. There are plenty of basketball websites out there – from people who have actual credentials to be commenting about basketball. But, only this website contains the resolution to the most important basketball argument of our era. I thought I resolved it a few years ago, but my resolution seems not to have taken hold among hoop heads. (Perhaps it would help if I had more than three readers.) So, I’m back, first to put this issue to bed once and for all, and then to move onto other important topics related to hoops.

You ready? Good. Here goes…

LeBron is playing basketball at a higher level than any human has ever played it. Perhaps cartoon characters have played it better (I guess we’ll find out when SpaceJam 2 gets released), and there’s likely a video game character out there who has played it better. But, if we’re talking about humans, the way LeBron played these last few seasons represents the pinnacle that any human has ever reached over an extended period of time. His combination of skill, athleticism, and intellect is unparalleled.

Plus, by all accounts, LeBron’s a great guy. He seems like a great family man, and what he’s doing as a businessman and philanthropist off the court is remarkable. Off the court, he is achieving much more than MJ ever did. If I had the chance to become friends with LeBron or MJ, I’d choose LeBron eight days a week.

But…
There’s a but…
And it’s a big but…
A big ol’ but…
No, not THAT KIND of big butt, you pervert!

C’mon, get your head out of the gutter!

The but is this… our discussion about who’s the GOAT is not about which player reached the highest level of performance. That’s because the game is constantly evolving, and the level of performance is constantly elevating. The best player in the game right now would beat the best player in the game from 20 years ago, who would beat the best player in the game from 20 years before that. The tenth-best player in the game now would beat the tenth-best player in the game from 20 years ago, who would beat the tenth-best player in the game from 20 years before that. That’s also true of the twentieth-best player now. Etc. Point is, the group of guys playing now are better than any group of guys that’s ever played before.

LeBron’s the best player in the game now, and that’s got to count for plenty. But, if that meant he was the GOAT, it would mean that the GOAT is continuously changing every couple of years. Each time a new player ascends to be the best in the game for a few years at a time, it would mean that he’s become the GOAT.

That’s not how GOAT works. GOAT isn’t like the heavyweight championship, held by one person until he gets too old to retain it, and then passed to the best person of the next generation.

The question about who’s the GOAT is generally a question about who has built up the best résumé over the course of his career. That’s why phenomenal players who performed at an exceedingly high level for a short window of time (i.e., Grant Hill) are never considered. It’s also why phenomenal players who may be the best in the game at a given moment are never considered unless they have won a championship (think Anthony Davis).

The question about who’s the GOAT considers measurable achievements: championships, MVPs, scoring titles, All-NBA selections, etc. Folks can debate the relative importance of those achievements, so it’s something other than an exercise in counting rings. But, fundamentally, it’s a comparison of achievements considered in the context of the player’s era – not a comparison of on-court performance at the players’ peak.

It’s also, implicitly, a conversation about how the best players performed in their role as stewards of the game. Did they elevate it from a down period, like Bird and Magic? Did they take it to another level, like Jordan? Break down barriers and set honorable precedent, like Russell?

Because the GOAT conversation is a conversation about how the best players performed in their role as stewards of the game, LeBron is out of the running for GOAT. No great player before him ever left his team as a free agent, having failed to win a championship, to join a stacked team. In other words, no great player before him ever sought out an easy path to the validation that a championship ring provides.

Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, it was always understood that the pursuit of GOATness was a difficult quest. Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, it was always understood that the pursuit of GOATness was nearly impossible for all but the greatest players, and even for many of the greats, was a quest made even more difficult by obstacles such as mediocre teammates and intimidating competition (see, for example: Nowitzki, Dirk; Barkley, Charles; Ewing, Patrick). Until LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami, nobody in history had quit the quest to get a ring with a stacked team. It was always understood that being recognized amongst the greatest was an immense challenge, and that no competitor who might be part of such a conversation would do such a thing.

Then, LeBron quit on the quest with the Cavs to join up with Wade and Bosh in Miami. When he did, he set a precedent that has damaged the game tremendously, thereby removing himself from the conversation about who is the GOAT. Because of LeBron’s precedent, it seemed perfectly sensible for Kevin Durant – one of the most outstanding players of his generation – to leave a team that was up 3-1 in the conference finals, so he could win a championship with the team that came back from being down 3-1 in the conference finals to beat him in the conference finals. It was the greatest sin against the game of basketball since Isiah Thomas uttered the words “with this signing of Jerome James to a $30 million contract, the New York Knickerbockers are back on the path to greatness.” Durant committed the sin, but LeBron set the precedent.

So, as good as LeBron is, the conversation about whether he’s the GOAT is over. It ended years ago. It ended when he took his talents to South Beach.

If you’re a LeBron fan, I recognize that it might make you angry to read this. But, don’t get mad at me. I’m not the one who ended the conversation.

He is.

On to a new season of Hoopservations! I hope the three of you will stick around, there’s some good stuff in the pipeline.

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