So, I was out with a couple of friends last week, talking about hoops.

One of the friends is the dude I mentioned the other day, who thinks that the NBA needs The Undertaker to sign with some team as a power forward.  When we were out, he and I discussed the possibility, and agreed that The Undertaker would be best suited as a sixth man.  When it came time for him to check in, the announcer would turn off all the lights in the arena, and play his music.  Then smoke would rise from the scorer’s table, and he’d check in.  He’d plant himself in the middle of the lane on defense, daring the referees to whistle him for defensive 3 seconds.

Anyway.  Someone else I was out with had some intelligent things to say about hoops.  We were discussing LeBron, and I was making my case that he’s held to a different standard than other players.  Basically, the stuff I’ve said in a few different places (like here and here among others).  We started comparing LeBron to some of the other all-time greats.  Predictably, we acknowledged that LeBron hasn’t won a championship yet, and he argued that it’s because LeBron’s supporting cast is terrible.  I pointed out that LeBron now has Antawn Jamison, who has been a 20-and-10 guy for a while, Mo Williams, who was an All-Star last year, and a trio of 3 skilled big men, none of whom is a superstar (anymore) but who, collectively, represent as good a group of C’s / PF’s as just about any team other than the Lakers.  He was looking at me like I had three heads.  His points were that:

  1. Jamison and Mo Williams are not good enough to be the second and third best players on a championship team unless they have a complete freak of a superstar leading the way.  He argued that neither of them ever did much of anything other than put up big numbers for bad teams before they joined the Cavs, and that guys who merely put up big numbers for bad teams aren’t good enough to be among the best players on a championship team.
  2. The reason why people rank LeBron favorably against other all-time greats who never won a title (Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Wilkins, etc.) is that none of those guys was ever the best player in the league.  And LeBron is.

Interesting points.  A few responses:

One of the very first postings on this site hoopserved that, whenever we compare two superstar players against each other, we wind up talking about their teammates instead of the players themselves.  I now have an addendum: when we do that, and wind up comparing their teammates, we often wind up comparing their teammates’ teammates.  So, when we compare LeBron to Kobe, and I make the point that LeBron has a 20-and-10 guy in his supporting cast, it’s considered a legitimate counter-argument for someone to say that Jamison isn’t really a viable member of a championship supporting cast because Jamison only put up those gaudy numbers when he had lousy teammates.  And, when I point out that Mo Williams was an All-Star just last year, it’s considered a legitimate counter-argument for this guy to say that he was only an All-Star because LeBron made him one.

That seems like a simple enough point, but it’s actually kind of remarkable.  We expect our superstars to make their teammates better.  When it happens, and the superstar winds up with an All-Star teammate, we give the superstar the credit for making the guy an All-Star, but, if we want to argue that the superstar’s teammates are lousy, we’re able to say — with a straight face — that his supporting cast is terrible even though it includes an All-Star, because the superstar was responsible for making the guy an All-Star.  Of course, if no teammates wind up on the All-Star team, we don’t have to hold it against the superstar for failing to elevate his teammates; we can just use it as evidence that the supporting cast is awful. Either way, someone can say that the superstar’s supporting cast is terrible — whether it includes any All Stars or not.

Deep breath.  I must admit that, first hearing someone say this, it actually makes sense.  But, upon review…. no.  No way.  As us lawyer-folk say, it doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  At bottom, it’s just a way to perpetually excuse the superstar’s failure to win a championship; you shouldn’t be able to say his teammates are terrible if none make the All-Star team, and still argue that they’re terrible even if one or two of them make the All-Star team on the logic that they’re only on the All-Star team because the superstar raised their levels of play.

The bottom line is that LeBron has a good enough supporting cast for a superstar to win with.  Whether they’re good enough to be All-Stars without him is completely irrelevant.  Let’s see if he gets it done.

As to my friend’s other point, that LeBron is ranked favorably against Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, etc. because LeBron is the best in the game at this moment, and none of those guys was ever the best in the game, I think it’s a fair point.  But it begs the question: is LeBron really the best in the game at this moment?  When he plays like he played on Friday, I know that it’s folly to argue that he is not.  But the problem is that he doesn’t always play like that.  (See, for example, YESTERDAY.)

Whatever.  I’m not going to argue – not right now, at least – that LeBron isn’t the best in the game at this moment.  When I even hint at such an opinion, I piss off 3 of my 4 readers (they love LeBron), and, well, that’s not a good thing for a blogger to do.  So, without mentioning LeBron, let’s consider a broader question for now:  can a guy who has not proven himself capable of being the best player on a championship team be the best player in the league?  Is it possible?

Here’s what I’m thinking: The guys who distinguish themselves as stars – say, the top 20 guys in the league – generally do so because they are highly skilled, and either very (a) big, (b) fast, or (c) strong.  To dig a bit deeper, some guys make a big impact by using their strength (e.g., Ben Wallace in his prime), some make a big impact by shooting the lights out (e.g., Kyle Korver), some make a big impact because they are gritty and have high “basketball IQ” (e.g., Shane Battier), and some make a big impact because they are freakishly athletic (e.g., Gerald Wallace).  But, to be one of the real stars of the league – one of the top 20 guys – you typically have to have a combination of talents.  These guys separate themselves from the rest of the league based on talent and hard work.

Within that group of 20 stars, though, the cream rises to the top not because of skill or athleticism, but because of personalityWe have various ways of describing it: they have a “killer instinct,” or they are “clutch,” or they are capable of “willing their team” to victory.  Whatever the cliche, the point is that the guys who really rise to the top do so because something about them enables them to grab a game by the throat and not let go until they win.

If you’re with me so far, then you’ll probably be with me when I say that it’s hard to think of how a guy could be recognized as the best player in the league until he proves that he’s able to grab a playoff series by the throat and not let go until his team wins a championship.

If you’re with me still, well, you’ll have to acknowledge that the only guys in the league who have proven that they can be the best player on a championship team are Kobe, Wade, Billups, Pierce, Duncan, and Shaq.  (Carmelo Anthony deserves honorable mention, because when he was in college he proved that he could grab the playoffs by the throat and lead his team to a championship.  Where I come from, winning in college still counts for something.)

So, without mentioning that guy I said I wouldn’t mention, I must say… With all due respect to 75% of my readership, nobody on that list has a name that rhymes with KaBron Rames.  Sorry.

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