A brief Sunday morning NBA thought

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I don’t wanna get all Clarence Darrow on y’all, but this morning I made the mistake of trying to watch ESPN’s “Sports Reporters,” or as it should be known, “Short Old Men Making More $$$ Than Ever Due To The Exploding Revenues In Sports Today Who Are Always Bitching About The Exploding Salaries Of Players Nowadays.” After 10 minutes of Dwight Howard-bashing, I decided to do something wholly unorthodox. I did some intelligent research.

The gnomes on the Sports Reporters claimed Howard doesn’t know how to win and doesn’t care about winning, and that the only way he can ever hope to salvage his “legacy” is, you guessed it: to win. I used to use the # of rings a player won to determine his greatness, because I was young, and I had more time to be stupid than I do now, and because I hated Dan Marino and enjoyed any opportunity to take his stupid face down a peg.
I don’t believe rings define players anymore. But, for the sake of argument, let’s take a brief look at Howard’s resume, ring-wise, versus other “recent” great big men: 

Howard is entering year 10 of his career. He’s made 1 trip to the Finals & has 0 rings.
Patrick Ewing entering year 10: 1 Finals/0 rings.
Hakeem Olajuown entering year 10: 1 Finals/0 rings.
David Robinson entering year 10: 0 Finals/0 rings.
Alonzo Mourning entering year 10: 0 Finals/0 rings.

NOTE: I don’t consider Mourning an all-time great. I just can’t resist any opportunity to point out his lesser-ness compared to actual greats.

What about Howard’s #1 troller, Shaquille O’Neal? Entering his 10th season, Shaq had 3 trips to the Finals and 2 rings. He’d also had played with Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant from their rookie seasons onward.
Who’s the best player Howard has teamed with? Not “biggest name,” or “biggest rep.” I mean at the time they were Howard’s teammate, who was the best player? Rashard Lewis? Hedo Turkoglu? Keyser Soze? (just making sure you’re awake)

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How about the great big men of the past?

Kareem entering year 10: 1 Finals/1 ring (gracias, Oscar Robertson).
Wilt entering year 10: 2 Finals/1 ring (despite HOF teammates).
Moses Malone entering year 10: 2 Finals/1 ring (despite HOF teammates).

How about other all-time greats who aren’t big men?

Michael Jordan entering year 10: 3 Finals/3 rings/1 gambling suspension which cost him 2 more.
Kobe Bryant entering year 10: 4 Finals/3 rings/1 bloody coup that forced Phil Jackson and Shaq out of town.
Lebron James entering year 10: 4 Finals/2 rings/0 PED suspicions (perhaps his greatest achievement).

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If we judged Jordan’s career entering year 10, he’d be great. He’d be an all-time great. He wouldn’t be the G.O.A.T., though. Not until the rest of his career played out.
Kobe would have been seen as a spoiled brat who blew up a team that reached 4 Finals in a row because he cared more about showing the world what he could do all on his own than winning.
Lebron entering year 10 has done as much as anyone can do entering year 10: he’s put himself in the discussion for G.O.A.T. We have to wait and watch what happens over the next 5-7 seasons before we can even attempt to define his legacy.

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I’ve left Bill Russell out of the discussion for reasons I hope are obvious.
Watch an NBA game from 10 years ago and you’ll notice it’s a very different game. 20 years ago? 30 years ago? Like comparing young Elvis and old Elvis.
How many people who talk about Russell ever saw him play? Russell played in an era where he was one of a relatively small number of 7-footers. This is not a condemnation of his greatness; merely an attempt to place it a fairer perspective. Calling Russell the greatest because he won the most rings is like saying some sultan is the world’s greatest lover because he has a harem with hundreds of concubines.

I’m not proposing Howard belongs in the pantheon of greats. He may never get there, and after 9 seasons he doesn’t belong. I am saying it’s too early to say anything about his legacy. And that he doesn’t warrant the hate.

So why all the hate for Dwight, hatred which sounds suspiciously similar to the hate Lebron was getting 3 years ago? Two reasons come to mind:

–American media, even more than Americans, is anti-labor. Unions are portrayed negatively way more than management/ownership is. This feedback is even more pronounced with professional athletes. It’s easier and somehow more satisfying for some to blame Lebron or Dwight when they fail to win a title…as if Lebron or Dwight are the management team who put the roster together.

Michael Jordan once famously lashed out at Bulls GM Jerry Krause after Krause told reporters, “Organizations win championships.” As MJ’s legend sprawled out of control, the idea grew that the reason the Bulls won titles was because, simply, MJ wanted it more than anyone else. MJ’s own history as a GM should prove that the greatest players ever often make lousy management-types. MJ didn’t draft Olden Polynice and turn him into Scottie Pippen. Krause did. MJ never won a single playoff series without Pippen. Would he have? Eventually, sure. Would he have won 6 rings? No. Michael Jordan wouldn’t be the greatest player ever if he hadn’t played with Pippen. And he wouldn’t have played with Pippen if Krause and other front office-types, instead of trading for a relatively unknown talent in Pippen, had instead stuck with Polynice. Or the 1987 version of Kwame Brown. Or Adam Morrison.

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–The irraditating 24/7 sports media renders any and all slow-cook intelligent conversation meaningless. The moment anything interesting happens, there is a rush to define the event in a broader sense. Whenever a game is decided at the buzzer, we’re told it’s an “instant classic,” an oxymoron if ever there were. Before the game can rest in our collective memory and marinate, it is being re-played the very next day. Historical context is overrun by hysterical non-context.
We’re tired, as fans and carbon-based intelligent life, of being told that “Ray Allen is the greatest outside shooter in NBA history” because he’s made the most 3s; the 3-point shot did not exist for the first 35 years the NBA existed. Do we even know who the greatest outside shooters of the 1940s were? Who was the greatest outside shooter to play for the Fort Wayne Pistons? The Rochester Royals? The Syracuse Nationals? The Chicago Zephyrs?
We’re tired of hearing how some guy who plays well for a few years has already ascended beyond greats who were great for twice as long as the newest flavor of the month. Today I read a respected baseball columnist wondering if Dodgers OF Yasiel Puig is the greatest player in MLB history. MLB history goes back well over 100 years. Puig has 119 at-bats. Ever.

It is understandable, given this dumbing down of historical perspective, for a weary public to write-off any hype attached to present-day players. But countering the stupidity of deifying careers that haven’t had time to cool and take shape by deifying the players and careers of the past is trying to make two wrongs equal a right.

I miss what a healthy, focused Dwight Howard brings to the league. I’m hoping he brings it back next year.

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