Sports — specifically the NBA — revolve around comparing individuals and placing them in certain layers of greatness.
Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that we make the mistake of diminishing some talents this league has given us. We do it unknowingly, since all we’re trying to do is justify our arguments and explain why this player is greater on an All-Time spectrum than this player. It happens, but it’s got to be limited.
I had the pleasure to speak with Joseph Duruaku, a proficient columnist for GoAZCats.com. He has also been a member of the Dime Magazine writing team, and we’ve had our share of NBA discussions (and disagreements) through our short time knowing one another.
In our email exchange, we sifted through the various generations of NBA legacies, and tried to offer people the reasons why you should only look at what you’ve been alive to witness. The talk was lengthy, but don’t question if it’s worth your time. It is. Enjoy:
Young: Hello Joseph,
Hope your weekend has been a good one thus far. The topic you and I have been dying to discuss is finally upon us. I understand your rationale for trying to stay away from the players we haven’t had a chance to watch in our lifetime, since we were born in the early 1990’s. Do you believe we, as writers, suffer from “recency bias” when we make our All-Time NBA historical rankings? Considering we pay more attention to those we watch in today’s game than the earlier eras.
Duruaku: Yes, I do. And I believe it’s just that a good friend of mine always tells me that younger eras really do not have the right to pass judgment on the players we did not see — again, I agree with this. For example … it’s common knowledge that Bob Pettit was a great forward, but someone like myself did not see the downhill in his career, so how can I generate a well-rounded report on his career and rank him accordingly? It’s quite hard.
Young: Exactly. If the newer generations grow into their teenage days in the next 5-6 years, they’re going to witness LeBron James‘ decline. Let’s face it: Every player reaches a decline at some point.
It’s inevitable, and if you’re just “getting into” the league at the time of it, it’s probably going to shape the way you view this particular player. I really feel a sense of sadness for teens that will be growing up during Durant’s reign, because they’ve already missed out on so many legends this game had to offer.
Which reminds me …. since you’ve been alive and into the game with an intelligent perspective, who would take the throne as the most illustrious and skilled player of our era? We both jumped into the league around the same time.
Duruaku: Yes, we previously spoke on the Hard Screens Podcast about when we both really became NBA fanatics. I was always a basketball fan because I grew up in a basketball household. My two brothers were high school standouts, so it only made sense that I would follow in their footsteps. High school, college and NBA basketball was on our TV at all hours of the day.
At first, I just was a little kid that liked to collect jerseys and watch all the high-flying slam dunks. Then, 2003 happened to me. My favorite player of All-Time, Dwyane Wade, was drafted. He took the league by storm and I was hooked; he was something special, and for the longest time (me being a young, biased fan) I thought he was the best player in the NBA.
As my knowledge of the game grew and I started to actually become a student of the game, I realized that he was not the best. In fact, he wasn’t even the best at his position. There was an absolute killer in Los Angeles named Kobe Bryant that was scoring 30 or more points every night and making it look easy. But there was another young-gun in Cleveland, Ohio. King James, the greatest player I have ever personally witnessed. In my humble, but strong opinion, I would say LeBron is the most skilled of our era.
Young: It’s fascinating, honestly, because Dwyane Wade has so many fans around where I live. People fell in love with his attitude, never getting into off-the-court trouble, and always being loyal to the city that took him in as a raw, fresh talent from Marquette.
Let’s be perfectly clear now, if Wade was around the 36 or 37 percent mark from 3-point range in his career, he would be over Bryant in a heartbeat. That’s the one thing he’s lacked — outside shooting. Kobe also took it to a new dimension with his ability to put on points in quicker spurts than we’ve ever seen.
LeBron also came into the league without a strong jumper, but it’s amazing what 11 years of experience does to a player. I believe the No. 1 issue people run into when determining greatness is this: Do you rank your players based on overall skill-set, or what they’ve been able to prove in terms of winning and success they’ve had? With the skill-set evaluation, everything goes to LeBron (probably including Jordan in that too). There isn’t much he can’t do. Then you get into the rings …. ughhh.
Duruaku: Here’s how I look at it: You can rank players based off skill alone, and there’s few that match LeBron, Kobe or even old school guys like Magic Johnson & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When taking accolades into account, there is a lot of circumstantial scenarios. The old question of “did he have help?” really does hold weight in my opinion.
LeBron, in Cleveland, really didn’t have championship pieces. Mo Williams was one of the best players he teamed with and Williams was an All-Star due to an Allen Iverson injury. James got to Miami and had capable bench guys and two other high-profiled players, and he won two straight titles. People might hate me for this, but in the 2014 Finals, it looked like LeBron was just carrying the load all over again. Bosh was getting worked by the ageless Tim Duncan and Wade really couldn’t string together any respectable offense.
Granted, the Spurs were the better team, the deeper team and the better coached team, so I am not taking away from their title, but the truth is LeBron’s 2014 team looked similar to his Cavs days and not in terms of no-name players, but his running mates Bosh and Wade playing like they didn’t know the NBA Finals was going on. All these factors need to be looked at.
I know we said talking about players from previous eras isn’t always something younger guys can logically do, but take a look at Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Wilt was one of the most physically imposing players ever, and he was an ultra-skilled big that could it all. I’ve spoken to much older NBA fans who have lived through multiple eras and the consensus is that Wilt was better than Russell, but Russell played with the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
He had the supporting cast to limit Wilt’s team and ultimately go on to win 11 NBA titles. Yes, I wasn’t alive back then, but I’d be willing to bet that if Wilt had Russell’s supporting cast, he easily has more than two titles.
Rings matter, accolades matter, but context matters more.
Young: Yep, I’ve never seen a guy score 28 points per game, shoot 57 percent from the floor & 52 percent from the perimeter and LOSE an NBA Finals. That’s what LeBron was forced to go through this past June.
I see your take on the Wilt and Russell situation, and that’s why people truly need to mitigate themselves from putting Russell on the “Mt. Rushmore” of the sport. Sure, he played for the right reasons (winning), but we’ve heard from many former greats that his offense wasn’t up to par with Wilt, or Oscar Robertson. Therefore, I’ve left him off.
But since we are junkies for the guys we’ve actually watched, I want to throw you a curve ball. There’s one guy in mind that — for one year — I believed could reach the plateau of Wade, Kobe, James, and such. He was a Portland Trail Blazer before his degenerative knee forced him to retire. Since Brandon Roy was only in his third season and on the rise in 2008, how good could he have turned into, man?
Duruaku: Brandon Roy is a sad story. One, because he had all the skills to reach the upper-echelon of the NBA. Two, because he’s just another injury bug in the Blazers’ long history of disappointing, injury-prone draft picks.
To put it simply, he was on his way to become one of the best players in the league. That’s all I can say, because he showed flashes of utter brilliance, but it was short-lived, so it’s hard to really make an assumption in regards to accolades or titles.
Young: What makes it even worse is that he (Roy) couldn’t even reach the T-Mac level, which I define as terrorizing the league for multiple years and winning scoring titles, THEN hitting the injury stages. Those plagued knees just hit him before he got to that juncture.
For what it’s worth, which McGrady did you get your fair share of watching? In Orlando or Houston? Because one thing that’s always boggled me is that Kobe considered T-Mac as his fiercest competition, not Wade. It’s probably just because Wade didn’t begin destroying defenders until he made his title run in 2006, in which Kobe was left on a crapshoot team without Shaq.
Duruaku: I’ve watched T-Mac’s Orlando days via hardwood classics and old film. Rockets T-Mac was more my time when I was working to expand my knowledge. It’s funny … the other day, a friend of mine was saying Houston T-Mac was on par with Kobe. Scoring wise, yes, but not the same defender and definitely not as decorated.
Kobe had to see T-Mac as his fiercest competition. They were in the same conference and Bean had to deal with T-Mac more times than he did Wade, and you are right that Wade didn’t really tap into his superhero powers until the ’06 title run.
The Kobe/T-Mac duels are epic and they are some of the greatest memories from that time. Kobe was putting up legend-like number without Shaq, and it seemed McGrady was hell-bent on matching the Mamba any way he could. I still, and will always give Kobe the edge during that time period, though. I will say that few players can score like pre-injury T-Mac, however.
Young: McGrady’s bigger body made things a living nightmare for anyone, I don’t care how phenomenal of a defender you was. Why? Because he had that Mamba poison, where he could lift from 3-point range and hit them in consecutive little streaks. Nobody will forget Kobe’s 12 3-pointers vs. Seattle, or T-Mac’s 13 points in half a minute.
This can’t be a modern era greatness discussion without the love for the big fellas. Let’s see if you concur with my thought here: If Shaquille O’Neal could knock down his free throws at the efficiency of a Pau Gasol (hell, or an Andrew Bynum), he probably would’ve been the greatest player imaginable.
I thought long and hard about that, and there’s no telling what he would’ve been able to score, or how many games those Lakers, Magic, and Heat could’ve won.
Duruaku: Shaq’s dominance is something I’ve marveled at for a long time. But, I’m not sure dominance equates to skill as a bigman. Yes, he needed to convert on more of his free throws, and if he did he probably would’ve been a 30-thousand point scorer. “Greatest player imaginable” is not something I think I could agree with. In my opinion, he’s a top 10 player ever, but I’m not sure I could place him above Kareem in the center spot, even if Shaq did make more free throws.
Kareem was a top player at his position for 20 years and I think he’s next in line for the title of GOAT.
Young: Vastly underrated and not mentioned when folks rave about the best champions and imposing centers, that’s Kareem for you. Isiah Thomas once labeled Kareem as the greatest player to touch a ball because of his longevity and being able to compete for 20 seasons. I’m sure with the medical advancements of today, other players are going to do that too, but not while having the sky hook. He’s even been willing to offer his fundamentals and flair to other centers, as he’s doing with Roy Hibbert currently.
It’s truly sickening that the center position took a major blow in the past four years, with Shaq out of the mix and nobody really there to carry the torch of big men. Tim Duncan, obviously, but people will forever argue which position he belongs to, you know? However, I really feel as if we’re about to hit a resurgence. DeMarcus Cousins shows me promise, if that head of his can get tied on straight. And we’re seeing a defensive showpiece with Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard. The “center” is rising from the dead, Joe!
Duruaku: The sky hook will forever be one of my favorite moves, such an unstoppable shot. Kareem set the standard and is the greatest center to ever play in the NBA. He’s the epitome of post skill.
The center position has taken a blow, you are right about that. These new crop of centers are doing their best to revitalize a dying breed. Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah are defensive stalwarts that rank among the league’s best players. Howard’s athletic ability is jaw-dropping and Noah’s passing ability is among the best the league has seen.
Even guys like Marc Gasol contribute greatness to the center spot. Yes, it’s in a weak state, but it’s coming back. It’s funny because Al Jefferson had a great season and showed some defensive improvement. I guess the movement to show centers are still around is contagious. Now, all the league needs to see if Roy Hibbert figure himself out, but lets not dive into that mess.
Young: There for a while, we were experiencing position imbalance, with point guards taking control of the league. It was like zombies growing by the number, ready to take over the human world. Glad each position (except the shooting guard slot) is gaining in All-Star caliber talent.
What’s your stance on some of the last remains of the late 1990’s generation? Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen? Which ones do you see riding off into the sunset with no regrets? Any of them in danger of looking back and being upset with how they finished a legendary career?
Duruaku: The shooting guard spot is a littler embarrassing. You know it’s bad when Wade — fragile state and all — is still considered one of the premiere guys at the off-guard position. I mean, Harden is a talented player, but his defense is so bad that I have trouble calling him a superstar. The game is played on both ends of the floor and the two-time All-Star seems to not care about defending anyone.
The highly-touted generation from the 90’s is indeed coming to an end. It was fun to grow up with such special talent. In their primes, Garnett, Nash, Pierce, and Allen provided the fans with some All-Time great memories.
There are some more I didn’t name. For example, Tim Duncan is the best from that crop of old-heads and he just won his fifth NBA Title. He’s another year closer to basketball immortality. Pierce is on the tail end of his career, but he’s finishing strong and appears to have one more championship wind inside him.
Unfortunately, Garnett is slowly becoming an irrelevant, old big in the NBA, but his resume calls for his less-than-impressive 2013-2014 season to be swept under the rug.
Nash … oh, man. What happened to Nash? He got old, he became an injury-ridden guard and now he’s become a financial burden on the Lakers. The former two-time MVP is not an ounce of the player he use to be, and it’ll almost be better to watch him call it a career instead of trying to hold onto something that isn’t there. I respect Nash, and I respect the fact that he desires to earn every penny before he retires, but it’s almost like an Old Yeller-esque situation, except the Canadian legend has the opportunity to take himself out of the miserable situation.
Traveling Into Today’s NBA
Young: I’m on the opposite spectrum when it comes to Pierce. I don’t think of him as a scorer that’s going to fill the role of Trevor Ariza on this Washington roster, although he still has the veteran technique to defend other forwards and force tough shots. We seen what he was able to do vs. Toronto, but in that second round series vs. Miami, if the Pierce we know and love could’ve contributed more than 5 field goals a game, they might have had a chance.
Nash took too much criticism for that “I want the money” comment he made. Face the facts, the Lakers management could force him to retire by using the CBA’s Stretch Provision, but they refuse to do that because it locks up some cap space for the next two offseasons. And they aren’t willing to risk having space.
But, people are really asking Nash to retire and walk away from that money? Give me a break! If those same people were in his shoes, which do you think they would choose? It’s simple, money drives the human mind.
Nash’s nerve root irritation in his leg and back are prolonging … that’s not a “fixable” issue that you can treat with surgery. Jeremy Lin better be given the nod in the starting lineup, or I won’t be able to look at Byron Scott with a straight face. At least Lin can move 10 steps without screeching in utter pain.
Duruaku: My stance of Pierce providing what Washington will miss with Ariza is simple — he can fill the void. Ariza was averaging 14.4 points per game. Unless Pierce didn’t take care of himself this offseason, I think he can use his scoring savvy to give the Wizards 13-15 per game. Granted, his Miami series was not great, but that Heat defense swarmed him almost every time he touched the ball, coach Spoelstra was determined to make someone else beat them, and the Nets were really outmatched.
With Nash, you can’t blame a man for wanting his money. It works like that in any profession. I feel like people have the mindset that oh, he already made so much money in his career, why does this final contract mean so much for him? All I can say is making a lot of money means it costs a lot of money to live; quite frankly I would never leave millions of dollars on the table. I want whats owed to me.
Byron Scott needs to start Lin. Yes, Lin and and Nash are both subpar defenders, but like you said … Lin can actually play through a season.
Young: Washington — although they kept Gortat and you say they won’t miss the Ariza departure — almost has to take a step back in terms of the East outlook. Chicago isn’t going to be that repulsive and garbage filled on offense again, because I’m putting full trust in Rose to put the knee injuries aside.
That leaves the Bulls, Cavaliers (LeBron), Pacers (still a stout defense), Toronto (kept everyone), and Hornets (Lance addition) all in the mix for better seeds. Is Washington able to withstand the improvement of the East and continue impressing us?
Duruaku: In all honesty, I think landing Ariza’s services were a bit overblown because everyone was trying to put together the best supporting cast to court LeBron James. In any other free agency period, I’m not so sure Ariza gets the same type of attention. That being said, I think Washington will miss his youth because Pierce may only be a 1-2 year guy for them.
I think Washington, behind John Wall‘s growth, can stay relevant in the East. I am not putting any eggs in the Derrick Rose basket until I see him string together consistent basketball, so the jury is out on the Bulls’ offense. The Cavs are my favorites to grab the No. 1 seed in the East. Prior to LeBron leaving, he took Cleveland to 60-win seasons with a roster worse than his current one, and I think they will get Kevin Love, too.
The Pacers have regressed, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here. Hibbert is an overpaid disaster, so Paul George will need to really make leaps and bounds in his game this summer. Yes, the Raptors are in great shape. The Hornets have something on paper, but lets see how it all meshes together.
Young: haha, no doubt that we’re beyond ready for competitive balance within the conferences, and Washington was always the team that caught my eye last year. They were the league leaders in the mid-range game, and that allowed them to be one of the more dynamic offenses since they could be so versatile. I’m personally just scared to death of Gortat, as he once looked at me in the locker room at Indiana and I thought he was ready to drive someone’s head through a wall.
Conversations about hoops and all the nuances that come with it are always top-notch, so this has to be done again. One final thing I’ll ask, since I got Brendan Taylor’s lasting opinion during the first commentary piece I did: How do you see the East stacking up, from 1-8?
Duruaku: Haha don’t worry, if Gortat ever tried to come at you just show him a video of his failed attempt at the Olajuwon dream shake. Actually, don’t….
My Top 8 in the East? Oh, man. This is very, very early but here’s what I think:
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
2) Chicago Bulls — IF ROSE CAN PLAY THE FULL SEASON
3) Washington Wizards
4) Toronto Raptors
5) Indiana Pacers
6) Miami Heat
7) Atlanta Hawks
8) Charlotte Hornets
Eastern Conference Champ: Lets go ahead and lock me in for the Cavaliers for winning the conference.
Young: My oh my, lowballing the Pacers I support in this conference and the revamped Hornets taking a step in the wrong direction. Nice, bold predictions. I say we’ll revisit this during the season and see which surprised occurred. Nobody’s ever been on the money about how a conference is going to stack up. People say the NBA is predictable and contrast it to NCAA, but really, it’s up in the air with anything.
Thanks for your time, enjoy the offseason now that it’s all calm and not filled with free agency hype for the ages. Peace.
Duruaku: Thank you, Shane. This was fun and let’s do it again sometime soon.