Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Myth About Becoming An All-Time Great

By Charlie Scaturro

It’s impossible to watch the Spurs and Heat square off against each other in this year’s NBA Finals without hearing someone mention a legacy, a comparison to Michael Jordan, or what this series means in the context of NBA history.

And when you have Tim Duncan chasing his 5th title, the Heat going for the first 3-peat since the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, and LeBron looking to add another line to what is already one of the most impressive under 30 resumes in NBA history, it’s easy to see why the discussion has been about more than what’s happening on the court.

Given all the potential history that we might witness during the next few games, the most intriguing part of the NBA Finals could very well be that we’re watching two of the best players ever, in Tim Duncan and LeBron James, go head to head in the Finals for the second consecutive year. That’s a significant statement to make, and the interesting thing to me about being universally accepted as one of the NBA’s all-time greats is that this distinction isn’t something that’s necessarily in any player’s control, no matter how great they might have been.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the media and fans liking a player enough to help shape how he’s remembered (though that doesn’t hurt). I’m talking about the fact that, as far as history is concerned, where a great player ends up playing can be almost as important as how good he is. A great player who gets drafted by a front office that can build a team around him and his strengths is putting that player in a position to be great. Conversely, a great player who gets drafted by a front office that fails to put him in the best possible situation to succeed can undoubtedly shape that player’s place in history as well.

That’s an exceedingly simple concept, but I’m always struck by how rarely we actually mention the role that outside factors play in the careers of the all-time greats or those who had the potential to become an all-time great but never quite made it there.

We just assume that if a great player can’t get it done, it’s because he ‘didn’t want it bad enough’ or some other narrative that probably leaves out a good chunk of reality. We just assume that the truly great players will simply fight through front office blunders and overmatched teammates to get to the top.

With the Spurs and Heat facing off for the second straight season, it’s fitting that LeBron and Duncan can help illustrate the point I’m trying to make.

Tim Duncan already had so many things going for him by the time he completed his senior season at Wake Forest, there were few who doubted he was destined for greatness in the NBA. But when you can put a player like Duncan on the same roster as a Hall of Fame center like David Robinson, supplement that amazing good fortune with the best front office in the NBA, and add a Hall of Fame coach in Gregg Popovich to the mix, well, you have an environment to nurture one of the best players in NBA history.

At the same time, there’s no doubting Duncan’s brilliance. His addition to the Spurs was what propelled Robinson over the hump and helped San Antonio win their first title in franchise history. You could also argue that Duncan’s greatness has helped Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili become recognized as two of the best foreign-born players ever. And undoubtedly, it’s been Duncan’s robotic consistency that has helped Popovich rack up a .686 career winning percentage.

Trying to determine exactly how much the Spurs success over the last 17 seasons is due to Duncan, and how much of Duncan’s success is due to the Spurs being an incredibly well run organization is essentially impossible, but there’s certainly a point where the two intersect.

And while going down that road isn’t worthwhile, it’s interesting to question how we would be thinking about Tim Duncan if he were in Kevin Garnett’s place during the past 17 or so seasons, and how we would be thinking about Garnett if he were in Duncan’s.

Garnett was drafted by a Timberwolves franchise in 1995 that could never surround their superstar with enough firepower to make a legitimate run at a title.

After 12 seasons in purgatory, Garnett reached basketball salvation in Boston at age 31, where he promptly helped the Celtics win a title in his first season. If not for suffering a knee injury the following season that sidelined him for the entirety of the playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins’ injury that kept him out of Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers the season after that, Garnett could easily have multiple titles under his belt. But here we stand in 2014; Duncan has four titles and is gunning for his fifth at age 38, and KG has one title after shuffling around the league from Minnesota to Boston and most recently to Brooklyn.

I’m not arguing that Garnett is better than Duncan, but we’re talking about two power forwards who entered the league at around the same time that were both capable of putting up 20, 10, and 5 like it was a bodily function, all while playing fierce defense and making everyone on their team better. And yet, the Spurs have helped Duncan lay serious claim to the title of best power forward ever, and Garnett isn’t quite in that stratosphere.

I’m perfectly fine with all of that, but we’ll never know how things would have gone for Garnett if he had the luxury of playing for an organization like the Spurs for his entire career, and we’ll never know how things would have gone for Duncan if his organization was hemorrhaging valuable first round draft picks when he was entering his prime.

In a similar fashion, LeBron was drafted by a Cleveland franchise that didn’t exactly make things easy on him. I could run down the list of players he shared a team with in Cleveland, but we all watched as his undermanned supporting casts put so much pressure on LeBron to carry them during the playoffs that he could never afford even an average night in the deeper rounds of the playoffs and expect to come away with a win.

Based on the criticism he was receiving at times, it was almost as if LeBron’s basketball skill could have prevented the Cavaliers from selecting Luke Jackson with the 10th pick in the 2004 draft. Or LeBron’s incredible athleticism could have made Carlos Boozer keep his word and re-sign with Cleveland after the Cavs made him an unrestricted free agent so they could re-sign him with their MLE. Or that LeBron somehow had the power to convince Danny Ferry that it was ok to part with J.J. Hickson in order to acquire Amar'e Stoudemire in 2010 (before he became this Amar'e Stoudemire).

So LeBron made the decision to leave Cleveland in part because the best players that front office ever put around him were some combination of Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Mo Williams.

We’re nearly five years removed from LeBron’s arrival in Miami and thanks in part to playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat have reached the Finals four years in a row and are a few wins away from their third straight title. LeBron already had the eye-popping numbers and accolades that put him in elite company when he played for Cleveland, and after joining an organization that has put him in a position to win championships, he’s already added the titles that have him properly recognized as one of the greatest players ever. All before his 30th birthday.

On the other hand, if he had stayed in Cleveland, who knows what we’re saying about LeBron right now.

The man who LeBron is often compared to, Michael Jordan, will likely always be regarded as the greatest player ever, but even he had the luxury of going to a franchise that helped him succeed.

Chicago paired Jordan with a Hall of Fame swingman in Scottie Pippen, installed Phil Jackson as the Bulls head coach, and in addition to a myriad of role players (most of whom Jordan helped become much better than they otherwise would have been), the Bulls also brought in guys like Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman to ease the burden on MJ. You have to assume that Jordan would have figured out how to win titles even if he wasn’t playing for an organization that surrounded him with the pieces he needed to win, but maybe the situation the Bulls created for MJ allowed him to win those legendary six rings, instead of three or four.

No matter how good you are, it’s generally accepted that to be considered amongst the all-time greats you have to win at least one championship (probably more than one). But no matter how good any individual player might be, there are other things that need to be aligned in order to win a championship. No matter how much we want to believe that a player like LeBron or Jordan can carry an entire team to a championship (or at least, how much we want to romanticize the idea that a player like LeBron or Jordan could carry an entire team to a championship), it’s not the reality.

The myth about becoming an all-time NBA great is that those who have achieved that moniker did so in an entirely self-contained manner. It’s as if their talent, hard work, dedication, and will could overcome anything, when really, there are other layers to the equation.

As Lefty Gomez once said:

“I’d rather be lucky than good.”

In the case of achieving NBA immortality, you have to be both lucky and good. I’m sure Tim Duncan and LeBron James can attest to that.

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