Criteria: Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century

Well, here I am back again for the fifth straight year, ready to lead you down a several thousand word journalistic voyage that is related to the best professional sports league in the world … The National Basketball Association. This year I’m doing things slightly differently that you are used to if you have indeed checked out my work in the past. Rather than investigating the current landscape of the NBA, I’ve expanded my horizons and sprinkled some variety into this very long, tedious, and often-times frustrating process. This year I’ll be ranking the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s. And instead of posting one player per day in the 50 days leading up to the NBA season, I’ll be posting two players per day in the final 25 days of the month of October.

Before I go ahead and show you the actual criteria I used to put the list together, allow me to clear something up: These rankings are based solely on a player’s production in seasons that concluded in the 21st Century. Everything that was done prior 1999-2000 season is irrelevant to me for the next 25 days. Tim Duncan’s 1999 championship … it never happened, he only has four titles. Jason Kidd’s first Mavericks tenure … non-existent. forget about those years. Shaq’s 1995 Finals appearance with the Magic … it doesn’t matter. Jordan’s six titles with the Bulls … nope, MJ is a Wizard in the world we’re operating in (and no, MJ wasn’t good enough in those two Wizards years to crack the Top 50; my apologies to all of the Jordan Worshipers reading along). I’m also not factoring in what could come in the next decade and beyond that. So while it would be a blast to attempt to forecast the careers of guys on the rise like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George, Damian Lillard and many others, we can save that discussion for another time.

Anyway, you know what that subtle change to the timeline has meant for this guy? It’s meant that rather than a single years worth of games to re-watch and re-evaluate, I needed to cram seventeen seasons worth of games into my research process. Rather than reading one season’s worth of takes on the league, I needed to find and read nearly two decades of articles and columns and box scores. Instead of looking at the current state of a given player, I needed to evaluate a career as a whole, and comparing a guy who has played 14 good seasons to a guy who has played seven great seasons is very tricky. And when you legitimately give a shit about getting all of this correct, every single decision you make, every hot take you throw out there … it can drive you nuts.

One thing that I am going to ask you to remember as you follow along with this countdown: If we didn’t have differing opinions about sports it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to discuss it and debate it, so I don’t expect you to take everything I say as fact. All I’m doing is throwing some ideas out there while also trying to encompass as much of the past seventeen NBA seasons as I can. And if this countdown proves anything at all, it’s just that I’m a complete and total NBA nerd that has an irrational love for the league and the game of basketball in general. In a roundabout way, that makes me remarkably similar to a lot of you readers.

That’s enough foreplay, don’t you think? Let’s get to the criteria!


CRITERIA 

Status – What kind of role did he occupy on his teams? Was he the alpha dog? A second option? A role player? How well did he fill this respective role? Think of it like this: Breaking Bad was a nearly perfect TV show, and a big reason that’s the case is because every actor brilliantly performed their role, no matter how big or small it was. So I hold someone like Aaron Paul (who played Jesse Pinkman) in higher regard than I do someone like Matthew Fox (Jack from Lost) even though Fox was the main character on Lost. Paul was more valuable in his role than Fox was, so if I were ranking drama TV characters, Jesse Pinkman would be ahead of Jack Shephard.

NOTE: I included something similar to this anecdote in my criteria in the past, only my review of Fox as Jack Shephard was scathing. Between now and then I rewatched Lost, and I realized I was a little too harsh on the character. He was more interesting the second time around than I thought he was on first view. Maybe it’s because the first time I watched Lost I had no idea what was going on for the final two seasons.

Team Success – How successful were the teams that he played for? How often was his team a title contender? How much help did he have? How much of an individual impact did he have on the win/loss record of his team?

Big Moment Chops – Did he rise to the occasion in big games? Does he have a track record of coming through down the stretch in games? Was he considered clutch? Actually, let’s disregard that last question. For a period of time that lasted for so long that it now seems incomprehensible, the general consensus was that Carmelo Anthony was clutch and LeBron James was not. So whether or not a player was “considered” clutch is irrelevant. Allow me to try that again … was he actually clutch?

Longevity – Did he have an impact for a long period of time? What was he like before, during and after his prime? Did he stay relatively healthy throughout his career? This point in the criteria is closely related to …

Power at his Peak – At his absolute peak, where did he rank in the league? Where does that peak rank among the best peaks in the 2000’s? How long did that peak last? Does a significant peak make up for lack of longevity? I’ll answer those questions in the Derrick Rose and Yao Ming portions of the countdown.

Numbers and Accolades – What were the players’ averages in the major statistical categories? Did they win any individual awards? Did they make an All-NBA team, All-Defensive Team, or any teams that I made up on my own but seemed relevant during this process?

Talent – Forget about the amount of success he achieved during his career, because that’s heavily dependent on the situation a player is in … simply put, how skilled at the game of basketball was he?

Reputation – How do fans feel about his career? How well received was he when he was in the league? Did guys want to play with him? Did he do little things that made his team better or was he out for himself? Was he known as a hard worker and leader, or someone who didn’t give a crap?

How Does He Stand Out – Was he fun to watch? Was he ever must watch television for basketball junkies? Were there elements or aspects of his game that made him completely unique from anyone else in the league? Did he change the game of basketball or how we think about basketball in any way?

 

And that’s it! I hope this criteria will clear up any confusion moving forward. If it doesn’t, then oh well. More than anything else, I hope you have as much fun reading along with the countdown as I had writing it!

The Dream Game: 1992 vs. 2012

Just like every other NBA fan on the planet, one month ago I watched the 90 minute NBA TV “Dream Team” documentary. Actually, I’ve watched it four times. It was that good. And since then I’ve purchased Jack McCallum’s book “Dream Team” because I didn’t quite get my fix of the Dream Team. The only gripe I had with the documentary was that it wasn’t nearly long enough. I wanted more. More practice footage, more interviews, more of the hot girls by the pool in Monte Carlo that Scottie Pippen was macking on, and especially more of John Stockton walking around with his family as hundreds of people passed him not having a clue he was a world class basketball player. I could’ve sat down and watched a documentary on the Dream Team for 24 straight hours, and only needed to leave the TV to get food or go to the bathroom.

I walked away with some lingering questions. I want to know more about how the players were selected. Why Christian Laettner over Shaquille O’Neal? Was Michael Jordan the sole reason why Isiah Thomas was left off the team, or were there others who didn’t want him on the team? Who else was considered for the team—maybe Joe Dumars, Mark Price, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, or Tim Hardaway? I want to know more about and see more of the practices. Hell, for all I’m concerned, I would’ve been happy if they just showed the scrimmage at Monte Carlo in its entirety. I want to know who won the late night poker games between MJ, Magic and Barkley. I want to know how many of the topless girls by the pool Scottie Pippen scored with. Luckily, I’ll probably get some of those answers in the book. I imagine it will remain a mystery as to how many girls Scottie Pippen scored with though. I suppose I can live with the uncertainty of that one.

The biggest question that the documentary presented was the claim that the Dream Team is the greatest team of all-time in sports history. From a historical significance standpoint, that statement absolutely cannot be disputed. In fact, it shouldn’t even be up for discussion. It was the perfect storm of star power (Jordan, Bird and Magic headlining a group of 11 future hall of famers), talent (I won’t gush about the talent since it sort of speaks for itself), time period (coming off of a Bronze Medal finish in 1988, and becoming the first team of professionals to represent the United States in basketball at the Summer Olympics), success (winning by an average of nearly 44 points per game) and lasting impact (changing the landscape of international basketball for better and always). However, not everyone thinks that this team is unbeatable.

The greatest and most important team in basketball history… The Dream Team

I didn’t want to necessarily write about how the 2012 Team compares to the original Dream Team, since it has been and will continue to be done for every USA Olympic Basketball Team. Additionally, comparing any team to the Dream Team seems to be looked at as sacrilegious by most basketball observers, so I didn’t want to face any sort of backlash. But luckily, Kobe Bryant took it upon himself to face the inevitable future backlash from NBA fans and from Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Scottie Pippen by declaring that the 2012 USA Team would beat the 1992 Team. So now it’s my job to examine the two teams and declare a winner in this hypothetical game; a game that I would literally pay all of the money in my bank account to see. It’s important for you to know that I don’t have a horse in this race. I’m simply here to play devil’s advocate and make a case for why both teams could win the game. At the end I’ll evaluate everything I’ve written and then go back and forth 4,000 times before picking a winner. And I’ll still probably second guess my decision.Because of the incredible legacy that the Dream Team has left, people seem to think that this team is untouchable. But if you look closely, there are some cracks in the foundation of the Dream Team. Again, I’m sure to some this seems blasphemous that I would even consider speaking in such a way. Look, I’ve done my research. Thanks to YouTube I’ve watched nearly every game the Dream Team played together, along with a good portion of NBA games involving these players. The biggest difference between me and people who watched this team live as it was happening is that they don’t want to let go of the past. Someday, when Future Player X is taking over the NBA and my future son tells me that Future Player X is the best basketball player ever, I might be quick to jump in there and say, “Whoa, wait just a second there youngster. You never saw LeBron James play.” Just like if I were to say that LeBron James is the best basketball player ever, somebody who grew up watching Michael Jordan would call me a youngster (weird considering I have a beard) and tell me that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. And even though it is a nearly universally accepted fact that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, there are going to be a group of old timers who will argue that it is Magic, Bird, Russell, Oscar or Wilt who holds that title. People don’t want to admit that the game has changed. NBA fans are a product of their era. They want to believe the players that they grew up watching in the league made up the Golden Age of the NBA, ultimately meaning it was the best age. That’s not always the case.

For example, I’d like for someone to try to explain to me how the Dream Team’s point guards are going to be able to guard the stable of point guards on the 2012 Team. It is impossible to do so and sound like a sane human being at the same time. Trust me, I’ve tried. After all, I am playing devil’s advocate. I couldn’t come up with an answer to that riddle. Magic Johnson would’ve gotten torched by any of these guys in his prime, and in 1992 he had already been retired for a year. I know John Stockton is the all-time leader in steals, but if you are a Dream Team supporter, are you going to feel totally comfortable with Stockton guarding Russell Westbrook, maybe the fastest and most athletically gifted player in the NBA? Umm, no. The Dream Team got torched by Bobby Hurley in scrimmages. You don’t think Westbrook, Paul and Williams would be able to do whatever they wanted? Let’s go even further… How are Larry Bird or Chris Mullin even going to get on the court and not be exposed as complete defensive liabilities? Bird, bothered by a ravaged back at the time of the 1992 Olympics, was in no condition to cover anyone with the kind of talent or athleticism he’d see on the 2012 team and Mullin was never going to be able to guard anyone like that. Already, that is five players who would clearly wouldn’t have any sort of edge defensively (I’m counting Christian Laettner in that mix since he wouldn’t be able to sniff the court even if it was doused with Bengay). That leaves Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Malone, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing as guys you could play without getting absolutely exposed on the defensive end.

Now it’s time to figure out how the Dream Team would do on the offensive end. Even though the Dream Team had some breathtaking open court players, there is no way they should try to get into a fast pace game with the 2012 Team; a team that is loaded with incredible athletes with the exception of Kevin Love. The Dream Team’s best chance would to succeed offensively would be very similar to a style that Spain played in 2008 against Team USA’s Redeem Team. Option number one is pound the ball inside to the Gasol’s (or in the Dream Team’s case, Ewing, Robinson, Malone and Barkley); additionally, thrive on a savvy, ball-movement oriented offense that leaves shooters open to take target practice from a shortened three point line. Barkley and Malone are two of the top 3 or 4 power forwards ever in their primes, and Ewing and Robinson were two of the best centers of their era. Tyson Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but it seems to me if the Dream Team made a concerted effort to pound the ball inside, get to the free throw line, and neutralize the speed and athleticism of the 2012 team, the advantage in the game goes to the Dream Team. Realistically, the oh-so-thin Chandler, Davis, Love trio of big guys would get eaten alive inside like Charles Barkley would eat a five buck box.

My rebuttal as devil’s advocate: If I’m the 2012 Team I’m playing a super small line-up that displays a stupid amount of speed. Think Paul, Westbrook, Kobe, Durant and LeBron. Anytime the Dream Team dumps the ball inside to one of their big guys, I’m sending help from anyone on the perimeter that isn’t guarding Bird or Mullin if they are in the game. With the incredible speed of that 2012 line-up, I’m fairly confident they would be able to rotate quickly enough to the shooter to not leave him with a completely wide-open jump shot. If I’m the 2012 coaching staff, I can live with Drexler (23% from 3 point range in the following NBA season), Pippen (24%), Stockton (39%, but likely to go down with Russell Westbrook running at him like a rabid wolverine), Magic (32% in the 1990-91 season) or even Jordan (35%) taking somewhat contested jump shots the whole game. I’d feel more comfortable with this than allowing the Malone, Barkley, Robinson, Ewing assembly to go to work in the paint. Then on the offensive end, is there a better line up for Team USA than going with something like this? How perfect is it that you have five players around the perimeter, robbing the Dream Team of their biggest defensive advantage (their size) in this game? If the Dream Team is playing a conventional line-up (for arguments sake let’s say Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and Robinson) here is what happens: Chris Paul gets to any place on the floor with Magic guarding him, Jordan cancels out Westbrook, Pippen guards Kobe reasonably well, and Barkley and Robinson are out of their element being forced to play on the perimeter against the Durant and LeBron. I’ll simplify it even more. Chris Paul dribbles around Magic Johnson’s mannequin, only there is no interior defense to stop him from scoring at the rim because every player for the 2012 is standing around the perimeter. And if there is help defense in the paint Paul will take great joy in kicking it out to an open shooter. Sorry Scottie, but I just can’t see the Dream Team locking this 2012 Team down defensively. Actually, the only way I can see the Dream Team being able to successfully defend the 2012 Team is if they play zone and make 2012 a jump shooting team, which seems to really puzzle modern day NBA offenses. Their zone defense would be incredibly long and could rebound the ball well, plus they’d be able to hide Bird and Mullin better than if they were playing man to man defense. But even then, Durant, LeBron, Paul, Harden, Love all shoot over 35% from downtown, and they would be playing on a shortened three point line.

Could the 2012 USA Basketball Team defeat the Dream Team?

I’m sure it sounds like I’m leaning heavily towards 2012, but the Dream Team still gets some big check marks: Jordan is at his absolute zenith, everyone besides Magic and Bird were at or near their respective peaks, they have a serious advantage inside, and incredible team unity and cohesiveness (still totally unknown how 2012 will be in this department). To win, the Dream Team would need to take advantage of their edge down low, rely on cohesive team offense and defense to dictate their preferred tempo (half-court offense where Magic and Stockton could thrive, not allowing 2012 to get out and run), and sprinkle in a dash Jordan doing Jordan things. And really, it’s not inconceivable to think that all three could happen. There is one more thing that absolutely needs to be touched on before I make a prediction.In this hypothetical game, egos are going to be on display, and that is something that could be a major factor in the outcome. We know for sure that MJ, Magic, Barkley, Kobe, Durant and LeBron are going to walk on the court firmly believing they are the best player on the floor. That’s six alpha dogs in one game. That’s absolutely fantastic. Even though the majority of the 18 other guys on the rosters are top dogs on their respective teams, they would likely fall into place as complementary role players. Maybe not everyone thinks this way, but I can’t see either team getting blown out in this game. We can assume that this game goes down to the wire. This raises two interesting questions: Which two of the six alpha dogs become their respective teams’ go-to scoring option down the stretch; and which team as a whole handles playing in a close game better? The answer to question one is easy for the Dream Team: Jordan, unless Magic is completely delusional and tries to handle the scoring load by himself, which would likely lead to Jordan going on a five state killing spree. In all likelihood, Magic is smart enough to hand the conch to the best player in the game. Could 2012 handle that dilemma organically like 1992 would? In 2008, it was that easy. LeBron and Wade stepped aside and let Kobe close out Spain in the Gold Medal game. But now: LeBron is the undisputed best player in the world, Kobe has taken a step back (only he probably doesn’t totally know that) and Durant is a more reliable late game option than Wade was in 2008. Who is the one to close the game out?

I suppose it’s about that time where I am supposed to make a prediction. I’m not totally ready yet. Give me a minute.

Ugh, okay, okay. I guess I’m ready. The entire time I was writing this piece I was convinced that 2012 would come out on top, but the late game hierarchy for the Dream Team makes me feel more comfortable than 2012’s does. Between the size, team camaraderie and Michael Jordan, the Dream Team would likely come out on top. Do I feel totally comfortable with this pick? No, no I don’t. Do I feel like a pansy for being afraid of just coming out and saying “2012 would win”? Yes, yes I do. Do I really want to be the guy who picked the Dream Team to lose? No, no I don’t.