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!

2015 NBA Playoff Preview Podcast

The NBA Playoffs begin today, and to celebrate the big event my cousin Gianni Zambito and I conducted a massive two-part NBA Playoff Preview Podcast.

Part 1: We discuss who should win the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and other end of season awards. Then, we discuss the Eastern Conference 1st Round match-ups. Which team poses the biggest threat to LeBron James’ return to the NBA Finals? Are the Atlanta Hawks being underrated? Is there any team less entertaining than the Brooklyn Nets?

Part 2: We dive in Western Conference 1st Round previews and discuss how close Anthony Davis is to being the best player in the NBA. Are the Grizzlies and Blazers both too banged up to make a legitimate postseason run? Is this the Spurs last hurrah, and are San Antonio and Golden State locks for the Western Conference Finals?

Check it out! We’ll be back every week to discuss the biggest postseason narratives.

2014-15 NBA Season Preview Podcast

Looking for two NBA fans talking about the upcoming NBA season for an absurd amount of time?

Hey, you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve got some time to call, be sure to check out the two-part NBA Season Preview Podcast that my cousin Gianni Zambito and I conducted last weekend. In the two parts we predict every teams record for the upcoming season and tackle all of the major storylines. Can the San Antonio Spurs repeat? What will the Cleveland Cavaliers look like? Will the Philadelphia 76ers set the NBA record for most losses in a season? How many shots will Russell Westbrook attempt per game while Kevin Durant is out? Is Anthony Davis due for another breakout season? Will the Phoenix Suns regress? How bad will the Indiana Pacers offense be?

So pour yourself a glass of wine–or just do what I’d do and grab a beer out of the fridge–and get comfortable. And definitely don’t feel obligated to listen to all of it at once. Take a listen for a while, mark your spot, come back later. Even we got a little woozy towards the end.

Part One (Eastern Conference)

Part Two (Western Conference) 

Rapid Reaction: NBA Finals, Game 6

Twenty thoughts after tonight’s NBA Finals Game 6, which was the greatest and most emotionally draining basketball game I’ve watched in my entire life.

1. Channeling my inner LeBron, there were not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE ways that this game was going to be remembered at a certain point in time. They were (and each point will be getting further discussion once I get into breaking down the game) the Tim Duncan Game, the Headband Game, the Erik Spoelstra/Dwyane Wade Game, the Tony Parker Game, and the Ray Allen Game. After digesting everything, I don’t really know what to call it. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by the end of this.

2. I can’t recall any basketball game ever generating as much “Greatest basketball game ever played” buzz as this one. Granted I missed out on the Bird/Magic duels in the 80’s and the majority of the Jordan era, but it seems like the rapid reactions from fans and analysts go something like this, “HOLY FUCK THAT GAME WAS AWESOME!!!!!”

3. Continuing on with the previous point: from the start of the 4th quarter until one hour after the game had ended, I had direct contact via text message, phone call, Twitter or Facebook regarding the game with sixteen different people. That easily shattered my previous undocumented record, which I would guess would be last year when the Heat won the title. Those were just a bunch of congratulatory messages though. Last night was different. Last night was a mix of “Whoa LeBron was great!”, “What the hell is Spoelstra thinking?” and “Holy crap that game was incredible!”

4. Let’s take it one step further: The players involved in the game have been gushing with quotes about how incredible, and incredibly bizarre it was. LeBron called it “By far the best game I’ve ever been a part of.” Bosh: “Best game I’ve ever seen.” Birdman Andersen: “It was the most amazing basketball I’ve ever seen and to be a part of it was special.” And even a very animated “It was a hell of a game” from Gregg Popovich.

5. In order to firmly grasp how monumental this game was, you need to take into consideration everything that was on the line. First and most obviously, the NBA Title. The Spurs were up 3-2 in the series and looking for a fifth championship in the Duncan/Popovich era. Duncan was playing for a fifth title and greatest player of his generation bragging rights. Parker was playing for a likely Finals MVP, the Greatest Point Guard Alive Championship belt, and an automatic spot in the top three when it comes to best international players of all time. Popovich was coaching for a fifth title and a permanent spot on the NBA coaching Mount Rushmore alongside Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley. Wade and Bosh were playing not to be traded. And LeBron was playing for his legacy. Isn’t it amazing how many “legacy defining” games LeBron has played in. Seems like at least one every year. Duncan

6. A lot will be made of the 4th quarter and overtime (and rightfully so), but the mystique of this game started well before the fireworks exploded. Remember, before chaos broke out late in the game, this was going to go down as the Tim Duncan Game. Before the series I said that Duncan needed to have a couple of throwback 2003 Duncan games, and amazingly, the Heat survived one tonight. With Miami making it a priority not to allow the Spurs three-point shooters beat them, they allowed Duncan to go to work one on one in the post. Chalk this up as a catastrophically large advantage to Duncan, who started 8 for 8, posted a 25 point and 8 rebound first half, and finished with 30 and 17. To put it more simply, Duncan’s first half may have been the best half of basketball he’s ever played and I’ve ever seen. He was on pace for 50 points and 16 rebounds, and with how unstoppable he was in the first half I could’ve been talked into believing that that is what he would finish with. And based on that half alone, Duncan should’ve won the Finals MVP if, you know, the Spurs ended up winning the game.

7. You’ve heard of Danny Green, right? I’m sure you have. He’s the guy who got confused and thought he was Ray Allen, shattered the Finals record for three’s made (coincidentally held by Ray Allen) and generated a whole bunch of talk about how cool it would be for a former D-Leaguer to win the Finals MVP. Look, even though I wasn’t a huge fan of Danny Green’s out of body experience, it was definitely a neat story and an interesting narrative to write about. Notice the key word “was.” Those days are long gone. Green went 1 for 7 shooting and finished with only three points. You can thank or criticize Miami’s swarming perimeter defense for ending that Cinderella story.

8. The majority of the 1st half was back and forth and closely contested. But as we’re accustomed to seeing from the Spurs they went on a run to close out the 2nd quarter that pushed the lead to only six points, but it might as well have been 16. In the midst of my frustration I prematurely tweeted a simple and solemn “This game is over” that was 50% a pissed off overreaction, 25% prediction and 25% attempt at a reverse jinx. It did feel like it was over though.

9. And it may as well have been, by the time the 4th quarter had started the Heat were down by 10, LeBron was in full-fledged Dallas 2011 mode, and I was trying to make fake trades for Wade and Bosh in my head. Most of them were unrealistic and involved Stephen Curry somehow being traded to Miami, but still. I had to get to a happy place.

10. The 4th quarter started and all hell broke loose. With Miami trailing 75-65, Spoelstra trotted out a lineup that was screaming “Cleveland LeBron, save us!” Oddly enough, I was screaming the same thing earlier in the day when I made the executive decision to wear my old school Witness t-shirt I’ve had since my days as a Cavaliers fan. I’m a freak and believe in good karma based on the t-shirt I wear while the Heat are playing (Go ahead and laugh at me, but last year Miami didn’t lose a game in the playoffs once I started wearing my Big Woodies Fireworks t-shirt). My hopes for Game 6 were that by wearing a Cleveland era LeBron shirt that LeBron would trot out on the court and put together a 30-10-10 triple double. Well through three quarters LeBron was 3 for 11 shooting and I was ready to burn my shirt in the street like all of the pissed off Cavaliers fans did in 2010 when he took his talents to South Beach.

11. I’ve watched LeBron closely for ten years… six of which I’ve had the luxury of the NBA League Pass which means I’ve watched just about every one of LeBron’s last 553 games (playoffs included). I can’t remember him ever playing an extended stretch without a headband. This might not seem like a significant enough event to warrant a whole point in this list, but it definitely is. You know how sometimes when a player changes teams in the offseason and he doesn’t look quite right in his new uniform? That was the case here. He looked like a completely different human being out there doing Cleveland LeBron things. It was probably coincidental, or maybe it was like a fighter seeing his own blood, but for whatever reason, when LeBron’s headband was knocked off with nine minutes left he went bananas and imposed his will like I had been yearning for since the start of the series. He was attacking the basket relentlessly (thanks to the space created by the shooters on the floor) and he managed to make one of the biggest plays of the game that nobody will ever remember because there were ten huge plays that would follow, but big enough that it deserves its own point.

12. With 6:50 left in the game Miami trailed 82-80. The Heat was flirting with making a huge run to blow the game open. A hard close out by Ray Allen on Danny Green allowed Green to drive into the paint, draw Birdman into the air to contest his shot and dish to Tim Duncan. This should’ve been a Duncan dunk and perhaps the end of the Heat run. In less than 2 seconds LeBron left Tony Parker on the wing, darted underneath the basket and elevated to block Duncan’s layup. It was incredible to watch. Not only the physical ability to do that, but also the mental capacity to realize in a split second that he could leave Parker on the wing because Green didn’t have the angle and Duncan didn’t have the time to make the pass… it was just outstanding.

13. Earlier in the game there was a telling sequence where LeBron backed down Kawhi Leonard (who by the way has huge hands and had the least talked about 22 point and 11 rebound game I’ve ever seen) and finished at the rim. Jeff Van Gundy commented, “The power of shooting gives James more space on the floor in that back in move. There’s no help coming, eventually he’s going to overpower Leonard.” For anyone that really knows about basketball, that isn’t a hard concept to understand. So by the power of deduction, that leads me to believe that the people who thought that Dwyane Wade should be brought back in the game despite the fact that Miami had just rolled off a 22-9 run without him don’t know about basketball. Unfortunately, one of those people happens to be head coach Erik Spoelstra.

14. I broke my self-appointed no swearing on social media rule because the only way I could accurately express how pissed off I was by Spoelstra’s decision to bring Wade in was by dropping a couple of F-bombs. Let me give that another go; how the fuck could Spoelstra bring Wade back in? It was uncanny. It was like watching a scary movie when the idiot protagonist decides to go back into the house that the serial killer is in. Miami was rolling with their Cavaliers-esque small ball lineup which going back to the movie comparison would be like the family driving away from the house. Spo putting Wade back in with Miami up by three with 3:48 left was like the protagonist of the movie making an aggressive U-Turn and driving back towards the house to confront the killer. Don’t be stupid Spo! LeBron had room to go to work in the paint because the Spurs defenders had to honor the shooters on the perimeter. As soon as Wade came back in the game the paint was clogged and LeBron suddenly had multiple defenders surrounding him. Parker

15. Once again, let’s recap.  The Heat are leading 87-84 with 3:48 left when Wade came in. The only person whose spirit looked more broken by this than myself was LeBron, who seemingly knew that Wade coming into the game meant that because Wade is Wade, he had to get a few shots so he’d play hard defensively (the most egregious example of this came with under a minute left overtime when the Heat were clinging to a one point lead and Wade decided to isolate and take a twenty foot jump shot based solely on the fact that he’s Dwyane Wade and he can seemingly do no wrong). It also meant that as I mentioned before, the Spurs ability to guard LeBron down the stretch would be infinitely easier now that they could send a help defender and not worry about a wide open player on the perimeter. To nobody’s surprise but Spo’s, the Spurs went on a run and eventually took the lead with under one minute remaining. This is when the game for just over one minute of game time action became the Tony Parker game.

16. I can’t say too many good words about Tony Parker based solely on the principle that Skip Bayless adores him and the Spurs so much, so this point might be brief. Don’t confuse this and mistakenly think I don’t realize how great Parker is (the internal “Who is the best point guard alive” debate has already begun inside my head since I started working on my Top 50 Players list). His skills speak for themselves and his crunch time chops have been on display this postseason. Tonight was no different. Parker was exhausted and struggling after having to deal with a 6’8 physical freak chase him around for the entire 4th quarter, but Parker managed to make not one, but two huge plays down the stretch. First was the step back bomb he hit with 1:30 left in the game to tie it, and then the floater over Chalmers to give San Antonio a 91-89 lead with 58 seconds left. Parker ended up a lackluster 6 for 23 from the field but still would’ve won the Finals MVP had the Spurs pulled out the victory. Then again, Game 7 is Thursday so we can’t close that chapter just yet.

17. Even though it seemed as if Parker was well on his way to a 2nd Finals MVP, the Tony Parker Game disappeared more quickly than Alan Parish getting sucked into Jumanji. Thanks to an gutty offensive rebound from Chris Bosh (Tim Duncan wasn’t in the game, but still) and a heady kick out to Ray Allen in the corner, the Heat season stayed alive and the very turbulent relationship between my mother and Ray Allen (Who was referred to as “The Saboteur” by my mom, who was convinced that Ray Allen signed with the Heat to screw them out of the title. She must’ve watched too much wrestling with me when I was a little kid) was mended. I told her from the get-go that there would come a time when she would love Ray Allen. Tonight was that night. The all-time leader in three’s made sat and watched as Danny Green obliterated his record for three’s in a Finals series… you just knew he was going to respond with something like this. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just entered the Ray Allen Game. Miami survived the final 5 seconds of regulation, and suddenly we were in overtime.

18. Overtime served as the continuation of my intense frustration towards Spo and Wade, and also as the redemption of Chris Bosh, who played spectacularly down the stretch doing all the things he was supposed to do. Statistically this game won’t stand out for Bosh (10 points, 11 rebounds, 5 for 12 shooting), but he made every big play he was supposed to make. The big time offensive rebound and kick out to Allen; the block on the Tony Parker jump shot in overtime; and the game winning block on Danny Green in the corner, which was double sweet since Bosh declared before the game that Danny Green wouldn’t get an open look for three.  So let’s recap really quickly: The Heat got what they needed from LeBron, Allen, Bosh, Chalmers, Miller and Battier… and Wade sucked. Okay, just wanted to make sure we cleared that up.

19. The Heat miraculously managed a 103-100 win when it seemed like they were dead in the water with under a minute left. This evokes two questions: First, how do the Spurs bounce back from such a devastating loss? Think about it: The Spurs split two pairs of free throws in the final minute which could’ve pushed their lead to six or four points. They were so close to winning that the yellow rope was going up around the court and the Larry O’Brien Trophy was courtside across from the Spurs bench. They watched their lead, their trophy and just as an extra kick in the nads the yellow rope all disappear. Now, it comes down to a Game 7. What do the Spurs have left mentally, and what does either team have left physically? How could Thursdays game possibly live up to Game 6? And how can my parents, myself or my cousin Gianni (a Spurs fan) withstand another game like this. Gianni and I had the following texting exchange at the end of regulation:

Gianni: Holy smokes. That’s all I got to say about that.

Me: I’ve already cried once during this game. I can’t handle this.

Gianni: I already began to cry tears of joy. That was short lived. Alright time for OT. No more texting cause neither of us can handle it. LeBron headbandless

20. That text messages revealed the final and most important point of this game for me. If I learned one thing from Game 6 it’s that I’m far too emotionally invested in LeBron James than I should be. I’m blessed to have great family and friends, to be able to live comfortably, and to go to a great college. I couldn’t ask for much more than I’ve been given, yet I was reduced to tears when LeBron was faltering down the stretch in Game 6. Is that healthy? Definitely not. But that’s just the way it is for me. That wasn’t the first time that’s happened, and it certainly won’t be the last time. Last year after LeBron won his first title I wrote that nine years of hopes and dreams dashed was worth it for the one year of unimaginable happiness. Well call me selfish, but I don’t want to go another 9 years of hopes and dreams being dashed. That sucked. Tonight it looked like I was going to have to wait at least one more year for that distinct kind of happiness that only your favorite team or player can bring you; the happiness that comes from being a part of something bigger than you. For me, every game is the LeBron James Game. There is just always a subtitle that goes along with it. Game 6 will always be the LeBron James Headband Game for me. It’s right alongside with the 48 Special Game in Detroit in 2007, the Orlando Game Winner, the 40-18-9 Game in Indiana last year, the 45 point evisceration of Boston in Game 6 last year, the Cramp Game in the 2012 Finals, the night LeBron won his first title, and the Indiana Game Winner. What will Game 7 be?