February 20, 2013

ZAKOUR | Hoop for Thought

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W ith All Star Break about over, I present my assorted thoughts on the NBA.

M.J. at 50

Michael Jordan turned 50 years old Sunday. This might not be momentous in and of itself, but since the man widely regarded as the greatest player in basketball history is turning half a century old, it has inspired a disproportionate amount of coverage.

I see not only the usual top 10 (or in this case, 50) moments and highs of his career on ESPN, but also sports talk program “First Take” arguing about whether or not Jordan, at age 34, like Kobe, could lead this struggling Lakers team to glory or if Jordan could average 20 in the NBA today (I say, not a chance). I also hear stories of Jordan beating Charlotte Bobcats players less than half his age in one-on-one face-offs. I find it improbable that Jordan would win if the players were taking the game seriously. After all, I would be happy to throw a game of one-on-one to Michael Jordan — a guy that I looked up to my whole life.

Michael Jordan was not perfect. Despite this, all I read of him is hagiography about how he’s the greatest player in history and the oft-cited evidence are his six championship rings as a result of six finals MVP performances. This is undeniably impressive. Michael Jordan’s regular stats are certainly impressive (in 1988-9 he probably had his most well-rounded year ever, averaging over 32 along with eight assists and eight rebounds) and he is definitively the best player of his generation. Despite this, most of the records Jordan owns are that of consistency and longevity, not pure dominance.

That being said, I don’t think we’re honoring Jordan right. He was not a perfect player. He was never the most efficient player — leading the league in field goals attempted nine times — yet he still is widely regarded as a team player who made those around him better. This may be true, but he was essentially a volume scorer, not unlike Kobe Bryant.

Jordan’s critics relentlessly questioned his value before he finally won his championships. He could not get past the Detroit Pistons without Scottie Pippen in the playoffs. It took Jordan six years to win a championship: three years for him to get out of the first round of the playoffs, and the next three years losing to the Pistons.

Yet for every other player, the usual comment is how you cannot compare eras. Debate over whether Magic Johnson, Kareem, Wilt, Larry Bird or Oscar Robertson were the greatest of said group will inspire that: a debate.

For Jordan, however, is it perceived as a closed case. I disagree. I believe part of it is maybe just that Jordan has the most memorable moments: the shot over Ehlo, the dunk contest with Dominique Wilkins, the image of him clutching his first championship trophy in tears, the flu game, his final shot as a Bull winning the finals, among others. Saying Jordan is the greatest of all time is a reasonable conclusion, but be skeptical and don’t take it for granted.

Lebron and Kobe:

This week, Jordan said he’d pick Kobe over Lebron. “Five beats one every time I look at it,” he said, referring to the ring disparity between the two. I’ll give Jordan a pass since he’s entitled to his own opinion, but the fact Lebron or Kobe is still a debate baffles me.

The stats speak for themselves. Lebron is the best player in the NBA and has been for three years. He also has won  an MVP award, a finals MVP award and a gold medal in the same year for only the second time in history. The only thing Kobe can claim to be more proficient at is scoring, which Lebron does more efficiently anyway.

And then there is the matter that Lebron’s teams have won more regular season games than Kobe’s since the 2008 season. Lebron is having one of the most impressive statistical seasons in recent memory, while Kobe is, depending on how one looks at it, either having a great season for a 34-year-old, or just a typical Kobe year. For instance, Kobe leads the league in field goals attempted but not field goals made — a stat that belongs to Lebron despite taking 186 fewer shots.

The East:

As I see it, the Eastern Conference has one heavy favorite in the Miami Heat, and only two other teams that could realistically win it. Derrick Rose does not look like he will back at 100 percent this season for the Bulls, which leaves the team incapable of beating the Heat in a best of seven playoff series. Behind the Heat are the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, respectively, and each team has beaten the Heat handily twice. Both teams are tough matchups for the Heat. Indiana has some talented guard play, but its biggest strength comes in quality big men, especially 7’2’’ center Roy Hibbert. To cool off the Heat, the Knicks have the second best player in the East not named ‘James’ in Carmelo Anthony and a reigning defensive player of the year in Tyson Chandler, to go with three-point shooting that can stretch the floor. All of this, combined with the recent decline of Dwyane Wade, means the Heat is vulnerable in this year’s playoffs.

The West:

There are four teams in the West that a have shot at winning the title: the veteran Spurs and Grizzlies, along with the Thunder and the Clippers. The Thunder would be my pick to win it outright, although I say that reluctantly. In a Valentine’s day matchup against the Heat at home, the Thunder was taken apart by Lebron. Durant had the most unimpressive 40-point performance I’ve ever seen, and the game got of hand quickly. This concerns me considering that in the most recent finals played, the Heat beat the Thunder in five games, winning the last four in a row.

The Grizzlies are tougher to pin down due to the recent trade of their leading scorer, Rudy Gay, but are certainly a capable, balanced team. The Clippers are an up and down team, but their core of Griffin and Paul, as well as Crawford off the bench, and strong role players are a tough matchup for anyone. My heart wants a Clippers and Knicks final. My brain tells me, however, a finals rematch of the Heat and the Thunder is in store.

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