After Carmelo’s Knicks beat LeBron’s Heat on Sunday, I was prepared to hear some overreaction. But when I turned on Mike and Mike the next morning, it’s fair to say that I was more than a little stunned. The conversation focused around one question: “Who would you rather have, Carmelo or LeBron?”
Of course I was appalled.
How could you possibly say the two are comparable? Sure, Carmelo is a great scorer, especially in crunch time, and he was great on Sunday night against the Heat…but better than LeBron? Come on.
Further than that, not only was the question raised, but there actually seemed to be some consensus that people would, in fact, actually take Carmelo over LeBron. In my mind, the madness had to be stopped. I dislike LeBron as much as the next guy, but declaring anything other than the best player in the league is a little ludicrous…right?
That’s when I got the idea.
Someone needed to, once and for all, actually rank the best players in the league; but they had to do it right. It doesn’t matter who the best scorer is. We don’t care who the best leader is. I don’t even want to know who is the most valuable to his team. I want to find out, once and for all, the answer to the following question: if you were going to build a team from scratch tomorrow, and you could choose from anyone in the world, who do you take first, and why?
First, the ground rules:
Ground Rule #1) Salaries don’t matter.
We don’t take Blake Griffin over LeBron James just because we could build more players around him. We look at everyone’s individual skills, and simply decide who is the best.
Ground Rule #2) Potential doesn’t matter.
Again, we don’t take Blake Griffin over Tim Duncan just because he has ten good years ahead of him and Duncan has two. We look at the here and now.
Ground Rule #3) This guy has to be a player that could be the best guy on a championship team.
This seems obvious, but in case you didn’t realize it, that narrows the entire NBA down to nine guys (in alphabetical order): Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade.
These guys should not be confused with “guys that could be the best on a championship team if they had three great teammates” (Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, etc.).
They DEFINITELY should not be confused with “really good second bananas that think they could be the main guy” (Brandon Roy, Joe Johnson, Amare’ Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Danny Granger, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer, etc.).
It also has to exclude the “guys who are a few years away in either direction” (think Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook on the young side and Tim Duncan, KG, Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash on the older side.)
Ground Rule #4) Remember, YOU are building the team – not some dumb GM or player that believes he is making a great team simply by compiling great players.
This deserves much more attention than it’s getting. To illustrate Ground Rule #4, just think about the 2004 USA Olympic Team compared to the “Redeem Team.”
If you were to give me an NBA team, and then tell me I could pick any three players that I wanted, and the rest of the team would be filled out at random, here would be my three priorities in some order: a point guard who can score but more importantly knows how to get his teammates the ball in positions for them to succeed; a wing who can shoot well and score; a big man that can rebound and score on the block. That’s it. At no point would I look at my options and decide, “I want two incredibly athletic wings who can’t shoot and a finesse big man.” Yes, I’m talking to you LeBron.
Do you want to know what the saddest thing about “The Decision” was? That LeBron didn’t go to Chicago. Could you imagine a team of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, LeBron James, and Joakim Noah for the next five years? Does ANYONE come close to beating that team?
This is why the New York Knicks are so intriguing. In no way, shape, or form do their pieces come anywhere close to being as good as the pieces in Miami…but they make sense. They have a great point guard, the best scoring wing in basketball, and a legitimate threat down low. You and I could be the other two players on the floor for them and we would have a decent shot at winning some games.
Ground Rule #5) The rest of your team is good enough to win 30-40 games without your main guy.
Why is this important? Because no one on earth could win a championship with the 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. Be honest; although LeBron did quit last year in the playoffs, his team was terrible. Maybe we were a little too hard on him for not getting it done. Even Jordan couldn’t win without Pippen.
So with the ground rules in place, it’s time to rank the Best of the Best. If you were to build your team around one guy, for this year, 2011, who would it be?
#9 Kobe Bryant
Remember, this is not about what he’s done, but rather what he can do for us today. To be honest, it’s amazing that he’s still on the list. These are the names of the notable guys that were drafted with Kobe or six full years after him: Iverson, Camby, Marbury, Ray Allen, Peja, Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Duncan, Billups, T-Mac, Bibby, Jamison, Carter, Pierce, Nowitzki, Brand, Odom, Hamilton, Maggette, Artest, Chandler, Gasol, Richardson, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker, Gerald Wallace, Ming, Amare’, Caron Butler, and Tayshaun Prince. So yeah…besides Dirk, there’s not a single guy that was drafted before 2003 that’s good enough, today, to be the best guy on a championship team.
My favorite thing about Kobe is the way that he’s changed his game in order to stay relevant. Watching his footwork, his new and improved post game, his fade-away midrange jumper, and better passing has been so fulfilling. The guy has come along way from hogging the ball in the All-Star game and even feuding with Shaq. He picks his spots and knows when to take over the game.
Kobe is one of my favorite players ever, and it hurts me to have him so low on this list, but again it’s not bad for a 33-year-old with almost 1300 games on his odometer. THIRTEEN HUNDRED!!! (By the way. Jordan only played in 1261…including his two years with the Wizards…so you could make a pretty good argument that Kobe’s prime has lasted much longer than the Jumpman.)
#8 Dirk Nowitzki
What can you say about the big fellow? He is almost painful to watch. He’s most likely the slowest impact player since Larry Bird. And yet, here he is, game after game, calmly stroking threes and making himself nearly unguardable in crunch time. You can always count on Dirk to do three things: lumber around. look ugly, and win.
I had a tough time with Dirk and Kobe. Who deserves to be higher? It really came down to this: the Mavericks have a better record than the Lakers at this point, and there really is no legitimate argument that the rest of Dirk’s team is better than Kobe’s. In fact, Dirk’s team has gone 2-7 without him this year. Chandler, Butler, Kidd, Terry, and those guys are solid players…but they wouldn’t win nearly as many games as Gasol, Odom, Artest, and Fisher.
So for this year, and this year alone, Dirk beats out Kobe…if only by his hair.
#7 Kevin Durant
Amazing offense, not much else. It’s really that simple. The Durantula might be the best offensive player of all time when it’s all said and done, and on a perfect team, he could absolutely be an NBA Finals MVP. However, he would need that team to be incredibly tenacious on defense, and probably have a leader at the point guard position, just like Team USA this summer. At this point in his career, KD doesn’t lead enough on both ends of the floor to be any higher on this list. But hey, he’s only 22. Give him a break.
#6 Dwyane Wade
#5 Chris Paul
Again, we have two guys who are incredibly close. Dwyane Wade has won a title, Chris Paul hasn’t. Chris Paul has won assist and steal crowns, Dwyane Wade hasn’t. Both guys have battled injuries. Both guys contribute significantly on both ends of the floor. But CP3 gets the edge because of one factor: he finds a way to impact the game even when he’s not scoring. Now you might say that is only because he’s a PG and point guards are supposed to be able to do that. Yeah, but still…
Here’s my best argument. We all know that Wade’s team was terrible last year and he still led them to 47 wins and the 5 seed in the East. That was impressive, but Chris Paul has done nearly as much with just as little in a much tougher conference this year. Past that, Wade has one glaring weakness that ended up giving Chris Paul the edge: his three-point shooting is atrocious. Yes, I understand that we are picking nits at this point, but when you are comparing the best of the best, it often comes down to that. And today? Chris Paul > Dwyane Wade.
#4 Carmelo Anthony
There are a few things about Carmelo that worry me a little bit. I’m not sure if he is the type of guy who will give it his all in every situation. We saw him sabotage the Nuggets these past few months and became a little less enamored with his overall game. He hasn’t always had the commitment to defense that we would like to see from our main guy either.
All of that said, he’s almost underrated at this point. This is what we know: he was without a doubt the best player on Team USA for three years. That means that on a team full of superstars, he not only held his own but really proved that he was among the best there is.
He’s also the most complete scorer in the NBA as well as the most clutch. The stats don’t lie. Over the past five years, no one in the league has been as good during crunch time. And really, this might be the single most important ability in basketball. If you don’t have a guy who can score down the stretch, you will have trouble beating anyone. Carmelo has his shortcomings, I understand that. But you should understand that I very nearly had him higher because of his ability to take over down the stretch.
We forget that it is Carmelo and not LeBron who has never missed the playoffs. We forget that he led a team with Marcus Camby and almost nothing else to a hair from the NBA Finals in the Western Conference.
There were a lot of people who were worried about the team dynamics in New York after the trade. I was not one of them. Sure, if a guy like Joe Johnson went there, he and Amare’ might have some battles. But if Michael Jordan had been traded to the Portland Trailblazers in 1993, it would have taken Clyde Drexler all of 3 seconds to give the team over to him. I’m not saying that Carmelo is Jordan, but the reactions were similar I think. NBA players know who is good and how isn’t. Believe me, I don’t see any alpha dog struggles between Carmelo and a second banana.
#3 Derrick Rose
I really don’t need to explain this one too much. I love what Bill Simmons said. Look at this year’s Chicago Bulls team and find five games where Rose, Noah, and Boozer all played. You can’t. And yet, here we are 3/4 of the way through the season and the Baby Bulls are just three games back from the Boston Celtics.
Nobody wants to play this team in the playoffs, and it’s all because of Derrick Rose. He’s the second most unguardable player the NBA, and this summer he did something that LeBron has yet to do: he got a jump shot.
Remember when he was a rookie and guys had to stay five feet off of him and it still didn’t matter because he would explode by them anyway? Well now he’s got a jump shot and it’s almost not fair. He looks like a video game at times, and he has developed into the best point guard in the NBA. In a Point Guard League that has guys like Paul, Williams, and Nash, that’s saying a lot.
#2 Dwight Howard
Maybe you’ve never thought about this, but here is a fun stat: in the past 31 seasons, 25 NBA Champions have been built around a post player. The six that weren’t? Jordan’s Bulls. But yeah, whether it was Kareem, Malone, McHale, Hakeem, Duncan, or Shaq, champions always seem to have that one thing in common. This is why centers get paid so much. This is also why, in a league with so few good big men, Dwight Howard is the second best player in the league.
He commands a double team on offense, and his offensive repertoire is continually expanding. He’s the back to back Defensive Player of the Year as well. He gobbles up every rebound, and is a legitimately good teammate. To be frank, he would have been #1 on this list if he could shoot free throws. I know LeBron is good, but no matter what stat you throw at me, 25 of 31 trumps it. It’s still a big man’s league, and D12 is as good as it gets right now.
#1 LeBron James
He dominates more areas of the game than anyone since a young Jordan. When he needs to get to the basket, he gets there. He’s not a pure point guard in the sense that he uses his passing to create shots, but he uses his incredible scoring ability to get guys open, and he always seems to make the right pass. Defensively, no one is better at his position. On the boards, no one is better at his position. He simply doesn’t hurt you anywhere.
Sure, it’s disappointing that he still doesn’t have a consistent jump shot. If he did, he would be the most unstoppable player in history. This hole has also made him somewhat of a letdown in crunch time. But lest we forget the 48 Special, the Shot against Orlando, and all his other crunch time heroics, the guy does alright in the clutch.
Quick caveat: I understand that LeBron and the Heat have been pretty poor down the stretch of big games this year. In the past two weeks, LeBron missed important free throws in Boston, passed to Bosh in the All Star Game in crunch time, clanked a three off the backboard in Chicago, got blocked by Amare and clanked another three in the same game…and we all saw what happened last night. It got me thinking, “Was Michael Jordan ever that wide open at the end of a game even once? Would anyone ever dream about leaving him for a second in ANY situation?” But then I remembered…LeBron is not Jordan.
If anything, I think his struggles down the stretch this year are more indicative of the fact that his team doesn’t make sense. Again, you have two ball-stopping wings that can’t shoot and a finesse big man. That’s not ideal for crunch time. You could almost make the case that you could give LeBron four role players and he would do better – like he did in Cleveland for eight years.
It comes back to this: if you have to choose one guy to start your team with, it can’t be anyone other than LeBron. Again, we aren’t filling a hole on a team that is one piece away…we are starting from scratch. Maybe a super athletic team that thrives on defense would choose Carmelo or Durant over LeBron. There are definitely some guard-heavy teams that would love to add Howard to their squad instead of LeBron. But the reality is that in 2011, today, right now, no way that you start a team than anyone else than the King.