NBA Finals Game 7: Be careful what you wish for

Basketball is a copycat sport more than any other. All of us can remember going out into our driveway to stick our tongue out like Michael Jordan, to whip the ball behind our back like Magic Johnson, or even try and swoop like Dr. J.  The copying doesn’t just stop at the elementary level though. Kobe Bryant once famously quipped that he had “seriously stole[n] all of [his] moves from the greatest players.” Johnson won a title by imitating his teammate’s unstoppable hook shot. Even Jordan admitted to mimicking parts of his game after legends like David Thompson.

LeBron JamesEvery generation features its own alpha dog – and everyone else tries to unseat him from his perch atop the league. In doing so, the rest of the league invariably begins to copy the best players, assuming “if it works for (insert name here), it must work for me.”

This isn’t always a good thing.

In the early 1980s, Magic and Larry Bird dominated the game. Because of their unselfish and beautiful style of play, the game grew to heights it had never before seen. As they prospered, the rest of the league began to imitate them. By the end of the decade, every team in the league (outside of the expansion Miami Heat) averaged at least 104 points per game. Beautiful, free-flowing basketball was preferable to everything else. It didn’t matter how good a player was (just look at Michael Jordan’s masterpiece of a performance in 1989), teams would always beat out individual stars.

Because unselfish play was so highly valued, superstars began to play more unselfishly. In 1989, six players averaged at least 20 points and five assists per game. Of the 28 players that averaged at least 20 points per game, not a single one shot less than 46 percent from the field. Efficiency was important. Unselfishness was important. That’s how Magic and Larry played – and that’s what the rest of the league tried to emulate.

Then came the 1990s. For the first time ever, a single superstar started winning championships – at least that was the perception.

It didn’t matter that all of Jordan’s rivals seemed to have passed their primes, or that his team went 55-27 without him, or that there wasn’t a single other team in the league whose second best player was as good as Scottie Pippen. We loved Jordan, and he became irreproachable.

You remember what happened. Jordan became the first player to lead the league in scoring every time he won a title. He won six NBA Finals MVPs, he should have won six NBA MVPs, and he did so with some of the most iconic performances – the flu game, the shrug, and the shove – that could be imagined.

But as great as Jordan was, he began to have an incredibly negative effect on the league in general. As we were all happily singing that we wanted to be “like Mike,” the rest of the NBA was becoming like Mike – and it was disastrous.

It’s easy to forget how much worse 1998 Jordan was than the earlier vintages. In 1991, Jordan averaged 12 assists per game in an NBA Finals series victory over Magic Johnson and the Lakers. Early 1990s Jordan, even if he wasn’t fully committed to playing team basketball, at least put on the facade every once in a while. The Jordan of 1998 was truly awful for basketball.

That version of Jordan was stubborn and averaged 30 shots per contest in games 1,2,4,5 and 6 (it’s interesting to note that in Game 3 when he took only 14 shots, the Bulls won by 42 points) of the 1998 NBA Finals. In those games, he shot 42 percent from the floor and only averaged two assists per game. In his famous 45-point Game 6 performance, he totaled only one assist and one rebound while shooting 15-of-35 from the field.

Jordan and the Bulls won, but on his terms. The rest of the league began playing like him.

It may have been OK for MJ to hold the ball on the block for five seconds as he sized up his opponent, backed him down, and then drained the fallaway 17-footer. By 1998, only four teams in the entire NBA averaged more than 100 points per game. Basketball had gotten slower, more physical, and much more reliant on “isolation basketball.” That year, only three players averaged at least 20 points and five assists, and one of those players was Allen Iverson – a guy who had the ball so much, he practically fell into six assists a game. Of the 24 players that averaged 20 points per game, 12 shot worse than 46 percent, with six of them shooting worse than 42 percent. Unselfishness was no longer as important. Efficiency seemed to be completely irrelevant altogether. All that mattered was playing like Mike, and that meant scoring like him.

Once he retired, the NBA became borderline unwatchable. Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal dominated the league while both averaged nearly 30 points per game. Selfish players like Antoine Walker, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse were big stars. As everyone tried to imitate Jordan, the league got worse and worse. Eventually, defense became easy. The new bigger, stronger athletes could defend individual isolation plays incredibly well. The 2005 NBA title was determined in an 81-74 slugfest where neither the San Antonio Spurs or Detroit Pistons shot better than 42 percent. The next year, the Heat won a title with Dwyane Wade’s usage rate jumping to almost comical levels.

Incredible individual performances weren’t scarce during this time either. Bryant put together a season that even Jordan would have been proud of, even scoring a mind-boggling 81 points in one game against the Toronto Raptors. John Hollinger ranks Dwyane Wade’s 2006 NBA Finals as the greatest ever. LeBron James scored 29 of his team’s final 30 points against the defending conference champs in 2007 in a game that was known as the “48 Special.” A few years later, he had one of the greatest individual series of all time against the Orlando Magic.

The problem was, in every case but Wade, none of the individual performances ended in a championship. And in Wade’s case, nearly every basketball fan in the world gave half of the credit to the officials.

Who did win titles? The 2000s were dominated by the boring, team-oriented Spurs, the equally boring, but incredibly stacked Lakers, the even more boring, defensive-minded Pistons, and finally, the “Big 3” Boston Celtics and the Lakers again, led by Bryant and Pau Gasol.

It started to become clear, individuals didn’t win championships, teams did. Interestingly enough, James was probably the first player to truly figure it out.

After single-handedly beating the Pistons in 2007, his Cleveland Cavs were no match for the Spurs in 2007. In 2008, 45 points, five rebounds, and six assists weren’t enough to beat the Celtics. In 2009, averages of 39, eight, and eight weren’t enough to topple an Orlando team built around Dwight Howard and three-point shooters. In 2010, he once again failed to get by the Celtics.

You know what happened next? He chose to leave Cleveland in order to play with better teammates. He was basically admitting that he couldn’t win it all himself.

Strangely enough, we all hated him for that move.

Think about that again, we despised a player for unselfishly admitting that no matter how good he was individually, he couldn’t win a title by himself. Of course he made the announcement in about as poor a manner as was possible, but the point remains, James chose to stop pursuing individual greatness, and we ridiculed him for it.

What happened next is somewhat irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make in this column. James and the Heat went on to make the next three NBA Finals, and depending on what happens Thursday night, they will have either “completely failed” by losing two of those three or only “slightly failed” by winning only two of three.

What is far more interesting to me is what has happened to the rest of the league. As James developed into an all-around force of nature, other greats began to take notice and imitate him. Kevin Durant has focused on rounding out his game this year, upping his assists, steals and blocks in each of the past three seasons. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and other exciting young stars are already fantastic on both ends of the floor while also improving as passers each year.

Overall, team scoring has bumped back up, but individual scoring has actually plummeted. Only 11 players averaged more than 20 points per game. Of those 11, nine also contributed more than five assists a game. More than half of them shot better than 50 percent. Everywhere you look, players are becoming more unselfish, more team-oriented, and more efficient on offense.

As you watch tonight’s game, be careful what you wish for.

Jordan defenders will only accept one thing from James, a 40-point effort in a Miami win. Triple-doubles are seemingly unimportant to them. Unless LeBron wins like Jordan won, he will never be as great as Jordan was.

What a shame. We’ve been down that road before. We saw where it led.

Win or lose tonight, I hope James keeps playing his way, the team way. It’s good for basketball, it’s good for the league and it’s good for us.

And by the way, besides that random six-year stretch in the 1990s, it’s also proven to be a pretty good strategy for actually winning championships.

About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.


  1. gymtruthteller says:

    Do they allow any idiot to write articles these days?
    Antoine Walker was not selfish. He led his team in assists several times. If you knew ANYTHING about the Celtics in the late 90’s early 2000’s you would know that Jim O’Brien wanted his players to take the first shot they had and run back on defense/. Antoine did what he was told and my guess is you would be calling him names if he didn’t do what his coach said.

    Unlike idiots like you I actually watched the team back then so STFU about stuff you clearly know nothing about.

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      A coward hiding behind a fake name, spewing profanity, nitpicking minor pieces of a great article. I’ll pray for you to grow up.

  2. AJ Kaufman says:

    “All of us can remember going out into our driveway to stick our tongue out like Michael Jordan…”

    Yeah, I have no recollection of doing that. Solid effort though. Too bad last night’s game was beyond sloppy. Game 6? Solid. Game 7? Sordid. ESPN tells people what to think.

  3. Yeah, AW wasn’t selfish, especially off the court ;-). Jon, I couldn’t agree more on your take of Jordan. Everyone idolized him for scoring 30 a night, but didn’t want to hear that he went 10 of 30 from the floor with some made free throws thrown in to get those 30 points.
    Also, I think LeBron will eventually be “less” hated, as long as he loses some of the cockiness and shows some measure of humility, and respect for his opponent. But for now, he’s still a pouter. Too many times he’ll drive to the basket, miss the shot, think he got fouled, and not hustle back on defense. If not for Shane Battier’s sharpshooting in game 7, he would have lost yet another title, to a Spurs team that didn’t play all that well in that game.

  4. Some really fantastic work on behalf of the owner of
    this internet site, utterly outstanding content.

  5. Very energetic blog, I enjoyed that bit. Will there be a part 2?

  6. Yesterday, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!|

  7. I blog frequently and I genuinely appreciate your content.

    This article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark
    your website and keep checking for new information about once per
    week. I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.

  8. Good day! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you
    knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my comment form?

    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

  9. If some one desires to be updated with latest technologies
    after that he must be visit this website and be up to date daily.

  10. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without
    a doubt donate to this excellent blog! I guess
    for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to new updates and will share this site with my Facebook group.
    Talk soon!

  11. I would like to consider the opportunity of saying thanks to you for your professional
    guidance I have often enjoyed going to your site.

    I’m looking forward to the commencement of my college research and the overall preparing would
    never have been complete without dropping by your blog.
    If I may be of any assistance to others, I might be ready to help through what I
    have learned from here.

  12. Yes! Finally someone writes about ig.

  13. Great article! That is the kind of info that should
    be shared across the internet. Shame on Google for not positioning this submit higher!
    Come on over and consult with my website . Thanks =)

  14. Hi my loved one! I wish to say that this article is
    awesome, great written and come with approximately all significant infos.
    I’d like to see more posts like this.

  15. What’s up colleagues, fastidious article and good arguments
    commented at this place, I am in fact enjoying by these.

  16. I like this web site very much, Its a very nice office to read and receive information.

  17. Hey there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and
    starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us
    beneficial information to work on. You have done a extraordinary job!

  18. These are in fact great ideas in regarding blogging.
    You have touched some nice things here. Any way keep up wrinting.

  19. I constantly spent my half an hour to read this website’s articles daily along with a cup
    of coffee.

  20. Saved as a favorite, I like your site!

  21. Just what I was searching for, thanks for posting.

  22. Greate pieces. Keep posting such kind of info on your blog.
    Im really impressed by your blog.[X-N-E-W-L-I-N-S-P-I-N-X]Hello there,
    You’ve performed a great job. I will certainly digg it and
    in my opinion suggest to my friends. I am sure they’ll
    be benefited from this web site.

  23. I intended to post you this tiny word to help thank you so
    much the moment again on the superb tips you have documented on this site.

    It’s quite pretty open-handed of people like you to make
    openly all some people could have offered for an e book in making some money on their own, primarily seeing that you could have done it if you ever decided.
    These solutions additionally served like a great way to fully grasp that someone else have a similar dreams much like my own to know the truth a little more with regards to this condition. I’m
    sure there are many more pleasant instances up front for many who read
    carefully your blog post.

  24. Admiring the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.

    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information. Great read!
    I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds
    to my Google account.

  25. Howdy! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which
    blog platform are you using for this site? I’m
    getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had
    issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform.

    I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  26. each time i used to read smaller articles or reviews which
    as well clear their motive, and that is also happening with this article which I am
    reading now.

  27. I am not sure where you are getting your information, but
    great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thanks for great info I was looking for this information for my mission.

  28. I have been surfing online greater than 3 hours these days, but I never discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours.
    It is beautiful value enough for me. Personally, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you
    did, the web shall be much more helpful than ever before.

  29. I am in fact glad to glance at this website posts which
    carries tons of useful data, thanks for providing such data.

  30. Informative article, totally what I needed.

  31. I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!

  32. Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a
    few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why
    but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different
    internet browsers and both show the same results.

  33. Amazing! Its actually amazing piece of writing, I have got
    much clear idea concerning from this paragraph.

  34. Magnificent items from you, man. I’ve have in mind your stuff prior to
    and you’re just extremely fantastic. I actually like what you have bought
    right here, certainly like what you are saying and the way by which you are saying
    it. You’re making it enjoyable and you continue to take care of
    to keep it sensible. I cant wait to learn much more from you.

    This is really a great website.

  35. Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed
    in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Thank you

  36. Well I truly liked studying it. This subject procured by
    you is very practical for correct planning.

  37. Please let me know if you’re looking for a writer for
    your site. You have some really great articles and I believe
    I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of
    the load off, I’d really like to write some articles for
    your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please
    blast me an email if interested. Thank you!

  38. Hi colleagues, its great article about teachingand entirely explained, keep it up all the time.

  39. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for nanoo

  40. I was recommended this website by my cousin. I am not
    sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty.

    You are amazing! Thanks!

  41. We are a gaggle of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community.
    Your site provided us with useful information to work on. You have done a formidable job and our entire neighborhood will be thankful
    to you.

  42. I like this web blog very much, Its a very nice berth to read and get info.

  43. Hello, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have
    been kinda boring… I miss your super writings. Past few posts are just a bit out of track!
    come on!

  44. I am curious to find out what blog system you’re utilizing?
    I’m experiencing some minor security issues with my latest site and I’d like to find something more secure.
    Do you have any solutions?

  45. Greate pieces. Keep posting such kind of info on your site.
    Im really impressed by your blog.[X-N-E-W-L-I-N-S-P-I-N-X]Hi there, You’ve performed an incredible job.
    I’ll certainly digg it and individually suggest to my friends.

    I am confident they’ll be benefited from this site.

  46. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but,
    I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your blog you might be interested in hearing.
    Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it develop over

  47. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate
    you writing this post plus the rest of the website is very good.

  48. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz reply as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to know
    where u got this from. many thanks

  49. Merely wanna state that this is very helpful,
    Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  50. My brother suggested I might like this web site.

    He used to be entirely right. This put up actually
    made my day. You cann’t imagine simply how so much time I
    had spent for this information! Thank you!

  51. Greate article. Keep writing such kind of information on your site.

    Im really impressed by your site.[X-N-E-W-L-I-N-S-P-I-N-X]Hey there, You
    have done an incredible job. I’ll certainly digg it and in my opinion suggest
    to my friends. I am sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

  52. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a
    blog that’s equally educative and interesting, and without
    a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about.
    I am very happy I stumbled across this during my hunt for something relating to

  53. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post
    was good. I do not know who you are but certainly
    you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already ;) Cheers!

  54. You made some really good points there. I checked on the web for
    more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website.

  55. Hello! I know this is kind of off-topic however I had
    to ask. Does operating a well-established blog like yours require a large amount of work?
    I’m brand new to running a blog however I do write in my diary daily.
    I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online.
    Please let me know if you have any kind of suggestions or tips
    for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

  56. I was curious if you ever considered changing the page layout
    of your website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with
    it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one
    or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?

Speak Your Mind