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.
Every 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.