Thursday, March 8, 2012

The NBA of Not-Quites

As I was watching the NBA All-Star Game last month, something dawned on me. Are we witnessing a rare time in the history of the league? Have we ever had a period in the game when we were devoid of a player that we consider to be the best-ever at their position? Is this era of the NBA Not-Quites?

It was easier to be the best-ever at your position in the first 20-30 years of the league. During the 50's and 60's, George Mikan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were all, at one time during their careers, considered the best center to have ever played the game. Kareem carried that argument through the 70's. In the 80's, Magic Johnson succeeded Bob Cousy as the best point guard ever, and Larry Bird succeeded Dr. J, who succeeded Elgin Baylor, as the best small forward of all-time. In the 90's, Michael Jordan succeeded Jerry West as the best shooting guard ever. Recently, in the 00’s, Tim Duncan succeeded Karl Malone, who succeeded Bob Pettit, as the best power forward in league history. But what about today? What about players who are currently operating in their prime--are any of them the best we’ve ever seen at their position?

Here are the best in the game today, and I can’t make an argument for any of them succeeding any of the guys listed above:

Dwight Howard The game’s best center is nowhere close to being the best center of all-time. He would fall somewhere behind Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Shaq, Hakeem, Moses, and maybe a few others. Have we ever experienced an era so weak at the center position?

Kobe Bryant This is close, but again, a not-quite. Kobe is the best shooting guard of his generation, and he’s the closest thing to Jordan that we may ever see. But he’s not Jordan. He carries himself like Jordan, he’s about the exact same size as Jordan, he can do just about everything that Jordan could do, but he’s not quite Jordan.

LeBron James With a few titles, it’s possible that we will one day rank LeBron as the greatest small forward ever. But he needs those titles. If anyone defines the era of the “Not-Quites,” it’s LeBron. He’s a sensational player, but the bar has been raised so high for him that nothing short of multiple titles will satisfy those who want to keep him ranked historically behind Bird.

Dirk Nowitzki Dirk is, as we all know, a legendary player, but an odd case. He’s not really a small forward, and not really a power forward. He’s a 3 1/2. If we were to create a new position, the small/power forward, he would certainly be the best to ever play that spot. But I put him in the not-quite category because of the guy he’s always compared to: Larry Bird. We’ve always heard that Dirk is this generation’s Bird (I don’t think the two are that similar, as I’ve stated before--observers tend to compare them because they are each white, blonde, and deadly outside shooters, yet after that, there are precious few similarities between them). Like Kobe is not quite Mike, Dirk is not quite Larry. Likewise, Dirk would not rank as the top power forward of all-time ahead of Duncan, whose four rings, three Finals MVP’s and two regular season MVP’s trump Dirk’s one, one and one.

Dwayne Wade Another player who is truly great, but not anywhere close to being the greatest. He’ll probably rank among the three or four best shooting guards of all-time by the end of his career, but he’ll never be Jordan--and after the ’06 Finals, we thought he might come close. But that hasn’t happened.

Kevin Durant I love Durant. I really love him. But he’ll never be considered the best small forward (or, to some, big guard) ever. Right now, he’s most often compared to George Gervin (a small forward-turned big guard), but at this early stage of his career, he’s not quite the Iceman. Durant has won two scoring titles, with a career-best 30.1 average in ’09-’10. Gervin won four scoring titles, with a career-best 33.1 average in ’79-’80 (and a 32.3 average two seasons later). Neither are close to being Jordan, and, for now, Durant is not quite Gervin.

Today’s Point Guards We have a slew of fine point guards in the NBA right now: Paul, Rose, Westbrook, Williams, Wall, Parker, Nash, Irving and more. It’s currently the richest position in the league. But none of them are anywhere close to Magic. Rose has a chance to rank among the five best points ever, but he’s got a long way to go--and I never see him ranking ahead of Earvin.

I'm not trying to run down the league, or it's current group of stars. This is an exciting time to be an NBA fan. Attendance and TV ratings are up, despite the lockout. An infusion of exciting, young talent has energized the league. Things are good on many fronts--yet, for the first time in the 66 year history of The Association, we are not watching a player who is the greatest at their position.

Editor’s (in this case, the same as Author’s) note: We forgot about Jeremy Lin! He is not only the greatest point guard ever, he’s the greatest player ever. Please ignore the above blog post.)


  1. It's interesting. The current success of the league could actually be a result of no single greatest player ever. I know it's different, but you could look at it in the way that Parody is good for the NFL these days.

    1. Darn you, beating me to the punch on that. It's probably true that there's nobody playing right now that'll be a top five or so all time type, but there are probably more players who are, say, top 100 all time playing now than at any other period. That gives lots of cities exciting, winning basketball to watch instead of generally ignoring the local team until THAT GUY rolls into town once or twice a year. Everybody wants to see THAT GUY play, but if the hometown team doesn't have a player the causal fan can latch onto, it only does so much good.

  2. Lebron has to be considered the best player at his position. He can score, he can distribute and he can play great defense. He led a poor Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals and he also led the Heat in the playoffs during their run but ran out of fuel in his second NBA Finals appearance. After its said and done I think he'll be the best ever to play his position.

  3. Lebron is without a doubt one of the greatest but he will never make to "the greatest of all time" if runs out of fuel in the playoffs. I would argue he choked...,and to be considered the greatest you can't choke. His future is up to him....

  4. Good article but you just lost a reader.....

  5. Dirk not as good as Bird? That's absolutely crazy. Bird was wonderfully fantastic. Especially along side arguably the greatest frontline of all time with Parrish and McHale. If Dirk had two hall of famers on his frontline could we all imagine what he could do. This is like saying Emmitt was better then every running back ever because he got the most yards. I could go on and on about this but Dirk probably has an arguement to being the best "forward" of all time. Power or small.

  6. As exciting as the point guards of today are, they still don't compare to the pure PG greatness of one of the best ever in Kidd, who is still playing. Magic was obviously incredible and did amazing things for the league, but as far as pure point guards go I still look to Stockton and Kidd.

  7. Bird was greater than Dirk, but not because of his titles -- give credit for those to his Celtics teammates. Way too much weight is placed on titles in ranking the greatest ever.

    LeBron will go down as the greatest small forward ever, whether he wins one title or six. If he wins none, he will never get the credit he is (already) due.