The San Antonio Spurs are dismissed from the playoff picture every single season. Either they are too old (2009-2013), or too devastated (2013-‘14).
This season they ought to have been both old and devastated. They brought on an aging Pau Gasol to pair with a sluggish LaMarcus Aldridge, when the league is moving towards lighter, faster, more dynamic offense. They have three key players well into their 40s. And the biggest change of all; they lost Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward in NBA history, to retirement.
Fans would have understood if the Spurs did not do what they always do, quietly dominate the season and make a deep run into the playoffs. After all, despite Leonard’s brilliance, the Spurs did not look like a playoff bound team on paper.
Luckily for them basketball is not played on paper.
The Spurs greatness is the reason why they get taken for granted; people either expect them to be there in the playoff mix, or forgive them for any dip in performance because, well, they (Spurs) are old (and devastated).
For Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, this is routine. The Spurs are a machine that just keeps on going.
A machine that just keeps on going
Take for instance this season.
They have the second best record in the league at 37-11, four games behind the Golden State Warriors (41-7), and the second best road record at 20-5 behind, well, the Golden State Warriors.
They lead the league in three-point field-goal percentage (3P%), with 41% and have the second best field-goal percentage (FG%) at 48%.
Defensively, they hold opponents to 99.2 PPG, second to the Utah Jazz, and rank among the top ten in Opponent FG% (44%, 6th) and Opponent 3P% (34%, 2nd).
In addition to featuring in the top ten in nearly every meaningful statistical category.
More importantly though they are 17-6 against teams that are playoff bound (as off the time of this article), second to the Warriors who are 17-4.
Considering all these numbers indicate they are second best to the blazing Warriors, are the Spurs legit title contenders?
So are they really title contenders?
That is where it gets tricky.
Long answer: No, they are not. They go ten deep, which sufficient in the regular season, but the talent to hold off better teams drops off significantly after their starting five. Other title contenders have kept their core intact over multiple seasons, the Spurs have to contend with a roster that is still earning their playoff chops. They have also finished a whopping 16 games with a score differential of five or less (9-7 record) leading all five legit title contenders. That’s dangerous territory in the postseason.
Defensively, their most used and successful lineup features both Gasol and Aldridge who are mediocre at switching on defence, a big drawback when playing a seven game series against longer, quicker, more versatile teams. The Warriors and the Cavaliers, both, have at least two (if not three) high scoring stars. The Spurs do have Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two elite defenders to cover up for any defensive shortfall on the part of their frontcourt. However, Leonard is now is tasked with the responsibility of carrying the Spurs offensively as well, something that is bound to take a marginal toll on this defence.
Short Answer: Yes. They have Gregg Popovich. And they are the San Antonio Spurs. Do you even remember the last time they were not a contender? Thought so.
It is an age old debate, this one. Kobe Bryant, a fierce competitor molded in the likeness of Jordan, versus Tim Duncan, a freakish athlete, who even at 39 continues to lead one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.
The arguments seem fairly identical: 19 vs. 18 seasons, 5 vs. 5 titles, never got traded from or left the team that they started their career with.
No debate, however, is fair if the arguments do not dig deeper. Detailed and researched comparisons, such as this article aims to be, are important because 40 years from now we do not want a 13-yr old seeing Robert Horry’s name next to Jordan with six titles and wonder, “Wow, Horry was good, eh!”.
The Kobe vs. Duncan discussion, while fairly old, only ever simmered at best. There are a few reasons for this: Kobe is a guard, and Duncan is a forward; Kobe got a head start by entering the league at 18, while Duncan was 21 when he suited up for the Spurs; both have fundamentally different styles and personalities. However, as soon as Duncan won his fifth ring in ’14, tying Kobe in the process, there was renewed vigor and reason to resurrect the comparison.
Considering that the relevance of the number of rings is debatable (refer to aforementioned Horry example), the way to solve this is by establishing how critical either player was in winning the Championship(s).
In Kobe’s case, it sure is easy for his detractors to say that Shaq brought him his first three Championships. But let’s step back for a moment and consider: maybe Kobe brought Shaq the ’01 and ’02 Championships? As dominant as Shaq was, he wasn’t the best option if the team was down two points in the waning seconds of a close game. He was woeful from the line, could barely dribble to save his life, and could not spot up from anywhere beyond 6-8 feet. Kobe covered all those bases for him. Before Kobe’s rise, Shaq led the Lakers to a Western Conference Finals spot at best. As soon as Kobe found his zone, he and Shaq unleashed hell on the league, trotting three Championships back-to-back. With a happy* (hold this thought for Legacy) Shaq and Kobe on the floor, it didn’t matter who else suited up for the Lakers…the trophy might as well have been gifted to them every season.
Two legendary (for the wrong reasons) “What If?” seasons later, Shaq decided to part ways with the Lakers, moving to Miami and promptly wining a ring in ’06 with the Heat. Kobe’s never could quite take the team over the hump post-Shaq. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs the year Shaq left and did not hit 50 wins for (the first time since Kobe’s rookie year) for three consecutive seasons.
An increasingly frustrated Kobe began showing his displeasure publicly, with insiders strongly hinting at his exit from LA. It didn’t help that the Lakers foolishly traded away one of Kobe’s all time favorite teammates Caron Butler, who instead of teaming up with Kobe and Lamar Odom (then just off his career peak) to create a terrifying Big Three, was burning it up in Washington with the Wizards where he became a legit All-Star. It also didn’t help that Phoenix or Chicago, both considered Kobe destinations, had the pieces and picks to make the trade.
…in one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA, the Lakers made a mid-season trade for Pau Gasol (Feb 2008), sending Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, two 1st round picks and one second round pick to Memphis.
After losing 2008 Finals to a historically great Boston team, Kobe and the Lakers would have none of the losing that had become characteristic over the past three seasons as they went into overdrive and trotted two back-to-back titles, the first team to do so since well, the ’02 Lakers, once and for all cementing Kobe’s case for the greatest guard since Jordan, a legacy he cherished since the day he suited up for an NBA team. Pau Gasol’s presence helped, but the ’09 and ’10 Championships were unmistakably Kobe fighting his way to five rings and the Jordan-esque legacy.
Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest phenom, was the most sought after prospect in what was believed to be a poor ’97 draft. So after nearly a decade of top tier dominance in the NBA, the Spurs were the last team anyone would have considered to be in the mix for the Duncan Sweepstakes, Daivd Robinson’s back however had other plans, giving out in the ’97 preseason and rendering Robinson useless for the season ahead. Robinson did try, suiting up for six games under new head coach Gregg Popovich who replaced Bob Hill after a 3-15 start. The Spurs finished with a franchise worst 20-62, the worst record since their 21-61 record in 1988-’89 that netted them, you guessed it, David Robinson. Armed with the third worst record in the NBA a 21.6% chance at landing Duncan, the Spurs became the topic for a fairly insubstantial claim that they tanked for Duncan. Against all odds and the Celtics who had a League worst 15-67 record (technically the expansion Grizzlies were worse at 14-68, but waived their draft rights), the Spurs landed Duncan at number 1, and the rest as they say is history.
Duncan’s insurmountable legacy, which we will leave for later in the article, cannot be tarnished or doubted. Yet, the ’99 NBA Championship, which came amidst the worst NBA season: a shortened 50-game season, with players woefully out of shape and teams in disarray due to the uncertainty of the impending season following the 1998 lockout, carries an asterisk whichever way you look at it. Yes, all teams had the same situation to deal with and the Spurs dealt with it the best, but with all due respect to Coach Pop and Duncan, both of whom I have the highest respect and admiration for, it is hard for an NBA fan to take this season and the consequent Championship seriously.
The championships in ’03, ’05 and then ’07 present a total different story. At no point in time during their tear of 3 championships in 5 years could you count the Spurs out of the race. (actually, it’s been two decades since the arrival of both Pop and Duncan, and you STILL cannot count them out. But that is for another time). As long as Duncan (and Pop) was around, the Spurs were title contenders.
Can it be argued that Duncan needed both Parker (drafted in ’02) and Ginobili (drafted in ’03) to take him over the Championship hump? Sure…if we lived in a world where elephants could fly. While the timing of their arrival coincided with ’03 Championship, that two European rookies, a point guard and a sixth man, were critical to the ’03, ’05 and ’07 Championships, is the same as Rick Fox and Horry being critical to the ’00, ’01 and ’02 Championships. Yes, they were cogs in the wheel, but to even suggest that the above four players were crucial in Kobe’s and Duncan’s Championships is arrogantly ignorant to the greatness of both players. Oh by the way…the team that beat the Spurs twice between their ’99 and ’03 Championships? The indomitable Lakers.
That brings us to the ’14 Championship. In my opinion, the greatest comeback season in the history of the NBA. To fully understand why, we have to trace our steps to the 2010-’11 season.
Duncan was 34 and put up his worst career numbers (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg) since his rookie season. Ginobili put up solid numbers (17.4 ppg, 49. apg) but turned 33 and was a shadow of his efficient acrobatic self. Parker was also solid (17.5 ppg, 6.6 apg), but was coming off a long, lengthy, difficult and very public divorce with TV Star Eva Longoria. Their next three best players? George Hill (a solid backup guard who played 28 productive minutes a game), Dejuan Blair (drafted in ’09 and fairly effective at best) and well, Richard Jefferson (at least two seasons off his career peak and declining fast). That’s it. That is what Pop had to work with. And work he did, until they ran into the up and coming hard-nosed tough-as-nails Memphis Grizzlies and lost 4-2. It all went downhill after that…or so it seems.
The season following the Grizzly defeat, the Spurs were counted out of Championship contention. Every leading “expert” felt the Spurs were too old, too injured, not motivated enough, missing the right pieces, too dependent on the aging Big Three, and (insert every conceivable reason why they should not be considered serious contenders). The Spurs? Well, they had other plans, silencing doubters by destroying the Jazz and the Clippers 4-0 each, before taking on an losing to a much younger and more resilient Thunder team in a slug fest that lasted six games.
Losing to a younger team was all the fodder that the “experts” needed to once again count out the “old” Spurs from contention in 2013, declaring their window for a championship “closed” for good. This was the Thunder’s time to shine (despite losing their third best player in one of the worst trades in NBA history), and there was no way the Spurs could keep up with the running gunning Thunder and the record setting defending Champions Miami Heat. Well, not only did they keep up, trotting out a 58-24 record, second best behind the Thunder in the West, but proceeded to wreck havoc in the post season trampling their opponents with a 12-2 record through the first three rounds, and making their first Finals appearance since their ’07 Championship.
So how does an “old” team that suffered one of the most devastating losses in the history of the NBA, comeback the next season? In classic Spurs fashion. They dust off the loss and proceed to win a league leading 62 games during the regular season, hold off a surprisingly feisty Mavericks team in a 7 game 1st Round series, tidily take care of business against Portland and OKC, before unleashing a can of ass whopping, a crushing 4-1 defeat, on the defending champs Miami Heat and the best player in the NBA that season, LeBron James.
So what does ALL this have to do with Duncan?! Stop ranting Jonathan!!
In 2011-12, Duncan earned US$ 21.1 million making him the third highest paid player behind Kevin Garnett (US$ 21.25 mn) and of course Kobe Bryant (US$ 25.24 mn). Sensing an impending run at a 5th title, Duncan renewed his contract at LESS THAN HALF his previous salary (US$ 9.6 mn), becoming just the fourth highest paid player on the Spurs. With this cut, the Spurs could re-sign both Danny Green and Diaw, and prepare for Manu’s extension in the coming season. Simply put without his sacrifice we would not have had the privilege of seeing this Manu dunk, this Green shooting performance, this Diaw passing clinic, this Mills introduction on Kawhi Leonard, and most importantly this beautiful two part series (Part I & Part II) of a video tribute made for the Spurs by super fan Colin Stanton
Kobe Bryant (5 titles) 1 vs. Tim Duncan (5 titles) 1
Comparing Kobe’s stats with Duncan’s is like comparing apples and oranges. but as a wise man Ronny Chieng put it, you can.
Career – 19 seasons (till 2014-15): 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.0 st’ocks* (*blocks + steals), 44–33–84 splits (FG%-3P%-FT%), with a 22.9 PER averaging 36.5 mpg for 1280 games
Career – 18 seasons (till 2014-15): 19.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.9 st’ocks, 51–18–70 splits with a PER 24.5 avg 34.4 mpg for 1331 games
Since both have been playing only sporadically this season due to injuries, and because teams are letting up on Kobe since it is his last season (yes, they are…don’t kid yourself, Kobe fans), I felt it would be fair to consider their careers till last season, i.e. 2014-’15. At first glance and without any analysis, the numbers seem to be in favor of Kobe. Kobe has more points, Kobe shot 3’s, Kobe averaged more assists. Of course Duncan was a better rebounder, has better defensive numbers and shot better from the field. (all of which can be easily attributed to his position. But it is impressive that Kobe’s career average is still 25 ppg, thanks to averaging 25 ppg or more in 12 seasons and 20 ppg or more in 15 seasons, whereas Duncan averaged 25 ppg just once and 20 ppg just 9 times.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 1
Let’s dig a little deeper, though…
KOBE (2003-’04 to 2008-’09): 29.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–85 splits with a PER of 25.0 avg 39.2 mpg for 452 games
DUNCAN (2001-’02 to 2006-’07) : 21.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 st’ocks, 51–22–68 splits with a PER of 26.2 avg 36.6 mpg 458 games
Conventional yet universally accepted knowledge and research peg a player’s peak between the ages of 25 – 30. Kobe edges out Duncan here ever so slightly. At his peak, Kobe was a better offensive player as much as Duncan overshadowed him defensively. Kobe did have the advantage of his 3-pt shot, while Duncan had the advantage of being the last man standing on defense. So is there anything that sets them apart? Yes. Something called championships. At his peak, Duncan won 3 championships, while Kobe won zero. Even adjusting the comparison to provide for the fact that Kobe had a three year head start over Duncan (18 vs. 21), pegging his peak from 22-27, not only do his numbers actually DIP by a fraction, but his title tally is still 2 compared to Duncan’s 3. Duncan wins.
Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 2
CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS. (Reg. Season vs. Playoffs):
KOBE (’00, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10):
Regular Season: 26 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 46–31–83 splits with a PER of 23.1 avg 38.5 mpg for 369 games
Playoffs: 27.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 45–35–81 splits with a 23.3 PER avg 41.4 mpg for 103 games
Regular Season: 20 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 3.2 st’ocks, 51–18–69 splits with a PER of 24.9 avg 35 mpg 351 games
Playoffs (Championships): 22.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.1 st’ocks, 51–0.4–71 splits with a PER of 25.4 avg 38.58 mpg for 107 games
42 Club Appearances: 2 (’01, ’03)
I hate how close this is getting, only because the calculations make my head hurt and finding an edge is harder than finding Leo an Oscar. Oh wait…
Again, too close for comfort. Kobe’s improvement from regular season to playoffs, is marginal compared to some aspect of Duncan’s improvement. What most most people ten to miss though, and the reason I mentioned the years of the championships, is that 37 and 15 years removed from his last championship, Duncan’s number are still pretty solid to maintain a competitive match up against Kobe’s number that span over 10 years. That being said, Kobe was an absolute beast in the ’09 and ’10 playoffs averaging close to a 30-6-5 for both playoffs. Those kind of numbers in back-to-back championships counts over longevity anyday, so..
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 2
The popular consensus is that Duncan had better teammates throughout his career. This comparison is dicey, so let me make clear my assumptions:
I will only consider seasons where they played together, so no 1996-97
Am not a fan of All Star spots. Why? Tell me Lillard was snubbed for this year’s All Star list, and then watch this.also, feel free to read my take on All Star Games.
Greatness of players will be accounted for against All-NBA Teams, Hall of Fame induction, and other NBA rewards, i.e. Rookie of the YEar, Defensive Player of the Year, etc.
Most of their careers and supporting cast can be argued either ways, that is, both Kobe and Duncan have fair arguments, except in three seasons:
2002-03: Armed with both Kobe at his peak and reigning (3-time) NBA Finals MVP and at the peak of his career Shaq, the reigning CHAMPION Lakers could not make it past the second round, whereas the Spurs with Tony Parker (just one season old), Stephen Jackson (solid but hardly spectacular), Malik Rose (who scored at a career high 10.4 ppg that season. Yes. 10.4 was his career high), Manu Ginobili (honestly, All Rookie 2nd team does not count) and a fast fading Robinson went on to become Champions. This was both Kobe and shaq at their peak. Advantage Duncan.
2003-’04: Despite Kobe and Shaq making it to 1st Team All NBA, getting Gary Payton and Karl Malone, respected veterans with some gas left in the tank taking huge pay cuts for rings, and with very solid role players in Devean George and Stanislav Medvedenko, the Lakers got a beat down at the hands of an underdog Pistons team, losing the NBA Finals 4-1. Again…this was BOTH Kobe and Shaq at their peak! Advantage Duncan. (more like Disadvantage Kobe)
2014-’15: The Spurs, reigning Champions, kept the core intact and improved their second team and bench strength significantly, Yet fell in the 1st round. Yes, this was one of the five greatest frist round match ups ever; yes, this ought to have been a Western Conference Finals matchup; and yes, Chris Paul was not going to lose this series. Advantage Kobe. (more like Disadvantage Duncan).
Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 3
This is it right? This is Game 7. Coming down to the wire. The two greatest competitors of my generation face off for one last time.
Kobe Bryant a.k.a. KB24 a.k.a. The Black Mamba. After Jordan left the game in ’98, the NBA and the world of basketball as we know it seemed ready to collapse. The game’s biggest star has just hung up his boots, the league went into salary negotiations followed by the dreaded lock out in 1998. We did come back to a shamble season in 1999, mooching off a 50-game season as legitimate. Yet, there was no solution to the NBA’s dearth of stars. Allen Iverson had potential, but between his cornrows, tattoos, baggy jeans and practice rant he became the poster child for everything the NBA wanted to distance itself from. Grant Hill was touted as the Heir Apparent, but his ankles could not bear that burden. And, Vince Carter was electric unlike anything the League had seen, but he still had to prove eh could win. Same was the case with Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. Duncan was Mr. Consistent, but hardly possessed any emotion.
And then there was Kobe Bryant.
A guard, standing 2 inches taller than Jordan, he had a body type reminiscent of Jordan. But that was hardly where the comparisons ended. Over his first three seasons Kobe displayed a maniacal desire to improve and become alpha dog on the League. his work ethic was Jordan-esque, and his climbing numbers in his first four seasons are stark indication of this. Make no mistake, it was this very work ethic that was one of the bigger reasons for the Kobe-Shaq feud. Kobe could not stand that Shaq showed up out of shape every season, used the regular season to whip himself back in shape, only to dominate and cruise to the Championship.
Kobe aspired to be counted in the conversation with Jordan. But no one player in the past two decades put in the kind of brutal work in the gym and on the court like Kobe did. And I’m afraid no player ever will.
You see, basketball was always a business. And as that business gets bigger players are getting savvier with business pursuits off the court. Carmelo could’ve gone anywhere in pursuit of a championship, but chose New York for its business potential. LeBron James left Miami to Cleveland because he was worried that the Miami Heat stint and The Decision hit his personal brand hard; does not matter that he won two championships. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have adopted OKC and have become superstars in the a small market, and despite all rumors to the contrary, I do not think will ever leave OKC. Stephen Curry is just now arriving on the big stage, and while he leads an organization that cares to surround him with the right players and staff, it is undeniable that he plays for one of the biggest markets in the country.
All this makes me wonder. Will there ever be a Kobe Bryant again. A fierce competitor that has unparalleled focus on his goal to a championship. A player who, before teams hired trainers and specialists, sought to improve his game just by being the first on court and the last off court during practice, making sure he added a new element to his game every season. A player who, on an 2008 Olympic team filled with super stars, shows up to breakfast at 8 a.m. drenched in sweat with ice bags on his knees and full three hour practice under his belt. A player about whom His Airness said “He wants it so bad, he’s willing to go to the extreme, guarding points guards at the age of 34 playing 38-40 minutes a game. It’s ludicrous. This is what he is battling…he is just as cursed as me (referring to the burning desire to win)”
Duncan’s legacy is yet to be written. Save for a few games off due to injury, he is still starting games for the Spurs alongside LaMarcus Alridge, morphing into the older brother that David Robinson was to him.
Even if Duncan hung up his boots today, there should not even be a discussion on the greatest power forward ever. Karl Malone and Barkley never won a championship; Nowitzki, Garnett and Elvin Hayes won just one championship each but not at their peak; Kevin McHale won three but had one of the ten greatest NBA players ever Larry Bird by his side; Gasol won two championships but has played with three different teams in his career and Bob Petit won just one championship at his peak.
Duncan has won five championships over two decades. In fact he was so dominant till the ’09 season, that it seemed ludicrous anytime the regular season MVP went to anyone not named Duncan. His first and last championships coming FIFTEEN years apart! In fact, Duncan alone could guarantee a 50 win season and that could be said about just three other players in the past two decades, i.e. Jordan, Shaq and (a healthy) Dirk Nowitzki.
Here is the clincher though…
Kobe who has missed four playoffs during his career and more importantly one during his peak at age 26 where, despite having Butler and Odom on his team, the Lakers finished with the 6th worst record in the League that season and the eighth worst record in the 68-year history of the franchise. In his 18 seasons as a professional NBA player, Duncan never missed a single playoffs. Never. Yes, his role has “diminished” (I use the that word with extreme caution here) over the past 5 seasons, but that still leaves us with 13 seasons of Duncan leading the Spurs as the alpha dog.
Alpha Dog for 13 seasons. Five Championships 15 years apart. That is all that should matter.
Now for the last possession…
As good as Kobe is, the Kobe-Shaq feud will always hang over Kobe’s legacy. We will always wonder what could’ve and would’ve happened had Kobe and Shaq set aside their differences in the pursuit of Championships. Why, for instance, couldn’t two grown men keep their focus on the bigger picture? If Shaq was as casual as Kobe claimed, why couldn’t Kobe find a way to get to him and bring him on board. Why, after that whirlwind from 2000 to 2005 would one of the greatest practitioners of stoicism and mindfulness, Phil Jackson, pen a whole book in a tell all about how difficult it was to coach Kobe.
Now ask yourself…have you, or will you ever hear a story like this about Duncan. It’s too late now. In his 18 years as a dominant pro player, there has never been a negative story about Duncan. As a player, as a teammate, as an opponent. Kobe’s greatness, cannot entirely overshadow his difficult times with teammates, coaches and management. 19 seasons is a long time, so some friction is expected. But that expectation is decimated in the case of Duncan. He rose above it all. Basketball was of primary importance; but more important that that? Basketball played the right way. The Duncan way. The Spurs way. Maybe Pop has more to do with this than I am willing to admit. But give yourself a few minutes of quiet, and think to yourself…knowing all you do, if you had to pick a teammate to play ball with you for 20 years, who would you pick. I know who I would.
Fresh off the heels of the 2016 NBA All Star Game in the lovely city of Toronto, I decided do something I hate. Make a list. “Why?” you may ask. Short answer, “Hmmm…”. Long answer, the All Star Game is an exhibition bonanza to entertain the NBAs well wishers and sponsors. It is the NBA’s marquee event second only to The Finals, which aren’t nearly as elaborate, and unlike the NFLs marquee event the Superbowl, it does not hold any significance to the current season. It does reflect in a player’s career achievements, but ever since Yao Ming got voted to start at the 2011 NBA All Star Game without playing a minute that season, I stopped taking it seriously enough as a point of contention in the argument of the greatest players ever. So that makes the NBA All Star Game a mela. A multimillion dollar, everybody-who-is-anybody-needs-to-be-seen-there, let’s-not-play-defense-and-give-the-fans-what-they-came-for mela. And I don’t mind making lists about melas, because lists about melas ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things.
The game that started it all. This may come as a surprise to the young twenty somethings, but basketball wasn’t popular in its early days. In fact it was quite unpopular as allegations of point shaving in college basketball were making headlines. Sensing the opportunity to turn things around in favor of the game, then NBA President Maurice Poldoff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen and Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown decided to hold an exhibition game featuring the league’s best players. Players were selected by sports journalists across the country without regard to position and the coaches were those whose teams had the best records in their respective conferences, a practice that continues to date. Brown was so convinced about its success that he agreed to bear all costs and losses, if any. He was right. The game drew a then record 10,094 fans in a league that averaged just 3,500 per game.
MVP: Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley who not only scored 20 pts but held the great George Mikan to just 4 pts.
Other Notable performances: Bob Cousy 8 pts, 9 rebs, 8 asts.
Any All Star moments list that omits the 1964 game is being disrespectful to the very principles the league has come to rest on in the years following the 1963-64 season. The players union, founded in 1954 by Bob Cousy, was saturated from ten years of expressing their concerns (Saturday night-Sunday noon back-to-back games, no pension / insurance, poor pay and terrible playing conditions among others) and presenting their demands to Commissioner Walter Kennedy, but not getting the ear, time or respect of the team owners and league officials. The 1964 NBA All Star Game was to be the first All Star game televised live, and sensing an opportunity the league’s biggest stars led by Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West (a huge deal in the midst of race tensions, especially in a city like Boston), threatened to strike by not playing if their demands were not met. Long story short, the league and owners could not risk giving up a potential a TV contract, especially since basketball was still a fringe sport, and gave in to the demands of the players. It signaled a shift in the attitude of the league and team owners towards the players, and brought NBA players the respect that is commonplace nowadays. Strangely enough yet understandably so, the recap of the game on the NBA site as well as Wikipedia barely mentions the strike. There are two fairly elaborate pieces describing the events of the 1964 NBA All Star Game here and here.
MVP: Oscar Robertson 26 pts, 14 rebs, 8 asts.
Other Notable Performances: Bill Russell 13 pts, 21 rebs; Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Petit with 19 pts each and 20 and 17 rebs respectively.
The only reason this game makes the list? The scoring. The first NBA All Star Game to travel outside the US, possibly encouraging talks for another team in Canada, was also Kobe’s last All Star game. Unlike MJ, Kobe did not bring anything close to his A-Game, and this turned out to be more a farewell for him. None of that characteristic competitiveness that Kobe brings to every game he plays, which was disappointing. What did happen though, was scoring. Lots of it. Tons of it. Both teams barely scratched the surface of what would be considered below average defense. The total number of blocks was two consequently resulting in an offensive display for the ages. The sheer quantum of points scored was staggering, 369 points between the two teams, with the leading scorers Paul George and Westbrook scoring 41 and 31 points respectively. This game was toying with being boring, because frankly no played defense. But competitive play from Paul George, MVP Westbrook, Chris Paul who had 16 assists and cannot turn off his competitive switch, DeRozan and Lowry who were playing in front their home crowd and in their first All Star, John Wall and Kevin Durant kept the game as interesting as it could be.
As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to feature both these games and still make sure the other nine stayed put. So I did what every confused All Star MVP Awards does, kept them both, tied at the 7th spot.
By his own admission, his performance in the 1986 game drove Isaiah Thomas to push his game to the next level and pursue championships. He was already one of the league’s premier point guards and well on his way to crafting an eventual Hall of Fame career. It was this game, however, that saw him mature into the leader that eventually led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, K. C. Jones’ one guard offense ran amok and erupted for a 39 point quarter led by Thomas en route his 2nd NBA All Star MVP.
MVP: Isiah Thomas 30 pts, 10 asts, 5 stls.
Other notable performances: Larry Bird 23 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 7 stls; Moses Malone 16 pts, 13 rebs; Magic Johnson 4 pts, 15 asts.
It may be hard to fathom, but before the 70’s, basketball was a game largely played below the rim, with only bigs like Russell, Chamberlain, Petit and Baylor holding dominion above the rim. Dr. J changed all that paving the way for guards playing above the rim and the high flying NBA action we see as commonplace these days. He scored 22 points in his last All Star Game fittingly handing over the reins to a young phenom named Michael Jordan, who idolized Erving. But the story of the game was Tom Chambers, who made it into the game only thanks to a knee injury to Ralph Samson, and ending up crashing Dr. J’s party by scoring 34 pts, stealing the ball 4 times and leading the West to a win en route his against-all-odds MVP Trophy.
(against-all-odds) MVP: Tom Chambers with 34 pts, 4 stls.
Other notable performances: Moses Malone with 27 pts, 18 rebs; Magic Johnson with 9 pts, 13 asts, 7 rebs, 4 stls.
I never liked Wilt Chamberlain. I still don’t. But we cannot deny that the physical presence he brought to the game was way ahead of his time. Chamberlain did set the record for most points scored in an All Star Game by dropping 42 on the West, and flirted with the record for most rebounds falling shy by just three to finish with 24 for the game (the record? Set in the same game by Petit with 27! Go figure.), but it was the West’s balanced attack with Baylor, Robertson, West, Petit and Bellamy that dominated the East that was no pushover with Russell, Cousy, Schayes and Heinsohn rounding up a stacked team. The West was devastatingly good, with all starters scoring 18 points or more and pulling down 79 rebounds, a record at the time. Petit deservingly took home MVP honors pouring in 25 points to go along with a monster 27 rebounds, a record that stands till date. Another significant fact about this game: It would be the last time Chamberlain and Russell would be on the same team.
I could harp about how MJ was so ill before the game, he allegedly would not be playing the game, let alone start it. I could harp about how he passed on the torch of greatness to a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, then the youngest rookie to start the NBA All Star Game. I could write about how Kobe was far from shoddy scoring 18 points and pulling down 6 rebounds to Jordan’s 23 points, 8 assists and third All Star MVP, just the third player since Oscar and Petit to do so. But since hindsight is 20:20, I’ll just leave some of the post game press quotes here:
Larry Bird, coaching his first NBA All Star Game: “Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens.”
Jordan: “I’ve been in bed for three days, basically. I didn’t really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me. He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who’s sick, or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude.”
Kobe: “That’s all about competitive nature, I came out aggressive, he came back at me he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like ‘Cool, let’s get it on!”.
And my favorite…Bryant: “As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don’t know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine.”
Who woulda thunk! Hindsight is always 20:20.
MVP: Michael Jordan 23 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs, 3 stls.
Kobe is now the alpha dog and halfway through the number of rings MJ has won. MJ, now 39, seems to (I repeat: “seems to”) be shadow of his former self. They get mic’d up for a video that has become a Youtube sensation since and will remain so forever. But nothing about the game stands out more than the second last play of overtime. With just over ten seconds left and the game tied, Jordan, guarded by the West’s best defender the 6’8” Shawn Marion who happens to have a 7’0” wingspan, receives a pass on the right wing, posts up Marion on his left, switches to his right, drives to the baseline and pulls up about midway between the 3pt line and the paint to unleash one of the deadliest shots in NBA history over the stretched-out-to-max hand of Marion, and sinks what could’ve been one of the greatest shots in the history of the All Star Game, and a reminder to Kobe of who’s his 40-yr old boss. Just imagine… a (nearly) 40 year old Jordan comes out of his second retirement, scores 20 points in the All Star game AND hits the game winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left! How is that NOT a fourth MVP for Jordan?! Alas, sadly we all know what happens next. Jermaine O’Neal has the idiotic audacity to foul a 3pt shooter, who just happened to be Kobe freakin’ Bryant!. Kobe calmly sinks two of three taking us to the first double overtime game in the history of the NBA All Star. Amongst all this madness, my favorite player of all time Kevin Garnett took home MVP honors, putting on an offensive clinic scoring 37 points on 71% shooting from the field! Add that to him filling every stat on the sheet except 3pt and you had one deserving MVP. If only Jermaine kept his freaking hands to himself!
MVP: Kevin Garnett 37 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk, 5 stls and 71% FG%. Told ya…stat sheet stuffed and how!
This was special. Because I was there. But more on that later.
This, in my humble opinion, was the last ever competitive All Star Game.
As with every All Star Game, the media creates a storyline, and this time, fittingly so, it was Lebron vs. Kobe. Lebron and his Miami Heat were in the midst of what would become the second longest win streak in the history of the regular season. Appearing invincible, the media began to wonder if Lebron, who before the All Star Game became the 1st player to average 30+ points while shooting 60+ pct from the field in six consecutive games, was finally ready to take on the mantle from Kobe. (This seemed ridiculous, even at that time, not only because Lebron had won just one championship, but he did so leaving Cleveland and joining another alpha dog’s (Dwayne Wade) quest to win a few more rings. Something Kobe would’ve never done, no matter what the rumor wines said. Even Jordan chipped in, picking Kobe over Lebron because well…five is better than one). Kobe disagreed, and Kobe being Kobe decided to take it to Lebron and his budding legacy. While the numbers do not reflect this (Kobe 9 pts in 27 mins), the last 5 minutes of the game do. With 5:37 left in the game and the West up by 5, Kobe turned up the heat (pun intended) playing Lebron full court, and doesn’t let up for the rest of the game. But the drama begins in earnest around 2:57 when Kobe crosses Bosh over for a lay up finishing on the left of the rim.
2:42: West by 8. Kobe picks up Lebron full court, sticks with him and locks in at halfcourt. Lebron runs towards the Bosh screen, looking to come off the screen and pull up for a shot. Kobe goes over the screen and blocks his shot clean, leading to an open Durant layup.
2:30: West by 10. Kobe is still chasing Lebron around forcing him to give up the ball and stand around watching Wade, Anthony and Bosh play ball.
0:56.8: West by 6. Lebron brings the ball into the half, is hassled by Kobe as he reaches the top of the key, tries to split the screen but dribbles it off his leg into KD’s hands who passes it to the Griffin for the off the board slam.
0:47.7: Wesy by 8. Griffin gets in on the action and double teams Lebron receiving the inbound pass followed by Kobe chasing him full court. Lebron’s had enough and decides to take Kobe all the way to the rim. Kobe stays with him and blocks the shot! Reggie Miller says “Kobe’s making this personal”
0:40.9: West by 8. Both teams clear out as Lebron posts up Kobe on the right side. He spins right, thinks he’s lost Kobe and goes up for the shot, only to get swatted hard by Kobe. Foul. Two shots for Lebron. He makes the 1st, giving him his FIRST point of the 4th quarter. Kobe swings over to the West bench loudly proclaiming to Kerr “He can’t score on me!” Lebron misses the second.
0:33.2: West by 7. Harden gets the rebound off the miss and goes by Lebron, who has lost all will in this game. Visibly distressed that Kobe is coming at him so hard.
And that’s it.
None of the players currently in the NBA, except for maybe Chris Paul, will ever do this in the NBA All Star Game. None. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love it, actually. But I know I won’t be. As much as I dislike Kobe, he will always have my respect for being one of the most competitive players to have ever stepped on hardwood.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 3: 1992 NBA All Star Game, Orlando Arena, Orlando. The Magical Farewell.
There’s everything he did on court, and there’s everything he did off it. But nothing exemplifies the place Magic had in the hearts of fans more than being voted to start in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. Upon learning he contracted HIV, Magic decided that he needed to focus on treatment and hung up his jersey for good before the 1991-92 season began. Remember that this was a time when HIV was terribly misunderstood and the harshest judgments were reserved for those who contracted it, especially vile when it came the individual’s personal life. Magic was one of the biggest celebrities to come out openly about his condition. The media went nuts speculating, especially since the Lakers were known to indulge in the good life. Fans fed off the speculation for a while, fueled by Magic’s decision to retire just as he was coming off the peek of his career. But almost immediately, the fans felt a void. Magic was more than just basketball. He was a global ambassador of the game, and much unlike Jordan, he was just as brilliant off the court as he was on it. His mega watt smile, coupled with his magnetic personality had the fans pining for one last Showtime Show, voting him to start the NBA All Star Game that season. The League bent the rules, Magic complied to play, and what followed was a few of hours of pure blissful magic as the world was watched Earvin Johnson weave his “Magic” into the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He barely missed a step all game, and played his heart out, sky hooks here, no look passes there, 9 assists and 25 points on 75% shooting while being a perfect 3-for-3 from 3pt land, panting at half time interviews, knocking down threes in his good friend Zeke’s face. He closed out the game successfully defending Zeke and Jordan on consecutive possessions, and put an exclamation mark when with 16.3 secs left and Zeke guarding him he launched and awkward looking but fundamentally perfect three that touched only the bottom of the net going in. It was a blowout with the West winning 153-113 and Magic was the heart of that win, deservingly taking home MVP honors for the second and last time in his career.
Other notable performances: Clyde Drexler 22 pts, 9 rebs, 6 asts; Michael Jordan 18 pts, 5 asts, 2 stls.
Number 2: 1988 NBA All Star Game, Chicago Stadium, Chicago. – His Airness Micheal Jordan arrives.
Having received the mantle from Dr. J the previous year, it was Jordan’s time to shine. And the NBA could not have chosen a better venue. Whether the move was strategic knowing Jordan’s draw on fans and his impending blowout game, we will never know. What we do know, and have as a memory for ever, is Jordan exploding for 40 pts in one of the best All Star Games ever played. Both the East and the West were stacked with Hall of Famers, and Jordan saw this as the perfect coming out party. He felt he was sidelined in the games from 85-87, hinting that the older players were threatened by his presence and his abilities, and gave him the cold shoulder. Jordan decided to take matters in his own hands and dominate the All Star Game like no one has ever done and will ever do. In just 29 minutes on court. Jordan single handedly kept the East in the Game pouring in 40 pts (impressively this did not include a single 3ptr) and filling nearly every stat on the sheet. His running mates included his dunk contest nemesis, Dominique Wilkins and two NBA Finals nemesis Isaiah Thomas, with Bird and (Moses) Malone rounding up the East. The West was just as stacked with Magic, (Karl) Malone, Olajuwon, Alex English and the incredibly talented but streaky Lafayette “Fat” Lever. The two teams battled furiously, and remember, this was when teams actually played defense and treated the All Star Game with the utmost respect. Jordan scored 16 points in the final 5:30, but had to share his thunder with Kareem, whose sky hook took his All Star Game points total to 247 points, a record at that time.
Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.
Number 1: 2001 NBA All Star Game, MCI Center, Washington D.C. – The Comeback
The Game simply known as The Comeback.
My research for this article involved watching, pausing and re-watching All Star Game highlights and specials on Youtube. None though, gave me goosebumps the way the 2001 NBA All Star Game did.
I fell in love with basketball watching the 2000 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Blazers. So nearly everyone in the 2001 NBA All Star Game got me jumping out of my seat! “Damn! A young McGrady running with cuz Carter!”… “Look at that…Marbury when he actually played basketball and wasn’t eating jelly!!” “Holy crap Iverson was freakin insane!!!” … “ Ray Allen with the Bucks…young cats forget!!!” And my favorite “Holy Savior of the World…its Antonio McDyess!!!!”
Just so I could save my energy, I stood up and watched the whole video. Sitting down wasn’t an option. This was beyond incredible. These are the guys that got me hooked on to a game that has become the Purpose of my Life.
The East were almost puny in comparison to the giants of the West who, believe it or not, did not even have Shaq. This mismatch reflected in the score, with the West dominating just about every aspect of the game from the opening tip. Alley oops, rebound putbacks, dominating post play, incredible interior defense and just about everything you’d expect when a team as physically imposing as the West took on the comparatively puny East. Every one was in on the party…Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Webber, MdDyess, while Iverson, Carter, Marbury and Allen tried to keep the East in the game.
So when they found themselves up by 21 with nine minutes left to go in the game, the West thought they had nothing to worry. Well, they were wrong.
The East, led by Iverson, suddenly caught fire and rallied to stage the biggest comeback win in the history of the NBA All Star Game. The West looked lost and frazzled by the East’s feisty defense during this stretch. The look in Iverson’s eyes was unmistakable, he wanted no part of a loss, possibly due to the sorry state that the media cut of the East, claiming that they stood no chance against the bigger West lineup. Scoring 15 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter, Iverson willed the East back into the game and was helped by Marbury whose two late threes in response to Kobe’s baskets at the other end, sealed the deal.
We may indulge in a pointless debate of why this list isn’t right, and I may even let you change my mind on games from 2 – 10. But for its relevance in my life, and what it means to me till date, the 2001 NBA All Star Game will always be number one in my books. And you cannot convince me otherwise.
The All Star Game, while still an exhibition, used to be fairly competitive when it started, picked up in intensity in the mid – late 80’s and early 90’s, and stayed fairly competitive till late 00’s. That’s all gone now, and the game has turned into a dunk and trickery fest. There were two block the entire game in 2016! And one was by Kyle Lowry!! While offense wins games, defense wins championships, making it a vital part of the game. That’s what sets basketball apart from other team games, in that you have to play both ends of the floor as a team at all times. As much as fans idolize these players, they also remember great performances and pay good money to watch these guys play a decent game of basketball. Instead, the highlight of the 2016 game for basketball purists was Popovich’s face every time the camera panned on him. He seemed like he did not want any part of the dunk fest. Or maybe that’s Pop just being his stoic self.
It is sad that the casual and new fans of basketball do not take the All Star Game more seriously. Actually most of us serious fans do not as well anymore. And there’s good reason… even the players themselves barely take it seriously.
When watching highlights and re-watching earlier games, three things stood out:
The All Star game meant something. Starters played their best, because they felt they owed it to the fans who voted them in. Benchers played their best to prove to the coaches and journalists they made the right choice.
Everyone played Defense. Plays were called on Offense. Yes, it was made fancier with slick passing and theatrical dunking. But they were still solid offensive set plays with a purpose of “beating” the other team. Not cruising for uncontested lay ups and dunks. That’s what the Dunk Contest is for.
Teams played hard. They went at each other. Players wanted to show up their opponent. You went after your opponent, because you knew he was coming back the other way next possession. There has to be a winner and there will be a loser. None of that “everyone-is-a-winner” bullshit. That’s what the game of basketball is about.
I fear that with Kobe, the last of the legends that took the All Star Game fairly seriously has gone.
A final thought:
I spent every waking hour from 2000 till 2012 dreaming of one day attending an NBA Game and meeting with players who were demi-gods to me. The only basketball I had access to till then was two live games a week on TV (no highlights), highlights on Youtube (only from ‘06 onward), and the two of most important influences in my life, Scoop Jackson for SLAM Magazine and Bill Simmons also named the Sports Guy. I devoured every letter of every word of every article they wrote, including Simmons’ The Book of Basketball which I read once at the beginning of every year.
And then the 2013 NBA All Star happened. And I was there. (you can read my running blog here)
To have come this close to actually playing hoops with Simmons at a closed game for the media (Thank you for the media creds Akash Jain), to pass by Greg Popovich in the player tunnel and have him promise to come back around after the pregame press conference (he didn’t come back, but I ain’t mad…I shook his hand. Greg. Popovich’s. Hand.), to be the only media representative from India ask both David Stern and Adam Silver what plans they had for India, to try and meet Magic Johnson only to have his bodyguard palm my chest and say “No.”, to promise myself that one day Magic will know my name, to bring in my 30th birthday a day after His Airness brought in his 50th, to have spent an hour going absolutely nuts talking hoops with Scoop over beers, and the best part of the weekend…to stand two feet away from my all time favorite player Kevin Garnett asking him when does he plan to come to India again and hear him say “Soon, man. Soon”, is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, no matter how eloquent my language. So yes, the All Star Game has turned into a bunch of grown men playing aimless basketball. Yes, the All Star Game is just about the NBA calling its big guns to impress the corporate world in the hopes of more sponsorship, partnerships and money. Yes, the All Star Game isn’t something serious basketball fans take seriously anymore and neither do the players. And yes, the All Star Game doesn’t count for anything in the argument of who is the greatest of all time after Jordan (see what I did there?).
But for a starry doe eyed dreamer so far away from the action, those four days meant the world. They meant everything. They make living worthwhile.