I’ve been watching the NBA Finals this year – Part Four of the Cavaliers/Warriors battle – and it got me thinking about who my favorite current players are.
Thus, I had to establish criteria. My favorite players don’t have to be the best players – just the ones I like to watch most… but it doesn’t hurt to know who the best players are, as well.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: LeBron James is the best player on the court right now. I think there are legitimate debates about whether he’s the greatest of all time or not (he’s not – I would still pick Jordan in his prime over LeBron James in his prime) but I don’t think there are any real arguments that would suggest that LeBron James is inferior to any other player in the NBA today, unless you resort to a tautology.
To wit: I think it’s fair to say that if your measure of basketball greatness is “how similar are you to Kevin Durant,” well, James falters some there. But I also think that if you put Kevin Durant on the Cavaliers instead of LeBron, the team would do nowhere near as well.
Durant’s… fantastic. Let’s make no mistake about that – he’s really, really, really good. Nobody would be surprised if he was the league MVP, because he’s that skilled and that obvious.
But the truth is – all respect to Paul Pierce – that James is a… gosh, I don’t even know how to describe how dominant he is on the court right now. The joke is that he’s carrying a used tissue, an old tire, a coffee cup, and a broken cassette tape through the Finals – and the thing is, while that’s a little disrespectful to his teammates, who aren’t actually all THAT bad, the analogy’s… probably correct.
Remove James from the Cavaliers and they’re not going to seriously contend for anything – maybe a wild card berth in the playoffs because the East is so weak (who would they compete with? The Knicks?) but that’d be about it. The Cavaliers without James are fodder. With him, they’re favorites to make it to the Finals.
But James is not my favorite player in these Finals – he’s not even my favorite player on the Cavaliers.
If I was building a team of the guys I enjoy watching, as opposed to the players I’d choose if my only goal was world domination through basketball, I’d start by winnowing the players to this list:
- Stephen Curry
- Kevin Durant
- Draymond Green
- Andre Iguodala
- Klay Thompson
- LeBron James
- J. R. Smith
Now, which one of these is not like the others?
Curry is … amazing. If I had to pick one player for these Finals who I enjoy watching the most, I think he’d be the one. I used to be pretty decent at defense in basketball – atrocious in offense, if you’re wondering – but I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d defend Curry efficiently. I’ve had to defend 6’8 forwards who can rain buckets from twenty-two feet out – they’re hard to defend when you’re 6’2, but I can slow monsters like that down. But Curry… every time I watch that guy, I’m left stunned at the prospect of having to slow him down at all.
Body him up, and he’s fast enough that he’ll drive… and that’s the best outcome. The worst is that you hammer him and he still ends up with this rainbow three out of nowhere. It’s difficult to work out the best angle to defend, because his court vision is so strong that he’ll see a pass that you, as a defender, couldn’t have imagined.
Durant’s a killer isolation guard in a seven-foot-tall body. Impeccable aim; he’s like that 6’8 forward, written large. I can imagine how to defend him, though, even though I’d have none of the capability to do so.
Draymond Green is fun for me to watch because of all the players on the Warriors, he’s the one most like me: defense-minded nearly to a fault, limited offensive game … except his offense is still a lot better than mine. (So is his defense, for that matter.)
Andre Iguodala: another version of Draymond Green. Slightly different, complementary skillset. Great fun to watch. He’s been injured so far for these Finals – I hope he gets back on the court soon.
Klay Thompson is probably the second best shooter in the league right now (behind his teammate, Stephen Curry, although I don’t have statistics to back that assertion up) – and has better defense. If Curry wasn’t on the court, Thompson might be in his role as the preeminent guard in the NBA. In fact, he makes Curry about four times better than Curry would be otherwise: if you commit to shutting down Curry, Thompson’s waiting to rain down thirty-five points on you. Ask the Rockets. Simply amazing.
LeBron James goes without saying. If you were building a team for a winner-takes-all competition between aliens and earthling NBA players, you’d pick James as the cornerstone of your team, if you wanted the aliens to lose. Anyone who tells you any different is lying, or they don’t know basketball. In a schoolyard pick, you’d start here unless you knew your opponents such that you could specifically build a team around certain skillsets – and you’d still end up with LeBron somewhere on your team because he can do everything and do it at an incredibly high level, no matter whether it’s defense or offense.
Then we have The Outlier.
We have J. R. Smith.
Yes, he’s one of my favorite players on the court right now.
I don’t even say that sarcastically.
Look, I’m definitely a Warrior fan, if I’m picking teams from the West (I’m actually a Knicks fan, so I get to pick another NBA team as an alternate). You might think I’m a Smith fan because he’s gifted the Warriors at times, whether it’s diving defense on Curry that leads to a dagger three from half court, or dribbling out the ball with a tie score when there’s time to take a shot.
But the truth is… I like Smith regardless. I know he’s streaky. I know he’s mercurial. I know he can give you the ecstasy of fantastic play… and then wreck it like a total bonehead. You never know whether you’ll get two points a game as a gift (which has happened for stretches of this year’s Championship series) or whether he’ll pour in twenty points with 80% shooting (which happened this year, in a loss at Golden State – except it was twenty-five points, not twenty).
I still like him. He’s an ex-Knick; he’s got that going for him. Plus, while you do have to wonder what he’s thinking sometimes (or “often”) you never have to wonder if he’s committed. I may not think he does the best thing, but I know he cares. I know his heart’s in the right place. I know he’s going to give me 100% of what he’s got, every night, even if it turns out to be awful. I know J.R. has his team’s back every time he’s on the court – and his opponent might be able to exploit him (see: Curry, S) but that opponent will always have to worry about Smith.
I know it makes little sense. If I was picking teams to win against the Alien All-Stars, there’s no way I’d pick J.R. for the humans. (As soon as you picked him, the aliens would start wondering if they wanted barbecue or if seasoning salt would be good enough.)
But as a fan, just watching the game… yes, I know, Smith is nowhere near the best player on the court, except maybe physically. But he’s still one of my favorite players in the game.
Rock on, J.R.