My Favorite NBA Players, 2018 Edition

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.

2016 Warriors against 1996 Bulls…

ESPN has a set of videos where they’re comparing the 1996 Chicago Bulls against the 2016 Golden State Warriors. They’re talking about this while the championship series is still ongoing (with the Warriors up 2-0 against the Cavaliers), so it’s a little premature – but having watched the Warriors eviscerate the Cavaliers twice, I can understand it.

The consensus is, from what I’ve seen, that the ’96 Bulls – generally heralded as the buzzsaw against which all other buzzsaws will be compared – would be at a disadvantage against the current Warriors team.

I’m struggling with that one.

I can see this Warriors team being a tough game for the Bulls. I can see them pushing the Bulls to the limit; maybe a seven-game series, even, especially with modern rules and the Warriors’ emphasis on the three-point shot, which the Bulls didn’t contend with as often.

I checked the numbers. In 1996, threes went up somewhere between 16 and 17 a game. In 2016 – now – they shoot 21 a game. GSW’s numbers, though, are unreal: in game 2 against the Cavaliers, they made 18 three pointers – more than the Bulls would have seen shot – and shot 43 three pointers. In game 1, it was more pedestrian: twelve of 33 from deep.

Yikes. The Bulls killed from midrange; the Warriors snipe you without you even knowing they’re there.

The Bulls had a lot going for them, though: Pippen, Jordan, and Rodman; Kukoç, Ron Harper, Bison Dele and Robert Parish.

Compare against the Warriors: Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Iguodala, Livingston (sort of).

On paper, the significant contributors for each team… the Warriors have more. The “significant” names on those rosters go three deep for the Bulls, and five deep for the Warriors, and let’s be honest: Jordan and Pippen would score on you at will, but Rodman’s usage would center on world-class defense and rebounding. He wasn’t likely to pour twenty points on you, ever, and the Warriors’ “big five” could all drop 20 – or 30 – on you, especially sharing the floor with the other options.

That’s what makes the Warriors so deadly. Through two games against the Cavaliers, I’ve seen a number of plays (where “number” means “more than five”) where the Cavs defender simply left the scorer alone simply by trying to defend the wrong guy; every play, you force the defender to wonder whether it’s going to be a pass to another scorer, or whether his guy’s actually going to shoot – and making the absolutely worst choice possible.

Would the Bulls make the same mistakes?

On paper, it’s hard to argue; looking at what the Warriors are doing to a great Cavaliers team, it’s easy to say “Oh, yeah… those geezers from 1996 are toast.”

But I don’t know; if it were a series between the eras, and we adjusted the rules to average between then and now… I’d be afraid to bet. I don’t think the Bulls are going to make the choices the Cavs are making; I think they can defend straight up, and Rodman’s going serve as the secret sauce, with Jordan’s homicidally-competitive nature being the fire.

I remember watching the Bulls. Sure, I know a lot more about basketball now than I did then, but I remember. I think the Warriors would make a series of it; I think they could even win the series. But … better than the 1996 Bulls?

The jury’s still out. I’d need to see the Warriors win this year, first – last year they had a 3-1 advantage and lost, thanks to Curry’s injury, Green’s ill-timed suspension, and some heroics on the part of the Cavaliers. Let them win, and I’ll think about it.

But for right now… I’d still bet on the Bulls.

NBA Finals 2015: LeBron James is simply astounding

I am watching the NBA Finals this year, and while I think the Golden State Warriors will win the championship (and should win the championship), the best player on the court so far has been LeBron James. This is a performance for the ages – and even if his team loses, it should take nothing away from what he’s done this series.

Everyone who follows basketball knows that he’s an amazing player. He has almost everything you could want for basketball: killer court vision and understanding, physical gifts, outside shooting, a post-up game, great defense, rebounding, and when he drives for the basket, your best bet is generally to get out of the way.

He’s turned all of that up for the Finals, because he has no choice.

His best help for the season – players Kevin Love (center/power forward) and Kyrie Irving (point guard) are out with injuries. The team on the court has good players, but they’re not equivalent replacements for Love and Irving. As a result, everything is going through LeBron.

Everything.

LeBron is bringing the ball up the court (i.e., he’s his team’s point guard.) He’s also serving as the focal point in an isolation offense, because he’s the one who can create best; as the most consistent shooter, he’s taking the most shots (and making a high percentage of them, overall). He’s having to play help defense in addition to defending his assignment (who, by the way, is no slouch – so LeBron can’t rest on defense.)

Take LeBron off the court, and the Warriors are scrimmaging against a talented practice squad – able to score in streaks, but generally surprising everyone when things go right.

When you consider that the Cavaliers are down 3-2 in the Finals… well, that means that LeBron James has won two games nearly by himself against an excellent NBA team. By himself. By playing unbelievable minutes, by playing better than I think I’ve ever seen any NBA player play as an overall effort.

If Kyrie Irving hadn’t fractured his kneecap in Game One of this series, and had been able to maintain the level of play we expected from him, then you’d have a great Finals instead of watching one of the greatest players in the NBA give us every last effort to win.

I think the Warriors will wrap up the series on Tuesday, giving LeBron a losing record in the Finals, and history will see only “4-2” in the records. But the truth is, that “4-2” should have an asterisk – not that it’s an invalid championship, but only to note that LeBron James played better than anyone could have expected, even from him.

It doesn’t have the drama of Willis Reed walking into Madison Square Garden, it doesn’t have the visceral imagery of Jordan pushing off Bryon Russell to win his last championship… but …

The NBA literati need to remember this. We may never see another player do this. Ever.