From on court battles, “freeze outs”, and Dream Team controversies Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan are at a minimum, rivals.
BEFORE GAME 3 OF THE 1993 NBA FINALS
Thomas was being interviewed before the game. Bob Costas was breaking down how tough and how well Isiah’s clubs played Jordan years earlier.
Isiah responded, “The thing that amazes me about Michael Jordan compared to any other player in the league is his stamina and his endurance. The thing that I wasn’t able to do and Magic wasn’t able to do, we had to succumb to injuries. We didn’t seem to have the type of energy level and stamina he seems to possess. Every single night whether he’s playing against the worst team in the league or the best team in the league….He has an energy level that is unmatched by any other player or any other athlete that I’ve seen in professional sports. Whether it be basketball, football, baseball, track, or tennis. His energy level is so much greater than ours it seems that night in and night out, he’s there performing at a level that we quite frankly weren’t able to reach.”
After Isiah said this, Jordan won four more NBA championships.
Trying to compare LeBron James to another player I’ve seen is impossible. There has never been anyone quite like him in pro basketball. He’s so unique it took these six great players to explain how I see him.
KARL MALONE (30%) Have you ever seen the 6’9″, 260 lb. Karl Malone filling the outside lane on the fast break? Scary! His body was a weapon and nobody delivered at the rim like “The Mailman”. When you look at LeBron in transition you see something similar. He’s a freight train and it might be smart to move aside. I watched Karl score 37,000 points and many of them were playing “bully ball” like James has. They each seal defenders off down low, and guys bounce off their muscles. They both hit about 74% of their foul shots. LeBron is durable and sometimes seems bionic. He will get hurt, and will be running full speed a few minutes later. Malone played 80 or more games an incredible 17 times.
EARVIN “MAGIC” JOHNSON (25%)
Among the greatest passers, my favorite was Magic. He was the ultimate conductor and it seemed he had four guys on a string. LeBron, like Magic before him is obsessed with making his teammates better. They both lead with joy. James was a share first guy from day one, and is one of the elite passers in his own right. He comes up with crafty stuff, especially getting the ball cross court. The King and Magic are also a perfect match as rebounders. LeBron seems to go the Finals every year, a place Johnson found himself 9 times over 12 seasons.
SCOTTIE PIPPEN (20%)
It’s the point forward thing. Mostly it’s that Scottie Pippen was a defensive terror with athleticism and length. He could matchup all over the floor. LeBron can check anyone in the league in a pinch. His defensive versatility is arguably his most impressive trait.
MICHAEL JORDAN (15%)
Michael Jordan took what he wanted when driving to the hole. He’d pull up and go glass, go around you, over you, and even through you. LeBron James is unstoppable driving to the basket. Finesse and power come together in harmony. Nobody had energy like Jordan. He only slept four hours a night during his prime. Dropping 22 in the final quarter, while shutting down his man was just another Tuesday night for Mike. King James is producing a new kind of energy. He has a body and a skill set that has him on pace to be great at an older age than anyone in NBA history. In my lifetime, LeBron is the only player outside of MJ to be the worlds best player for a significant amount of time.
CLYDE DREXLER (5%)
LeBron also has a smooth side. I think of Clyde “The glide” at his best. Drexler would spin and lay it in pretty. He may dunk it from 10 feet out, or swoop in for a timely finger roll.
DWYANE WADE (5%)
On a proffesional and personal level LeBron and D Wade are close and share a lot of beliefs and history inside the game. Both guys are explosive scorers. Their similar styles were evident in the alley-oop connection they displayed in Miami.
In 2016 Steph Curry was named the NBA Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive season. He was a unanimous choice and that was a legit result. When someone gets this good, it’s natural to compare them to Michael Jordan. Steve Kerr is uniquely qualified to talk about these two guys. He played with MJ and currently coaches Curry. Kerr broke it down this way to Dan Patrick:
“It’s a different feel. Michael was so dominant, physically, emotionally. I always got the sense everybody was afraid of him-the opponents, the referees, his teammates. He was so dominant just with his presence. With Steph it’s totally different. He looks like your little brother. He’s just out there running around and firing away and hitting these incredible shots. He dominates with his skill. Michael did too, but Michael dominated with just his very presence. I think it’s just a different feeling with Steph. It’s one of the reasons he’s so popular. I think people can actually relate. Not so much to his skill, but his physical stature and just the fact he looks like a normal guy. It’s remarkable he can dominate the way that he does at that size.”
The greatest player of all time was his most productive from 1990 to 1998. You often hear about Michael Jordan’s six championship rings and the six Finals MVP’s that came along with them. His Chicago Bulls compiled two different “Three-Peats” and were never pushed to a game seven. Jordan won 25 of his last 26 playoff series.
From November 3rd 1990 to June 14th 1998, no Michael Jordan led team lost three games in a row. That covers a span of 628 games (502 regular season-126 post season games). He was that good kids!
The original “Dream Team” remains the greatest, most impactful group in basketball history. They are so iconic, they have cast a shadow over a team that could have hung with them on the floor. The 1996 version of Team USA was on the level of the 1992 squad. They are not given much credit for their sensational roster. Even “The Redeem Team” in 2008 gets more love because of their storyline. “Dream Team 3” is the most underrated basketball team of all time.
1992 VERSE 1996 THOUGHTS
I’ts close. I’d guess the 1992 squad would be a two or three point favorite each time. The reason would be Michael Jordan and Earvin Johnson, who was still Magic enough. It should be noted Larry Bird had a broken NBA body and was doing Americans a favor by suiting up. Christian Laettner (a good pro) as a rookie would be the worst player on either squad.
1996 UNITED STATES MEN’S OLYMPIC BASKETBALL TEAM
CHARLES BARKLEY (Age 33)
KARL MALONE (Age 33)
JOHN STOCKTON (Age 34)
DAVID ROBINSON (Age 30)
SCOTTIE PIPPEN (Age 30)
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (Age 24)
HAKEEM OLAJUWON (Age 33)
PENNY HARDAWAY (Age 24)
GRANT HILL (Age 23)
GARY PAYTON (Age 28)
REGGIE MILLER (Age 30)
MITCH RICHMOND (Age 31)
COACHES: Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Bobby Cremins, Clem Haskins
“Dream Team 3” had five players from the 92 group. Then add Shaq at his peak of running fast and jumping high. Next is merely Olajuwon who had just been the best player in the world for two years. Penny and Grant Hill were superstars, right in the middle of putting their versatile stamps on the NBA. Gary Payton was at the top of his game. Reggie Miller had already proven he was a clutch legend. Oh my goodness Mitch Richmond could ball. They won by 32 points a game on the way to gold. This team got lost between the “Dream Team” breaking ground and the “Redeem Team” having to overcome struggle. For how good the 96 team was, it’s like they hardly exist in fans memories.
Tim Duncan said goodbye to the game of basketball this week. Instead of the focus being a pure celebration of this San Antonio Spurs legend, the day was used for the media and fans to take jabs at Duncan’s rival Kobe Bryant. Both players are now retired after a combined 10 NBA titles and 33 all-star games. Many claimed “Duncan was the best player of his generation.” They said it so nonchalant, as if it was common knowledge. I heard “at least Tim didn’t take 50 shots in his last game.” There was, “Duncan retired with so much more class than Kobe.” Everyone keeps bringing up the amount of money Bryant was paid his last two seasons. These takes are meaningless to the argument. You not liking Kobe, doesn’t change that he’s exactly, on the Tim Duncan level.
MY TAKE ON BRYANT
Kobe had as much skill, balance, and competitive heat as anyone who has played the game. His desire to be a student, ability to make difficult shots, and fundamentals were as good as it gets. He had Hakeem Olajuwon trained footwork and his handles have gone under the radar. Above all else, “the black mamba” was a spectacular performer. He excelled in pressure. Scoring 50 in a game is a dream for most guys. Kobe once dropped 55 in a half. The Lakers star poured in 50 plus points ten times….in one season. I remember a week and a half stretch where he hit the game winning bucket each night. Kobe not only bailed out Team USA in the clutch for a gold medal, the best players in the world were begging him to do it. He was close to “Michael Jordan good.” Let that sink in.
MY TAKE ON DUNCAN
It was memorable to watch Tim Duncan be so poised and capable of being the best, on the biggest stage, as just a youngster. He later grew up battling Garnett, Webber, Rasheed Wallace, and Elton Brand every night. Duncan was the man among those men. His brains, his array of post moves, back to the basket game, cool use of the glass, and unselfishness stand out. Tim had terrific hands and was a precise passer. He is likely one of the five best defensive players of my lifetime. The guy was still protecting the rim well as an older player. “The big fundamental” was a winner his entire career. His teams won 50 or more games in 17 straight seasons. He was the face of consistent, humble dominance.
SO WHO WAS BETTER?
It’s close! It’s a real debate. Their careers are equal. Taking each guy at their very best, it’s Kobe. His greatness was more jaw-dropping. Choose Duncan for the work on the floor. Don’t be clouded by him being the guy who should lead boy scouts, while Bryant is the teeth grinding villain. This is how we would go back and forth. You’d say Timmy has one more MVP than Kobe. I’d tell you Bryant has been the Western Conference player of the month 16 times to Duncan’s 3. You’ll say Duncan has one more Finals MVP. I’ll bring up Bryant averaging 29/7/7 on a record-setting 15-1 playoff run where Kobe was not MVP. You’ll say Kobe had Shaq. I’ll say the Spurs were awesome and Shaq had Kobe. You’ll say Duncan was a better teammate. I’ll say Kobe had the aggressive confidence of a lion. You’ll say Duncan had a better regular season winning percentage. I’ll add Bryant played in one more NBA Finals than Tim. You’ll bring up the big mans tremendous defense. I’ll agree, but we all know Kobe was a super defensive player. You’ll say Duncan took less money to give back to his franchise. I’ll say Bryant was more compelling and helped globalize the game. If you think Tim Duncan was the best player of his generation, it’s a legit take…It’s just not a fact.
Kobe Bryant’s final game was a bit more than another one of his gems. I know this is a guy who has played in the NBA Finals for a living. He’s bailed out a team in an Olympic gold medal game. He once scored 55 points in a half. Because of some unique circumstances, I believe this was the coolest outing of his illustrious career.
These are the factors I’m considering:
WHO WERE KOBE AND THE LAKERS IN 2016?
It was no secret the Lakers were horrible. This was a 16-65 group stuck in mud. Kobe had his moments this year. There were eight or nine games where he played very well. Facts are his body is shot from injury and basketball mileage on his legs. He had become what I’d feared most…a gunner who could no longer shoot well. Bryant’s efficiency was disgusting for an NBA starter. Two days before his last game, he shot 4-12 and scored 13 points at Oklahoma City. He sat after 19 minutes with his body covered in bandages and ice. This had become a typical scene.
THE UNIQUE STAGE THIS GAME PROVIDED
Not everyone knows whether or not it’s their last game. In this case, we all knew for the majority of the season when Kobe would lace them up one more time. If healthy, he would finish April 13th in Los Angeles playing Utah. As the date approached it was obvious this was going to be an epic happening. This was a rare, high-profile evening built around seeing a specific player in a swan song. The stage was bigger than the game. It was like the Oscars at a pro basketball game. It felt like the Super Bowl of Kobe.
THE LAKERS OPPONENT THAT NIGHT
The Utah Jazz had known for just a short while that they had been eliminated from the playoff race. With injuries and resting guys, this was certainly a short-handed Utah team. It’s still the Utah Jazz. They are one of Kobe’s fiercest rivals and are well coached by Quin Snyder. This crew from Salt Lake City handed Bryant his biggest ever loss just two weeks earlier. Utah rocked the Lakers by 48 points while Kobe scored one lonely bucket. Utah and L.A. fans agree, this matchup is always personal.
MY EXPECTATIONS FOR KOBE IN THE FINALE
The scenario I’d hoped for Bryant was to score 21 points on poor shooting. I thought the Jazz would win by 16 or 17 points. My biggest goal as a fan, was that he did not embarrass himself.
HOW KOBE PLAYED AND HOW THE GAME TURNED OUT
Number 24 came out swinging and missed his first five field goal attempts. The Jazz were controlling the game and it looked like a familiar sight for these Lakers. Bryant kept firing like never before and something awesome happened. Things went from everyone wondering how many points he would score in this loss, to the realization that he had pushed the Lakers to a stunning come from behind victory. In the last three minutes of the game he scored 15 points hitting his final five shots, four free throws and added a dime. In total he scored 60 points (38 in the second half), had 4 rebounds, 4 assists, a block and a steal. He out scored the Jazz himself in the fourth quarter 23-21. With intense pressure to perform, he was the “Black Mamba” because the occasion called for it.
WHY THE IMPACT OF THIS GAME IS EXTRA SPECIAL
I’m not being a prisoner of the moment. I’ve seen Kobe play more than 1,300 times. He’s done way bigger and badder things over his journey. There was something different about this one. Did you see Kobe at the podium after the game? He was giddy like a child at recess, but he was in actual shock. Even with all the player has done, knowing he had a group of guys spoon-feeding him shots, he could not believe how things had turned out. It was like the” sports Gods” doing a major favor, for a guy that did not need one.
I knew Kobe would be a legend the second I saw his eyeballs. I’ve spent the last 20 years marveling at everything he has done on the floor. He took over a Finals game as just a 21 year old in 2000. Shaq fouled out in overtime and Bryant said, “I got you”. I was not surprised. When he out scored the Mavericks 62-61 through three-quarters in 2005, I felt it brewing the day before. For the first time, this guy did something I did not think he was capable of. I was a “Kobe doubter” for one night and he burned me. I was in shock with you Mamba. People always talk about first impressions. Kobe just proved how you say goodbye matters as well.