Tag:Legend Vs. Star
Posted on: August 27, 2011 10:16 am

Legend vs. Star: George Gervin vs. Kevin Durant

Posted by Royce Young

We live in an immediate society. The internet, social media, the ever-accelerating news cycle, everything means that the next 30 seconds is 10 times more important than the last 30 seconds regardless of what actually happened in the past 30 seconds. As a result, we lose perspective on what stands truly relevant from the past. The NBA is no exception. So in an attempt to merge the two worlds (since, as a blog, we love/hate/want to be BFFs within the next 30 seconds), we'll be bringing you a look at players past and present, in relation to one another. 

Previously: Isiah Thomas vs. Chris Paul | Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki | Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant | Dwight Howard vs. Moses Malone | Magic Johnson vs. LeBron James

Next up: George Gervin vs. Kevin Durant

Finding a historical parallel for Kevin Durant is sort of challenging. There's just no an obvious fit. Sure, there have been countless pure scorers throughout NBA history that effortlessly drop 30 points a night as if they're doing something routine like taking out the garbage.

That's not what I mean.

But finding that similar fit in terms of frame, style, demeanor and everything else that we've tried to do in this series, has been tough. There's isn't a really natural fit. Bernard King? He was as gifted a scoring machine as there ever was, but I'm not sure he actually has "legend" status. John Havlicek? Elgin Baylor? Both are certifiable legends and both were scoring savants but each were just 6-5 while Durant stands darn near seven feet tall. Julius Erving? Different players entirely. Dr. J was the slash king but couldn't make anything outside of 15 feet. That's not Durant.

There is one mirroring image of Durant, but for the first time in this series, it's a player that he probably doesn't want to be. A player who while a no-doubt Hall of Famer, someone that Durant should try and push past: the Iceman, George Gervin.

Obviously no disrespect intended to Gervin, because we're talking about an all-time NBA great, but he's not exactly Bird, Magic, Moses, or MJ here. He never won a title and some even questioned which type of title he was even playing for -- scoring or an NBA championship. He's an all-timer, but it's questionable whether or not he qualifies for "legend" status.

But still, his resume is sparkling. Gervin finished with 26,595 points (including the ABA, which would put him 12th all-time), won four scoring titles (including three straight -- Durant just put away his second consecutive), was a nine-time NBA All-Star (three-time ABA All-Star) and made five first-team All-NBAs.

I hope you get my point here. George Gervin absolutely is an all-time NBA great. He's got the numbers, the highlights, the status, the Hall of Fame-ness -- his resume is pretty much complete. It's just missing that final piece that would catapult him from a top 50 player into an easy top 20 guy. Sometimes judging players by only championships isn't fair, but in Gervin's is kind of is.

But he fits as Durant's historical parallel. At least better than pretty much anyone else. Mainly because he serves as sort of the Ghost of Ring-less Future for Durant. And also, because they're pretty darn similar in game, style and ability.

When Durant was coming into the league, everyone was drawn to this comparison because of the similar body styles, scoring ability, personality and all that stuff. It's probably not a coincidence that some have nickname Durant "Baby Ice." Gervin was the original lanky, long, lean scoring machine that could put up a 40 spot by the end of the third quarter and you'd say, "Hey, did you know Gervin's got 40?" Scoring within the flow makes you a silent killer, which is the Durant way. But originally, it was the Gervin way.

Check Gervin's four best seasons. He averaged 33.1 points a game on 52.8 percent shooting in 1979-80, 29.6 ppg on 54.1 percent in 1978-79 (with no 3-point line) and 32.3 ppg on 50.0 percent shooting in 1981-82. Compare that to Durant's last three seasons: 25.3 ppg on 47.6 percent, 30.1 on 47.6 percent and 27.7 on 46.2 percent. The main difference in those seasons between Durant and Gervin though? Durant averaged those taking 20 or fewer shots a game. In Gervin's '81-82 season, he took more than 25. Main reason: Gervin didn't have the same silky outside touch Durant does and the most free throw attempts a game he averaged in a season was 8.3 (Durant got to the line 10.2 times a game in 2009-10).

It's easy to see Gervin in Durant. The easy-going, calm personality. The lanky frame. The other-worldly scoring abilities. Of anyone, it's the most natural comparison. But like I said, if Durant were to finish his career like Gervin, he'd be disappointed. All the points and all the All-Star teams would be nice, but Durant isn't playing for scoring titles. He's playing for real titles.

Consider this quote from Gervin in 1980, via Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball: "I'm perfectly happy being known as George Gervin, scoring machine, because in this game the person who puts the ball in the hole is the person that usually gets ahead." Can you EVER imagine Durant saying something like that?

Not to say Durant doesn't have a chance to put up historically scary numbers. Before his 23rd birthday he's already scored 8,128 points. If he plays to his 35th birthday (that's 16 NBA seasons), he's on pace for around 32,500 points. That would put him third all-time, ahead of Michael Jordan. Wow. Even sans a title, it'd be hard to ignore that.

And already Durant is stockpiling those pantheon moments that place him in our memory banks as a great. That Game 5 takeover against Denver in the first round last year? Legendary stuff. How many moments like that can you think of off the top of your head for Gervin? Durant seems to have that alpha mentality, that takeover killer instinct that can lift his team to a higher place. Gervin didn't have it. He just scored.

Here's the thing though: Durant may seem like he's on a path to all-time greatness right now, but there's nothing preventing his career from going to same path of Gervin's. (I feel like I have to point out once again that that's not really a bad thing at all, but you get what I mean. Durant wants to be a legend. Not just a top 50 all-time player.) There are a ton of factors that can derail otherwise destined careers. Injury, bad front offices, bad luck, etc.

Winning a championship is hard. Durant's definitely on a crash course it seems now, but getting over that hump is a major challenge. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton -- never won titles. And in a lot of ways, their careers are defined by that. If Durant were to go 15 years, win 10 scoring titles while piling up something like 28,000 points, he'd be a top 30 all-time player, but he'd basically just be a slightly improved Gervin. There's really no way around it.

Recall Tracy McGrady when he was torching the league as maybe the most offensively gifted player anyone had ever seen. Already Durant has nearly accomplished as much as McGrady -- and more in some ways as KD has won two playoff series while McGrady hasn't won any -- with a whole lot of career to go. But Durant will certainly be one of those players defined by championships. It's going to happen. Because history doesn't always seem to appreciate pure scorers like Gervin. We all sit back, fold our arms and say, "Yeah he won a bunch of scoring titles, but what good did that do him?" Not only did Gervin never win a title, but he never played for one either. If Durant's career walks down that same path, one day we'll be using him as a cautionary tale to the next young great scoring savant.

But lucky for Durant, he's just 22. Still a lot of time to write his own story yet.
Posted on: August 21, 2011 4:32 pm
Edited on: August 22, 2011 12:24 am

Legend vs. Star: Magic Johnson vs. LeBron James

By Matt Moore

We live in an immediate society. The internet, social media, the ever-accelerating news cycle, everything means that the next 30 seconds is 10 times more important than the last 30 seconds regardless of what actually happened in the past 30 seconds. As a result, we lose perspective on what stands truly relevant from the past. The NBA is no exception. So in an attempt to merge the two worlds (since, as a blog, we love/hate/want to be BFFs within the next 30 seconds), we'll be bringing you a look at players past and present, in relation to one another. 

Previously: Isiah Thomas vs. Chris Paul | Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki | Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant | Moses Malone vs. Dwight Howard

Next up: Magic Johnson vs. LeBron James


Even though we've tried desperately to hammer this home throughout this series, this one, due its participants, requires an even stronger preface than previously stated. So please, for the love of Auerbach, read this and let it sink in.

There is no real comparison in terms of greatness between LeBron James and Magic Johnson. By the time Magic Johnson was 27, which James will turn this December, he had not one, not two, but three championships under his belt. Magic was beloved by everyone who ever met him, everyone who played with or against him, even by his biggest rival, the man he will always be measured against. He brought the Lakers to the forefront of the NBA and helped avenge a disturbing pattern of L.A. being owned by the Celtics. He wowed with his passing, he dazzled with his scoring, he stunned with his rebounding, and he owns three of the most famous moments in NBA history. He played center in the Finals in a crucial game for crying out loud. He managed to build his business assets and party like a rockstar without ever getting caught or having it blow up in his face, he managed to be cocky while having everyone believe he was humble pie. He credited teammates and dealth with media storms by hiding out instead of exacerbating it. Magic won, constantly and consistently. Magic never had people question whether he shrank from the moment. He's Magic freaking Johnson.

This post is not a debate on who was better. It's to examine their games and careers and see where they are alike and where they are different. We're only now beginning to be able to put the 2011 NBA Finals into consideration for how it affects James' career, and while he's going to have a half-dozen more chances to rewrite the tale, the early returns are damaging.

And this is where it's important to bring up statistics. It's often said that most "statheads" or "geeks," "statnerds," "sabretricians," or whatever youw ant to call them preach an all-or-nothing approach. As in, if I believe that using points scored per possession is a wiser approach than points per game, or believing a better indicator of how much a guy rebounds is the percentage of available caroms he snags than rebounds per game that I automatically toss out all other indications. That somehow because I think PER is a good indicator of efficiency, not of value, but efficiency, that I'm somehow going to think that the players better than Kobe Bryant in PER are better than Kobe Bryant at basketball. It robs those of us who want to take all the evidence possible to concoct an opinion of the ability to toe the line. You're either with the numbers, or against. You either value big shots in big games for big wins, or silly numbers on a chart. And it works both ways, as too often numbers-heavy analysts will lose sight of the fact that sometimes a play does leave a team demoralized and they never recover. Happens in real life, happens on the floor. There's a middle ground.

That middle-ground is in beautiful stark relief when we consider James and Magic. Here's a nice start for you.

Through their first seven seasons, James has scored nearly 7,000 more points in a little over 4000 more minutes. Per 36 minutes, James has averaged 24.8 points per game, Magic 18.6. James averaged a line of 27.7-7.1-7.0-1.7-1.8 with 3.3 turnovers per game, Magic 18.6-7.3-10.6-2.1-.5 with 3.8 turnovers per game. James has a career PER Of 26.9, Johnson had one of 23.5 through seven seasons (Magic was one year older at that point). In short, James' overall production has been better up until this point. But to get there you have to consider the years where Magic was sharing the ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he was finding his way, when he wasn't producing other-worldly numbers. James was the man from day one.

Instead, take a look at James' eighth season in the league versus' Johnson's. The gap closes considerably. James scored less than a point more per 36 minutes, less than a rebound more per 36 minutes, and Johnson's 12.1 assists to James 6.5 is stunning. The PER gap closes to 27.3 for James versus 27.0 for Magic. And Johnson had a 47.2 Assist percentage, meaning nearly half of all the Lakers' Showtime assists in 1986-1987 came from Magic. James' closest to that was a 41.8 percent mark in 2009-2010, his last with Cleveland.

But the difference that presents itself most clearly to me is connected to the metrics, but not self-evident. Magic Johnson's greatest gift was his ability to excel above and beyond what was necessary, specifically in the role his team required of him. Magic filled a need better than any player in NBA history. If it was rebounding, he'd crash the glass. If it was setting up teammates, he'd drop double-digit assists. And if called upon, he could score at will (Johnson is, across the board, a better shooter than James, though last season James was only 1.2 percentage points behind Johnson in his seventh season). The 1980 Finals' Game 6 where Magic Johnson started at center is the easiest reference point, but that overlooks a decade of play wherein Johnson played point forward better than anyone ever had or ever will, most likely. His versatility is his strength, and it is both a bond and fracture between he and James' game.

When James signed with the Heat along with Chris Bosh, immediately everyone started conceptualizing how this three-headed monster would work. Very early on, Erik Spoelstra confirmed that we would see both James and Wade run point. And throughout the season, James indeed plyayed as the primary ball-handler. His versatility is a huge strengthpoint, in that James is a gifted passer who can make impossible passes, has terrific vision, and can use his size and strentgh to overwhelm an opponent to the breaking point, just before dropping the ball off to a teammate for an easy score.

The problem is that James too often seems intent on fulfilling an agenda. When Johnson played, it was without purpose, flowing within the rhythm of the game. James instead is like an orchestra conductor who wants the entire symphony to stop on a dime and switch to whatever new piece of music he's selected. Teammates should get out of the way because he's coming through. Now they should cut to the basket because he's looking for the baseline cutter. Now they should work to spot up. Now they should try and free him off a pick and roll. If a point guard's responsibility is to not only manage the game, but to identify the opponent's weaknesses and attack them, no one has educated James to that point. It may be a matter of James always believing it is he who should dictate what the defense should do and not the other way around, but that kind of dogma is best fit when you have a system to rely on. Phil Jackson never changed his gameplan because the Triangle would take care of itself (and because he had Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant to lean on, but let's not get into that). James has never operated in a rigorous discipline like that. He's always been granted decision-making power, the trust to deliver, as Magic often was. The problem is that Magic always knew how to identify where he needed to be, how he needed to play. James too often simply tries to slam the square peg into the round hole. The fact that he's as successful as he is wiht it is a testament to his ability.

In a way, you almost have to blame Jordan for part of the discrepancy. That's the man who James has always looked up, modeled himself after. And that's who we've expected him to be as a basketball society. The pull-up jumper, loop-de-loop layup, free-throw-line dunk contest winner, we want all of that, again. And James too often seems trapped in emulating it. He dabbles with the post, then feels like he's done enough time there and goes back to the crossover pull-up jumper. He never takes the time to recognize "Hey, Shawn Marion is 33 and DeShawn Stevenson is much smaller than me. If I post up, Chandler has to help and that probably means I'm going to the line 30 times." Some think that's because James is lazy. It's hard to see how an individual who is as good at basketball as James is, who is in the physical condition he's in could be lazy. Instead, it's an expectation Magic never had to face. Deferring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar only made him more popular. Deferring to Dwyane Wade makes James weak. He's supposed to hit the mid-range jumper, the fadeaway. He's supposed to be Jordan. In reality, his career would benefit in no way more than trying to emulate Magic. On and off the court.

Johnson was a media darling. That smile permeates through the years. Magic partied through the years as athletes do, but managed to never allow his image to get out and be tarnished. Part of this was because the internet didn't exist. Part of this is because Johnson always had a firmer lock on his image, despite James being the one with the marekting company built around him. Johnson had an epic rivalry. James instead embraced two of his rivals in playing with them. Johnson always managed to find the perfect way to play in the clutch, whether it was scoring, passing, rebounding, or defense. James is seen as a quitter who fails in the clutch. Johnson retired with the same team that drafted him and has a statue outside the arena. James abandoned his home-state team and people burned his jerseys.

Of course lost in all this is that Johnson walked into one of the most successful franchises in NBA history, and was partnered with the player who would go on to become the all-time scoring leader in league history. James instead entered a perennial underdog and had such great talent come beside him as Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, and Mo Williams. It doesn't change or affect James' decisions or how he's percieved, nor should it. But these things should be mentioned in full disclosure. 

All this time, James has been trying to build himself around Jordan, or create his own iconic image. Maybe instead he should have focused on the leader of Showtime, the man whose talents most closely resemble his.

All data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Posted on: August 13, 2011 4:39 pm
Edited on: August 14, 2011 3:32 pm

Legend vs. Star: Moses Malone vs. Dwight Howard

By Matt Moore

We live in an immediate society. The internet, social media, the ever-accelerating news cycle, everything means that the next 30 seconds is 10 times more important than the last 30 seconds regardless of what actually happened in the past 30 seconds. As a result, we lose perspective on what stands truly relevant from the past. The NBA is no exception. So in an attempt to merge the two worlds (since, as a blog, we love/hate/want to be BFFs within the next 30 seconds), we'll be bringing you a look at players past and present, in relation to one another. 

Previously: Isiah Thomas vs. Chris Paul | Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki | Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant

Next up: Moses Malone vs. Dwight Howard


In the history of MVPs in the NBA, Moses Malone gets lost most often. He entered the ABA at 19, and it took him some time to find his place after the merger. Then he detonated in his second year in Houston, and became an MVP force year in and year out. But just as he should have been really making his name for himself, Magic and Bird emerged. So now you've got Moses, notoriously not eloquent and  whose game was neither pretty nor flashy, trying to compete with two of the greatest college players of all time, entering the league. The result? The 80s are defined by Bird, Magic, and their rivalry, and Moses is overlooked. This despite Moses being a three-time MVP. Three times, the man won the MVP and there were a few more seasons when he would have been the appropriate choice.

Numbers don't tell the whole story, but in Moses' case, they're worth talking about. How about his first MVP season, 1978-1979, when he averaged 24.8 points and 17.6 rebounds in 41.3 minutes. Talk about carrying the load. Yet he only had a 23 percent usage rate that season. For comparison's sake, Derrick Rose had a 32.2 percent usage rate this past season. Malone shot 54 percent from the field that season (while taking only 16 shots a game) and 74 percent from the foul line. That's a crazy season. And it was only his fourth-highest scoring season. In 1981-1982, which was arguably his best statistical season, he scored 31.1 points per game, an unbelievable amount, and grabbed 14.7 boards per game, while shooting 52 percent. He made up nearly the entirety of that Rockets team. And yet, the lost in the first round.

But Moses is not one of the sad stories of players who were excellent then forgotten without rings. He was traded in 1982 to Philadelphia, joining Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, and Andrew Toney in a championship run to help validate Doc's career. On a team with that much firepower, Moses averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds along with a steal and two blocks per game. In short, it was a magnificent season that netted him NBA Finals MVP honors as the Sixers swept the Los Angeles Lakers. Yeah, league rarely trumpets the feat in its eternal quest to promote the Lakers, but Magic and Kareem were swept in the Finals.

But those are only numbers. The truth is that Moses was lord of the blue-collar rebounding machines. Most of his work was done on the offensive glass. If Dennis Rodman is the best offensive rebounder of all time, Moses is not far behind. Of the top 10 seasons in offensive rebounding percentage, Rodman holds the first and third best, along with three of the top ten. Moses owns four. A good comparison for his work to modern day might actually be Zach Randolph. Moses had that same level of touch, the ability to lift the ball up through contact and ease it off the glass. The ball seemed trapped in a vortex swirling it down into the bucket when Moses layed it up. As important as Moses' size, strength, and work ethic were to his success, that level of touch that he mastered was equally important, and what sets him apart from so many big men offensively, including Dwight Howard.

That Moses has never had a book written about him is not unexpected, but no less a disappointment. In this age of raw big men wondering what it is people expect from them, Malone stands as the emblem everyone wants. He wasn't the tallest, or the most versatile. He simply dominated in every way imaginable and wasn't worried about his global brand, either.

And then, there's Dwight Howard.

The difference between the two can be seen in any number of ways, but maybe their approach on and off the court is the place to start. Howard is amazingly gifted public figure. He's drawn to the camera like a moth to flame. His commercial appeal is as wide as his shoulders. He takes to the media constantly to talk about what he feels are his team's strengths and weaknesses, does impressions of his coach, and is generally seen as a big kid. He's friendly, loveable, has a good clean Christian image, and mostly fun-loving. He's the anti-Moses in most ways.

And on the floor, Howard's a different beast as well. Howard is likely the better defensive player, his defensive ratings cast a glimpse at that. Furthermore, Howard's superior athleticism gave him a different impact in terms of physically dominating his opponents. And in terms of overall impact, no player in the league at this moment impacts the defensive end of the floor the way Howard does. That was his biggest stake to the MVP thise season, even if it was ultimately futile. Howard made the most impact when you factor both sides of the floor.

Howard made his first Finals when he was 24, Moses when he was 25. Howard has been a part of a contending team that hasn't been able to get over the top, just like Moses' Houston teams. We'll try and spare Magic fans from expanding on this comparison to avoid the implication that he has to move on to win a championship. Howard has been a prominent face of the league for the past three seasons. Whether that's due to his dunk contest participation, the increase of media exposure, or his superior play is hard to determine. But examining the impact both in terms of wins and statistically, it's difficult to put Howard on the same level.

This past season was Howard's best season, from most accounts. From my perspective, the only real difference in Howard's game was an increase in usage. Howard's field goal percentage actually dropped this past season, which can be a career-high in usage. But if his game had improved that much, wouldn't his field goal percentage at least have been equal to the previous year, which actually was his best season? Howard's impact at both ends of the floor was largely the same, outside of adding a mid-range jumper, which is like putting a surfer decal on a mack truck.

Howard's best season saw him put up 21.9 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the floor (better than Moses' best overall season, we should note), with 27 percent usage. The numbers don't match up well with Moses, but there's still time. The biggest difference is touch. Assuming Howard is slightly better overall defensively, there is a gaping chasm when compared Malone on offense. That touch we discussed earlier? That's the biggest missing component. Howard shot 59 percent from the field last season, and yet you're still left wondering how much higher that would be if he had the ability to lay the ball in like Malone did. Or if he had Malone's footwork. Or versatility. But perhaps those are unfair comparisons. After all, the facts are that at 25, Howard shot better than Malone from the field. And Howard and Malone both had usage rates of 27 percent at this point in their career. So if that's the case, where's the big gap between them offensively?

You know where: The stripe.

Howard is either incapable or unwilling to raise his free throw percentage to an even decent level. The result is that Howard shot 112 more free throws in his seventh season than Moses did, and made 63 fewer. It will continue to be a thorn in Howard's offensive side until he can convince opponents that fouling him is not a viable strategy. Maybe Howard is just waiting for the fans to cheer loud enough for the ball to go in. (HT: Twitter.)

The surprise there is that Howard was a better rebounder at this point in his career than Moses was. Howard collected 21.8 percent of all rebounds last season compared to Moses' 20.3. So while Moses had a higher rebounding total, the advanced stats will tell you that Howard actually collected them at a better rate.

Still, Moses is, as expected, better overall. But maybe that was because of where Moses grew to be after this point in his career Howard is at. And that has to excite Magic fans and NBA fans alike. If Howard can improve in a few areas, work on some footwork, and keep rebounding at his current pace, he's got a shot at equaling Malone statistically in a few areas. That of course will not make up for the ring, but it might help get him there. One interesting difference, while Howard was a better overall rebounder than Malone was at this point in their careers, Malone was better at offensive rebounding by a considerable margin, 16 percent offensive rebound rate for Malone vs. 12 percent for Howard. Imagine if Howard improved in two key areas, offensive rebounding, where he's already a beast, and free throw percentage? 

Howard would be a tall, athletic freak able to create multiple opportunities for himself and create more points when sent to the line. That might be enough to make up the gap in offensive production, even if he never learns a great set of post moves from Olajuwon, improves his footwork, or gets a killer fadeaway. In short, there are ways Howard can surpass Malone without ever improving his touch.

The future's wide open for Dwight Howard. He's on the cusp. Whether he gets there is up to him. One thing's for sure. If he does, there will be more said about it than there was about Moses, and that's a crime.  

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com