The Next Greatest

When I first read Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball a couple of years ago, the surprise of the book was Tim Duncan’s appearance in the Top 10 all-time players list1. It’s not that I don’t have mad respect for Tim Duncan. I was fortunate to know what every other ACC fan knew before Duncan ever stepped on an NBA court – Tim Duncan is crazy good. He’s just so quietly good it’s easy for the superlatives to escape you when his name pops up.

In his post-Finals wrap up over on Grantland, Simmons sums Duncan up perfectly:

Kareem’s A-game was better — that’s undeniable. His first 11 seasons were as great as LeBron’s first 11 seasons. Duncan was never THAT good for THAT long. But Kareem was more of a loner, a tortured genius, a once-in-a-generation talent who motivated teammates mostly by being outstanding at his job. Duncan’s most underrated “skill”? He’s one of the greatest and most unselfish teammates of all time. The Spurs realized early on that they could build a franchise around his personality, his competitiveness and his work ethic, so that’s exactly what San Antonio did. Everyone from Duncan’s generation was jealous of the players who got to play with Tim Duncan. It’s one of many reasons why he’s had the second-greatest career of all time.

The thing that makes Duncan the best player of the post-MJ generation according to Simmons is primarily his character, a trait that no stat sheet or box score can accurately portray. Duncan didn’t need this year’s championship to define his legacy, it just provided the exclamation point.

  1. Duncan comes in at #7.

His Way, His Game

One of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game retired, at least officially, yesterday. Allen Iverson, dubbed the Answer, was the second greatest small guard, to play the game behind the wrecker of franchises and MJ combatant, Isiah Thomas. Iverson was classified as a point guard, but that was in name only. He was a scorer and volume shooter, averaging 26.7 points per game on 21.8 shots. He did manage to average 6.2 assists per game, which is not great for a point guard and has partially contributed to his reputation as a me-first guard. However, when comparing him to the equally great, Kobe Bryant who averaged 25.5 points per game on 19.6 attempts per game (Kobe also averaged 4.8 assists per game), his numbers don’t look as egregious. While basketball is arguably the most individual of the team sports, its hard not to take into account teammates. Kobe has played with two of the greatest centers to EVER play (Shaq and Pau), the greatest clutch shooter of all time (Robert Horry), and was coached by THE GREATEST coach of all time (Phil Jackson). Iverson on the other hand, played with an ornery Jerry Stackhouse, Aaron McKie, George Lynch, a washed-up Chris Webber, Dikembe Mutombo, Eric Snow, Matt Geiger, and was coached by another ornery character, Larry Brown1. I am in no way comparing the two, but simply attempting to provide some perspective when reflecting on his career.

His peak and best season occurred in 2000-2001, when he led a dog of a team (again, Matt Geiger was involved) to the NBA Finals. He played 52 minutes in the opening game scoring 48 points and defeating the juggernaut that was the LA Lakers. Team talent, kicked in and the Lakers rolled the 76ers in the next 4 games, but Iverson was a warrior averaging 47.4 minutes a game, 35.6 points on 40 percent shooting, and 3.8 assists (again, Matt Geiger).

However, with all of that, it was Iverson’s approach to the game that resonates the most to me when looking back on his career. Iverson is clearly from Generation X (born in 1975), but reflected a changing landscape that would later be attributed to the millennials (though I am not sure any of it matters when you grow up in the roughest parts of the Tidewater). Iverson approached every game as if it was his last, but he also did things his way. He practiced as hard as he thought he needed to, or often not at all. It was difficult for sports journalist used to watching MJ and Magic deal with a young buck not willing to put in the “off the court” work that was required to be a star. However, when he performed on the court, they made excuses like not getting his teammates involved (I feel like a broken record here, but Matt Geiger) or pointed to his shooting percentage. Iverson was not afraid of hard work as is clear by the way he would throw his body at the basket, but he did not buy into the boomers mold of hard work for hard work’s sake. He symbolized the shift in the US from boomers and Gen-X’ers who worked 60-80 hour weeks in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to millennials who have no fear of hard work, but are not going to sit in the office because its expected. Iverson paved the way for a generation of players who could turn their focus away from basketball and not be constantly chided for it. Iverson owned his persona and his way, and for that I believe his nickname was truly fitting.

  1. Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting there are three UNC “guys” in that list.