September 22, 2009
OK, we know the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
No, I didn't sweat it out as much as Dwyane Wade(notes) (pictured, above) did, but this was a tough one, a post that has been bandied about for a while. Best season, for a player? Best individual season? Best advancement of his cause, of his particular raison d'etre? So many options!
In the end, let's go cold. Best statistical season. Pure production. I don't care if a player's wife gave birth to triplets in the same season he was able to guest star on stage in a David Mamet production the year his team finally won a title while he averaged a career-high in rebounds per game. Don't care about the sweet story, only care about the sweet stats.
And, to further complicate things, don't look for your favorite role player. I'm not going to balance the list for the sake of adding, say, Ben Wallace(notes). You have to do it all, well. And only once — there will be no repeat appearances by players on this list. This cold, cold list.
If you're unfamiliar with some of the advanced statistics referenced in this post, kindly head to the wonderland that is Basketball-Reference.com for further explanation.
Howard cut the rate in which he turned the ball over significantly (relative to how many possessions he uses up), his defense improved, his defensive stats improved (career highs of 2.9 blocks and a steal), and he tossed in a league-leading 13.8 rebounds and team-leading 20.9 points per game to boot. Howard was also tops in defensive rating, defensive win shares and fourth in player efficiency rating in what was a pretty spectacular season for individual accomplishment.
I thought his stats could have improved a little during the 2009 dunk contest, but that wasn't really up to Dwight, was it?
I know exactly what sort of stick I'll get from readers on this one, but I cannot in good conscience rank Bryant any higher. Kobe hit for the highest points-per-game average of anyone on the list this season, hitting for a spectacular 35.4 points a contest, but there are other aspects beyond pure scoring (though I'm certainly not ranking scoring on par with rebounding or other pursuits) that leave Bryant a step behind.
Certainly not his fault, it's damned tough to be able to compete with the giants in the paint, but reality is reality. He averaged 5.3 boards, 4.5 assists, 45 percent shooting and 2.2 combined blocks/steals and 3.1 turnovers in 2005-06, a season that included his 81-point awesomeness against the Toronto Raptors. Bryant was fourth in win shares that season, and nearly in a three-way tie for first in player efficiency rating.
He was fantastic. He was on an awful team, he had no help and he was the focus of double-teams night in and night out. But so are a lot of these players, and they still manage to pile up the assists, or (my particular bugaboo with Kobe that season) wreak havoc as a decoy off the ball. That shouldn't take away from how great he was, in 2005-06.
Stuck on a team playing the fourth-slowest pace of any in the NBA that season, it's kind of tough to truly appreciate just how potent Dirk was.
Kind of tough. He averaged 26.6 points, nine rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 combined blocks/steals and this is the biggie — 1.9 turnovers per game. To be able to rely on a superstar, someone who will touch the ball on possession after possession after possession, to cough it up only 1.9 times a game? That wins games. Dirk was tops in win shares and player efficiency rating that season. Yes, ahead of Kobe.
Once again, playing on a team that runs at the third-slowest pace in the NBA kind of limits some NBA fans' ability to see just how brilliant Paul has been during his short career. And, like quite a few youngsters in this league, he enjoyed a spectacular career season in 2008-09.
He averaged 22.8 points per game, 11 assists, 2.8 steals, just three turnovers, 50.3 percent shooting and 5.5 rebounds. Want to tell me he gets a couple extra assists per game (Paul averaged 11.8 in New Orleans, 10.3 on the road) at home? Fine. It's still a mind-blowing turn for a point guard, especially at that pace.
For all the gimpiness, it's easy to forget just how potent Tracy McGrady was back then — producing output just about unmatched by any perimeter player this decade.
McGrady averaged 32.1 points on 45.7 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.5 combined blocks/steals with just 2.6 turnovers per game. Working on an otherwise-woeful Magic team, he led the NBA in win shares and player efficiency rating. Sadly, this season is known more for McGrady's first-round flameout against the Pistons than any sustained bit of individual brilliance.
5. Dwyane Wade, 2008-09
He wasn't just some chic pick, as you'll get every year from scribes and TV guys.
The type of guys that say, "hey, I know Pujols is the favorite, but Matt Holliday has a pretty strong case for MVP as well," or, "Roy will probably win it, but Rudy Gay(notes) should be right there in the conversation for Rookie of the Year."
No. Sometimes it's OK to have a clear winner. Instead of feeling as if we should divvy up the discussion time, maybe we should talk about how great the clear winner is, a little bit more. Or, mention the second-place guy without feeling a need to give him an award.
Last season? That wasn't the case. Several players had seasons that would rank as easy MVP seasons most other years. Kobe, Howard, Paul, Wade and LeBron James(notes) were all spectacular. And Wade's averages of 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, five rebounds, 3.5 combined steals/blocks per game(!) and 49 percent shooting was just on point. Second in player efficiency rating, third in win shares in a comeback year for the sterling Heat guard.
Almost out of habit, you nearly type that "Duncan's stats won't stand out as much as the others on this list." But this time? They do.
Duncan averaged 25.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3.2 combined steals/blocks and just 2.6 fouls per game.
To have the offense funneled your way just about every play, while having to get out on guards and defend the team's best big men in what was (with Shaq, Kevin Garnett(notes), Rasheed Wallace(notes), etc) a pretty spectacular era for bigs out West, and only foul 2.6 times a game? And you were watching back then. This isn't a guy that's exactly getting away with highway robbery with the referees. He's just not fouling. While changing everything, defensively.
Alas, stuck on a pretty awful team besides himself and David Robinson, Duncan's Spurs bowed out to Shaq and Kobe in the second round.
3. Kevin Garnett, 2003-04
KG was ungodly, in 2003-04. Absolutely all over the place.
He scored, he defended all comers like mad, he played huge down the stretch, he played at point guard when the only point man Minnesota had left was named "Darrick Martin," he did it all. He still missed a ring. Such are the vicissitudes of team sport.
Garnett averaged 24.2 points per game, 13.9 rebounds, five assists(!), 3.7 combined steals/blocks, only 2.6 turnovers, only 2.5 fouls. Goodness, what a line. Led the NBA in player efficiency rating, win shares, and he made half his shots.
Part of you wants to credit O'Neal more for the sustained, and sometimes forgotten, excellence as a Laker. Even if he underachieved, to a degree, by not showing up in shape. O'Neal's brilliance actually gets lost in sportswriter translation because we fall back on the "dominant" angle, not mentioning that his presence in the sport isn't limited to, "geez, he's big."
And 1999-00 was his peak. Showed up in shape, worked the ball, gave up points, gave up assists, gave it up for Phil Jackson and Tex Winter. And, wouldn't you know it, he still averaged career highs in points per game. That's what big minutes (exactly 40 a game) will do for you. That's what being in shape will do for you, kids. Whole grains, next time.
O'Neal averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.5 combined steals/blocks, 2.5 turnovers and just three fouls a game. He was averaging close to four fouls a game in Miami a few years ago in 10 fewer minutes. This tells you just how active, and quick, and on top of it O'Neal was in 1999-00.
1. LeBron James, 2008-09
Say what you want about player efficiency rating, it has its holes, but so do the greats.
Michael Jordan was nearly flawless, but his competitive verve sometimes took his team out of its set offense and/or defense, which hurt. Wilt Chamberlain couldn't hit free throws. LeBron James' jumper is still iffy. Kobe Bryant's shot selection can sometimes be questioned. Dwyane Wade gambles too much defensively. Bird was slow, Magic played like an old man at age 25, and Dr. J never got his elbow under the ball. Hard to do when your nose was at the rim.
But PER is also the best catch-all stat we have because the various statistics are rated in different ways (whether you agree with those rankings or not), because of the pace adjustment, and because of the per-minute ideals. And LeBron James, last season, put up a PER for the ages.
Basketball-reference.com, the site that makes posts like these possible, has him at 31.67 last season. That's up there with Wilt and MJ. Nobody else. One through eight? It's Wilt, MJ and LeBron James. At age 24. Uh-oh.
LBJ averaged 28.4 points last season, with 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.8 combined steals/blocks, three turnovers, and three fouls a game. Some of those stats are down, per game, from the year before — but per-minute, James' rebounding, scoring and assists went up, and his shooting improved across the board. And usage counts. The ability to grab the ball and create a good shot for yourself. Love Garnett, love Duncan, but they can't do that as well as James.
I have a feeling this post might delve into another Kobe vs. LeBron debate. I could be cool about this and pretend it's not going to happen, or I can attempt to meet the debate head on. Kobe is brilliant, I can't say that enough about him, and he boasts the most respected work ethic in the game. But at this point, just comparing their peaks, you can't say that he's been better than LeBron. Or any of the bigs or smalls listed ahead of Bryant.
And that's OK. Just blind yourself with those four rings again. Four rings, or the top ranking on some plonker's list of best seasons? I know which one I'd prefer, and I'm the plonker in question.
The simple fact is that others have done more. And Kobe, especially in 2005-06, had all the chances in the world to do more. And he did quite a bit, at 35 points per game. But shooting efficiency matters. Advantages in assists and rebounds matter. Little things add up, and this is why we have these catch-all stats.
It's a function of the post-Jordan NBA. For years, the league leader in points per game was met with a shrug. For a good chunk of the NBA's first 44 years, no team with a points-per-game leader (or contender, really) ever won a championship. Since 1991, it's happened quite a bit, and we tend to credit one thing with the other. Forgetting that MJ's team played defense, and that no team with a scoring champ has won it since Shaq brought it home in 2000.
With just five players on the court, being so great in one area helps (as is usually the case, it wouldn't be right to compare sports, like a batting average champion or touchdown king). But it's not the end of things. Defense counts, followed by all the little other areas where you can contribute.
And James just did it all last year. Save for guarding Dwight Howard in May.
And that's why we'll return to the team game tomorrow.