Wins don’t always come in starred packages.
by Casey Jacobsen
There aren’t a lot of superstars in the NBA. That term is used very loosely by fans who sometimes trick themselves into crowning their team’s leading scorer as part of the League’s elite.
Being a talented scorer doesn’t always make your team better, especially if they can’t do other things to help win games. I’ve played with and against a lot of guys whose ability to score made them a fan favorite and the highest paid guy on the team, but sometimes I felt our team would have been better if they did one of two things: 1) Use some of their athletic ability and energy to play more defense, and 2) Sacrifice some of their points to make their teammates better by creating open shots for them.
It’s rare to find a great scorer in the NBA who is also a top defender (KG or Kobe) because that requires a special focus and effort that many aren’t willing to put forth night after night. A true superstar is extremely rare. They are the guys who you can build a team around. But many teams are built around guys who have been called “superstars” because of their stats from the previous years, many of those years spent watching the Playoffs from their mansions.
There are some borderline “star” players in the NBA who have so much offensive talent, but who play for mid-level teams. I can’t help but wonder what kind of players these demi-superstars would be on better teams.
Guys like Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodola, Gilbert Arenas and Michael Redd, are all super talented players who are among the highest paid players in the League. But their teams are always struggling to win and advance deep in the Playoffs. Is it their fault? Is it the organization’s fault that doesn’t surround their “star” with more quality? Do these players (Redd, Arenas, etc.) deserve to be paid the same amount as guys like Kobe, Garnett, LeBron and DWade?
The question I’m really trying to get at is: Is it better to be the second or third best player on a good team or a star on an average/bad team?
After playing basketball my whole life, I’ve learned a really valuable lesson: Even if it means sacrificing some of your own shot attempts, playing time, money, or even pride…it’s so much more fun to be on a winning team. Losing sucks. I could probably use my computer’s thesaurus and find a more friendly word to use, but I wouldn’t find one more appropriate. If you are a real competitor in the sport of basketball, then there is only one stat that means anything: Wins.
Going back to the question I asked…the best example for me to illustrate this situation is a former 2008 teammate: Pau Gasol. Drafted by Memphis in 2001, Pau blossomed from a skinny talented foreigner into one of the most athletic and feared offensive big men in the game. Memphis, a team no one expected to be any good for years, surrounded Pau with good role players like Battier, Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller. The Grizzlies made the playoffs for three consecutive years (2003-2006), although they got swept every year in the first round.
The question surrounding that team after those failures were: Is Pau really a “superstar” player? Can you build a championship team around him? Or was it that they needed to add more quality players around him to get to that next level? During the next year in 2007, frustrations boiled over after the Grizzlies took a giant step back and missed the Playoffs. Pau stated that summer that he wanted to be traded if Memphis wasn’t serious about contending for a championship. That next season, our team was bad and Pau made it clear he was unhappy. In a way to dump Gasol’s huge contract and save money, Memphis traded Pau to the Lakers at the trade deadline in 2008.
I knew Pau hit the lottery with his new situation. Most people think any good player would have been happy to be traded to L.A. and join forces with Kobe, but I would disagree. Kobe has such an alpha-male strangle hold that I believe there would be certain guys who, if unwilling to defer to Kobe, would mess up that team.
I always thought Pau Gasol was uncomfortable in the “franchise player” role. He didn’t want that pressure or responsibility, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Not everyone is comfortable taking that on…some want to be paid like a franchise guy, but don’t want the rest that comes along with it. I always thought Pau would be much more comfortable as a second option on a good team, but the people in Memphis wanted more from him.
Pau is a team player with a star’s skill set. He is a great teammate because he loves to pass and he doesn’t care if he averages 20 and 10, as long as he is allowed to help a team win. Pau is a really, really good player, but he is not an true superstar. Kobe is. That is why the two of them have flourished together.
Another interesting case to me is Tracy McGrady. Forgetting about the past two injury-plagued seasons, T-Mac has been one of the NBA’s top statistical players during his career. Not many would disagree that he was a true superstar, except for one glaring fact: He has never advanced past the first round of the Playoffs. Is this his fault? Or is it because of his supporting cast? Or is it just bad luck?
It’s difficult to get the answers from statistics because T-Mac has successfully filled up box scores during his playoff career but has been unable to lead his team to a series win. He has been criticized for this because he is one of the highest paid players in the game as well as a guy who seems like he wants all the responsibility (and glory) of being a franchise player.
I had the opportunity to play with Tracy when I was trying to make the Houston Rockets roster during training camp in 2006. Just looking at him in person, I couldn’t help but think that he was made to play basketball. At 6-9, he is a mismatch for any team because there is no one else like him. He can handle the ball like a point guard, shoot off the dribble, and finish at the rim easily.
But the most underrated part of his game is his ability to hit the open man. I was pleasantly surprised during practice how often he would find the open guy, rather than shoot a tough shot against contesting defense. Having never played with him before, I just assumed he would shoot every ball he could. That wasn’t the case. In fact, It was really fun to play on his team…. offensively.
I think you know where this is going and before I state the obvious, I must state something even more obvious: I realize I am not the best defensive player. In fact, that is probably the main reason that I am not in the NBA today…I struggle to guard the quick, athletic wings that are abundant on nearly every NBA roster. I admit this, but there isn’t a lot I can do to change that. This is the body that I was given and I tried to squeeze every ounce of talent I could out of it. It’s not an excuse…it’s a fact.
T-Mac, on the other hand, has been blessed with height, length and quickness. He lacks nothing that a great basketball defender would ask for, yet he doesn’t play quality defense. I remember sitting on the bench during the preseason games and I would be watching T-Mac jog down the floor during fast breaks as if he thought the other team was going to wait for him to get back before they tried to score.
He never bends his knees unless his man has caught the ball. He rarely blocks out for a rebound, usually just out-jumping everyone for it. Instead of using his length as his biggest strength, it’s only use is to help bail him out of bad defensive position.
I was convinced that it is just a motivational thing with him. He didn’t really want to play both ends. I believe T-Mac wanted to win, but his actions on the defensive end of the floor didn’t back it up. He could have been one of the best defensive players in the entire NBA. I really believe that.
I’m not going to blame only him for the fact that he has never advanced to the second round. That wouldn’t be fair in a team sport, but I try to imagine any scenario where a defensively motivated T-Mac doesn’t advance to at least one NBA Finals. It wouldn’t happen.
Casey Jacobsen is a former SLAM High School First Team All-American and NCAA First Team All-American. He currently plays for Brose Baskets in Bamberg, Germany.