The Real Franchise Players

By Vincent Thomas

The Kidd Trade was reactionary, alright. But the world is getting it twisted. Mark Cuban is a billionaire square that probably hops on every bandwagon rolling down the boulevard. I’m sure he did the Macarena, plays Guitar Hero; who knows, he probably rocks Uggs and friendship bracelets. But this Jason Kidd Trade was not him following the lead of his fellow Western Conference Contenders. This wasn’t him saying, “The Suns got Shaq? Well I need to go do something splashy and join the party.” The Kidd Trade wasn’t a reaction to the Shaq Trade or the Gasol Trade. The Kidd Trade was a reaction to the well-chronicled, uncomfortable-to-watch Dirk Nowitzki Meltdowns.

There are Franchise Players in this league and there are Max Contract Players. Kidd is the former, Dirk is the latter.

Don’t get me wrong: Dirk is nasty and worth the maximum amount of dollars that a team can offer. He provides a skill-set that should be offered at a premium. He’s a commodity and I’ll always be a fan of players getting that money. Max Contract Players are just that: ultra-talented stars that, if given the proper supporting talent, can always have their squads in contention and should be paid very handsomely, lest you want them jetting to the next squad. I don’t begrudge, for one iota of a second, Dirk getting paid 16, then 18, then 19, then $21M. But there’s something missing there, with him and his ilk, and it almost never has to do with the things they do with the Spalding, but with the way their brains are wired.

Franchise Players are the game’s transcendent athletes. Not only do they transcend the normal confines of productivity and skill and bank accounts and all that good stuff; but, most importantly, these dudes transcend competition. There are innate qualities, hard-wired into their essence/swag/will that impose upon the games they play, the teams they play for and the sad-sap-suckaz that were punished to play against them. Franchise Players are usually supremely gifted, but they are always transformational. What sets Tim Duncan apart from Amare Stoudemire or Kobe Bryant apart from Tracy McGrady is that Duncan and Kobe – Franchise Players – can transform a team and its players and routinely alter games – specifically the big, dangerous, scary games – by the sheer mix of their talent, will and whatever that abstract thing is that let’s teammates know, “We’re in good hands.”

Jason Kidd will not take the bulk of the clutch shots in May. Let that be understood right here, right now. But as the Mavs make their way through the Western Conference playoffs, Jason Kidd will be the Star that is offering the type of steel and exuding the type of confidence that will embolden his team. Kidd doesn’t shrink. You do not and will not gangsta Kidd into submission. The Mavs will not be in a close fourth quarter brawl with another contender and wonder, “Who’s going to lead us to victory?” Avery Johnson will not be publicly exasperated with Kidd’s leadership. Regardless of how bad he shoots or how well he guards the quick, opposing point guard; Jason Kidd will be assuming the fate of the Mavs Franchise like it’s his responsibility and, more often than not, delivering. Maybe he won’t deliver a championship trophy, but he will deliver a consistent string of moments and performances that illustrate the broad shoulders of a true Franchise Player. Dirk, on the other hand, will be happily, sheepishly following his lead, breathing heavy sighs of relief that he no longer bears that burden.

Dirk, like a lot of these other dudes out here, has been masquerading as a Franchise Player, clothed in his Max Contract and All-Star appearances. I’m here, though, to give you The Real. Below, you’ll find a list – a short list – of the NBA’s current Franchise Players. However, before we get to the Transcenders…

Michael Redd, Joe Johnson, Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh: These dudes are imposters that make a lot of dough. Good players, very skilled, but it’s laughable to think they could lead a team to anything except mediocrity interspersed with some flimsy success.

Amare Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol: These are All-World talents. We will remember them forever when we think about this generation of the NBA. But they have proved that they don’t have that transformational gene. Whether it’s been by leading underachieving teams or exhibiting no real leadership/transcendent qualities, these guys will always need a Kidd Type to come save the day.

Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Brandon Roy: The jury is still out on these cats. I’m withholding judgment.

Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis: I’m huddling these four together, because with the right team and right mix of talent, you can trust these dudes with your fate. They are transformational – but only to certain point. For instance, we’ve seen few Franchise performances like AI in 2001. He played some of the most compelling basketball we’ve ever seen. But how many times has AI squandered a Second Banana or simply not meshed with his teammates on the court? How often could one of his teammates, like Iguodala, look at him and say, “Man, if he’d just splash some of that magic on me and a few other dudes, we could be NASTY!” You can’t fit a franchise inside a vacuum.

Billups is a Franchise Player…for the Detroit Pistons. For that particular mix of players and that particular organization, Chauncey behaves and produces like a Franchise Player. But would it translate/transfer? I’m not exactly sure. Baron is similar. Everything a Franchise Player should do, he does for G-State. He’s the face of the franchise, the emotional leader, he plays hurt, he holds his teammates accountable for their actions, he orchestrates that chaotic offense, he hits slews of clutch buckets and he seizes moments, like when tomahawked on top of Kirilenko’s head. A Franchise Player is his squad’s soul. I love Jax and everything that he brings to the table, but he’s nuts, Baron isn’t. Baron is the Warriors’ soul. Yet, there’s still a part of me that wonders, “Is that a Baron Thing or is this a weird, Lightning In A Bottle Warriors Thing?” May of 2008 will let me know.

I’ve seen KG shrink before. I’ve seen him avoid the ball at the end of games. I’ve seen him hyperventilate on emotion. I’ve seen him miss the Playoffs year after year, when Tim Duncan wouldn’t have been in the same situation. But I also see KG as the most motivating, galvanizing, transformational leader in the league. Did you notice how Boston played when he was out? That was the KG Effect. That was the product of a Man On A Mission, coming to a franchise and letting cats know from the jump, “We will not be effing around while I’m here.” Sometimes, Franchise Players need some help to get to that prized destination. They might need a big man, or someone to get them the ball. KG needs a closer, like Pierce. But Franchise Players don’t need to be lead anywhere. KG is willing the Celtics to excellence.

(The following players, I assume, don’t need much explanation.)

Tim Duncan: Four rings. Three with Tony Parker at the point. ‘Nuff said.

Kobe Bryant: Remember that, since Shaq left, Kobe missed the Playoffs (IN THE WEST) just once – the first season, with an Old Rudy coaching, brand new teammates and a late-season injury. Say what you want, but the Lakers have always overachieved. They’ve been an ultra-young squad, competing on the merits of their Franchise Players talent and will. Kobe was also a better leader, during the past few seasons, than people give him credit for. He exhorted his teammates, he taught his teammates and he led his teammates. And, at the end of the day, every Laker could have been playing on broken ankles, with no arms and guess what? They’d all have believed they had a chance because Kobe was balling on their squad. That’s a Franchise Player.

LeBron James: Did you see Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals?

Dwyane Wade: This season has soiled his rep, a bit. But he’s played with Pat Riley’s mess, while injured. All one need to do is think back to his performance, as rookie, in the 2004 Playoffs and his entire run in the 2005-2006 season to determine if this dude can carry a franchise. He’s a reckless, single-minded winner. Pay attention.

Jason Kidd: Read the column.

Steve Nash: He might need Shaq’s help, but Nash will still be the leader of this team if they win the chip. As soon as the ball is tipped, all eyes are on Nash and he delivers. It was even incumbent upon him to ensure that his squad wouldn’t get punked like sissies during these recent Playoffs and that’s why you always saw little Nash, up in players’ grills, up in officials’ grills and generally handling duties that Amare should’ve been taking care of. He did all this because the squad was/is his responsibility. It don’t get no more Franchise than that.

Chris Paul: Not only does he have the ball in his hands at all times, make every single player on the Hornets roster better and control nearly every facet of the game; what makes Lil’ Chris precociously special is that, when you watch the Hornets, they behave like him. They’re kind of ornery. They frown a lot. They’re feisty. He’s transformed, essentially, non-descript talent into a winning outfit that is competing for a championship. The Hornets might need a few pieces here or a few pieces there, but never will George Shinn or Jeff Bower be sitting in their luxury box, looking at their Chris Paul Squad and feel like they need to go add someone to lead them to the promise land. They Got Chris, they’re covered.

That’s what Cuban was really thinking since last May. He was thinking, “I need a real Franchise Player.” So, he went out and got one.

Vincent Thomas is a columnist for SLAM Online and contributor to SLAM Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].