Day 174 – A dive into the NBA

In my youth, I wanted to write about sports. I didn’t have a sportswriting hero, but I liked stories and I liked sports, so a marriage of the two seemed an obvious route. I dabbled in it for a bit, but ultimately found I didn’t like how that life was shaping up.

But — now I have a blog! Given that the NBA offseason is ramping into high gear, and as my appreciation for the sport grows and grows, I felt like writing about it. The game is at a high point in some ways, with an abundance of stars and teams worth attention.

And so here I present to you, my list of the 5-best NBA players in the world. The criteria is, for one season, who are the best players to build a team around.

5. James Harden – PG/SG – Houston Rockets

Nope — no Russell Westbrook. He carried a team to a hapless exit in the first round, made exactly zero of his teammates better and dresses weird (last part doesn’t count). Pass.

But, you could also say that Harden’s team quit like a bunch of punks en route to a blowout loss at home to the Spurs to finish their season. And, well … you’d be telling the truth.

But Harden isn’t Russ — he involves his teammates, for one thing. The Rockets are driven entirely by The Beard’s excellence, but that excellence involves great looks for the shooters that surround him. He’s a devastating isolation scorer, as creative and crafty as anyone in the league in awhile, a superior version of Manu Ginobili.

Both him and Westbrook are indifferent defenders, but given their offensive responsibilities, such things can be forgiven. Harden was my pick for MVP, meaningless as such an award might be.

The problem with Harden is simple. He’s shown an unfortunate tendency to underwhelm in the playoffs, twice now offering up terrible performances in key moments. That sort of thing can become a bad trend real quick, and until Harden lights up a pivotal playoff game that conversation will continue.

4. Stephen Curry – PG – Golden State Warriors

The best shooter ever and an underrated defender, Curry remains the gravitational force that allows the other Warriors to shine. Defenses are forced to focus on him, because even a momentarily lapse can be back-breaking.

His shot is quick, effortless and deadly, able to hoist from anywhere. Seriously. Anywhere.

Curry is uniquely skilled at finding space, making him a true pain in the ass to guard. He’s also a crafty ballhander, more clever than athletic but overall dangerous enough to even dance on the King:

Curry looked healthy in the Finals and took pleasure in thrashing Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson off the dribble, perhaps as payback for an underwhelming performance in the 2016 Finals. He was back to being the Chef, and as such the Warriors were all the more dangerous.

3. Kevin Durant – SF – Golden State Warriors

Perhaps the most complete scorer in NBA history (to be fair, if Michael Jordan played in this era, he’d have developed into a knockdown shot from range — he simply didn’t need to in the 80s and 90s), Kevin Durant is effectively impossible to guard and has shown remarkable defensive abilities when pushed. He’s tall, fast and super skilled.

Durant, when on, can torch even the best defenders because of the options at his disposal. He’s so tall (just at 7 feet) that affecting his shot is a serious challenge. But wait! If you sell out to stop the shot, he’s already past you. Guess what happens next?

Dunk? Maybe. Kick out to Curry or Klay Thompson for a three? Maybe. Either way, it’s a bad day for a defense.

Even the best player alive has such moments against KD:

Oh, and he’s skilled in the paint and likely will evolve more in that area as he slows down. He’s a special player, and with the Warriors is able to show more of those skills than ever before. It’s a treat to watch.

He’s free, now, and a deserving champion.

2. Kawhi Leonard – SF – San Antonio Spurs

The best defensive player in the world, arguably in the inner-circle all-time, and now a lethal all-around offensive player, Kawhi Leonard is so often forgotten in these discussions. Why? Well, he’s quiet, team-oriented and rarely showy. Plus, he plays in San Antonio, a city known for legends who aren’t recognized properly (see: Duncan, Tim).

Leonard is the ideal combination of an annoying, nagging defender and extraordinary athlete. He’s quick, incredibly long and brilliant, able to defend anyone aside from true centers like Anthony Davis or the like. But anyone else can be gobbled up by Leonard.

Look what he does here to poor Ben McLemore:

As he’s matured, the Spurs have put more on his plate offensively, handing him the keys to the car. He’s done just fine, developing a great shot and (as expected, given that he’s a Spur) shown an aptitude for great decisions.

Kawhi carried a team full of dudes who were better three years ago to 62 wins. He was kicking the tar out of the Warriors before hurting his ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Long live Kawhi.

1. LeBron James – SF – Cleveland Cavaliers

Are we done questioning LeBron James? Is that cottage industry all dried up? James is the best basketball player since Jordan, and stands nearly eye-to-eye with His Airness historically. They don’t play similarly — Jordan wasn’t as focused on his teammates, while at the same time James isn’t as dominant a scorer — but both ran up incredible levels of success.

James is the best basketball player alive, even now, even at 32, even with tons of miles. He was exceptional in the Finals, again. He carried a slow, older team that played terrible defense up against a supernova, again. All while being questioned — “why isn’t LeBron doing enough?”

What the heck else can the King do? He’s everything for the Cavaliers. They’re a juggernaut with him on the floor and a lottery team without him, even if his All-Star teammates remain in the game. Any lineup combination the Cavs employed that didn’t include James was terrible.

Think about that.

Any lineup combination the Cavs employed that didn’t include James was terrible. The Warriors won Game 5 by slaughtering Cleveland in the short, short amount of time James was on the bench. That’s astounding, a serious indictment of the other Cavs and a huge compliment to James.

He’s the King. LeBron is the most multi-faceted superstar in NBA history, a player capable of lifting inferior teammates to championships. He’s a savant, probably the most brilliant all-around offensive player in league history, a perfect marriage of Jordan and Magic Johnson.

At no point has he enjoyed what Durant got to this year, a team that perfectly fits and surrounds him. No — James has always had to just make it work, and he has.

He’s lost 5 Finals. True. Jordan went 6-0. Also true. But the eras are different, and at no point has James had a running mate like Scottie Pippen. The Finals record doesn’t diminish James at all. Three losses to the dynastic Spurs is hardly a knock, given that Duncan and Leonard were/are superstars and Gregg Popovich is on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA coaches. The ’15 Warriors were awesome and James was saddled up with guys way beyond their depth.  And, frankly, the ’17 Warriors were a force of nature.

LeBron James is not the best ever, not yet. But damn, he’s on his way.

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