Monday December 29th, 2008

Usually the mail is answered during my Weekly Countdown column on Fridays, but the holidays are momentarily negating that schedule. So here is the best of what was found hiding among the spam.

There was no small amount of mail regarding my list of the nine players who have won 28 of the last 29 championships since the Magic/Bird era began ...

I really enjoyed this piece and the depth of your descriptions; however, your exclusion of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- could Magic have won any titles without him? Kareem won a title without Magic (albeit with the Big O), and I feel as though you should give Kareem as much if not more credit than you do Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. -- Patryck, Chicago

Your list doesn't even include Kareem, who won six championships. Magic should be the accompanying player alongside Kareem, who did this with two different teams. And, with Kobe and Shaq, Kobe made all the clutch shots in the playoffs. They couldn't even give Shaq the ball down the stretch of close games because of his free-throw shooting. -- RPM, Los Angeles

Are you another pro-Boston guy with regard to your hate for Kareem? Is that why Kareem failed to make the list? -- Bob, Palm Springs, Calif.

In answer to Bob's first question: The last time Abdul-Jabbar helped beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals was 1987. That would be a long time to maintain hatred, especially over something so relatively unimportant as a basketball game.

But I never hated him. And I'm not looking to discredit Kobe either. I was pointing out in this column that you can distill the pool of NBA championships over the last three decades to a small group of nine players. But of course that's not the only way of looking at it. In the bigger picture, Magic would not have won without Kareem, and Shaq would not have won without Kobe.

In this column, however, I was focusing on the leader of the recent championship teams. When it comes to the '80s Lakers, the leader was unquestionably Magic Johnson. As terrific as Abdul-Jabbar was, his Lakers didn't win a championship until Johnson arrived. Magic drove that team, he won three MVPs during their championship era ... I could go on and on.

During the Lakers' more recent run of three championships, Shaq was league MVP while averaging 28.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks over those three seasons. He was the dominant force in basketball.

Do you think people really understand how talented and great of a player Hakeem Olajuwon was? I would say he's on par with Tim Duncan, as Duncan has had some great people around him. I know Olajuwon had Ralph Sampson around, though I'm too young to remember him. I am not taking anything away from Duncan, but Olajuwon seemed to do the most with the least. Do you think Olajuwon will ever get his due? -- Dan McDermott, Huntersville, N.C.

I'm curious: Shaq and Tim Duncan were more dominant than Hakeem? Are you sure about that? Hakeem won the 1994 title by carrying a team on his back, and he had an epic performance in '95 by destroying David Robinson in the playoffs and sweeping Shaq in the Finals. Why do you people always do this, snub the greatest center since Kareem retired? -- Ferny Reyes, New Haven, Conn.

Why do you call it a snub when all I did was praise Olajuwon? For each one of you who complains that Olajuwon isn't appreciated, there are at least two more sniping that Olajuwon won his titles only because Michael Jordan stepped aside for nearly two full seasons (while pointing out that Shaq was 23 when he was schooled by Hakeem). I don't buy either side of it -- Olajuwon was a tremendous center who won two championships, and that should speak for itself.

Isiah Thomas as one of the most dominant players in history? OK, he was the biggest star on that Pistons team, but he was by no means the best player on it nor was he the most important player. Both of those honors belong to the less flashy, vastly underrated Joe Dumars, the better all-around player. I believe those Pistons teams could have been title contenders without Isiah and his reckless, ball-hogging style, but there is no way they were a title team without Mr. Glue Joe Dumars holding the whole thing together. Isiah vs. Dumars is the classic case of style vs. substance, and for my money, substance wins titles. -- Jim Lonier, Tucson, Ariz.

Isiah's Pistons won two championships over the last three decades. He was the leader of those teams. That's why he was on this list. Dumars was tremendous, absolutely. But there is no way Detroit wins those titles without Isiah.

I think Kevin Garnett gets too much credit for his "leadership." He isn't in the same class with Tim Duncan, Isiah Thomas, etc., not to mention Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. I'm sure you can dominate in a basketball game other ways than just scoring. But I believe that Garnett won his only championship because he got Paul Pierce (a top three small forward) and Ray Allen (a top 10 shooting guard), not because he is such a great superstar/leader as you mentioned. So why do you give all this credit to Garnett? And don't get me wrong, I don't mean he didn't deserve to win the championship. -- Dan (no hometown given)

Dan, we agree: Garnett deserved the championship that he and his Celtics won last season. I think everyone agrees with that.

So where is the disagreement? The other players you mentioned have all won more titles than Garnett, so of course he isn't in their class yet.

Boston won because Garnett transformed the Celtics into the league's leading defensive team, with Pierce and Allen following his example at that end of the floor. He has been recognized as league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. To say that Garnett isn't a superstar or a leader is ridiculous.

On my column highlighting the attention paid to 2010, the draft and other future stories at the expense of what is happening this season ...

Although this may seem sacrilegious, I think one of the key reasons why people focus so much on contracts, future trades and other offseason items is because the NBA regular season itself is just not very compelling. I love basketball, but I watch very little of it before May-June because the games are rarely intense or meaningful. I think even diehard fans of the game would admit this problem under the gun; most of the players certainly have this attitude. The length of the season seems to be the main culprit. But for financial reasons alone, the league is not going to shorten its season (unless the economy completely collapses, knock on wood), so I'd be very interested to hear your take on other things it might do to make regular-season games seem more like NFL-style, must-see, playoff-determining events. Honestly, my ridiculous but well-meaning wish is for a much shorter regular season and postseason, played by less-well-compensated players in order to make the shorter-season model financially sustainable. Won't happen, of course, so what else can be done? -- George Lopez, San Diego

This is a great letter. I'd like to see more regional rivalries, but there are no answers. People used to think that the NFL could never overtake baseball because there weren't enough games in football, but that was before the growth of the NFL as a televised weekly holiday. Maybe the trends of media will cycle in another direction, or maybe the NBA's investments internationally will create a global audience that can exploit its extended schedule. But for the time being, there is no way for the 82-game NBA season to replicate the focus of the NFL's 17-weekend schedule.

I can't believe that you defend Kevin Garnett's antics. He is not merely antagonizing the opponent, but showing a clear lack of sportsmanship. If players who are not the NBA's and media's darlings, like Rasheed Wallace or Ron Artest, tried to pull a stunt similar to the one Garnett employed with Jose Calderon, they would be given a technical for taunting and would be skewered for such behavior. You should praise a player like Tim Duncan, a Hall of Fame talent who exhibits stardom without all the bravado and arrogance. -- Will, Grinnell, Iowa

I have long praised Duncan. But consider Garnett in the context of the previous letter noting the dreariness of the long NBA season. So he gets carried away once in a while. Big deal.

If Garnett gets too excited every now and then, that's a small price to pay for the effort he gives. Maybe he deserves a technical foul every now and then, but nothing should be done to decrease his effort because he sets an example that shames all of those who don't play hard.

I don't understand these coaching firings. Some of these teams weren't and will not be going anywhere for the next couple of years (Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota), another team is decimated by injuries (Washington), one had a former Coach of the Year (in Toronto). If the team is bad and you're going to fire the coach for it, why have a coach? Just let one of the inmates run the asylum. It's supposedly a "players' league" anyway. Pay 'em millions to play and coach the mess as well. -- Albeon Jackson, Ridgeland, S.C.

I used to argue (sarcastically) that the league should ban coaches from the sideline and force the team captain to run the team and all substitutions during the game. In other team sports around the world -- soccer and rugby, for example -- coaches have very little influence while the ball is in play. But NBA coaches have become part of the televised drama, especially when the team is struggling.

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