Imagine what might have been said of Manu Ginobili if he had never played for the Spurs. If some other team had selected the little-known Argentinian in the second round of the 1999 draft. If he'd never played with Tim Duncan. If he had wound up being the best -- and therefore the highest-paid -- player of another team, then our perspective of him would be different. Entirely different.
If Ginobili had been taken by someone other than the Spurs and wound up being the best player on a less-talented team, he probably would have never reached the NBA Finals, no less won three championships. The blame for those postseason failures would fall square on Ginobili's shoulders, because that is what happens in the NBA. As a result of his failure to play into June, you would be hearing that he isn't good enough the other 11 months, that he takes too many chances on defense, that he holds the ball too long, that he is left-hand dominant.
Understand that we are talking about one of the most inspiring, focused, high-end achievers of the modern NBA. Ginobili's instincts, competitiveness and talent are exceptional, and he deserves much credit for the ongoing success of the Spurs. But there have been aspects of that success, and of his own career, that have been beyond his control; the main aspect being that he was drafted by the right team, which enabled him to excel in the right role that brought out his best qualities.
Most of the league's great players are never so fortunate. By way of their own ambition, admirably, they take on roles that ask too much of them. Ginobili was asked to play in support of Duncan alongside Tony Parker, and to Ginobili's credit he made the most of that opportunity, playing the role of sparkplug and facilitator to perfection.
But if Ginobili had been drafted by an organization that needed him to serve as the leader and best player, then he surely would not have run away from that assignment. He would have embraced it and attacked that opportunity. And in the end, based on the kinds of exceptional stars who have been able to lead teams to the championship, Ginobili would have fallen short, and he would have been skewered for his failures.
When speaking with NBA talent evaluators about the best players in the league, the phrase repeated most often of any star is: "He isn't good enough to do it alone." It's a way of saying that certain stars -- Carmelo Anthony being the most-cited example -- aren't good enough to carry a team.
But the truth is that no one in the NBA has ever been good enough to win alone. Over these last four decades Michael Jordan came closest to meeting that standard, but he couldn't win until Scottie Pippen was ready to help him. LeBron James couldn't win with role players in Cleveland, but he has won the last two championships in Miami thanks to the presence of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (criticized as he's been). The reason Kobe Bryant has been adamant in defense of Pau Gasol is because the arrival of the latter enabled the former to win his fourth and fifth championships; Kobe was foundering in the playoffs until Gasol arrived.
If you were to somehow remove Anthony from his teams in Denver and New York and replace him with Ginobili, would those teams have played deeper into the playoffs? Maybe in one or two instances they might have won an extra series, based on Ginobili's exceptional spirit and skills, but for the most part the postseason results would have been the same. Would Ginobili have been able to lead the 2009 Nuggets past the Lakers in the Western finals? Would he have guided the Knicks past the Pacers in the second round last year? The answer in both cases is no.
And then the vice-versa: If Anthony had entered the NBA in the environment of Duncan and Parker and Gregg Popovich and the Spurs' seamless approach to teamwork, would Anthony's career have taken a different course? Others may disagree, but I believe that you wouldn't be hearing nearly so much talk of Anthony as a selfish star if he had played with a superior talent like Duncan and in a setting like San Antonio's. What if the Pistons had selected him instead of Darko Milicic and Carmelo entered the league with teammates like Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace? The environment would have shaped his career along a different path, and the winning would have rewarded him with a different reputation than he has today.
If the ball stops today with Anthony, it probably has something to do with the fact that his teams have always needed him to score. As a rookie his scoring led the Nuggets to a massive 26-win improvement and a playoff appearance, which was more than LeBron James accomplished for his team that year. Anthony's play has been defined by the needs of his team.
There are tiers of stars in the NBA. At the top are a few players who have what it takes to carry a team all the way -- and even they need a lot of help to get there. James recognized what he needed when he left Cleveland to play with co-stars in Miami. In so doing he was following the example of the Celtics, whose trio of stars -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- had each been the best player of his own losing team the year before they joined together to win the 2007-08 championship. Garnett, Pierce and Allen was each heavily criticized for not being able to carry a team to the championship, but that was because the weight each was being asked to lift was much too heavy.
Kevin Durant looks capable of leading Oklahoma City to the championship -- so long as Russell Westbrook is dominating at point guard, Serge Ibaka is converting the open shots that opponents are daring him to make, and Reggie Jackson is maturing as a teammate in order to lead the Thunder's athletic second unit.
If Durant doesn't receive the help he needs, then he will bear the blame for not being good enough. It's the irony of NBA stardom that each championship revolves around a single star who is able to control only so much.
The day is coming when Chris Paul is going to be held accountable for his failure to play beyond the second round. The truth of it is that he'll never go deeper in the playoffs unless he has the right blend of talent around him. Paul's current shoulder injury has provided an opportunity to his teammates to share the ball and to make a stand in his absence, which may lead to more confidence (and ball movement) when Paul returns to lead them next month. The rest of that team needs to be tougher and edgier and not as dependent on Paul to create everything for them. Maybe they can develop that edge over these next several weeks.
Will Anthony Davis be the kind of selfless star who can lead his team to the championship someday? It will happen only if the right players are surrounding him. Think about what so many people would be saying of Duncan if he'd never had Ginobili and Parker as his teammates: In that case Duncan would be criticized -- in the same way that Garnett was maligned when his last two teams in Minnesota were going 65-99. He was disparaged because his fellow starters included Ricky Davis and Mark Blount. Those complaints vanished when Davis and Blount were replaced by Pierce and Allen.
Fans of the Trail Blazers ask whether LaMarcus Aldridge should be traded because he'll never be good enough to lead their team to a championship. I disagree with the premise. Aldridge can lead Portland so long as he has others to help him lead. Ginobili at various times has been the No. 2 or 3 player on the Spurs, but there is no doubting his leadership. Parker and Pierce and Allen and Wade all provided indispensable leadership to their championship teams, even as they complemented a superior player who needed them as much as they needed him.
Just because a star doesn't have it in him to be the best player of a championship team, that doesn't mean there isn't an important place for him. This is a league of complicated formulas, which is why so many of the best players want to play with each other. As rich and famous as all of them become, the NBA humbles its biggest stars until they recognize the help they need.
Andrew Bynum dumped by Cavaliers. Bynum, who played 480 minutes before the Cavs had enough of him, was traded for All-Star Luol Deng, who famously refused wrist surgery in order to play year-round for the Bulls and Great Britain. Now Bynum is free to sign with LeBron James in Miami, while Deng remains in Cleveland, which has gone 76-189 since James left for Miami. There is no justice.
Eric Bledsoe out indefinitely. If his surgeon repairs Bledsoe's torn right knee cartilage (as opposed to removing the cartilage entirely) then the Most Improved candidate could miss the rest of the season. But the surprising Suns should not make a shortsighted move to salvage a run at the playoffs or to move into the lottery. They should approach the trade deadline aiming for deals meant to strengthen them for the long run. Expect them to continue to play hard for coach Jeff Hornacek, because the reward -- whether it's a playoff series or a lottery pick -- will come either way.
New Yorkers show life. The Knicks beat Miami Thursday for their fourth win in five games, including upsets at San Antonio and Dallas. The Nets' four straight wins included breakthroughs at Oklahoma City and against the Warriors, who had won 10 in a row before losing at Brooklyn. The league's two most expensive rosters are costing $312 million altogether in payroll and taxes for a combined record of 27-43. Fortunately for the Nets and Knicks, their conference is as bad as its richest teams: The Nets are No. 8 and the Knicks are a single back -- just 4.5 games behind division leader Toronto (17-17). The best of all outcomes would be if the Nets and Knicks finished Nos. 4 and 5, which means they would be stuck with each other in the first round.
NBA to settle with Silna brothers. The New York Times reported that it's going to cost the NBA $500 million to buy itself out of the agreement that had already paid the brothers $300 million since 1976, when they negotiated a cut of TV rights fees in perpetuity for not being included in the ABA merger. The Silnas owned the Spirits of St. Louis for two seasons and will have wound up clearing well over $700 million for their trouble, making them, per annum, the most successful owners in basketball history.
J.R. Smith fined $50,000. This time it was for untying opponents' shoelaces. Twice. The Knicks received one exceptional regular season plus two playoff games from Smith before he recklessly elbowed Jason Terry in the opening round of the playoffs. It was as if he had kept his true nature bottled up, and there has been no returning the genie. Ever since that incident the Knicks have been as unreliable as Smith, which is a terrible thing to say about the Knicks. When they upset Miami on Thursday, Smith remained on the bench as punishment.
The 6-7 swingman was averaging 12.3 points and converting 47.3 percent of his threes in his first year with the Hawks. Korver, 32, has made a three-pointer for an ongoing NBA record 105 straight games.
1. He was born into a basketball family in suburban Los Angeles. "I remember the first time falling in love with basketball: I went to my uncle's high school game -- my uncle Kris -- and I was in the crowd watching him play when I was 2 or 3 years old. I was like, wow - wanting to be on the floor so bad. I remember after the game carefully stepping on the floor, one foot at a time, and having a desire to be there someday.
"My Dad and all of his brothers played Division III college basketball. My (three) brothers all played Division I basketball, and our cousins played quite a bit. My mom, she was a scorer: She grew up in a small town in Iowa and she averaged -- the number grows -- something like 43 in high school, and she once scored 74 in a game. My dad was a great shooter back then, even though there wasn't a three-point line. It probably would have been a different game for him if there had been.
"I remember my uncle would pay me quarters to rebound for him when I was in elementary school and he was playing college basketball. My grandfather, father and uncle were all pastors in the same church, and the parking lot of the church was the main court for the city, so we were always out there playing. It was a competitive family.''
2. Few NBA players do as much charitable work as Korver, who discovered larger lessons from basketball. "It was never about being in the NBA. We just loved basketball. My parents thought it was a great way to learn about life.
"Our family conversations were dominated by two topics: church and basketball. My dad, my grandfather and a couple of my uncles are all pastors in the same church. We talked about the church and then turned on the Laker game -- that was the the two things we did. Basketball taught us how to work hard, it taught us about teamwork and how to be good leader and what does a leader look like. It was always a life lesson between how they were leading a healthy church and how we were trying to play good basketball, and things just criss-crossed.
"We would play with our uncles and cousins and it would be like Harlem Globetrotters style with the three-man weave -- they'd be the Boston Celtics and we were the Lakers. We enjoyed passing and spacing even though at that time we didn't understand spacing. It was just how we knew and enjoyed the game -- we knew we needed to space and have shooters be open, and we knew how to screen. They didn't break these things down and show me film; it was how we talked about the game. Our family celebrates good basketball. We love watching people play the right way, and we would talk about that. It was a good thing for me. I didn't fall into the trap of one-on-one and highlight plays.''
At 12 his family moved to Pella, Iowa, the childhood home of Wyatt Earp. "Moving to Iowa, I grew in the fundamentals even more. I did the shell drill every day in seventh grade. My uncle Karl was my seventh grade coach and I was a point guard back then. He was tough on me, he helped me learn how to run a team and get guys in certain spots. It was a great thing to learn because it helps me understand spacing and what peoples' roles and strengths are.''
3. It took a long time for one of the NBA's greatest shooters to learn how to shoot. "I had very poor mechanics for a long time. I was very confused about what good form was supposed to look like. I shot with both hands as younger people do. Then my uncle told me to shoot with one hand. I could shoot farther with my left than my right, so for a year and a half I shot lefthanded. One day he said, `What are you doing?' I said, `You told me to pick a hand!'
"I had helicopter spin, I was trying to keep everything in alignment, I was very tall and skinny and not very strong. Then I started to have an understanding of how to shoot in my junior year of high school.''
After four years at Creighton he was a late-second round pick (No. 51) in the 2003 draft. Korver was a good three-point shooter in his first half-dozen seasons with the 76ers and Jazz, but over the last five seasons he has been sensational -- converting 45.2 percent of the 1,272 threes he has attempted. "The last five years, until this last year, I had a lot of injuries I had to learn how to play through. And because I was maybe limited in being able to go out there and just hoop, and I wasn't as young anymore, I had to zero-in on mechanics even more.''
Injuries to his left knee, right wrist and right elbow helped to make him more versatile and sounder mechanically. "I had to really zero in on mechanics more, and now that you feel healthier you try to take what you have learned the last few years and try to carry that over.
"There was a period of time when I would just go out and shoot - shooting was all about rhythm. Rhythm is important, but I view mechanics as much more important now. There are daily things I have to do, and if I'm off I feel like I can correct it.''
Quote of the week
"I had been drinking." -- Dennis Rodman
It isn't that Rodman was providing some kind of farfetched "credibility" to Kim Jong-un last week by singing "Happy Birthday" to him, or whether his vouching for the North Korean dictator has helped prop up a regime that imprisons and starves its own people. To think that Rodman is successfully aiding or abetting North Korea is ridiculous. Rodman has no such credibility or power of influence.
One plausible reason for this relationship is that it allows Kim to introduce Rodman to his people as an example of who America is and what America stands for. Because Rodman is the only American the North Koreans are ever allowed to see, he becomes the face of America. They can laugh at this American even as he beseeches their ruthless leader. He is being used to portray and denigrate us. (We know better.) And all the while Rodman plays along, having no idea of the sap he is being played for.
An NBA advance scout on the 20-16 Dallas Mavericks, the No. 8 team in the West:
"Monta Ellis gives them the explosiveness in transition to get quick scores off makes and misses. He's getting the ball up the floor in a hurry and they're spreading the floor around him as an attacking guard. Jose Calderon is hitting shots along with Dirk Nowitzki, they've got Vince Carter to catch-and-shoot off the bench. Now that they're getting Brandan Wright back into the rotation, that's a good team.
"I'm sure they'd like to be more of a defensive team. Concept-wise they've been messing around with some zone defenses, which they're using to hide their flaws when Ellis and Calderon are together in the backcourt. But it's been a good zone defense, and it's gotten them back in some games by messing other teams up.
"The thing about Ellis is his end-to-end explosiveness. He has all that speed up the floor and he's attacking the basket with the drive. Defensively you can't get back and get set up quick enough to get in front of him. And he can shoot it off the dribble too. He's an offensive threat every minute.
"He's not really like Allen Iverson because these are straight line drives end-to-end that he's doing. He's got a different motor than anybody else in the league. I'm trying to think of someone like him, and there isn't anyone. On top of it all, Ellis is a good shooter. You've got to throw in some bad shots that he puts up, and he gets caught in the air sometimes, which they're willing to take because in the end they get more possessions from him getting up the floor. The bottom line is that teams that run more are going to have more turnovers.
"Nowitzki is back to playing off the post, and his step-back jump shot is where it's always been as a trailer -- he's money. But that's all on the offensive end. Every once in while he'll get a hand on the ball and strip it, and you've got to be careful because he likes to take swipes at the ball. But he's not a rim defender and never has been one. That's why they need Sam Dalembert.
"Against Carter you're almost better off making him put the ball on the floor and then meeting him with a second defender. He is a great shooter who doesn't have the high-flying dunks on top of people anymore. But they're getting production from him and Shawn Marion, another older guy, who is very active with his offensive rebounding and his help-side defense, blocking shots and getting out on the break. When they've got Ellis going right to the rim and they kick it out, Marion somehow flips up a corner three-pointer from below his waist and it goes in there a lot. It's almost like a Rick Barry free throw.
"Dallas has a pedigree. They've got professional players, nobody is looking past them, and the organization is there to win games. They think they're in every game, which they can be. They're a playoff team: Not easy to play, their homecourt is good and the veterans know how to play on the road. They'll be a scary opponent.''
The All-40-Percent Team
There are 42 statistically qualified players shooting 40 percent or better from the three-point line this season. The diversity of talent on this team shows how important the three-point shot has become throughout the NBA:
C: Spencer Hawes, 76ers ... 44.4 percent
PF: LeBron James, Heat ... 41.0 percent
SF: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks ... 40.0 percent
SG: Marco Belinelli, Spurs ... 50.4 percent
PG: Damian Lillard, Blazers ... 44.6 percent
PF: Channing Frye, Suns ... 42.8 percent
PF: Paul Millsap, Hawks ... 40.0 percent
SF: Andre Iguodala, Warriors ... 47.6 percent
SG: Kyle Korver, Hawks ... 47.3 percent
SG: Klay Thompson, Warriors ... 41.4 percent
PG: Pablo Prigioni, Knicks ... 43.1 percent