There Is No Best Player In The NBA: The Problem With The Basketball Hero IndustryS

The most unstoppable player on the winning team in the last Heat-Celtics game wasn't any one player at all. Here's an edited play-by-play:

FIRST QUARTER
7:16 Kevin Garnett makes 7-foot two point shot (Rajon Rondo assists)

SECOND QUARTER
3:09 Kevin Garnett makes layup (Rajon Rondo assists)
1:20 Kevin Garnett makes layup (Rajon Rondo assists)

THIRD QUARTER
11:11 Kevin Garnett makes two point shot (Rajon Rondo assists)
10:37 Kevin Garnett makes dunk (Rajon Rondo assists)
7:41 Kevin Garnett makes 21-foot jumper (Rajon Rondo assists)
1:31 Kevin Garnett makes dunk (Rajon Rondo assists) - James Jones shooting foul - Kevin Garnett makes free throw 1 of 1

FOURTH QUARTER
10:10 Kevin Garnett makes 21-foot jumper (Rajon Rondo assists)
8:53 Kevin Garnett makes 1-foot two point shot (Rajon Rondo assists)

The game stories say Garnett led the Celtics with 26 points. Considerably lower down, and separately, they say Rondo had 13 assists.

But of that output, 19 points and 9 assists belong to the two-headed entity that was Rondo-to-Garnett. Garnett had seven points without Rondo feeding him; Rondo had 4 assists without Garnett to feed.

Basketball wants heroes, not effective interactions. Thus USA Today credited the individual brilliance of Garnett, the rejuvenated superstar:

[I]t was more than the final numbers. It's when he got the points and rebounds and how he got them—with the game on the line and Boston needing something on a night when forward Paul Pierce and guards Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen struggled from the field.

And on the losing side, there was LeBron James (30 points, 13 rebounts, 2 assists, 2 steals), being blamed by ESPN's Israel Gutierrez for "shying away from the bigger moments in another high-stress game."

Or maybe, you know, his very good team happened to lose a hard-fought game, against another very good team. This has happened a lot in the conference finals this year, East and West alike. You watch the games, and you don't know who's going to win.

This should be good. But it goes against the principles of the Basketball Hero Industry. It seems the purpose of the 2012 NBA playoffs is not merely to determine who gets to smudge up the Larry O'Brien Trophy with their triumphant sweaty handprints—it's to demonstrate which players are fundamentally superior to which other players. Will Boston's Big Three get a second ring? Will LeBron James prove his greatness by finally winning a title? Or will the younger Kevin Durant beat him to it, leaving James a 27-year-old has-been?

Durant is already waiting, after he and the Thunder denied Tim Duncan the chance to get a fifth ring and move to a higher plane of immortality. What was the most powerful Spurs team ever, a week ago, is a bunch of tired old guys.

(Does anyone remember that a year ago, Dirk Nowitzki was proving he was the greatest player in the NBA?)

Once upon a time—around a quarter century ago—these questions of greatness were allowed to remain open. The Celtics beat the Pistons because in some particular year, the Celtics happened to win their playoff series. The Pistons beat the Lakers. The Lakers beat the Celtics. There were three championship-caliber teams around, of which each year two would go home without a championship.

So you could believe Larry Bird was better than Magic Johnson, or you could believe the opposite (and be correct). No single year was going to resolve it. The situation was fluid.

Then Michael Jordan happened, and the Jordan Brand, and every playoff game became a referendum on immortality, which Jordan would win. The selling point was that we were watching the greatest player ever. And but then the player, the singular embodiment of basketball excellence, retired and unretired and retired and got old and unretired and retired for real, at last, while the job description he'd created stayed open. Kobe Bryant performed the duties as a sort of temp or long-term contractor, but in the end—no, not him.

Now that leaves James, the Chosen One, begging the question with both parts of his nickname. If choosing is how these things are decided, and if what is chosen is a One, then everything was settled before he even graduated from high school. Yet the public and the basketball press is unsatisfied. LeBron is a choker. LeBron is the MVP. LeBron is overpowering. LeBron is timid. LeBron is the greatest player alive and hopelessly overrated.

Here's Gutierrez describing what James did in one 12-minute span last night:

James tried to settle their fear by scoring seven points in the first 3:50 of the fourth quarter, including a deep 3-pointer that gave the Heat its lead back.

But as the game progressed, James played his far too familiar game of keep-away—as in, "keep me away from the ball"—to the point that he managed just four shots for the final 8:10 of the game.

It would be fun to turn NBA commenters loose on a Rock-Scissors-Paper tournament sometime:

ROCK IS UNSTOPPABLE.

I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW ROCK CHOKED AGAINST PAPER.

WHEN YOU LOOK AT HOW SCISSORS BEAT PAPER, YOU HAVE TO THINK SCISSORS IS IN THE CONVERSATION FOR ALL-TIME GREATEST.

(Bill Simmons ceaselessly scribbles on the walls of his room with magic markers, readjusting his Pyramid of Rock and Scissors and Paper.)

Even in the days of the Bulls, people sensed that one superlative wasn't really enough, which is how Scottie Pippen ended up being called the league's "best all-around player"—a dodge, like naming a boxer the "best pound-for-pound fighter." Pippen wasn't as good as his own teammate, Jordan, but he could work a box score from side to side more thoroughly than anybody else. (Like LeBron James does.) You saw him and you had to say something.

It's a natural response. Nobody ever puts the 100 top players on the court at once, for objective comparision's sake. Dwyane Wade goes to the rim, and no one can stop him. Manu Ginobili goes to the rim, and no one can stop him. Isiah Thomas scores 25 points in a quarter, on a sprained ankle, and it's impossible to imagine that anyone could be better at playing basketball. (Thomas's Pistons lose the game.)

So: Durant was the best player on the floor last night as the Thunder overwhelmed the Spurs in the second half. He was also on the floor in the first half, while the Spurs rolled up an 18-point lead.

The night before, after all the success of Rondo-to-Garnett, the final minute saw the ball in the hands of Paul Pierce: a past NBA Finals MVP, like Moses Malone, Michael Jordan, or Cedric Maxwell. Pierce had been mediocre all night, with 16 points on 18 shots. He waited, looked at James guarding him, squared up, and launched a three-pointer.

In his postgame interview, Garnett talked about Pierce taking the shot: "I'm looking at him, saying, 'Oh, God, The Truth.' When he shoots certain shots, I know that's going in, and when he got a certain confidence going, it's The Truth. That's why—when Shaq gave him that nickname, it was right on."

When he shoots certain shots. Pierce nailed it. With LeBron in his face. That's what the great players do. All of them.