— I know that Phil Jackson said earlier this year that if he were building an NBA team from scratch, the first player he’d take is Dwight Howard. And I know that Orlando’s resident Superman did most of the heavy lifting in the Magic’s dismissal of the Cleveland LeBrons from the playoffs.
But if I had to choose one player around whom to build an NBA team today, I’m still taking LeBron James.
This, of course, is one of those endless debates, amply demonstrated during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Cleveland got as far as it did because of LeBron. The Magic are still playing after LeBron went home in a pout because of Howard.
If I was forced to build around Howard, I wouldn’t curse my fate and punch a hole in the wall. I’d somehow swallow my disappointment and force myself to deal with having to build around a monster center who hits six of every 10 shots he takes and considers it a bad day when he doesn’t get 14 rebounds. And I’d feel pretty good about my chances of having an awfully good team.
But I still think LeBron is the better choice. He can do more things than Howard. Come to think of it, he can do more things than any current player. He plays four positions. His shooting range is limited only by the size of the gym. He'll drive and dunk on anyone. He can play perimeter defense or bang for rebounds in the paint. He can pass and block shots. The man is capable of a triple-double every time he steps on the court.
There was a fellow named Michael Jordan who was also the king of versatility. There were some awfully good centers when Jordan was winning six titles. Shaquille O’Neal was one of them. Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were others. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley also racked up rebounds and scored in bunches.
But the great all-court player won the titles. He did it with workmanlike centers like Bill Wennington and Bill Cartwright and a couple of great forwards named Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
That’s the difference. The most valuable player in basketball is the guy who can do everything. He can win without a scintillating center, but it's rare that great centers win n without somebody comparably great handling the ball.
This is no put-down of Howard. It’s impossible to overstate how good he's been. He’s agile, incredibly strong, relentless, a great defender and, if your name is Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Verajao, impossible to defend. The Magic are a terrific basketball team, fully capable of beating the Lakers or anyone. Dwight Howard is the man who makes it all happen for them.
But he’s not the only reason the Magic beat the LeBrons. Ultimately, the Cavs didn’t lose because they couldn’t stop Howard. They lost because they couldn’t stop Orlando’s incredible gang of 3-point shooters.
Anytime you have a team that hits 40 percent from beyond the arc, you’re going to win a lot of games. When that team has Howard planted on the low post, you’re going to kick butt.
Cleveland lost because they couldn’t back up James the way the Magic backed up Howard. They lost because at critical junctures of critical games they stopped running the offense that made them great and played an offense that consisted of watching LeBron try to save them from themselves. Mo Williams hit open jumpers, and Verajao seemed to shrink from challenging Howard.
Great players anchor teams. But championships are won by great teams that have great players. It sure makes it easier if one of those players is your center or a power forward. But that great big man needs a great swing man to make it happen.
Wilt Chamberlain was probably the greatest center ever, but he won only when he had great help. Bill Russell was also one of the greatest centers ever, and he won titles every year because he was on a team that had hall-of-famers at almost every position.
Shaquille O’Neal was better than Howard in his day, but he didn’t win titles until he had first Kobe Bryant to help out and then Dwyane Wade. Tim Duncan had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won with Oscar Robertson, then Magic Johnson.
Yet Jordan won with Wennington and Cartwright.
So if you really want to make me happy, give me LeBron outside and Howard to play with him in the middle. Do that, and I’ll never lose.
But if I can have only one, I’ll start with the guy who can do it all and find people to fill in the blanks. It’s what’s always worked in this game. And it’s not going to change.