What Makes a Player the Greatest?

We’re having a discussion on one of my sports lists about who’s the greatest this or that, etc. You know the debate – you’ve had it a million times yourself. Kobe’s name came up, as it tends to in these kinds of conversations. Here’s what I said:

One of my top criteria for “greatest” in any hoops discussion (and most team sports, for that matter) is this: did he make his teammates better?

The great ones warp the game, in that they command so much attention from the other team that it creates extra space and opportunity for teammates. If I’m guarding you with two people, somebody is open. So great talent warps the flow of the game. Great players then exploit that warp – they draw and kick, they make great dummy runs (a classic example of this happened in the Chelsea/Arsenal game Sunday, when Nicolas Anelka made a beautiful dummy run across the flow of a break, and when he did two defenders leaned with him just enough to create way too much space for Didier Drogba; Frank Lampard laid the ball of nicely to DD – goal, and match, but without Anelka’s dummy Arsenal had plenty of players back to defend it).

A lot of guys in the NBA have the talent to warp the flow, but most of them then attack the defense head-on (Iverson, table for one?) The great ones – Bird and Magic, Jordan – suck you in and then let somebody else kill you. Not that they wouldn’t kill you themselves, but they were smart enough to make you pay for your choices – you didn’t bring enough to stop them, they’d shiv you. If you did, they’d let somebody else shiv you.

Kobe warps the flow, but he has never had a sense for how to make everybody else on his team a lethal weapon. Sometimes it happens by default, but it never happens systematically as a function of his game. Last year’s Lakers team was an enigma, really, because they underperformed in each round. They won in the end because opponents would find a way to shoot themselves in the foot and because LA just had so damned much talent that even Kobe couldn’t derail it.

A lot of folks make their assessments on greatness by how your talent warps the game. That’s a mistake, I think. The real measure of greatness is what you do once you warp the game.

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