The message is straightforward. You are watching the Best Player and the Best Team prove their greatness. All America is seeing the same thing. You had probably better go buy a T-shirt, just for the record. Maybe a No. 23 jersey. And perhaps some Gatorade, and some Nike athletic shoes.
So whose jersey should we be buying this year? Ray Allen or Jamal Mashburn? Allen Iverson or Vince Carter? Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant? The Great Man theory of basketball says that someone should be rising above the rest of the pack. But at the moment, the whole pack seems to be rising.
This is what pro hoops has needed ever since Magic Johnson's retirement: the sense that bragging rights aren't going to be settled by one game, one series, or even one season. Carter's last-second tip-in begets Iverson's 54 points begets Carter's 50 points begets Iverson knocking down a game-winning three-pointer over Carter, leaving the 76ers and the Raptors tied 2-2 and taking the series off the board, prediction-wise. Anyone who claims to know what comes next is bluffing.
At this point, in fact, anyone who claims to know anything for certain about the National Basketball Association is an outright fraud. Take, please, the question of who the league's best player is. Hack analysts continue to toss off opinions on the subject, either protecting their choice with a preemptive adverb ("indisputably," "unquestionably") or fudging the superlative case ("Tracy McGrady is one of the best players in the NBA").
Unquestionably, here's the deal: There is no best player in the NBA. There are no "two best" players in the NBA. There is a small group of players who are right now, after 82 games of screwing around against the Clippers and the Grizzlies, learning how they stack up against each other. And this is not a simple measurement but a process. In game two of the Sixers-Raptors series, Allen Iverson was not only better than Vince Carter, he was better than the Allen Iverson who played in game one. Carter, for his part, is two or three notches better than he was when the first round began.
Which brings us to O'Neal, Bryant, and the World Champion Lakers. If anybody's going to lock up all the superlatives this year, à la Jordan and the Bulls, it looks as if it'll be L.A. The Lakers have not lost, regular season or playoffs, since April 3. That's a smidgen less impressive once you realize how thinly NBC has spread out the playoff schedule--the Big Purple Machine's first-round sweep of Portland meant the Lakers played only three games in an 18-day span--but still. They slaughtered the talented-but-out-of-sync Trail Blazers, then turned around and snuffed out the talented-and-very-much-in-sync Sacramento Kings.
The great problem for Lakers partisans is that it's impossible to figure out which of their stars goes on the top of the marquee. O'Neal bludgeoned Sacramento with 44 points and 21 rebounds in game one--against a big, talented Kings front line--then followed it with 43 points and 20 boards in game two. Nobody in the history of anything, not Jordan or Russell or Wilt or Kareem, had gone 40-20 back-to-back in the playoffs. So O'Neal's the best player in the NBA. Except then Bryant fired up a team-high 36 points in game three, followed by 48 in the clincher, with O'Neal on the bench in foul trouble. So Bryant's the best player in the NBA.
But extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Hot as the Lakers are, it's hard to believe that the number-one and -two players in the league both happen to play for the same team, even if that team does have deep pockets and a superior front office. The last time people made that claim, it was when Jordan and Scottie Pippen were together on the Bulls. Just as O'Neal and Bryant are hailed, respectively and somewhat contradictorily, as the "most dominant" and "most gifted" players in the league, Jordan and Pippen were the Greatest Player Ever and the League's Best All-Around Player.
After Jordan retired and the Bulls got disassembled, the League's Best All-Around Player went off on his own and turned out to be kind of a pellet. And the coach who produced the Jordan-Pippen show, Phil Jackson, headed west to straighten out the Lakers.
My pet belief is that Tim Duncan is a better basketball player than either O'Neal or Bryant--or Iverson or Carter or Kevin Garnett. This does not mean Duncan's Spurs will necessarily beat the Lakers this year, especially not with Derek Anderson lost to a shoulder injury. There's no reason to assume that the best player, whoever he may be, will be on the team that wins the championship. Larry Bird beat Magic, and Magic beat Bird. Isiah Thomas beat them both. That's how pro basketball worked before Jordan took it over. You could argue the outcome all summer long. You could never quite win the argument, and you could never really lose.
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