Thursday, December 20, 2007

What Dwight Howard Has To Do With KG Winning A Ring

While many fans are sulking today after losing to Detroit, I'm still thinking vigorously about the future and getting to the Finals. Good teams lose to good teams, and that's all that happened to the Celtics against the Pistons; sorry to burst your bubble Chris Sheridan. I guess I should be worried about the Celtics point differential being lowered all the way down to 13.5. Let's step out of the searing present moment and start thinking freely again. My Dwight Howard post the other day seems to have been met with laughter by many, and I can understand why. It appeared like I was bent on being solely categorical when it came to positions, to the point of being absurd. And those of you who think Duncan really is a power forward, just because that's what they call him on TV - well, I will never be able to convince you otherwise. Nonetheless, I stand firm that there is a stricter positional structure to the NBA than often appears during the regular season, and NBA Finals trophies attest to that.

To recap from the other day, since 1977 one team (the '78 Bullets) have won a title with a power forward (Elvin Hayes) as their best player. Meanwhile we have seen centers Walton, Kareem, Moses, Olajuwon, Shaq and Duncan all lead their teams to titles. Great power forwards leading their team have always fallen short (Barkley, Kemp, Malone, Webber, Nowitzki etc.) Of course it's not like the power forward-led teams always lost to the center-led teams; it's just that all these great power forwards always fell short. Since 1980 every title team has been led by a different position except power forward:

PG: Magic, Isiah, Billups
SG: Jordan, Wade
SF: Bird
PF: none
C: Kareem, Moses, Olajuwon, Duncan, Shaq

I don't believe in conspiracies, nor am I obsessed with categories, but this information means something. Centers are the pillar that everything is built around, traditionally they are the most important position on the floor. Point guards run the entire operation, therefore despite their usual small stature great ones are still able to "control things". Great shooting guards are so offensively dominant and athletic that they force the action to their favor. Small forwards are similar except they are bigger (and maybe a little less athletic, sorry Larry). I know this sounds like b.s., and it can easily be argued that the players on the above chart were just plain better than Barkley, Malone, Webber et al. But maybe not. Is power forward actually the most impotent of all five positions? It's not as crazy as it sounds - you're not large enough so that everything focuses around you, and you're not athletic enough to move all over the floor at will.

Barkley was great, and so was his team in '93, but it didn't matter. Rasheed Wallace was the best player on a Blazers team that historically choked in the Conference Finals against the Lakers. Webber and his Kings got jobbed by the refs against the Lakers a few years later. Similar events happened to Nowitzki against the Heat. Malone and Kemp also came painfully close. Power forwards have a tremendous history of coming up just short. And I think part of it is they play the position least able to bounce back when calls and incidents start turning against you - it is the hardest position from which to control the game. Ironically, power forward is the most naturally timid position of all.

Which brings us all the way back to KG. Take a gulp. Even if you disagree with everything I just wrote, doesn't it disturb you slightly that Kevin Garnett, power forward, is the Celtics best player? It freaks me out, because as much as I love KG, history is not on the Celtics' side. The great thing about KG, the old theory goes, is that he's athletic enough to play small forward or center. And that's true - but that makes him even more of a true power forward in my eyes. KG's versality strangely pigeonholes him as a power forward even more. KG thoroughly falls into this Barkley/Malone/Sheed/Webber/Nowitzki timeline. His perfection as a modern power forward is also his tragedy. But let us not lose all faith, let me utter sweet nothings in the hope they somehow become true. First and foremost, this is the Modern NBA, where everything is small and fast, and you can be a center apparently if you are over 6'7. In such a fallacious environment, who better or more qualified to fake playing center than KG? He has the length and size, the tenacity, and the tremendous veteran knowledge. This is most obvious on the defensive end, where KG has been the backbone of the best defensive squad in the league. KG is a singular presence defensively this year, indeed he almost is the center of all activity on that end of the court. If he's faking playing center, he's doing a hell of a job.

Unfortunately KG's remarkable focus on D has made it so placing the burden on his shoulders offensively might break the horse's back. I have more faith in KG playing center defensively than offensively (once again, this has nothing to do with whether Perk is out there, we're talking spatially and controlling the flow). KG will have to venture into the paint much more than he has been to pull off this stunt offensively. If he can be a center defensively, in this day and age, perhaps that is enough - as long as the defense stays historically good.

So while I still think the Celtics will be the best regular season team, cold hard reality usually hits come the postseason. That's when we get to see if KG (and Dwight Howard) really can play center. The regular season can be glamorous and flaky at the same time; getting to the Finals is the opposite - a hard, tough and uncompromising road that gets to the core of NBA basketball. The better the basketball, the more fundamental it becomes. It is greatness versus greatness. The cream rises to the top - and fantastic players like Nowitzki and Amare are often rendered insufficient, something we never see in a regular setting. So as well as the C's perform, and whether KG can break the great power forward titleless trend, will take us to the essence of KG and the meaning of the modern NBA.


Ben Guest said...

Good post, although I disagree with your selection of "Best Player" on two of your teams:

Rodman was the best player on the "Bad Boys." Zeke has the scoring numbers but the key to the team was their lockdown defense and rebounding. As Riles once said, "Rebounds equal rings" (and Dumars was the second-best player: Dumars was their clutch scorer, second-best defender, and even-keeled leader). More importantly, Rodman (who I think has been dramatically underrated as a player) was the best defender on the team, one of three best defenders in the league at that time, and probably the best rebounder of all-time. His defense and rebounding were the keys to Detroit winning two titles. And he played power forward.

On the 2004 Detroit team Ben Wallace was the best player, for the same reasons. And, while Wallace played center, he was much more of a PF by your description (and Olajuwon played PF early in his career. And Duncan certainly was a PF when David Robinson was on the team for two rings).

Also, keep in mind that the '04 Pistons did not have the best player on the court in the Finals. In fact, the two best players on the court (Shaq and Kobe) were on the Lakers...


Anonymous said...

Duncan is a PF or PF/C at the very least so this whole article is inacurate.

Anonymous said...

Duncan plays like a center and has the body of a center. On the spurs it was robinson playing on the perimeter, hence being the power forward.

Same for Olajuwon - it was sampson that played PF.

Ben Wallace was indeed more of a PF "Set loose" defensively, but then that team had ridiculous depth and 2-way stars at every position.