When the NBA all-stars take the court in Phoenix Sunday night, it will mark a subtle but distinctive change in the game. During the last few years, the game’s top players have been moving away from the concept of a great player with a supporting cast toward a more team-oriented approach where the best player considers himself first among equals. The all-star game is usually a playground affair, full of one-on-one maneuvers, but with many team-oriented players, this year’s game might actually resemble more of a playoff game than an exhibition matchup.
The pendulum swing between a great player who can win on his own (or with a little bit of help from the other fellas) and the great player determined to mold his five into a unit greater than the sum of its parts has gone on for most of NBA history. And some of the league’s greats have changed from the ball hog to team leader during their careers.
The league’s first superstar, center George Mikan, did just that. In the league’s early days—the ‘50s—when the Minneapolis Lakers (they moved to Los Angeles in 1960) won five titles, he started out as the team’s sole option on offense but gradually became more team oriented as other players such as future Hall of Famers Vern Mikkelsen and Slater Martin joined the team.
On the other hand, Bill Russell was a team player from Day 1, and his game, which was built around rebounding, anchoring the defense and triggering a lethal fast-break, turned the Celtics of the ‘60s into the league’s greatest dynasty. Russell’s principal rival, Wilt Chamberlain, was the opposite, a phenomenal scorer (he averaged 50.4 points per game in ’61-’62) and rebounder. (During a 14-season career, he averaged 22.9 boards per game.) He didn’t win a title until he turned his attention to sharing the ball, and then he nearly led the league in assists.
By contrast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played a team game from his first days in the league, which is why he meshed so well with Oscar Robertson as they led one of the best teams in NBA history (the ’70-’71 champion Milwaukee Bucks). The pendulum swung back when Julius Erving, George McGinnis and others arrived from the ABA, a league full of freelancing, one-on-one teams. Dr. J made hoops a fixture on the highlight reels, but it wasn’t until his game matured that he became a champion.
I’ve always contended that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson became great team players because their solid work ethics were reinforced by joining organizations with storied histories in Boston and Los Angeles. They stepped into good situations, and many titles resulted for each.
By the time that Bird and Magic were cementing their rivalry in the pros, you’d think that the concept of a being a great individual player would have been so unfashionable that no one would even consider trying it. But that would have undersold Michael Jordan. Jordan joined a Chicago Bulls team with little glory in its history, and the Windy City, at that point, was well-accustomed to great players who never came close to a title (Gale Sayers, Ernie Banks, Dick Butkus, and to that point in his career, Walter Payton).
Jordan was a one-man show in Chicago. His 37.1 points per game average in ’86-’87 was the greatest single season since Chamberlain. Yet this version 1.0 of Michael all too often led to games where the Bulls would lose 96-87 despite Jordan’s 45 points. Nonetheless, it was those sorts of performances that created the Air Jordan brand and turned Michael into the iconic athletic figure of his generation.
Jordan’s prodigious scoring in the late ‘80s overshadowed a change in his game. With the arrivals of Scottie Pippen, a future Hall of Famer, and Horace Grant, a perennial all-star until back problems diminished his game at an early age, Jordan began to pass the ball. He averaged eight rebounds and assists per game in ’88-’89. Thus, when Phil Jackson became Bulls head coach before the ’89-’90 season and instituted a less Jordan-centric offense, Michael was ready for the change, and the Bulls went on to win six titles in eight years.
However, the impression Jordan made in his early years dominated the latter, title-wielding image, and for the next decade too many players entered the league wanting their chance to be like Mike in all the wrong ways. Exceptions, most notably Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, were respected, but their street cred was no match for Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant and other high-scoring soloists. The pairing of Kobe with Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t get the Lakers to the finals until Jackson arrived to install a variation of his triangle offense. In addition, ESPN’s Sports Center and other televised outlets were making sports a more character-driven story.
You can’t have a whole team present for “Sunday conversation;” you need a star.
The current crop of superstars—LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and several others—grew up on Jordan Version 2.0, and it shows. Each has a solid team-oriented game (the most salient criticism of James seems to be that he’s too unselfish, a good flaw to have). Yao Ming, Dwyane Wade, Devin Harris, Tony Parker and Brandon Roy are all team leaders who are immensely talented.
It is a healthy change, and it’s one that is good for these times. In this economy, the notion of individual success that lifts all others seems so last administration. A more collective approach to success is in vogue right now, and perhaps a new looking NBA can be emblematic in these troubled times.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.