What makes a great basketball player? What do great players usually have in common? There are four elements to every great player: two mental, and two physical. Mentally, the great players have excellent basketball intelligence. That does not mean they’re geniuses off the court, it just means on the court they know what’s going on. They’re focused on the right play every time and display that focus throughout the game. Hand in hand with that focus is desire. That does not mean the player dives for every loose ball or runs willy-nilly around the court. It just means the great player exhibits the appropriate effort for the particular play.
The second part of the great player is the physical part and there are two parts to that. There is the raw physical athletic abilities: speed, spring, quickness (not the same as straight-ahead speed), strength, agility, and stamina. The second part of the physical abilities is the skills: the shooting, passing, dribbling, faking, and certain defensive skills.
So which player or players that I’ve seen in my fifty years of watching the sport best exhibit the four elements necessary for being a great player. In my view, the player who best exhibited all four parts was Oscar Robertson. Robertson had great desire and intelligence, but was also an excellent athlete and had supreme skills. Other players similar to Robertson in that regard were Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Lebron James, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and a few others.
Of course not all players had equal amounts of the four elements. Some were more athletically gifted than others, some were a little smarter, some had more desire, and some were more skilled. For instance Larry Bird was not a great athlete and Bill Russell was a poor shooter. But they all combined their various abilities to make themselves great players.
After watching the first week of NBA play I can make a number of observations. It certainly looks like Miami will be tough to beat this year. They’ve definitely helped themselves by acquiring Ray Allen . However, after seeing the Knicks dismantle the Sixers the other night, I can say the Knicks certainly look formidable. What’s interesting about the Knicks is their combination of a lot of older players. Against the Sixers, who looked like they need a tremendous infusions of brains, the Knicks used Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni at pg for large segments of the game. The Knicks played team ball and tough defense something foreign to the Sixers. And while the Sixers were without Andrew Bynum, the Knicks were missing Stoudamire, Camby, and Shumpert.
I thought the Celtics would be very tough this year after seeing them in a preseason game against the Nets, but in the game I saw against my Bucks, they looked like they were sleepwalking. Dallas looks very strong despite being without Nowitzki . San Antonio appears to still have life in them yet and have won all their games so far. OKC is a little disconcerted without Harden. But I’m sure they’ll still be an excellent team with Durant and Westbrook. The Lakers look like an old team, and I wonder if Nash will help them. He’s near 39, and every player has to lose it at some point. Denver appears to have a lot of good players, but I’m not particularly impressed with their play. Indiana is floundering. without Grainger. Chicago is still amazingly good without Rose, but I can’t see them challenging in the east. Brooklyn is supposed to be a playoff team this year, but they have to learn team ball. Minny is still competitive without Love or Rubio, and Kirilenko was a great pickup. Houston put themselves into playoff contention with the addition of Harden who appears to be the preeminent scoring guard in the league vaulting ahead of Kobe. The Clippers look somewhat the same from last year.
The middling teams from last year seem about the same. One early surprise is Orlando who I thought would be a bottom-feeder but who are playing fairly well. My Bucks look about the same from last year. Golden St. looks good on paper but haven’t performed so well as yet.
The bottom feeders still have problems. A few of them show signs of improvement like Toronto, Cleveland, and Portland, but the worst teams are still only slightly improved or stagnant. That means Washington, Sacramento, Phoenix, New Orleans, and Detroit can beat good teams on certain nights, but they still have deep problems.
And lastly there’s Charlotte. On paper the worst team of all time last year. Are they better this year? Yes they are. But not enough to win more than 20-25 games.