Friday, January 25, 2008

Let Me Trample on a Dead Man's Accomplishments a bit

Mike Freeman over at CBS Sportsline has written a little column ranking the best athletes in New York/Boston history. It’s the type of column that is fun to read and so subjective and off-the-cuff that it’s pointless and unfair to really criticize. If 1,000 people were to go through the same exercise, you’d have 1,000 different lists. His focus seemed to be a blend of athleticism combined with results. That’s intentionally vague. His number one choice is Lawrence Taylor. Now you may have Mickey Mantle in front of LT, but he had Mantle 25. See? Subjective as fuck.

So I’m not going to pick on the ordering of the list, but there’s one person whose ranking/description I just can’t let go. To start, I’ll show you all the basketball players on the list (note that he did take length of service in the region into account, in some way):

18. Willis Reed, Knicks: Playing hurt is also part of being a great athlete. Yet he was more than a tough guy. He had the athleticism to take on much bigger centers when he was just 6-9.

17. Robert Parish, Celtics: Quick feet for a big man.

14. Bob Cousy, Celtics: Redefined the point guard position.

12. Reggie Lewis, Celtics: Brief, potent career but might have been another Michael Jordan.

9. Julius Erving, Nets: On the New York Nets from 1973-1976 so he counts on the New York side. One of the best pure athletes the NBA has ever seen and he rocked that 'fro too.

7. Larry Bird, Celtics: Fluid, slick and born with radar for eyes.

2. Bill Russell, Celtics: Not your prototypical athlete but one of the few to excel at all of the athlete qualities mentioned above.

Honorable mention (not in any order): Walt Frazier, Kevin Garnett, Patrick Ewing, Bernard King, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, John Havlicek (might have deserved to be in the top 25), Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, Dennis Johnson.

This is a little like looking at one of those paintings where there are a number of things “wrong” and you’re supposed to find 25 of them in 5 minutes. Like – hey the clock is upside down and, say what?, he’s writing with a shoe instead of a pen and, look silly!, that dude’s feet are on fire. Or something sort of like that.

So, who cares right? Freeman could do the same thing to a list I put together. But this one is just so off I have to focus a little on it:

12. Reggie Lewis, Celtics: Brief, potent career but might have been another Michael Jordan.

Let’s just start with the observation that Bernard King of the Knicks was a much better basketball player than Reggie Lewis, and he was a more athletic player than Lewis. He played for the Knicks for 4 years, while Lewis played for the Celtics for 5 and a half.

I watched a fair amount of Reggie Lewis when he played and I would rank Paul Pierce ahead of him in both the basketball ability and the athleticism front. Though neither are/were the prototypical super-athletic 2-guards that you can find out there….like Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler (for Lewis contemporaries) and Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter (for Pierce contemporaries). But whatever.

Reggie Lewis’ game was the mid-range jump-shot. He could penetrate, and certainly did from time to time, but he didn’t make a habit of it, and he wasn’t exceptional at it. It wasn’t his game. He didn’t have a post game to really speak of. He was lights out on pull-up 16-18 footers. He managed to shoot over 48% for his career with a game focused on the mid-range jumper. He didn’t drive all that much, and he didn’t get the line very often – about 4 free throws a game for his career (Pierce is double that). He didn’t shoot threes much at all, and when he did they did not go in most of the time (20% career). He was a good, but unspectacular open floor player and I don’t remember him being either bad or great on defense. I think he was above-average, but not really in the discussion for all-league caliber. For the record I do remember Jordan (who he's compared to here) doing whatever he wanted against him, but that's not really a knock on Reggie. I don’t remember his defense as much as his offense, obviously. His rebounding, assists, steals and blocks were solid but unspectacular. Again, he could nail jumpers. A few times a year he'd go hard to the hoop and put down a two handed dunk. But so did random guys like Doug West, John Starks and Robert Pack, and with much more athleticism I may add.

Reggie's “potent” career consisted of a 17 point-per-game average and one all-star appearance. He was a very good player, and he was still improving at the time of his death (but he was 27, not likely to significantly improve). Perhaps Lewis could have averaged another 4-6 points a game if he didn't have to share the ball so much, but it would be a big mistake to think there was a scoring machine being held back in Boston (for his career, he took about 3 shots per game less than Paul Pierce). It's unlikely that he was even going to be as good as Pierce. So to suggest that he had a snowballs chance in hell of being another Michael Jordan shows either a horrific memory, a lack of basketball knowledge, or zero ability to compare players. He was like a less explosive Ray Allen if Allen drove a little less, shot fewer threes and when he did shoot them he used his left hand or something. As an athlete he did not have jump out of the gym or consistently blow-by the defender type athleticism.

Reggie was by all accounts a great teammate and he reached out to the community frequently. That and his work ethic and professional demeanor made him a fan favorite in Boston. His death had a big impact on the Celtics and the fans.

To look beyond the basketball component for a second, these are some of the non-hoopsters behind Lewis in Freeman's rankings: Mickey Mantle, John McEnroe, Tom Brady, Babe Ruth, Mark Messier, Alex Rodriquez, Ted Williams, Randy Moss and a few others.

Lewis was a very good player, but Freeman’s statement and ranking of him are insane.

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