Is There a Huckleberry?

I love to debate meaningless things.

I mean I REALLY love to debate meaningless things. The two greatest things to debate about are movies and sports. I would debate about music like lots of people like to do but I simply don’t know enough about it nor do I really care to learn enough about it to form arbitrary opinions about music. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. That’s good enough for me.

But with movies and sports, I will argue literally anything. Recently, I was arguing with a friend about the movie Tombstone with Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell. If you haven’t seen Tombstone, I’m just going to assume that you have recently been taken from the past (let’s say 1973) and brought here to the future/present and you were about to watch the movie until you decided to find out with this internet thing was all about (and naturally, you went straight to Hardwood Paroxysm). Well, it’s a phenomenal movie. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and it’s not really supposed to be.

The argument with one of my friends regarding Tombstone was over the debate of who was a better cowboy/difference maker in the town of Tombstone, Arizona between Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp was a pretty incredible cowboy. He was able to affect everybody around him in a positive way. He was a dominating force that the bad guys and rebel rousers had never had to handle before. And they couldn’t handle him. They couldn’t handle him at all.

At the same time there was Doc Holliday. He’s a little brash and colder than people want him to be all while being disarmingly charming. He makes jokes at your expense that either strike fear in you with the vastness of his wit or completely piss you off to the point that you want to duel with him right then and there. But the problem with that is he’s the best gunslinger there is. He’s killed many men before they even knew they were in a gunfight. It tickles him that he can do that to people and he has every single gun trick in the book.

Both of them have prominent roles throughout this movie. Wyatt is trying to make a respected name for himself in his new town while Doc is suffering through an illness that is sure to take his life. And yet they’re equally feared men for completely different reasons. We debated about this for a good 45 minutes before discovering that maybe there wasn’t a best cowboy/difference maker. Maybe they were both the best. Yes, it’s a copout to the discussion at hand and yes, it’s a bit lazy in thinking that way. However, if there is no definitive reasoning can there be a definitive conclusion?

And here’s where I manage to send two rabid sides of the aisle into a fury and rage against me for stating the following:

What if there isn’t a best player in the NBA?

The debate of LeBron versus Kobe has been going on for the past three years. We’re not going to get into the specifics of it. We already know the breakdown of strengths and weaknesses and even those are up for debate in some areas. There’s the argument of who is the most clutch and who means the most to his team’s wins. And those are great discussions to have.

It’s an ever-evolving and changing argument when things like LeBron’s team winning at home without their starting point guard over Kobe and his injured finger happen. You look at LeBron’s line of 37 points on 25 shots, nine assists and five rebounds and marvel at the fact that eight of his 12 misses in the game came from three-point range. So he was 12/16 from two-point range against the reigning NBA champs in the final game of a series sweep and wonder to yourself, how couldn’t LeBron be the best in the NBA? And for some, it’s a no-brainer.

I asked Matt Moore this very question of trying to figure out if there is a best player in the NBA.

“It’s LeBron. And I say that not because of Dwyer, Simmons, Ford, Bucher, or anyone else’s opinions, which are all the same, but because it’s a fact. The problem is that it instantly creates a slant on Kobe. But that’s not true. Kobe is as good as I can possibly imagine Kobe Bryant being. And there are literally dozens of things that Kobe does better than LeBron. But you don’t need to be perfect to be the best player, you need to be better than everyone else. And a player that is that size, with that speed, that power, that strength, that range (check out his f***ing three point numbers! For a forward!), with his vision, leadership, game-domination-ability, and playmaking ability, is better than everyone else. He does so much during a game it’s insane. It’s just insane. Kobe can take over. LeBron is constantly doing everything. He’s the best player in the game, and that doesn’t mean I doubt Kobe for a heartbeat. It just means that LeBron’s better right now.”

I asked Mark Haubner of The Painted Area the same question and he too sided with Matt and thousands of Cavs fans.

“I think that LeBron is clearly the best player, and frankly, think that those who think Kobe is better are wrong. People always want to focus on W-L at a certain point, and underestimate the quality of teammates. The Lakers have an overwhelming amount of talent surrounding Kobe, the Cavs have a good collection of talent around LeBron. If the Lakers hadn’t acquired Pau, I don’t think that LeBron v Kobe would even be a conversation.”

But maybe it’s not that simple. The idea of “the best player in the NBA” is so subjective to personal taste. As a Wolves fan, I wanted so badly for Kevin Garnett to be considered the best power forward of all-time. I watched him on a nightly basis and saw him do things that forwards had never done in this sport. He was putting up insane stat lines every night and showing a complete game that a man of his size never really had before. He seemed to be the best defensive player on the court every night. He had a style and a swagger and a determination that was endearing to everybody. He also had the smile of a giddy child who was just thrilled to be putting up one more jumper before he had to go back inside.

And yet, Tim Duncan was widely regarded as a better player (and deservedly so). He had crazy stats of his own and a reputation for coming through when it counted. He didn’t get labeled with “fourth quarter choker” like KG did. He had a better team around him and ended up winning NBA title after NBA title. Tim might not have been as charismatic and flashy as Garnett but he had his own way of dominating a court.

So is it just a matter of taste? Kevin Arnovitz of ClipperBlog and TrueHoop seemed to think so.

“We’re at the point where the answer to this question is largely a matter of taste. You want a beautifully structured wine or a powerful fruit bomb that will stay with you for days? You want to measure these guys statistically across the board, or examine the jewelry? Right now, LeBron does more to help his team, but his team’s success demands that he do more.”

However, the difference between what KG and Tim Duncan battled for and the discussion of Kobe versus LeBron is the proximity of age between the respective foes. KG and Tim Duncan are of the same generation even if they’re from different worlds. Duncan and Garnett were born within a month of each other whereas Kobe and LeBron are separated by roughly six years. And that matters in this discussion of who you think is better.

Your personal preference in style and age absolutely shapes your side of this debate as much as your loyalty to the Cavs or Lakers. Are you more impressed with stat lines or rings? Are you swayed by the fact that Kobe Bryant is starting to decline in his greatness and yet is still in the thick of this argument? Or are you more amazed by the fact that LeBron has accelerated the maturation process by even vaulting himself into this discussion before most people even realize what they want their career to be?

My ultimate point is this: if there is no clear-cut best in the NBA, even though a lot of people are beginning to shuffles towards James side of the aisle, then why does there have to be a declared best player in the NBA? Is it simply for bragging rights? Is it a retort to “you guys didn’t win the title this year” as you happily fire back with “well, we have the best player and he would destroy your best player?”

During the early to mid 1980s, there wasn’t a best player in the NBA. It was Magic and Bird. Not Magic then Bird or Bird then Magic. It wasn’t until Michael Jordan came along that everyone undoubtedly bowed to His Airness and came to the irrefutable understanding that MJ was number one and everyone else was fighting for second.

So how do we know that isn’t the case right now? Sure, eventually everyone will bow to LeBron. I don’t think Kobe and LBJ are duking it out now just so someone else can come along and be the understood answer to the riddle. And if I had to start a team today, I would unquestionably take LeBron to lead my franchise.

But if I had to win one game, I don’t know that I could make the decision between the two. I’d have to think long and hard about it and even then, it might just be a flip of the coin. The thing is there really is no right or wrong answer to THAT question.

In terms of who is the best player, we come up with our own reasons for what means the most to us. We figure out if it’s fair to heavily weigh the quality of teammates one player enjoys and how that affects his likelihood and history of winning titles. We decide if there is an age that is TOO young to judge a guy’s ability or lack thereof in regards to why he hasn’t won a title yet. We look at skill, degree of difficulty, degree of ease in which tasks are carried out and the overall wow factor a player brings to our nightly viewing.

Maybe Sam Amico of Pro Basketball News sums it up best when he says:

When it comes to LeBron vs. Kobe, all I can do is take it all in. All I can do is thoroughly enjoy it. Mostly, all I can do is ask, “LeBron? Kobe? Who really is the better player?”

Then I answer like this:

Who knows, who cares, and how long before we can watch them play again?

After all, the idea of Kobe versus LeBron gives us something to argue about. You have well-respected minds giving the nod to both men. As time goes by and the physical prowess of both players changes for better or worse, it sways opinion (or presumed fact) from one side to the other.

As of right now, I’m willing to decide there is no best player in the league. I know who I’d pick if I had to. And I know who I’d want to build a culture around. I know who I’d want leading a team and who I’d want taking the last shot. But it’s just mere opinion.

And it’s up for you to decide who your Huckleberry is.

Seth Carstens