Wilt Chamberlain

LeBron or MJ best of all time, or are they forgetting someone else?

LeBron or MJ best of all time, or are they forgetting someone else?

ESPN released a list of the NBA’s 74 greatest players and, of course, the big argument is at the top, where Michael Jordan is ranked No. 1 and LeBron James is No. 2.

I will say first, I would rank Jordan ahead of James but I wonder if ESPN would have, too, if it didn’t happen to be airing Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary right now.

I’m not even totally sold on either of them being No. 1.

There is a real lack of understanding about how important talented centers were in the history of the game. For decades, if you didn’t have a great center, it was almost impossible to win a championship.

I watched teams take the floor against squads led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain and it was a hopeless situation. You could not stop them. There was nothing you could do.

Chamberlain was an athlete unlike anyone playing today -- a 7-2 LeBron James. When I hear people talk about Shaquille O'Neal being the best combination of speed and power in the game, I just laugh. Wilt would have dominated him. He was an all-around athlete (high jumper, 440 runner and world-class volleyball player) the likes of which few NBA players have ever been. And for all the points he scored, he once led the league in assists.

And even though Bill Russell won all those championships, he wasn’t the player Wilt was. I believe most people who rank him higher than Chamberlain did not see them play. Russell was a defensive genius and a leader, but did not have Wilt’s offensive skill. It wasn’t even close.

But Russell played for the Celtics, a great franchise with a great coach, surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates. That matters.

Abdul-Jabbar caused the colleges to outlaw the dunk just so they had a chance against him. But they couldn’t ban his skyhook, so there was still little chance of stopping him.

The problems with ranking the all-time best players in the history of any sport are many, And that’s why it can be so controversial.

A lot of the people doing those rankings didn’t even see many of the players on their list actually play, Or they rank players based on how many titles they won -- which was very often beyond the control of an individual player who landed on a hopeless franchise with no leadership... and no free agency to bail himself out of those situations.

Then, of course, there is the problem of comparing different eras. The three-point line had an enormous impact on the way the game is played, once coaches were able to commit to using it to its full potential (which took way too long).

And then there are the people unwilling to give players from the past a chance to be able to develop in modern systems that allow more and better weight training, nutritional guidance and salaries high enough players didn’t have to worry about an off-season job selling insurance.

In today’s game, Jordan obviously would have shot more three-point field goals. Wilt and Russell were both quick enough to get out on the floor and defend pick-and-rolls.

And players from previous eras such as Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Geoff Petrie, Walt Frazier, Elvin Hayes and Elgin Baylor would have all starred in this era.

So make up whatever list you want -- but please pay respect to history and perhaps rank only the players you’ve actually seen and discard whatever myths you’ve heard about the others or the eras they played in.

Because you really don’t know.

LeBron James is the King of all calls and the referees are his minions

LeBron James is the King of all calls and the referees are his minions

I wanted to take several hours to consider this before I wrote it and do a lot of thinking about it.

I’ve seen a lot of the greatest NBA players during my decades of covering the league. And after due consideration and much mental anguish I’m ready to express my opinion and put one of them above all the rest in one important category.

And let me say, it’s good to be king.

LeBron James, the self-proclaimed “king” of well, something, is the player who, night after night, gets more favorable treatment from referees than any of the other great players. But make no mistake, it was a close race.

Shaquille O’Neal was in the running but late in his career, that changed for some reason. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant? Well, they got help, but not like LeBron. Wilt Chamberlain never fouled out of an NBA game, but I’m not convinced he got the benefit of as many favors as James.

That mystery foul called on Portland’s Anthony Tolliver Saturday night, when LeBron went flying down the left side of the lane for an uncontested breakaway layup that he missed and Tolliver was whistled for a foul is a classic example.

Portland Coach Terry Stotts challenged the call and lost the challenge, probably as much because it was “The King” as anything else. On replay, the only contact on that play was when James’ left leg went backward and made contact with one of Tolliver’s legs. James probably initiated the contact more than did Tolliver. And that certainly couldn't have been what the official saw in real time when he blew his whistle. He saw James miss an easy shot and figured someone HAD to foul him or he wouldn't have missed it.

But the play was a classic case of “incidental contact” – meaning:

The mere fact that contact occurs does not necessarily constitute a foul. Contact which is incidental to an effort by a player to play an opponent, reach a loose ball, or perform normal defensive or offensive movements, should not be considered illegal.

That contact, if indeed it even occurred, had nothing to do with James blowing that shot. But he got the call. And that’s certainly not the only case of him being protected, but an example of what happens frequently.

But more than getting calls, he’s even better at not getting called for fouls he actually commits, particularly on the offensive end,.

Everyone knows he plays the game like a bull in a china shop, bowling over defenders and using his size and strength to overpower smaller defenders. And he’s also known as a very good defender – which means at both ends of the court he’s doing things that make him subject to getting fouls called on him.

But he doesn’t get fouls called on him. Like, hardly ever. Including this season, it’s been nine years since he averaged more than two fouls per game. That’s ridiculous, given his physical style of play.

And I haven’t even mentioned the amount of times he gets away with traveling, including this laughable one that almost broke the internet a few weeks ago. And he changed pivot feet and traveled more than once Saturday night.

I’ve always hated the fact that superstars get special treatment in the NBA. Of all people, they need it less than anyone else. But it’s just the way things work. And LeBron is the king of all calls.

The referees are, it turns out, his minions.

Whiteside puts up monster numbers again -- is it right to expect such things?

Whiteside puts up monster numbers again -- is it right to expect such things?

The late, outstanding defensive center Caldwell Jones, who had some great days as a backup center for the Trail Blazers, once told me a story about playing in the ABA, where his coach was the great Wilt Chamberlain.

Caldwell, just a kid then, had two big plus-20-point scoring games and Chamberlain, who once scored 100 points in a game, of course, called Jones aside.

“Be careful,” Wilt said to Jones.

“Huh? What do you mean,” Jones asked his coach.

Chamberlain responded, “You start scoring like that and people are going to expect you to do that all the time and I’m not sure you can.”

Hassan Whiteside can understand the story.

He had another monster game Saturday night, helping the Trail Blazers push past the Minnesota Timberwolves 113-106. And all Whiteside did was grab 22 rebounds, block seven shots and score 16 points. He is averaging 16 rebounds and four blocks over his last seven games and is coming off rebound games of 14, 23 and 17 prior to his 22 against the T-Wolves.

And, of course, he is raising expectations with every game. And now, as the great Chamberlain said many years ago, people are going to start expecting it every night. Which is, well, a lot to ask.

“When he’s playing like that, we’re going to have a great chance to win games,” Damian Lillard said. “On both ends of the floor – making free throws, making jumpers, being in the paint, getting us extra possessions. Coming up big with all those blocks and changing shots. He’s been huge for us.”

Lillard was reminded that Carmelo Anthony said, after a recent game, that when Whiteside doesn’t produce those numbers, “he’s teasing us.”

“I mean,” Lillard said, “when you see games like this game and the Golden State game, stuff like that – it’s almost like it’s obvious when he’s not doing it. It’s obvious when he’s not bringing it, because when he does, it’s like so obvious and it’s such a big deal for our team. So, tonight was a great game for him. A great game.”

Whiteside isn’t shy about expressing his self-confidence.

“I’m a defensive guy,” he said. “I feel like I’m the best rim protector in the league. It’s not even close.”

But he knows, too, about what’s expected of him.

“I feel like it’s that way with blocks,” he said. “When I came into the league my first year with the Heat, I averaged almost four blocks a game. And then the year after that, I led the league in rebounds and it was like, ‘Why didn’t he average four blocks? Is he not trying?’ And that was kind of a different era – a lot of three-point shooting. There was less scoring in the paint.”

And nowdays, getting anywhere near 10 blocks in a game – a figure Whiteside has already surpassed once this season – is incredibly difficult compared to what it was in earlier days in the NBA. In the current era, half the shots in some games are taken outside the three-point line, an area where you won’t see many blocked shots.

Whiteside doesn’t have nearly as many opportunities to block shots as Bill Walton or Caldwell Jones – Walton’s opponent in the 1977 NBA Finals – did. Prior to the onslaught of three-point shooting, the game was played much closer to the rim.

“In the old days it would have been amazing for me, for sure,” Whiteside said with a smile.

One edge Whiteside has in the rebounding department on his current team, though, is that he doesn’t have to fight many other players on his own team for boards.

There aren’t a lot of pure rebounders wearing Blazer colors this year.

But those numbers are so impressive and he’s bringing them with regularity.

Can we expect it every night? The Trail Blazers better hope so.