Let me explain how this happened. It started last week, when I was emailing with friends about Chris Paul and his game against the Blazers.
He had just taken a cheap shot at someone’s groin when one of my friends asked, “Does anyone else hate Chris Paul?”
Then another chimed in and said yes, he’s insufferable, and he’s turning into the Donovan McNabb of the NBA. This made me do a double take.
I definitely respect how mean that comparison was, but Chris Paul is too amazing to be the Donovan McNabb of basketball. Nobody is going to be arguing about Donovan McNabb in 30 years. Whether you love him or hate him, Chris Paul’s name will come up anytime anyone mentions the greatest point guards ever. No, NBA McNabb is …
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Well, hold on … Donovan McNabb wasn’t that bad. He was better than most people remember. The Eagles made four straight NFC title games with him leading the offense. Statistically speaking, McNabb had a couple of years that were on par with any of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
During his prime, he didn’t have any help. He was throwing to Todd Pinkston and Chad Lewis. Because of McNabb’s numbers and his teammates, people always made apologies for him when things didn’t work out in the playoffs. There was always a way to explain away the failures.
But as his career unfolded, the biggest thing working against McNabb was that he was tough to actually like. You know how some people have the gift of seeming totally sincere, no matter whom they’re talking to? McNabb was the opposite. Almost everything he did felt phony. It was almost like he understood the media a little too well, so when he tried to say the right things, people didn’t quite buy it.
When he threw up during the Super Bowl or feuded with Terrell Owens, it was harder to forgive, because it was him. Even the people who defended him gave up after a while. The critics won.
In contrast, Michael Vick set his career on fire and funded a fucking dogfighting ring, and to this day, there are people all over the world who will still defend him. Because people loved Vick. Nobody loved McNabb. He was never a bad guy, but he never seemed like a good guy, either.
In the end, his career was just frustrating as hell for everyone involved. We’d probably view it a lot differently if he’d had a different personality.
The Donovan McNabb of the NBA is …
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Yes. Absolutely. Dwight Howard is the Donovan McNabb of the NBA.
So, you see how this works?
That’s the game we’re playing today. Once I started looking for an NBA McNabb, I spent a few hours thinking about everyone. A couple of notes before we get to the rest …
• There are names missing here. Kobe, for instance. I considered Jerry Rice, but he’s not polarizing enough. Walter Payton? Didn’t win enough. I couldn’t think of anyone who fit exactly. Likewise, nobody in the NBA is getting the J.J. Watt comparison. Maybe that can be Karl-Anthony Towns in a few years.
• Criteria vary. Sometimes it has more to do with the way we view players as fans; sometimes it can be about the effect they have on games. Sometimes it can be as simple and stupid as hair. Joakim Noah is the Troy Polamalu of the NBA: good at defense, pretty interesting, great hair, and his fans would lie down in traffic for him.
• Most of these are skill players. Blame me for not playing Madden now as much as I did in high school. Without knowing every NFL roster backward and forward — gotta do your homework for Franchise mode — I just can’t go picking through linebackers to see which one matches up with Paul George.
• I ultimately decided against a few NFL names because of awful legal scandals. Adrian Peterson, for instance. Or Terrell Suggs. Or Marvin Harrison — he would have been perfect for Ray Allen, except for this.
• If you disagree, that’s cool. This is just a starting point. What’s important here is that arguing about this is an excellent way to waste anywhere from 30 to 180 minutes with friends.
Now, let’s explain the NBA with football.
The Young Guns
Anthony Davis = Calvin Johnson You could go a bunch of directions for Brow, but this one feels closest. Especially if you think of this as Calvin Johnson from his first few years in the NFL. We’ve never seen anyone this big, with this many skills, who makes things look this easy. Johnson and Davis both seem to have been designed in some kind of sports science lab. Of course, a lot of Brow’s future still depends on his teammates, and whether the Pelicans can be smart over the next few years. Hopefully, he’ll have better luck than Megatron has had with the Lions. Either way, Tyreke Evans is definitely Matt Stafford here.
Andrew Wiggins = Odell Beckham Jr. Because of Vine alone. What’s great about ODB and Wiggins is that you don’t actually have to watch their games to understand why they’re awesome. Do you want to watch an entire Wolves game? Did you watch any full Giants games from that car crash of a season last year? Of course not. But highlights alone have given us hope for the future here.
Rudy Gobert = Devin Hester. You would be hard-pressed to find two athletes more different than Hester and Gobert, but they both do one thing very, very well, and that’s all that matters. With Gobert, I don’t even care how much he develops on offense. I just want to watch him block shots. I’m still recovering from the French-Canadian War last week. As an aside here, it’s pretty cool to look at the past four months and know that Gobert will try to block every single shot, and Wiggins will try to dunk on every single shot-blocker.
The future is in good hands.
Joel Embiid = Sam Bradford. Hey, maybe they won’t get hurt.
The Role Players
Draymond Green = Steve Smith. Both undersize, both drafted way too low, both talking trash constantly and willing to fight anyone. Both turned heart, toughness, and intelligence into more success than anyone ever imagined possible. And both are impossible to root against. There are certain comparisons on this list I’m willing to debate, but this is not one of them.
Matt Bonner = Ethan Albright. REVENGE OF THE REDHEADS.
The Saddest Category
Derrick Rose = Robert Griffin. This works even better than most people realize: Undying loyalty of ownership. Psychotic local media questioning their manhood. Very bad decisions involving the media that compound the problem. Family members wielding way too much power (Rose’s brother, Griffin’s dad). A strange combination of insecurity and arrogance, paired with skills that aren’t quite the same since injury. Most important, this works because there’s a good chance they both need a fresh start somewhere else. It’s time.
Deron Williams = Jay Cutler. The checks keep cashing!
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Tom Thibodeau = Jim Harbaugh. Hopefully Thibs can find his Michigan if things break bad with the Bulls this spring.
Gregg Popovich = Bill Belichick AND Pete Carroll. Shared brilliance and numerous titles aside, calling Pop Belichick isn’t enough. In fact, it’s borderline insulting. Belichick seems like a miserable person to be around. He has no life outside of football. Pop’s personal life is fascinating for a hundred different reasons, and on a night-to-night basis, he’s genuinely hilarious.
This is the difference between their press conferences. There is real wit to what Pop does. Belichick is mostly just a dick.
Also, Belichick cuts players the second he thinks they’re done. Pop turns role players into secret weapons and rests his veterans. Carroll is a good comparison because players love playing for Popovich. Players fear Pop like Belichick, but they adore him like Carroll, and Pop gives them the freedom to exploit their strengths, while treating everyone like an adult. He also doesn’t spend his downtime reading up on the melting point for steel beams or jabbering out positivity like a 10th-grade gym teacher, which is why he’s not just Carroll. Popovich combines the best qualities of the two best coaches in the NFL, with none of their weaknesses. That’s why he is the greatest coach any of us will see in sports for a long time.
Monty Williams = Marty Mornhinweg. If Brow is Megatron and Tyreke is Stafford, then … no, Jim Schwartz might be a little too competent. Mornhinweg.
Randy Wittman = Greg Schiano. Good litmus test for a truly terrible coach: When he gets fired, will he ever get a head coaching job again? The answer here is pretty clear. But sure, keep on blaming the players’ effort. Once they buy in, everything will be different.
[Stares out a window for 20 minutes.]
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Allen Iverson = Randy Moss. This works for like 25 different reasons, particularly because both rose to fame during the perfect era, making them as popular as possible. It would be different today. Can you imagine Iverson’s career playing out in 2015? Between arrests, gossip, think pieces, and endless NBA blogger debates about his efficiency, thinking about that alternate reality makes me want to throw my computer in a river. It wouldn’t be much better with anonymous sources venting to Mike Florio every other week about Randy Moss.
The most important similarities? Neither one could ever win a title, they rarely found the right situation (exceptions: Larry Brown in ’01, Vikings in ’98, or Patriots in ’07), and none of it matters. They were two of the most gifted athletes I’ve ever seen, and when they took over a game, it was more entertaining than anything else in sports. Anyone who grew up watching either one will love them forever.
Steve Nash = Steve Young. Nobody ever made playing point guard look more fun than Steve Nash. That’s what I will remember. I feel the same about Steve Young as a quarterback.
Gilbert Arenas = Chad Johnson. This comparison hurt my heart, but it works. Both were good and hilarious players for exactly four years. Then … yeah. This probably could have gone in the sad category.
Reggie Miller = Phil Simms. [Mute.]
Michael Finley = Herman Moore. I don’t know why, just throwing this out there. Remember Michael Finley? Remember Herman Moore? Pretty good!
Halftime break with Michael Finley highlights.
OK, now the big names…
The Living Legends
LeBron James = Jim Brown. Nobody in the current NFL works. Nobody is powerful enough, nobody is dominant enough, nobody has enough cultural relevance. (Sorry, J.J. Watt.) But I did come across this tweet last week.
You see how much more dominant Jim Brown was than anyone else? That’s how much better LeBron has been throughout his prime. One day, we will look at LeBron’s stats like we do at Jim Brown’s. In 2007, LeBron averaged 30, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.2 assists — and that was before we all agreed he was the best player in the league. Championships, legacy, and clutch narrative aside, there just hasn’t been anybody around him who can beat the crap out of the league that way. There’s really only one other person who deserves to be in the conversation.
Kevin Durant = Gale Sayers. There has never been a more gifted runner. Watch the highlights. Gale Sayers did beautiful things. He wasn’t running, he was gliding. And Durant? Normally, injury mourning gets way too melodramatic on the Internet. Remember when Paul George got hurt, and people acted like he would never walk again and it was a national tragedy? That’s exactly how I feel about Durant. I can’t stop dreading the worst-case scenario, because if Durant struggles with this foot injury long-term, it will upset me for the next 50 years. I can’t even really talk about it.
Anyway, Gale Sayers was never the same after a knee injury, but that was with doctors from 40 years ago. There is hope here. America needs Durant. We need him to come back to make this entire section look embarrassing and ridiculous. Come on.
Tim Duncan = Tom Brady, Kawhi Leonard = Rob Gronkowski, Boris Diaw = Vince Wilfork. This is obvious. The Patriots-Spurs are great. I didn’t always feel this way, but I do now. And Boris Diaw isn’t a superstar? Maybe not to you. Read up. He is like Wilfork — the player everyone can love, even if they hate the Patriots-Spurs. Kawhi is Gronk, the star who single-handedly extended the run. I also like that comparison because I can’t think of any two humans on earth more different than Kawhi Leonard and Rob Gronkowski.
Z-Bo = Kam Chancellor. We’ll go back to one of my all-time favorite Twitter stories for this one. From a former NFL safety watching the Seahawks:
There may be a better fit for Z-Bo, but he’s listed with Kam here for two reasons. First, there is never a bad time to discuss Kam Chancellor. More important, there is nobody in the NBA more likely to actually own a sign that says: “Trespassers will be hugged and THUGGED.” Also, Marc Gasol is obviously Earl Thomas in this analogy.
Blake Griffin = Jimmy Graham. OK, so what position is he really playing? They look similar, too. They face similar questions about being soft in the playoffs. They are freak athletes. I feel good about this one.
Kyrie Irving = A.J. Green. And not so good about this one. Kyrie is a tough one.
Monta Ellis = DeSean Jackson. Definitely.
James Harden = Richard Sherman. Two of the most loathed great players we have in sports — Sherman for the way he talks, Harden for the way he plays. Either way, they both inspire a kind of begrudging-respect-but-still-pretty-disgusted feeling that we don’t see with almost anyone else in their games. Harden still has to win in the playoffs, though.
Klay Thompson = Issac Bruce, Harrison Barnes = Torry Holt. Both crucial cogs in the greatest show on earth — the Warriors, every night — and both vanilla enough to be completely anonymous once the game is over. While we’re here, let’s say that David Lee is Ricky Proehl, too.
John Wall = Dez Bryant. Hoooooo boy, this will piss off people in D.C., but hear me out. They both faced some shady criticisms about their upbringing that framed the early parts of their careers. They took a few years to put it together. And then, when it finally clicked, they turned into monsters.
Wall might be one of the most underrated players in the league right now, just by virtue of being stuck with Randy Wittman and a roster that is decaying before our very eyes. Even within the constraints of a dysfunctional D.C. sports team, Wall gives you a few jaw-dropping passes in every game, and when he’s on, he’s impossible to stop. The problem is that he’s a passer first, and that means he needs good teammates, or at least a decent offense. He’s great regardless, but whether he ever gets his due from critics will probably depend on his teammates. Just like Dez.
Dirk Nowitzki = Ed Reed. Do you know anyone who likes football who doesn’t love Ed Reed? It’s the same for basketball and Dirk Nowitzki.
Damian Lillard = Andrew Luck. Young, awesome, and clutch. Sometimes suspiciously average-looking. But then they’ll go and come up huge again to remind you not to doubt them.
DeMarcus Cousins = Cam Newton. Well … IS IT THEIR FAULT OR NOT?
Carmelo Anthony = Tony Romo. Look, I could have just put “see above” and moved on, but Carmelo and Romo are both really, really good. Better than Boogie and Cam. They aren’t perfect, and they need to be surrounded by the right pieces, but they’ve each taken a disproportionate amount of hate while playing for some of the dumbest, most impulsive franchises in sports. The Cowboys are getting smart now, so Romo still has a chance. The Knicks … we’ll see. Either way, when these guys retire, they will both be remembered in the exact same way.
Russell Westbrook = Marshawn Lynch. This goes back to the Iverson-Moss crossover. Anyone who watches either player comes away baffled by the experience and loyal for life. They are both easily the coolest players in their respective sports. They both loathe the media, too, but they each seem to be a lot more enjoyable when they’re not in the middle of a press scrum.
One thing: Westbrook’s routine with reporters is a lot less fun than Marshawn’s. This is because Marshawn Lynch is dealing with all kinds of mouth-breathing NFL reporters who are generally the worst kind of sportswriters. These are the type of people waiting to write columns about how lewd his celebrations are, how selfish he is, etc. I don’t blame him for not playing that game. It’s pretty refreshing, actually. But Russ … come on. NBA writers are some of the most understanding, freethinking people on the planet. Russ will go 10-40 in a game, and there will hundreds of NBA bloggers on Twitter defending his right to do it and lashing out at anyone who thinks that’s not a great strategy for a point guard. These people are on his side. Treating them like idiots is not a great look. Either way, you cannot describe 2015 Westbrook any better than “Beast Mode.”
Steph Curry = Aaron Rodgers. Both of them make plays that shouldn’t be possible. I’ve never seen anyone make the throws Rodgers makes, and he makes them look so easy. The same is true with Steph Curry and 3s.
I watch these guys and it makes me wonder about the evolution of sports. Later in my life, will there be players who can just do everything? That’s what Steph Curry is doing, right? It’s out of control. And Rodgers is just as electric.
They aren’t bigger than anyone, they aren’t crazy athletic, but they both inspire pure terror in the hearts of anyone rooting against them.
Chris Paul … Well, it was quite a journey — remember Michael Finley? What up, Herman Moore? But now we’re back to where we started. Chris Paul.
Do you hate him? Does he micromanage himself into dementia every spring? Is he the smartest player ever to play the position? Do all his little tics get annoying? How will we remember him? Is he the greatest point guard ever, or a guy who gets a new excuse every time he loses in the second round? Will he ever stay healthy long enough in the playoffs to prove his critics wrong?
He dominates the ball, and he gets so strung out during postseason games that sometimes it hurts his team. I wrote about all of this last spring, and then that OKC meltdown happened. I’ve never seen anyone play point guard better than Chris Paul, but there are certain playoff disasters that can’t be explained. It doesn’t necessarily hurt his legacy so much as guarantee that we’ll be arguing about it forever. Chris Paul is Peyton Manning.
An ornery Peyton Manning. A Peyton Manning with dick-punching and flopping. But Chris Paul is Peyton Manning.
And if you think he’s someone else … well, that’s what makes this game so much fun.