Every sports-loving boy or girl with a basketball and a hoop has replayed a similar moment in their heads.
Ball in your hands.
Your team down one.
The cheers and jeers from the fictional crowd becoming the soundtrack of your imminent triumph.
You whisper in the way that makes it sound like you are yelling, “Five, four, three, two, one.” You shoot the ball, leaving your hand in the air like a one-armed zombie. As the ball drains through the net you actually yell this time, “BANG!” The fictional crowd loses their minds as you do laps and fist-pump your way to eternal glory.
Imagine now, your entire basketball ability being defined by that moment. Not the time in which you succeeded. The attempt five times before you won the game inside your head. The one that air mailed wide right, causing you to sprint after the ball like it would melt after the third time it hit the ground. Imagine a neighbor seeing the first attempt and dismissing your ability. Claiming Timmy down the block would never miss that shot. Timmy becomes the hero on his first try, every time. In fact, Timmy hits all five.
These single and most recent moments are how NBA players are often defined, fair or not.
NBA players play roughly 75 games depending on injury or rest. Those who make long-lasting runs in the NBA playoffs then play another 8-28 games. In these 90+ games, you can pretty much determine exactly who a player is. The sample size in basketball is large enough to know these players’ strengths, weaknesses and favorite ways to eat a sandwich. Probably peanut butter and jelly. So why is so much weight then placed on one game, one shot or one moment?
The obvious answer is that playoff games mean more. Seasons are at stake, elimination is just behind door number L and players should be at their best in these moments. The great ones, anyway. What just got judged tirelessly in the regular season suddenly seems inconsequential once the postseason arrives. Every loss is an embarrassment, every missed shot is one step closer to an unfriendly meme, and every off game is amplified.
During the NBA playoffs, what happens in a seven-game series can completely alter how a player is viewed. But this is not an adequate way to judge a player. NBA history has proved that.
First and foremost, the “great ones” rarely shoot the shots that pull monkeys off backs. Those shots belong to the Ray Allens, the Derek Fishers, the Steve Kerrs, and the Robert Horrys of the world. Imagine the fodder from sports pundits if Ray Allen did not shoot that miraculous corner three. LeBron slander would be slashed across every sports site in the country. LeBron is now looked at as one of the greatest ever and one of the main reasons for that is a 35+-year-old Ray Allen.
Second, judging players based on these moments has proven to be a mistake. LeBron was denigrated endlessly before his three rings. Any rational person could look at his amazing statistical history and his big regular season moments to surmise that he was going to be one of the greatest ever. But, for some reason, those singular playoff moments had smart NBA people questioning that. This is why judging players off the most recent and tragic moments is a nonsensical fallacy.
Speaking of tragic, Magic Johnson was once given that nickname for his own playoff blunders. Who could imagine the reputation of the forceful David Robinson if he never got a ring after being manhandled by Hakeem Olajuwon? Dirk Nowitzki was known as a playoff choker until he met a team that had an even larger problem with swallowing victory. Kevin Garnett before the Celtics was another guy who could never carry his team to anything meaningful. All of these were incorrect judgments of players who obviously were better than their “weak-willed, lack of heart, deflated desire” characterizations would indicate.
Some are never able to shake the moniker of “playoff failure.” But even the likes of Karl Malone showed up in bigger moments than most remember. Let’s not forget he went to multiple NBA finals. The latter of which he dropped 39 and 31 points on a combined 60.9 percent shooting in the last two games. Losing game 6 by just one point.
That would not be remembered. Only his early career playoff disappointments lived on to represent his legacy. Not his truck ton of won games or playoff runs. But brief moments where he didn’t get it done. Maybe this is fair when discussing the all-time greats. Having very few things to differentiate between players is the main reason “RANGZZZ” are discussed with such importance. It is one of the few ways these greats are different.
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) May 10, 2017
There is so much more context than how it’s discussed. It is not done for its complexity of thought, however. It is done because it is easy. It is easy to look at rings. It is easy to label a star player as “trash” for underperforming in the playoffs. It is easy to point at playoff failures.
It is silly that the hard option is the obvious one. The one that looks at all the games. All the series, all the moments. Not just one or a few but everything that is learned from literally hundreds of NBA games.
James Harden is in the same predicament as many before him. Obviously great, years of history to prove his desire and fire for the game is alive but now, he may be defined by his playoff misgivings. Defined by the brief moments in which he did not show up. Defined by the first two misses on the shots he counted down from five.
Waiting around for the shot that finally goes in is hard. Jumping to conclusions about the legacy of young players based on brief moments in the NBA playoffs is easy. Maybe, just maybe, you should wait until his career is over. Wait until that fifth chance. Because as history has proved, the neighbor knew he was better than Timmy down the street the whole time. He just didn’t want to wait around to see if he succeeded.
When it comes to trying to judge players’ careers, look at their complete history, and wait around.