Last week, Bill Simmons wrote a terrific piece on the physical marvel that is LeBron James. He repeatedly tells us that LeBron is the most naturally gifted player in NBA history, the greatest combination of size, strength, speed, coordination, explosiveness, and balance that the league has ever seen (He doesn’t use those words, so stop looking for them. Good lord you’re annoying! It’s like writing a sports site for a librarian). Simmons has a point. LeBron is like some perverse combination of Derrick Rose and Shawn Kemp when it comes to athleticism.I have a very easy definition for the most physically gifted player though. I think it’s pretty air tight. It goes like this: If I was transported into the body of any NBA player at his prime, how good would I be? It should be noted that I’m not a very good player. I can shoot okay. I can handle a little. I see the right pass most of the time. I know how to play team d, and I can hit a turn around and a hook. Nothing fancy. Nobody would confuse me with Steve Nash – well, maybe the haircut.
Using that Freaky Friday premise of mind / body translocation, I’m 100% certain that the most gifted player in NBA history is Shaquille O’Neal. I can’t imagine being anything short of an All-Star with Shaq’s natural gifts. Basically all you need to do is stay in shape, stay disciplined on the court, and rely on your size, strength, and explosiveness to physically dominate virtually every opponent. If that doesn’t sound true, you must be under 30 years old or a new-comer as an NBA fan. From 1993 to 2003 Shaq was pretty much a can’t miss scoring option even though he only had three moves, had no range to speak of, and missed half of his free throws. As Shaquille, I would need to understand proper spacing, how not to foul too much, and specific team concepts. That’s about it. I wouldn’t need to have a guard-like handle. I wouldn’t need to develop the ability to utilize screens or shoot off the dribble or work on the range on my jumper.
Wilt Chamberlain, David Robinson, and Dwight Howard are way up the list too as guys who you almost couldn’t fail with their physical attributes. Hakeem relied a good deal on skill. Explosive smaller players like Kemp or Amare are somewhat reliant on good set-up men. Hyper-athletic wings like Jordan, Doc, and LeBron need to have a lot of skills to be great. Could I become a starter as Dwight Howard? I’m pretty sure that would be doable. I have at least as diverse a post game as Dwight, and I make free throws more that 2/3s of the time. On the other hand if you gave me Michael Jordan’s body… I’d have to work very hard to be a starting caliber guard in the NBA. Raw athleticism from the perimeter just doesn’t get you that far. You need the dependable jumper, the handle, the court vision, the defensive discipline. It’s tough.
What All-Time players would I (or any other average-ish pick up player) be the worst as? Small, skilled guards like Isiah Thomas. Slow, skilled players like Larry Bird. Those guys got by without a ton of innate physical gifts (from a basketball perspective).
LeBron is one of the most naturally gifted ever. No doubt about that. I’m pretty sure I could be a helluva starter, probably even an All-Star using LeBron’s body without any major increase in skill-set. I’d do it at a power forward rather than a perimeter player though. But it’s not a certitude. Putting on Shaq’s avatar is a guaranteed All-NBA team ticket.
Warning: Video Contains Explicit Lyrics and Violence Against Backboards