Thursday, October 11, 2007

Selfless vs Selfish

Reader CK Dexter Haven raised a good question in response to the article on the Best Syracuse Freshman ever. He thought that Billy Owens was too selfless, and that Carmelo Anthony was far more confident and selfish. I agree that those are both accurate descriptions of the two players.

We would never know how the two players would have done if they switched places in time. But we can take an educated guess.

I think Billy Owens, if put on the 2003 Syracuse basketball team, would have been a similar player to what Syracuse saw with Owens his junior season (1990-1991). Owens would have pulled down 20 points a game and ten rebounds because he would’ve been the most talented player on the court for Syracuse (and possibly the most talented player on the court in most games Syracuse would play). But Owens being Owens, would have made sure the ball was distributed throughout the team. He likely would not have demanded to be the man in crunch time, and Syracuse would have not had the giant ‘go to’ guy each time down the court. Owens made sure he was part of the game, part of the team. Syracuse trailed 15 games that season in the second half, that they managed to pull off a victory in. Would they have been able to do that without a demanding presence on the court? It surely would have been tougher, that’s for sure.

I do know that the 1990-1991 post-season ended poorly for Syracuse with disappointing losses to Villanova and Richmond in the first round of both tournaments. I think it would be fair to say that in both cases, a little more Billy Owens would have helped. If he had asserted himself some more, perhaps the Orangemen would have pulled out those narrow defeats. Tough to criticize Owens there. He had 17 points and 22 rebounds in the loss to Villanova; hardly a slouch. Against Richmond he had 22 points and 7 rebounds; again a solid night but it could have been better. In a tough game like these two, a 25-30 point effort may have been required.

Owens was actually the perfect type player to be a freshman on the 1988-1989 team. With the dominating upperclassmen, a well rounded freshman with a ton of talent who was willing to fit into the team, was exactly what the Orangemen needed. He brought the talent to the team and didn’t ruffle the egos of Derrick Coleman, Stevie Thompson or Sherman Douglas. I’ve contended before that I thought the 1988-1989 team was the best team in the history of Syracuse Basketball.

Carmelo Anthony thrived in the environment he ended up on. A team devoid of talented upper classmen, Anthony could be ‘the man’ the day he stepped foot on campus. Kueth Duany was an excellent captain, a great team player who complimented the team well in all facets of the game, but he was never a star. Anthony had the offense flow through him throughout each game. He could take the shots when he thought he should take the shots and pass off when he thought he should pass off. When Syracuse needed the big basket, Anthony would not hesitate to take the shot. Ironically, Gerry McNamara was on that team, and so Syracuse had two big time clutch shooters on the court at the same time. It made those second half comebacks much easier to do.

How would Carmelo have done in the 1988-1989 team? As CK Dexter Haven stated, Melo would have tried to have taken the most shots if he was on the 1992 Dream Team (with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan). I don’t know how happy Melo would have been on that team. It was the General’s team to run, and Douglas decided who got the ball, where, and how. The chemistry between Douglas and Thompson was undeniable, and Coleman was going to get his shots (another article for another day, but I contend D.C. as a junior was a better player than Melo as a freshman). So Melo could have been fourth fiddle on that team, the role that Owens willingly took. Would it have worked? Or would the team have imploded. Coleman definitely had the ego, so I don’t know how smooth it would have been.

I think, as fortunes would dictate, that Owens and Anthony both ended up in the right situation for each of them. Both could have played well in the other situation, because they both had the talent; but ideally, where they ended up was best.

It leads to a corollary thought. I would contend that a player like Carmelo Anthony can take a mediocre or good team and make them very good, all by himself. He can demand the ball, and make things happen with it. He has the talent to carry a team by himself and win some big games. Guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan fall into this type of player. Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant are modern day versions, though not as successful. You put those types of players onto star studded teams, things may fall apart.

Chamberlain accepted his role with the Lakers in 1971-72 with Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, and one of the greatest single seasons occurred. People knock Kobe Bryant for being selfish. Yet, I think it’s the same characteristic that Michael Jordan had. How often did Jordan ever pass the ball when the game was on the line? We expected him to take the shot; he did, and he usually made it.

Jordan was a great team player on the 1992 Dream Team, but that was a special event, short season. It would have been interesting to have seen Jordan play three or four seasons with a Shaquille O’Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Would he have liked having to defer on a regular basis to another player? Have offensive plays designed for other players? We’ll never know… it would have been interesting.

I think the style of player like Billy Owens has a tougher time raising the level of an average team. However a player like Owens can take a good team and make them great. He’s that missing component, that brings all the other parts together, and adds a ton of talent to the court without disrupting things. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Isaiah Thomas are examples of these types of guys (but with a lot more talent!). They worked to make their teammates better all the time. Yes, they had egos and wanted the ball at times, but they often reduced their own efforts to make sure their teammates were better. Remember how often you’d see Magic Johnson ease up on a fast break to make sure that he gave the ball to a trailing teammate. He made sure they were rewarded for their hustle down the court.

James Worthy and Scottie Pippen are good examples of guys like Owens. Outstanding players, who can shine at moments in the game, but truly excel in the team environment.

So if I were building myself a team of great players, I’d want Billy Owens on my squad. But if I were starting from scratch, and I wanted a team to build around a player, I’d want Carmelo leading the way.