- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The NBA’s best player visits Verizon Center on Friday night, but don’t take my word for it. That’s the opinion of none other than Larry Bird.

“You know, Kobe [Bryant] was always my favorite since I got out,” Bird told ESPN’s Bill Simmons recently. “But LeBron James is by far our best player in this league. I don’t really think there’s anyone next to him. I think he’s there, and then you go down the list.”

It’s hard to argue with Bird, one of the league’s all-time greats. But James is a debate magnet. Arguments follow with speed and fury whenever his name is broached — especially since he left Cleveland for Miami and became a bad guy to many previous fans.

There was no ambiguity in Bird’s claim that James is the best player “by far,” but Cleveland.com found a way to create some. The headline on a blog post put it this way: “Larry Bird says LeBron James might be best player in NBA, but Kobe Bryant would be the teammate to win with.”

That’s not exactly what Bird said. He didn’t express uncertainty on who’s the best or declare James a loser. The headline plays well to the Cleveland Cavaliers fans who remain depressed over James‘ departure, but it’s a bit misleading.

Asked which current player he’d want to play with, Bird gave a two-part answer. “Probably Kobe,” he said. “Of course, he wouldn’t be shooting as much as he does now. But just his desire to win, his dedication in the offseason to get better, and he’s just tough.

“But, if you want to have fun, like I did with Bill Walton, play with LeBron,” Bird said. “It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron. But if you want to win and win and win, it’s Kobe. Not that LeBron’s not a winner, just that [Kobe’s] mindset is to go into every practice, every game, to get better.”

If desired, you can see that as a backhanded compliment. But I think it speaks more to James‘ personality, on and off the court. He doesn’t have Bryant’s laserlike focus or his ball-hogging tendencies. James seems more carefree, happy to hang with his old buddies during down time and share the ball with his teammates when it’s game time.

Does that mean he doesn’t want to win as badly as Bryant or the maniacal competitor who preceded them, Michael Jordan? Maybe. Only a tiny percentage of people are hard-wired to that extreme. But James‘ will to win is sufficient enough (along with his immense talent) to make him an eventual champion, perhaps this year.

Yes, Bryant’s five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers make him the better player, historically, a fact that’s constantly thrown in James‘ face. Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins did it when he complained about a James tweet after Blake Griffin’s poster dunk last week.

“You don’t see Kobe tweeting,” Perkins told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “You don’t see Michael Jordan tweeting. If you’re an elite player, plays like that don’t excite you.”

Of course, James is an elite player, and Perkins knows it. But he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a dig and highlight James‘ lack of jewelry. That’s the ultimate end-of-discussion point that critics will continue to whip out until James has a ring.

Rings aren’t the sole measurement of greatness. No one ever confused Robert Horry or Jim Loscutoff as the league’s best player at a given point, even though each won seven titles. Derek Fisher, Michael Cooper, Steve Kerr and Ron Harper have five rings, just like Bryant.

However, Bryant clearly is the player closest to Jordan in terms of playing style and championships. Conversely, James always has been closer to Magic Johnson, just more explosive with no titles.

Bird didn’t have to choose between MJ and Magic as players he’d like to play with — they hooked up on the Dream Team during the 1992 Olympics. But if forced to pick one, I bet Bird would’ve chosen having fun (and winning) with Johnson, instead of simply playing (and winning) with Jordan.

Magic proved that both are possible, as did Walton. But until James does likewise, an old-school baller like Bird won’t make him the undisputed No. 1 choice in imaginary pickup games.

“It’s simple,” James told reporters after Bird chose playing with Bryant to win. “[Kobe] has five rings and I have none, so it’s easy to say that. If I had five rings and Kobe had none, it’d probably be the other way around.”

Definitely.

That doesn’t mean James — with career averages of 28 points per game with seven rebounds and seven assists — isn’t the best player today. It just means he has a lot of work to do.