I remember hearing this earlier this season while watching a Clippers-Timberwolves game on TV, as Kevin Love and Blake Griffin were locked in an old-school 1980s battle where neither guy could guard the other, both on pace for 40-plus points as they fiercely exchanged buckets.
“What a game we have here, two NBA superstars going back and forth!” The commentator shouted.
Kevin Love, who was legitimately flirting with a 50-point, 20-rebound game that night, has had several nights like that this season where he is seemingly unstoppable. Unfortunately, they all usually end the same way: impressive stat line, and yet another loss for the Timberwolves. This had me thinking about what was said earlier, and I wondered–what constitutes the superstar label.
I believe the league today is the most talented it has ever been. Almost every team has a collection of great players. The Sacramento Kings are tied for the worst record in the West right now and they are loaded with talent between DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and a handful of promising young players. The New York Knicks are ten games under .500, and they have Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire. It’s not like the late ’90s where, after expansion, a bad team like the Grizzlies had Bryant Reeves and Michael Dickerson as a few of their franchise players. Wait, who? My point exactly.
We tend to worship star athletes once they’ve proven they belong, that they can battle and hold their own alongside the best on a nightly basis. We label them superstars and give them huge contracts. There’s no taking away that these players are special, the best in the world. Kevin Love right now is a top 5-6 player in the league. However, it’s his sixth year as a pro and he has yet to make a postseason appearance, and by the looks of it, they won’t be making it this year either. Any players that is supposed to be a superstar and can’t get his team into the postseason–where 16 out of 30 teams advance–is simply not one.
Love being one of the elite players in the NBA goes to show that to become a superstar, it goes much beyond your stats. He is averaging 25.6 points and 13.2 rebounds, but at times it feels like getting his numbers is the main goal for Love. There were stretches where it seemed that for Love it became more of an individual battle rather than a team one. He wanted his shots, didn’t get back on defense (Griffin ended this game with 32 points), and he started getting into his rebounding position right away rather than challenging the shot in the post. This isn’t just one game–this is a reoccurring theme for him. It’s the little things that he doesn’t do that hurt his game and stop him from reaching that superstar status.
As the game winds down into it’s final seconds, Love doesn’t even take the last shot. In fact, he never touches the ball. They miss the shot and that’s it. Before we know it it’s all over, uncharacteristically an anticlimactic finish to one of the best games of the season. Viewers seem cheated; we expected something else, we want Love to be a superstar, to take over… but it falls flat and we are left there scratching our heads wondering what just took place. This feeling doesn’t come from the Timberwolves losing it or even him not taking the last shot–it comes from the way Love leaves the game. He seems confused, walks away head down, and doesn’t say a word. He didn’t assert himself as the tog dog… a guy that great just can’t be great at scoring and rebounding. It’s the other stuff that separates the superstars from the All-Stars.
There are only four guys in the league worthy of being called a superstar. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and we can make a case for Paul George, who, if isn’t one yet, we’re witnessing him transitioning into one. What separates these four from the rest of the league? We know these guys have a grasp on their team, the guys in the locker room respect and listen to them on and off the court. They earned that respect.
Chris Paul ended up scoring the last six points in that Timberwolves game. The team knew it was his turn and they watched him finish like they have so many times in the past. Kevin Durant is the same; he shares the ball with his own All-Star teammate, who has a knack for being a loose cannon at times.
Paul George has made sure he does everything in his power to beat the Miami Heat this year. It’s personal for him, and every guy in that locker room sees him as the team’s leader. Superstars make a difference, and this is what these guys do. LeBron James left a 61-win Cavaliers team, and the very next year they only won 19 games. That’s a 42-game difference! Even Michael Jordan‘s Bulls didn’t drop off that severely when he left them. Take away Kevin Love or even a Kyrie Irving, who people have labeled as an up-and-coming superstar, and their teams will probably end up doing the same as they do with them: hangin’ in the lottery. Kyrie is in his fourth year and his highest number of wins in a season is 24. In a favorable Eastern Conference, he has yet to lead his team into the postseason.
The league has an influx of All-Stars, but we should not misconstrue them as superstars. To be a superstar you have to maintain a level of commitment and excellence that is challenging to sustain. While fighting age and injuries, you have to find something that continues to drive you. Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki were all superstars just a few years ago, but due to age or injury, they have fallen off that mantle and can no longer produce title contenders by themselves.
These men put in long hours, they don’t take breaks, they don’t like losing, and they are competitive, and in the end, they are champions. To be a superstar, you give your team–any team–a chance to instantly compete for a championship. Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving or even Carmelo Anthony don’t deserve the same praise (at least not yet).
Since 1984, the last 30 years, we’ve only had eight teams win a championship and each of them–outside of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who were playing a Lakers team that fell apart in front of our very own eyes–had a superstar. Of course, the Pistons also had five All-Stars, were led by a great coach (Larry Brown), and sported one of the greatest defenses of all time. Not everyone can have a legitimate chance at a ring, just as not everyone is destined to be a superstar.
Being a superstar is a way of life for these players. Not many people are wired this way. To get to this point they commit themselves–their lives are dedicated to this. They are delighted by the prospect of criticism. They take it and it becomes fuel for them, their failures push them forward instead of bringing them down.
Anyone can put up incredible numbers on one regular season night. Only a handful can do it every night. And only a very select few can turn that talent, that production, into something more. What separates these players from the rest is they will stop at nothing to get better. There is only one goal in mind–a championship–and their teams will only go as far as they can carry them.
Who do you think deserves to be called a superstar?
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