Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Stories

“Capitals fans might as well stop with the argument that Ovechkin is a better player; sure he is a bigger scorer and more entertaining player. But he can't get his team past [Sidney] Crosby's teams and they're undeniable rivals and will be for the length of their careers. Right now, Ovechkin would need a telescope to see Crosby, who's that far ahead in this race.”

-- Michael Wilbon; “World Wide Wilbon (Washington Post)”; March 1, 2010

“We can barely even enjoy one of the closest and more entertaining Finals series ever played, for the need to decide LeBron's place in the universe based off something that happens when he's 26 years old. As we flip-flop on everything we believe about Dirk [Nowitski], is there no irony that the same people find it necessary to come to these conclusions about LeBron?”

-- Michael Wilbon; ESPN.com; June 12, 2011

Well, what a difference 15 months makes. In March 2010, Michael Wilbon pronounced Sidney Crosby “far ahead in this race” to be the National Hockey League’s top player. This conclusion was reached largely on the basis of Crosby’s teams having won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal at the expense of Ovechkin’s teams.

Yet Sunday night, in the wake of LeBron James’ failure to deliver on his first opportunity to deliver on a promise to win multiple National Basketball Association championships in Miami, the same author preaches patience, that conclusions as to a player’s “place in the universe” cannot be based on something that happens when he is 26 years old.

Did we mention that Ovechkin isn’t yet 26 years old?

Or that James just completed his eighth year in the NBA (Ovechkin finished his sixth season in the NHL)?

Truth be told, James and Ovechkin had rather remarkable similarities in their playoff performances before this season. In five post-season years in Cleveland, James failed to score an average of 28 points a game only once, and twice he averaged over 30 points a game in a post-season tournament. Only once in five post seasons did he average less than eight rebounds a game… barely. Only once did he average less than seven assists a game… not by much. But while he was an overpowering physical force, he was also pretty much all the Cleveland Cavaliers had for much of those five years going into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin – including this season – has yet to average less than a point a game in any of the four post season Stanley Cup tournaments in which he has participated. His 25 goals and 25 assists in 37 career playoff games works out to an amazing 55-55-110 82-game pace, better than his career regular season 82-game pace (52-54-106). And insofar as playoff disappointment is concerned (and there has been plenty), the Caps have fallen short more as a result of other players not stepping up. Hockey – a sport that does not lend itself quite so much to the cult of personality, precisely because it’s best players only see the ice for perhaps more than a third of the available ice time – is more dependent than basketball on the whole than any one of its parts.

But the point here is a question. How is it that in one case we can conclude to a certainty that “Player A is better than Player B,” and in the other conclude that, well… we can’t conclude anything?

It is even more confounding given James’ disappearing act in the Finals. In the last three games of the series against the Dallas Mavericks, he averaged just over 15 points a game (almost ten points a game below his average to that point in the post season). After having already played in 89 career post season games, one might not have expected a player of his skill – even one “only” 26 years old – to go almost invisible.

You could say – to a point – that the same head-scratching took place in Ovechkin’s post season this year, when he followed up a 3-3-6 series against the New York Rangers with a 2-2-4 effort against Tampa Bay in four games, which started off with a disappointing effort in Game 1 (no points, only two shots on goal) as the Caps fell behind the eight-ball, never to recover.

The context of Wilbon’s critique of Ovechkin was his surly behavior off the ice in Vancouver. But he seems to have put that episode behind him. There weren’t any published reports of similar behavior this year, and even his on-ice behavior (which earned him two suspensions for hits outside the rules in 2009-2010) weren’t repeated. We are left with Ovechkin having to find Sidney Crosby far in the distance in the race to be the NHL’s top player. And we are left with James, for whom patience must be practiced because despite the fact that he now has 627 regular season and 92 playoff games under his belt, he is only 26 years old.

Our take is different. In this play, Dirk Nowitski (who will turn 33 next week and whose team defeated James’ Miami Heat last night for the NBA title) is the NBA’s version of “Steve Yzerman” – a player who accumulated a fair resume of numbers without a title to show for it until late in his career. As if mere patience was its own reward, that James, too, merely needs time and nurturing before that title is his.

Well, for every Nowitski or an Yzerman, there are any number of players who had talent good enough to come close early in their careers, only to fail to take that last step to a title as the years went by. In the NBA, the all-time talents – Russell, Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Abdul-Jabbar among contemporary elites – win their first titles early. Only Jordan among that group won his first when he was older than James is now (he was 27). The same with hockey. We have made the point that Steve Yzerman is the exception to the rule, that the elites in the game’s history win their first titles early in their careers.

Wilbon wrote in March 2010, “The worst thing Ovechkin can have around town is too many apologists.” We understand that the comment was directed at Ovechkin’s behavior (although James’ message to fans in the aftermath of his team’s loss showed a certain churlishness of his own). But if the Caps ability to win championships is the issue, there is a case to be made for that statement. By the same token, that same author said of James, “coming to the conclusion that LeBron is doomed to some ring of hellish failure is, well, stupid.” Looks like a bit of an apology to these eyes.

The fact is, both of these players are in the prime of their careers, but if history is a guide, they might be seeing the window closing on their respective chances to win that first title, at least in their ability to influence that result commensurate with the talents they possess today. As that window closes, the titles they win, if any, would likely be a product of the teams around them, not a product of those considerable abilities they now possess. It was the case for Nowitski (and another player to whom James is compared by Wilbon – the NFL’s John Elway). It would seem increasingly likely the case for Ovechkin, or James for that matter.

But the point here isn’t to pile on to James or to be one of those “apologists” for Ovechkin. The point is that they are a pair of 20-somethings who have been to the summit of their sport on a personal level, yet have known little but disappointment in their teams’ performance. It would seem that an allowance for one – or a criticism of one – is applicable to the other. But really, does it matter? Because for both, the clock is ticking, perhaps louder than either of them realize.