Best Ringleader of the decade: Duncan, KG, Kobe, Shaq

In my last post I talked about outstanding solo missions, players that did superhuman things with extremely below par supporting casts.  Too often "greatest" is associated only with championships, and it needed to be pointed out that some of the greatest individual performances of this decade came on teams that couldn't even sniff a title because the other players just weren't good enough.

That said, there have definitely been some outstanding performances this decade by players that were in fact blessed with talented teammates and a good coaching system.  And they, too, shouldn't be slighted because leading a team to a championship is obviously a huge accomplishment.  A team gets its personality from its best player.  The best player has to lead the team while still getting the max from teammates, striking the balance between doing enough to win while still keeping everyone involved.  When things go wrong, they are the player that gets all of the criticism.  And championship time in the postseason is the biggest stage there is, so the ability to shine in front of all of the lights is huge. 

The finalists for this category are Shaquille O'Neal in 2001, Tim Duncan in 2007, Kevin Garnett in 2008, and Kobe Bryant in 2009.  Unlike with the Solo Missions there was no clear way to separate three of the candidates, so they will simply be listed in chronological order.  But there was a clear-cut Most Dominant in this category, so we'll cover the Biggest of them last.

Tim Duncan 2007, SAS: Team Record 58-24, Won Finals over Cavaliers (4 - 0)
Traditional stats: 20 pts, 11 reb, 3 asts, 2 blks, 1 stls, 55% FG, 64% FT
Advanced stats: PER 26.1, On/off +/- +15.0, 13.0 win shares, +17 Net ORTG-DRTG, 20.1 Wins Produced
Accolades: 4th in MVP vote, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 1st team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds
Best support:Tony Parker (Finals MVP), Manu Ginobili
Best competition: Steve-Nash-led Suns (2nd round)

I could have used either of Duncan's 2005 or 2007 seasons here, but he was a little healthier and had a stronger playoff run in '07.  Duncan had the most balanced season among the finalists.  He had strong traditional and advanced stats, played against weaker competition in the playoffs but demolished them, and though he wasn't the Finals MVP (Parker) he could have been for his defensive impact and work on the glass.  The Spurs swept the Cavs because their defense was suffocating, and that defense was led by Duncan.

Kevin Garnett 2008, BOS: Team record 66 - 16, Won Finals over Lakers (4 - 2)
Traditional stats: 19 pts, 9 reb, 3 asts, 1 blks, 1 stl, 54% FG, 80% FT
Advanced stats: PER 25.3, On/off +/- +12.1, 12.9 win shares, +24 Net ORTG-DRTG, 17.9 Wins Produced
Accolades: 3rd in MVP vote, Defensive Player of the Year, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 1st team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds
Best support: Paul Pierce (Finals MVP), Ray Allen
Best competition: LeBron-led Cavs (2nd round), 61-win Pistons (ECF), Kobe-led Lakers (Finals)

Garnett's season was interesting because his traditional stats were weaker than the others, but his advanced stats were great which suggested his on-court impact went well beyond the box scores.  He helped lead the Celtics to the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history (42 more wins than previous season), and was the defensive MVP on a team that won with one of the better defenses in NBA history.  The Celtics played three memorably strong teams in that postseason, but they struggled early before finding their stride against the Pistons and convincingly handling the Lakers.  Like Duncan, Garnett wasn't the Finals MVP (Pierce) but hould have been for his defensive impact and work on the glass as the Celtics beat the Lakers due to their suffocating team D, led by KG. 

Kobe Bryant 2009,
LAL: Team record 65-17, Won Finals over Magic (4 - 1)
Traditional stats: 27 pts, 5 reb, 5 asts, 1 blk, 2 stls, 47% FG, 86% FT
Advanced stats: PER 24.4, On/off +/- +12.1, 12.7 win shares, +9 Net ORTG-DRTG, 15 Wins Produced
Accolades: 2nd in MVP vote, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 1st team, Playoffs led team in points/assists, Finals MVP
Best support: Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
Best competition: Dwight-Howard-led Magic (Finals)

In a lot of ways, Kobe's season was the inverse of Garnett's.  He had great traditional stats but was the weakest of this crew in the advanced stats.  He was leading a team that had established itself as a power the previous season, and was the offensive MVP on a team that won with one of the better offenses around.  The Lakers played relatively weak teams in the postseason but dominated the last two rounds after struggling a bit early with the Rockets.  Bryant actually did win that Finals MVP, though, and he validated that he could win a title without Shaq which propelled him up many people's All-Time list.

1) Shaquille O'Neal 2001, LAL: Team record 56-26, Won Finals over 76ers (4 - 1)
Traditional stats: 29 pts, 13 reb, 4 asts, 1 stl, 3 blks, 57% FG, 51% FT
Advanced stats: PER 30.2, On/off +/- N/A, 14.9 win shares, +13 Net ORTG-DRTG, 21.2 Wins Produced
Accolades: 3rd in MVP vote, All NBA 1st team, All Defense 2nd team, Playoffs led team in points/rebounds, Finals MVP
Best support: Kobe Bryant
Best competition: Sheed/Pippen Blazers (round 1), Duncan/Robinson Spurs (round 2), Webber Kings (WCF), Iverson 76ers (Finals)

Shaq is the clear winner in this category, because no matter how you look at it his individual and team accomplishments separate his season from the other candidates.  Like Duncan, he had multiple seasons under consideration (2002) but this was the year that he best balanced individual dominance with allowing Kobe to shine for the betterment of the team.  Shaq had dominant individual stats, had the best advanced stats, led a dominant 15-1 postseason against four memorable/great teams, and finished it off with the Finals MVP.  .

So, that is my list of the best ringleaders of the decade, with Shaq clearly on top.  Which season did you think was the most impressive?  Are there any others that you think should have made this list but were left off?  


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