A thing that happens often is someone, either in real life or on the internet, will say nice and good and complimentary words and sentences about LeBron James. This happens because LeBron James, duh, is exceptionally good at basketball, and also it happens because he is doing things right now that make little to no sense. To wit, this is a fun note that a friend of mine pointed out: LeBron was drafted in 2003. And he is in the middle of what may well be the most impressive playoff run he’s ever put together. Meanwhile, of the other nine players in that year’s first 10 picks: six are retired; Carmelo Anthony just posted the worst statistical year of his career; Dwyane Wade is mulling whether or not his basketball career is over; and Chris Bosh, while not officially retired, hasn’t played in the NBA since 2016.
LeBron is eternal, is the point. And truly special, is the point. Truly, truly special, is the point. He is potentially the greatest basketball player who has ever been alive in the entire history of the earth and the solar system and the galaxy and the universe.
AND YET, another thing that happens often is someone, either in real life or on the internet, will say nice and good and complimentary words and sentences about LeBron James, and then someone else will follow it with, “Yeah, but …” and then say words and sentences in an attempt to chip away at the idea of LeBron’s greatness. (“Yeah, but he’s always played in the East, and everyone knows the East is weak.” “Yeah, but he’s lost in the Finals five times.” “Yeah, but the NBA is built for a player like him to thrive today, not like it was in the ’90s when players were allowed to hit Michael Jordan in the head with steel pipes and cinder blocks.”) This happens because people, duh, are doofuses, and also it happens because people just like to argue about things, which is fine and occasionally entertaining and only situationally annoying.
Kevin Durant is another extremely “Yeah, but …” player. He is a generational talent (though not on the same tier as LeBron, clearly). And also he’s a league MVP and a Finals MVP and an NBA champion. And were I to guess, I’d say he’s just a few weeks away from adding a “2x” to the front of the “Finals MVP” label and the “NBA champion” label. And still, no matter what argument you make for him (9x ALL-STAR! 5x ALL-NBA FIRST TEAM! 4x SCORING CHAMPION!), there’s the “Yeah, but he had to join the Warriors to win a ring” thing.
What’s tricky about that one is that, yes, while it is technically rooted in fact—Kevin Durant had zero championships for the first nine years of his career, and then he went to Golden State and now he has a championship—it’s usually being employed to argue something else entirely. (Typically, it’s to imply that Durant is some version of a coward.) You say, “Man, Kevin Durant put up 38 tonight and I didn’t even realize it. He really is a master on offense,” then someone else says, “Yeah, but he had to join the Warriors to win a ring,” and it’s just like, “... What?” Those two ideas aren’t even connected. It’s like saying, “Man, I really liked Avengers: Infinity War,” and then someone else says, “Yeah, but Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man.” Sure, that’s a thing that’s true, but it’s not a thing that’s applicable at this particular moment.
(Another very common one with KD is “Yeah, but KD ruined the league by joining the Warriors,” which is ridiculous. He didn’t ruin the league by leaving one team and joining another team any more than you ruined the fast food industry by choosing to eat at Arby’s instead of Jack in the Box one afternoon. Because, truly, what really changed? How would the NBA be any different right now than it was in 2016 if he’d not left? We already saw that the Thunder couldn’t beat the Warriors, so nothing changes there. And the Warriors were the title favorites without him, same as they’re the title favorites with him, so nothing changes there. SO WHAT REALLY CHANGES? Nothing, is the answer. Instead, consider this: Without KD leaving, we likely don’t get (a) Russell Westbrook’s historic triple-double season the following year, which—you can either like it or hate it, but you can’t say it wasn’t interesting to watch and talk about; or (b) the Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant secret feud that we all love to participate in and speculate about; or (c) the super souped-up version of the Rockets that we have right now who were constructed with the sole purpose of beating the Mega Warriors; or, if you squint, (d) the Victor Oladipo renaissance in Indiana, and you can go all the way to hell if you think we should all live in a universe where Oladipo doesn’t get to glow as brightly as possible.)
The “Yeah, but …” thing is fun. We can peek through the playoffs and see plenty more, because it works with basically anything and anyone:
As in all things, Russ is interesting here because he somehow has multiple good versions and bad versions of the “Yeah, but …” argument. For example: He’s one of the most electric basketball players on the planet. “Yeah, but he doesn’t make his teammates better.” Or: Russell Westbrook is a ball hog. “Yeah, but he leads the league in assists, so how can he be a ball hog?” Or: Russell Westbrook is the only player ever to average a triple-double for two different seasons. “Yeah, but that’s only because he’s a stat chaser.” Or: Russell Westbrook shoots his teams out of games. “Yeah, but maybe his team wouldn’t even be in those games if he weren’t shooting.”
He’s the greatest offensive weapon in the NBA today and possibly the best one-on-one player we have ever seen. “Yeah, but all he does is hunt for fouls. It cheapens everything.” Or: “Yeah, but it’s only because of the system that coach Mike D’Antoni runs, which is perfect for a player like Harden.” Or: “Yeah, but I hate to look at his face. It just makes me mad for some reason. I think it’s his sleepy elephant eyes.” (This last one possibly only applies to me, I’m not above admitting it.) (Also: I 100 percent understand that watching James Harden bait your favorite player into fouling him is frustrating. I get that. I get that. But we can’t pretend like it isn’t a brilliant tactic.) (My favorite thing is when a person is like, “Winning is the only thing that matters,” and then Harden baits someone into fouling him to help his team win and then the person is like, “WAIT, WAIT, WAIT! DON’T WIN THAT WAY, ONLY WIN THE WAY THAT I WANT YOU TO WIN!”)
Steph is the greatest shooter in history, and soon enough he’s probably going to have three NBA championships. It feels a lot like he’s taking big leaps up the Greatest Players of All-Time rankings. “Yeah, but that’s only because the NBA doesn’t allow hand-checking anymore.” (This one is so stupid. You know what I think about every time I hear this one? I think about that ESPN story from 2015 in which the Warriors’ director of athletic performance talked about how Steph could deadlift 400 pounds. He’s got super strength like how an ant can lift hundreds of times its own body weight. You think a hand check from Jeff Hornacek would keep Steph Curry from running wild in the 1990s? Please.) (Related: This Steph Curry “Yeah, but …” was the foundation of this article.)
The Raptors are playing better than they’ve ever played, and they’re the no. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history. “Yeah, but they’re still the Raptors, so all that means is there’s going to be more noise when they lose to LeBron in the playoffs.” (OK, this one was written last week.) (Sometimes a “Yeah, but …” ends up being justified and correct, I suppose.)
He’s the most valuable player on the team that has been favored to win the title these past four years, so of course he’s an All-Star. “Yeah, but he wouldn’t even be a starter on, like, 10 other teams in the league.” (This one also gets brought up when you’re talking about any player on the Celtics right now, what with them still eating up teams while Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are out.) (It also gets brought up when you talk about how good Clint Capela has been this postseason.) (I love Clint Capela so much.) (I mentioned this on Twitter a couple of days ago, but this clip of James Harden teaching Clint Capela how to roar after Capela gets a block is probably my second-favorite thing that’s happened in the playoffs. It’s a very good example of why watching what happens in the creases of a basketball game is so much fun.) (My favorite thing, FYI, was Manu Ginobili saving Game 4 for the Spurs during their series against the Warriors in the first round.) (Here’s one I think about all the time: The Warriors are the 2017 NBA champions. “Yeah, but they’d have lost to the Spurs last year in the playoffs if Zaza had been in prison where he belongs.”)
The conference finals, just days away now, already have a bunch of “Yeah, but …” things baked into them. (If the Cavs win: “Yeah, but the Celtics would’ve won if they’d have had even just one of their two missing stars.” If the Celtics win: “Yeah, but can you even imagine how good the Cavs would be if Brad Stevens were their coach instead of Tyronn Lue?” If the Warriors win: “Yeah, but they’d have lost if Kevin Durant hadn’t been such a baby and joined the Warriors.” If the Rockets win: “Yeah, but the Rockets are going to blow it in the Finals because they just don’t have it in them to win the whole thing.”)
And the Finals, just weeks away now, already have a bunch of “Yeah, but …” things baked into them. (If the Cavs win: “Yeah, but LeBron has lost five times in the Finals, so who cares if he’s won four of them?” If the Celtics win: “Yeah, but they’d have never won if Marcus Smart hadn’t broken into the Warriors’ hotel room and hit Steph, Klay, KD, and Draymond across their knees with a crowbar.” [That’s the only way the Celtics are winning.] If the Warriors win: “Yeah, but who cares? They were supposed to win. Wake me up when something interesting happens.” If the Rockets win: “Yeah, but they’ll never go back to back. The Rockets aren’t built to win more than one.”)
And the draft, just months away, already has a bunch of “Yeah, but …” things baked into it.
And the beginning of next season.
And the All-Star break.
And the playoffs again.
Over and over.
The “Yeah, but …” thing is the only thing that’s “Yeah, but …” proof.