Tuesday, May 31, 2011

NBA Finals: Legacies On The Line

The Larry O'Brien Trophy
Help me out here and pretend that it is a month and a half ago. Don’t answer the following question until after you read the two paragraphs that follow it.

What two players in the playoffs need to win the NBA title this year the most?

Basketball is unique in that it is the ultimate team game, yet at the professional level the individual is glorified more than in any other sport. The NBA is currently sky rocketing in popularity mainly because of the incredible number of identifiable players to its fan base. That’s why we hear the word “Legacy” brought up so often in NBA discussions. Legacy focuses on more than just individual skill. It focuses on how a player will be remembered. How talented was the player, how good of a teammate was he, what awards did he win, how was he regarded by his peers, etc…. and how many titles did he win? That’s the most important question. It’s the crown jewel of a player’s legacy and the question that is routinely relied on when debating the classic question “All-time, who’s better?”

Let me use Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as examples to further express the point I am trying to make. Malone and Barkley were year after year two of the best players in the NBA during the 1990’s. It is extremely difficult to make a case for one or the other as to who the better player was. You could say that Malone’s longevity and superior conditioning gives him the edge over Barkley. Or you could say that because Barkley’s MVP season (1993 with Phoenix) was during one the NBA’s most talent rich stretches in league history, and Malone’s two (1997 and 1999) came in a much less competitive period, that gives Barkley the edge. Neither player has a title, so there is no crutch to rely on for anyone making a serious argument for either player. What if Barkley and the Suns defeated Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1993 when they had home court, and might have had a better overall team? Suddenly it becomes very easy to say Barkley’s legacy was greater. On the flip side, what if Utah wouldn’t have lost game 5 in 1997 at home, and then went on to win either game six or seven in Chicago. Don’t we look at Malone as the set-in-stone better player than Barkley? The biggest determinant of a player’s individual legacy all hinges on team success. Malone, Barkley, Baylor, Stockton, Ewing, Wilkins, Gervin and many others are missing the crown jewel. As great as they are, they aren’t in the same discussion as Jordan, Russell, Kobe, Jabbar, Bird, Magic, and Duncan. I’m not saying that to be considered an all-time great a player needs to win a title. One player doesn’t win a title. It takes a ton of lucky breaks and team success to win a championship. For some reason though, the individuals who play the game end up being immortalized by their team’s success.

The answer to the question was pretty simple.

Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James. Whoever gets four wins first will take their name off the list of current players without the crown jewel.

Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant are early in their careers. They have a decade full of title opportunities ahead of them. Kobe, Shaq and Duncan have all won multiple titles, and their reputations as the three best players from late 1990’s to the mid-2000’s is pretty much set. The Celtics Big Three already won a title together. So by process of elimination, you have Dirk and LeBron left.

Dirk has another chance to beat
 Miami in the Finals.
Five years ago, Dirk Nowitzki was two games away from a championship, and two games away from making a serious argument for himself as a member of the pantheon of all-time NBA greats. His run this year has been phenomenal, I’ve gone as far as saying he has cemented himself as the best offensive player in the game. But this isn’t the first time Dirk has been sensational in the post season. Check out the numbers from 2006 and 2011, in the first 3 rounds of each playoff run.

2006: 28.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 49.3% Field Goals, 90% FT
2011: 28.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 51.6% Field Goals, 95% FT

As you can see, this year isn’t the first time Dirk has gone bonkers in a terrific playoff run. And keep this in mind: seven of the games in 2006 (where he averaged 11.9 rebounds) were against the defending champion, and number one seed San Antonio. Dirk not only averaged 13.3 rebounds against Tim Duncan, who averaged 11.7 rebounds in the series, but also slapped together a 37 point and 15 rebound masterpiece in game seven in San Antonio… an overtime win for Dallas. At this point, doesn’t Dirk look like he might end up carrying the hypothetical NBA torch?

You know the rest of the story; Dallas blew a 2-0 series lead to Miami in the finals, Dirk was underwhelming and missed a game tying free throw in game three with just seconds left to play, and Dallas/Dirks time had seemingly come and gone. The next year Dirk won the MVP but Dallas was eliminated by eighth seed Golden State in the 1st Round. After a few more playoff disappointments, I claimed that going into this year’s postseason that the Mavericks championship window “was taken out and replaced by a brick wall.” Little did I know, Dirk was allowed to bring with him to the playoffs a huge-ass jackhammer (metaphorical of course) and has been smashing down the brick wall for the last 15 games, and getting a ton of Larry Bird comparisons in the process. I won’t get into whether they are warranted or not, but you need to be special to get that kind of hype.

Dirk and the Mavericks are just four games away from a championship. In a crazy way, the last five years of regular season success followed by post season failure have been good for Dirk. It’s hardened him and gave him a bit of an Eff-You edge. While he was an offensive dynamo five years ago, he is virtually unstoppable now. He’s not bothered by smaller players like he was with Stephen Jackson in the Golden State debacle, he’s able to pass out of double teams as well as an 7 footer in the league, and he’s completely shed the “soft” label that was once placed on him. The fact that he is carrying around a metaphorical jack-hammer helped him with that. You could even say he’s been better than anyone in the 2011 playoffs, unless you want to make the case LeBron James.

LeBron craves an NBA Title
If you are thinking to yourself “Of course he is going to say LeBron has been the best player in the playoffs, that is all he ever talks about,” then I am thinking to myself “Whoever is saying that about me is either ignorant or stupid, because LeBron has been the one of the two best players in the playoffs.” If you want to disagree with how LeBron handled the off-season, I have no problems with that. If you want to say he took the easy way out, go for it. If you try to tell me LeBron James isn’t the best overall player in the NBA, you are crazy. Or you haven’t been watching the games I’ve been watching.

Don’t think of this as another “LeBron is the next Jordan” comparison. LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant, Rose… none of them are the next Michael Jordan. There will never be another Michael Jordan. Ever. No one should be allowed to make that argument. LeBron James is however:

A) The best and most versatile defensive player in the league. Evidence of this is LeBron guarding Derrick Rose, the MVP, and Rose shooting just 6.3% when LeBron was guarding him in the Eastern Conference Finals. Follow that up with the fact that it is very likely that LeBron will be guarding Dirk Nowitzki at key points in the NBA Finals. That’s a 9 inch difference in defensive assignments.

B) Making anyone who has said “LeBron James isn’t clutch” eat their words. LeBron and the entire Heat roster had their regular season crunch time struggles. The Playoffs have been a completely different story. The Evidence: Game four in Boston where LeBron had 35 points, 14 rebounds and a game tying 3 in regulation; Game five at home against Boston, scoring 33 points, and the last 10 of the game which put away Boston; Game two at Chicago, putting up 29 points, 10 rebounds and taking all of the big shots down the stretch; Most recently, game five in Chicago, 28 points, 11 rebounds, game tying three and a go ahead jumper with under 30 seconds to play. As far as clutch play in a two series span goes, LeBron’s Celtics/Bulls run ranks right up there.

C) Four wins and a Finals MVP away from hopefully shutting up any LeBron James hater. Maybe he did need Wade and Bosh to win a championship. But they needed him more this year than he needed them. Miami is Dwyane Wade’s city. But make no mistake, LeBron James is the best player on the Heat.

Before Jordan won six titles he was viewed as a selfish player who didn’t embrace or care about his teammates. Kobe’s legacy was momentarily tarnished when he clashed with Shaq, was accused of rape and then tried forcing his way out of Los Angeles before winning two titles as the best player on the Lakers. Legacies change over time. They can be broken down or built up. Winning a championship as the Alpha Dog on your team is what can give a player’s legacy stability. It’s the antidote to any type of possible damage that has already been done. That’s why if Dirk wins a championship people will forget about the 2006 NBA Finals and the playoff struggles that followed for the next four years. For LeBron, if Miami wins the title the only thing people will be saying about “The Decision” is “Damn, that was a good decision!”

Paul Clark and I break down the NBA Finals.