There was a sentiment entering this season that in todays NBA, only a handful of genetically engineered teams in destination cities had a legitimate shot at the NBA championship. That idea died a painful death on Sunday night. Since 1979, the Lakers, Rockets and Spurs have maintained a monopoly on NBA championships in the Western Conference. Today, it’s just limited to California and Texas.
There was a brilliant irony to Golden State’s hiring of ABC commentator Mark Jackson as its head coach during the Finals. It was the Warriors franchise which delivered Dirk to the absolute rock bottom of his career. Nowitzki received scathing criticism for his lackluster performance. Not only did Dirk reclaim his throne as the NBA’s top European-born player from Pau Gasol in this series but he silenced all the critics of his playoff performances in 2006 and 2007. One of those critics was me. Four years ago, I said this:
Mavs fans have to be wondering to themselves: Where art thou Dirk? I hate to pile on a rotting corpse but its time to come to a conclusion on Dirk Nowitzki. The true measure of a player is how he plays and behaves when the chips are down. If I had to grade Nowitzki in this category he would receive a failing grade as he often overreacts and gets down on himself in times when most superstars would find a way to persevere. Does anybody remember his previous playoff outbursts aimed towards Eric Dampier? He practically wilted under the pressure then as he did tonight.
I know Dirk is an excellent long range shooter but on occasion after occasion, in the game, I’d shout at the screen to no avail for Dirk to drive to the basket when there was not a single defender in his vicinity and at least draw the foul. Instead he would go launch his 25 footers into the next stratosphere and in the process initiate the Warriors deadly fast break. Sadly, it was too late into this series before he realized the majority of his points were coming in the paint.
I know he’s a rarity as 7 foot center with incredible range but at times he embraces this role a little too wholeheartedly and forgets that he is 7 feet tall.
Things were ugly for Dirk against Golden State. Facing elimination in the final game, Dirk scored only 8 points. This year when the chips were down, Nowitzki’s game was its finest. After starting Game 6 shooting 1 for 12, Nowitzki persevered. The 7-foot German shot 8 for 15 from the field after his start and scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.
In addition, this time around, the Mavericks won the close contests. The ’06 Mavericks were 0-3 in Finals games decided by 3 or less in 2006. Nowitzki’s scoring average in the Finals also improved from 22.8 in 2006 to 26.0 in 2011. That’s a margin of 3.2 points. More importantly, he made plays in the post, including game winning layups in Games 2 and 4.
Another one of those vocal critics was Dwyane Wade. The only quote about the 2006 NBA Finals that still reverberates came almost a year afterwards. After Dirk commented that his Mavericks, who held the best record in the Western Conference at the time had given away the 2006 Finals, Wade responded in the media by saying, “”Dirk said that they gave us the championship last year. But he’s the reason they lost the championship, because he wasn’t the leader he’s supposed to be in the closing moments.” Four seasons later, Dirk answered Wade’s criticism. Today that quote applies to Lebron James.
Lebron is the prototypical frontrunner. He’s a Cowboys and Yankees fan from Ohio. Success is assumed to him and judging from the NBA Finals, he doesn’t respond well to failure. After scoring 4 points in the first four minutes, James scored just eight more over the next 44 minutes. Lebron’s 9.9 points per game point drop-off from his regular season scoring average to his NBA Finals average was the steepest drop of all-time over Wilt’s 7.7 in 1964 and Jerry West’s 6.0 in 1972. Wilt was brought down to Earth by Bill Russell. Lebron was neutralized by Shawn Marion. No one predicted this. It was like Lebron decided it was the best time to audition for his role in the long-awaited sequel to The Invisible Man.
Lebron has been called everything from the NBA’s A-Rod and awoken memories of the 1984 NBA Finals series when Magic Johnson was dubbed Tragic Johnson. While those comparisons have some merit, at least Magic had two Finals MVP awards by ’84. In reality, the trio of James, Bosh and Wade resembles the underachieving triumvirate of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chmaberlain. In 11 seasons as teammates, Baylor and West never won a championship together. Wilt Chamberlain joined them in 1968. Twice, the Lakers were defeated by the Knicks. Kareem and an aging Oscar Robertson defeated L.A. in ’71.
Like Lebron, Elgin Baylor stuffed the stat sheet and Jerry West, like Wade was recognized as Mr. Clutch. At this point in his career, Dwyane Wade may join Jerry West as the best player to never win an MVP award. Looking over the numbers and West’s Lakers were the greatest trio in NBA history. Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game for his career. West averaged 27/5.8/6.7apg and Wilt produced otherworldly averages of 30.1/22.9/4.4.
It wasn’t until Baylor retired during the ’72 season that Wilt and West were able to clinch L.A.’s first NBA title Ironically, many believe the Heat play better when Wade and Lebron aren’t on the floor together. Seeing how, Lebron is not retiring in the near future, the Heat will have to make this work. One of the most scathing commentaries of Lebron James came from ESPN’s college basketball megaphone, Dick Vitale. Around 1 o’clock last night, Vitale said this on his Twitter account:
Easiest person to guard is a player that does not move – In Mavs series LBJ stood & watched @ crunch time – he was not in the attack mode!
The turning point of this series came when Lebron and Wade celebrated prematurely exhaled in front of the Mavericks bench during the fourth quarter of Game 2. Prior to Game 7 of the ’68 Finals, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke printed flyers which read that “When, not if the Lakers win the title, balloons will be released from the rafters, the USC Marching Band would play “Happy Days are Here Again” and Chick Hearn would interview Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. Those balloons would never touch the Forum’s floor as Boston used L.A.’s brash gesture as motivation to defeat L.A.
Much of the Lakers inability to win championships was credited to subpar coaches like Butch Van Breda Koff and Fred Schaus. Eric Spoelstra is just receiving echoes of the past.
In the near future, Miami’s path to an NBA championship doesn’t get much easier. The Lakers return with the same roster that went to three consecutive NBA Finals, won two and only faltered against the reigning NBA champion Mavs. The San Antonio Spurs, finished with the Western Conference’s best record, but could benefit from a lockout shortened season after they tired out in the first round against the Baby Grizzlies.
Oklahoma City resembles the Western Conference’s version of Chicago if Durant and Westbrook can get in tune on the court. The Mavericks get a year older but return Caron Butler, if he re-signs, and could pair Dirk with Deron Williams in 2012. Deron, who played high school ball in Texas has never been thrilled with New Jersey and visited the Mavericks locker room after Game 5.
Meanwhile, in their own Conference, Miami will continue to improve at an accelerated rate with the available cap room and youth they have to their advantage. Meanwhile, the movement of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard could be a pivotal dynamic in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks have their eyes on Howard and Paul to complete their own Super Trio. However, Paul and Howard could form their own duo in Orlando or join New York or Los Angeles in a dizzying array of scenarios. Lebron’s journey for a ring enters its 9th season. Who knows if it will ever end?