As a Laker fan, it kills me to have to say this, but good sportsmanship demands it: Congratulations on your championship, Dallas Mavericks. A job well done.
But before we talk about Dallas, we must first talk about the Miami Heat. The seeds for this disappointing outcome were sown way back last summer. Not just with “The Decision,” which I loathed as much as everybody else, especially with its thinly veiled effort at being a charity event to whitewash the naked self-aggrandizement on display. That wasn’t the worst of it by far. Much worse was that embarrassing, smoke-filled press conference/coming-out party.
Look, I don’t begrudge anyone moving on to a new opportunity to try to scale new heights. People in every walk of life change jobs, get promoted or generally look to improve their circumstances. Athletes change teams all the time. Heck, I think it is even written into the Yankees' business plan. Check page 29.
No, LeBron James had every right to go to Miami with the perfectly reasonable goal of trying to win a championship. Or seven. But what didn’t sit well with the public was the preening and condescension.
We were and continue to be smack in the middle of some very trying economic times. The whole episode was completely tone-deaf. The fans pay your salaries. They are well aware that you are multimillion-dollar athletes. So try not to act like you’re doing everyone a favor by putting this team together and then celebrating yourselves when you haven’t even won anything together. A little humility goes a long way.
In one of his press conferences lately, LeBron lamented that the Heat had been getting heat all year from opposing teams and fans. Well, that’s kind of a self-inflicted wound. If you can’t take the heat...oh, you know the rest. Playing the “no one respects us” card is silly when so far you haven’t done anything worthy of respect. I’m using your standards (a championship dynasty), not mine. You can’t have it both ways, gentlemen.
All during this Finals run, this whole situation with Miami, particularly with LeBron, has felt familiar. An overpaid (in my opinion) relative to his accomplishments star with transcendent physical talents is chasing a title but has trouble delivering in the clutch. Oh wait...I have seen this before. With Alex Rodriguez.
Remember when A-Rod joined the Yankees? It was eerily similar to this, especially in terms of the backlash by the fans. I remember the spirited debates over why he should play shortstop over Derek Jeter. Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed. Jeter would remain at shortstop. Alex, the organization seemed to say, if you want to play for the Yankees, it’s third base or nothing. Take it or leave it. He took it—and struggled mightily when the spotlight shined brightest.
It’s kind of forgotten now, but he acquired the nickname of Mr. April. There can be no more scathing indictment in Yankee-land than that.
Eventually, A-Rod did win a ring, and that’ll probably be what happens with LeBron too. There’s too much physical talent on that Miami team for it to fade away. But the mental toughness aspect of their game, especially with LeBron, is an open question. It gave me pause when the media started reporting various things that the Heat were trying to motivate LeBron. Wait a minute. You’re in the NBA Finals! You can’t motivate yourself?
Watching him play, especially late in these last few games, I can only describe the expression on his face as bewilderment. Up until last year against the Celtics, there had never been very serious expectations for him to get the Cavs to a championship because anyone could look at those teams and see that they didn’t quite have all the pieces. Even if they did, it’s unlikely they would have beaten the Celtics last year, who were gunning for another shot at the Lakers.
This year his new team did have the parts. But strangely, LeBron seemed to lack a killer instinct.
It was almost like there was a little thought bubble over his head saying, “I can’t believe the Mavs are contesting every shot, pass and rebound.” The Mavs ARE contesting every shot, pass and rebound. They were relentless.
He still seemed puzzled at the postgame press conference—like he just couldn’t wrap his head around why everybody outside of South Florida dislikes the Heat. It’s called schadenfreude. There’s this German guy in the league who can probably translate that for you.
I don’t know that LeBron has ever faced serious adversity with regard to playing basketball. Sooner or later, adversity will always show up. When crunch time comes, he doesn’t appear to have that inner fire, the will to win. Because he is so physically gifted, it seems like he has just floated along enjoying the adulation for a while now. What his future is is up to him.
Just for a start, I’d recommend getting rid of the cadre of yes-men and sycophants surrounding him. What is really needed is someone to play the part of Entourage’s E to LeBron’s Vince—someone whose loyalty is unquestioned and has the ability to look him in the eye and tell him when something is a terrible decision or needs changing.
He also needs a serious basketball mentor to help him develop the finer points of the game—someone who is unafraid of him and doesn’t much care whether he likes him.
LeBron needs accountability. So far there has been very little of that. I think he’s immature mentally. That little stunt he and Wade pulled (in front of the cameras!) making fun of Dirk being sick in Game 4 is exhibit A. Not funny and a remarkable lack of class and respect for your opponent. The basketball gods do not take kindly to that sort of behavior.
This team seems to assume that it will be back in the Finals again next year. But anything can happen between now and then. Changes in staff. Opponents recalibrate taking into mind what it will take to beat this Heat team. Career-changing injuries can happen in the blink of an eye; see: Livingston, Shaun.
That’s why you have to seize the chance when it is right in front of you. You never know when, or if, you will be back again. I think Dwyane Wade appeared to try to tell him that, but for some reason, it appears that the message just never got through.
Dirk Nowitzki lost to the Heat and D-Wade five years ago. Think about what you, dear reader, were doing five years ago. That’s how long Dirk has been trying to get back. That’s how hard it is to get to the Finals in the NBA. With the help of his delightful personal coach Holger Geschwindner, he put in the hours and hours of work required to get even better. It paid off.
After the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs, Kobe Bryant was asked to summarize the 2010-11 campaign: “wasted year of my life.” That’s Kobe for you in a nutshell. As fans, it’s what we love. Championship or bust. No in-between.
Kobe will never take for granted the opportunity to get to and advance in the playoffs. Dirk and Jason Terry understood that sentiment and infused their entire team with it. Add Jason Kidd, ready to do anything for a shot at a ring, and J.J. Barea (or as I call him, the Danny Woodhead of the NBA), eager to show he had a role to play, and you see your new NBA champions.
Meanwhile, the entire Mavericks organization from the top down put on a clinic in what a disciplined, focused, determined run for a championship looks like. Incredibly, Mark Cuban observed radio silence for the duration of the playoffs so as not to be a distraction. (Hey Mark, are you sure you don’t want to spend half the year in LA? We have this baseball team that could use a strong, smart head at the helm. We already know you look good in blue and white. Just think about it.)
The coaching staff were prepared and had the players prepared. Rick Carlisle did an amazing job using his personnel and timeouts and making adjustments. The players picked each other up. The most notable example was when Dirk had a terrible first half shooting in Game 6 and Terry and Barea picked up the slack. It was inspiring to watch. Dirk has carried this team for a long time. The chance to have his back was an opportunity they relished.
Dirk—don’t be embarrassed that you walked off the court in tears. By your own admission this has been your quest for half of your life. Be proud of what you and your team and organization accomplished. The bonus is you will never pay for another drink in Dallas again!
If it can’t be the Lakers, I couldn’t be happier that it is this group of guys. Who would have ever thought that the previous choker incarnation of the Mavs would be led to a title by a shaggy, soft-spoken, seven-foot German playing his best basketball deep in the heart of Texas and inspiring his teammates to unselfishly do the same?
Dallas Mavericks? Congratulations on being world champions. Enjoy every minute of it. You earned it.