Archives For June 2011

From Mark Medina in an interview with Joe Bryant, LA Times Lakers BlogThe rest of Kobe’s career obviously centers on how he will try to find a way to play through the mileage and injuries. What’s your assessment on how he’s been doing that? You can’t put it on age. All players have injuries, even young players have injuries. You learn to deal with pain and you learn how to understand your body. You also understand your game. When you’re a student of the game, a lot of players rely on their athleticism. Once you get older and their athleticism is not there, then you don’t know how to play. But Kobe knows how to play and understands the ABC’s of the game. He understands the scouting report and how players are going to play and he understands his teammates. When you understand the game, it goes back to playing chess. You know how to move the pieces and you know how to move the ball. You’re not going to run as fast. You’re not going to jump as high. You have to pick your moments. The great example when he picked his moment was the playoff game when he went down the middle and dunked, the one he had against [New Orleans center Emeka Okafor] in Game 5 of the first-round series. That was checkmate. He’s a warrior and understands the game. All players have injuries. It’s part of it and how he can manage it. He’s been doing a good job with that. Nobody is going to run and jump [like] when they were 18 or 19. It’s impossible for people to think that. As long as he’s enjoying the game and keeps the two seven-footers [Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum], I still think he has three, four or five more years to play at a high level.

From Mike Trudell, Lakers.com: Since he was announced as the new Lakers coach on June 1, Mike Brown has been traveling back and forth from Cleveland, preparing to move his family to Los Angeles, and tying up loose ends. Among his primary tasks in the meantime? Building his coaching staff. “There’s been progress,” said Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. “We communicate daily, and a lot of times he needs a quick answer. Sometimes it’s me giving him names of people who call me, sometimes he’ll call and say he’s thinking of interviewing a certain person. I do know that he intends to interview several candidates to be assistants in person in the next week.” Since getting the gig, Brown has been contacted by what Kupchak estimated as around 100 coaches looking to be considered for his open coaching slots. Accordingly, Brown has filled two or three pages in a yellow pad full of names and phone numbers in advance of a decision Kupchak maintains will be very much Brown’s. “I’m not going to have too much input unless there’s a red flag,” said L.A.’s GM.” Some of these people are under contract with other teams; because of all the coaching changes, some of these people have had chances to go someplace else. It’s kind of a revolving list. He’s pretty confident in what he wants, and he didn’t come into this (blind). He’s just working down the list.”

From Saurav A. Das, Silver Screen & Roll: Caracter was indeed passable in the playing time he did receive, putting together rather impressive per-36 numbers of 14 points and 7 rebounds, coupled with a less-impressive 48.5% eFG; though his defense did leave something wanting. He showed a decent capability to find his own shot, even over larger opponents, although his lack of size did inevitably lead to some issues. He was willing to chase down rebounds and use his body, which somewhat compensated for his lack of height in giving him a decent (for a 6’7″ rookie) 11.3% Total Rebound Rate. He was, however, foul-prone, with a rate of 8 fouls per 36 minutes, obviously not something conductive to receiving greater playing time. And playing time did prove to be an issue: despite Bynum’s absences and Pau’s exhaustion, Caracter invariably only received absolute garbage time (even less so than would be expected, due to Phil’s irritating habit of playing Pau late into blowouts); with Phil instead preferring to push his starters to play extra minutes or opt to play small-ball with Artest or Walton at the 4. It’s unknown how much of this refusal to give Caracter minutes was warranted, and one must respect the Greatest Coach of All Time’s judgement, but I cannot help but feel that this serves as an example of rookie bias. Pau was getting burnt out, Andrew was often injured, and Phil often preferred playing the likes of the useless Luke Walton or the ancient Joe Smith or Theo Ratliff ahead of Caracter, a mystifying move to be certain. Caracter was even inactive for much of the season, sent to the Lakers’ D-League Affiliate for the season, the Bakersfield Jam. This, coupled with Ebanks’ similar lack of role, does indeed suggest that the rumours of Phil having an anti-rookie bias are true.

From Jonah Freedman, Sports Illustrated: Uncertainty. That’s the key theme in SI.com’s eighth-annual compilation of the 50 top-earning American athletes by salary, winnings, endorsements and appearance fees. Being on top of the Fortunate 50 has never been so tenuous. Perennial No. 1 Tiger Woods still reigns for the eighth straight year — barely. His quickly shrinking earnings have never been lower on our list, nor has he ever been this close to surrendering his once insurmountable lead. As Woods’ personal life and game have seemingly fallen apart, he’s also seen most of his sponsors desert him, too. Meanwhile, big question marks loom over the other big names on the 50, as labor strife in the NFL and NBA threaten the future paychecks of their players. Between Tiger’s near one-third decrease in total earnings all over sports, the average earnings of the athletes on this year’s 50 is $24.3 million, down 7 percent from 2010. In all, the 2011 list features 19 NBA players, 17 baseball players, eight NFL players, three NASCAR drivers and three golfers.

From Howard Beck, The New York Times: The process now comes down to a single meeting and whether the parties can make enough progress to justify further sessions. If a new labor deal is not adopted by June 30, the owners will impose a lockout that is expected to be lengthy and costly. “It’s just important because of the substance of our conversations today,” Stern said of Tuesday’s meeting, “and because time is running out, and because both parties still remain, at least to me, intent on doing the best they can to make a deal before June 30.” Asked if a breakthrough was critical Tuesday, Stern said, “Yes, yes.” Asked if he would know by the end of that day whether a lockout was likely, he again answered in the affirmative. As players and owners dispersed for the weekend, the gap between them remained massive — more than $700 million, by one measure. They also remain at odds over the fundamental structure of the league’s economic system. The owners are pushing for a hard salary cap and the players are lobbying to retain the soft-cap system that has been in place for nearly three decades. “We’re not asking for anything in addition to the things that we’ve negotiated some 10, 15, 20 years before now,” said Derek Fisher, the president of the players union.

From Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazing (From May 2002): Says Horry, “From the moment my daughter almost didn’t even make it, I realized you can’t control what life hands you. I used to get nervous before that. Excited nervous, like gimmetheball-gimmetheball-gimmetheball. Hey, I love what I do, and it’s important in a sense, but not compared to my family. It’s just a game.” The lesson might have faded if Ashlyn merely had had a difficult birth instead of a missing chromosome that means she may never speak or walk unaided or discard her feeding tube. An absent chromosome that turns every simple cold into a life-threatening ordeal. It might be different if Horry didn’t live and work most of the year 1,500 miles away, limiting him to no more than hearing Ashlyn’s labored breath over a phone during the NBA season. Hearing his wife, Keva, describe the latest Horry trait displayed by his healthy 3-year-old boy, Camron, keeps life’s fickleness front and center. Take a shot to win or lose a game? Bury the game-winning three against the Kings with 0.2 seconds left? He knows that’s just the right time, right place. After back-breakers against the Blazers and Spurs earlier this postseason, Horry was so grateful to have something within his control he said to Kobe afterward, “Thank you for trusting me.” He’s said that to a teammate after every clutch playoff shot he’s made. If anyone knows it’s impossible to accomplish anything alone, it’s Horry.

It’s Mailbag Time…

Darius Soriano —  June 17, 2011

Time for another installment of the FB&G mailbag.  As always, if you’d like to submit a question, you can click right here and submit one to me with “mailbag question” in the subject line.  On to the questions…

Considering that Mike Brown is already considered a defensive specialist, would (Mike) Malone really have been that helpful on his bench?  I am more interested to see how Messina and Kuester reconfigures the offense.  Also, where do you think Brian Shaw will end up?  He deserves a gig somewhere.
-Roger

While I agree that a defensive minded assistant coach doesn’t look to be the Lakers’ biggest need, I think it is also important to understand Mike Brown’s coaching style and how he constructs a staff. Brown has stated that he delegates to his assistants and preaches shared responsibility and accountability at all times (both on his staff and with the players). Malone was one of his key assistants in Cleveland and held a similar position with the Hornets this past season (where he’s directly credited with helping to improve that team’s D this past season). By all accounts he’s a very good coach and I’m of the mind that a head coach should try to surround himself with as many smart coaches that can teach the game as possible. So, yes, I think he’d have been a great hire and very helpful.

As for Shaw, I think it’s incredible that the man once tabbed as Phil Jackson’s successor could be out of work next season. He may not land on his feet as a head coach anywhere (as of now, only the Raptors, Pistons, and Pacers have vacancies), but I could certainly see him getting hired as an assistant somewhere. Maybe he goes to Minnesota and teams up with Rambis to help with the Triangle. That said, one of the obstacles that Shaw may be facing is the fact that he is so closely associated with the Triangle offense. I’m not an owner or a GM, but the Triangle is an offense that few have succeeded running at this level and can be seen as impractical to the way that many NBA rosters are currently constructed. Shaw may need to put in time on a staff that teaches other schemes to further prove that he’s a viable head coach in the league – especially with everyone’s fall from grace after the Lakers got swept out of the playoffs.

Do you expect Steve Blake to get better next year? Or do you expect him to stay the same/get worse?
-Don

I expect Blake to be better next season. To these eyes, Blake’s biggest issues were in aggression and in his comfort level finding shots within the Triangle. And while Blake played much more within the system than, say, Jordan Farmar, Blake never did find the right balance between getting his own and setting up his teammates. To be fair, playing with players the stature of Kobe, Pau, Odom, Bynum, and even Artest has the potential to neuter any players aggressiveness (i.e. passing to those guys always seems like the best option – especially if they’re calling for the ball). Plus, the Triangle is a system that’s nuanced and takes time to fully learn and get comfortable within.

But now that the Triangle is gone and a more “traditional” system is in its place, I expect Blake to better find his groove and thus produce better results. By no means am I saying he’ll be one of the better PG’s in the game, but I don’t think shooting better percentages across the board and increasing his assist totals are far fetched. I also think with better play he’ll receive more minutes and with that even more success will come.

Everyone quotes Michael Jordan’s Finals resume as being better than Kobe‘s. For my argument, let’s say Kobe gets his 6th in the next 3 years (highly possible, I’m hoping). People would point to MJ’s record of 6-0 being superior to Kobe‘s 6-2 (again, hypothetical). Wouldn’t Kobe‘s be better? Champion 6 times and runner up twice vs champion 6 times? (This ignores the finals mvp component, I see being a weak point in my argument.)
-Matthew

Normally I try to avoid such debates since they rarely get you anywhere. However, since we’re talking resume and not who was better, I’ll bite…

While I understand the argument of more Finals appearances, I think an unblemished record is a greater achievement. I also think scoring average matters, which Jordan has over Kobe as well. Plus, as you mentioned, MJ’s MVP’s in the Finals are the tipping point in this argument. So, I just don’t see an argument where Kobe’s Final’s resume is better than MJ’s even with another title to his name.

That said, by the time Kobe’s career is over, his overall resume could be very close to MJ’s. When you consider career points, All-Star game appearances and ASG MVP’s, All-NBA and All-Defense teams, games and minutes played, and the NBA championships, their careers will be closer than many would like to admit. I’d still take MJ’s league MVP’s and DPOY award as trump cards to Kobe’s accomplishments, but Kobe will have achieved so much that there would be debate from both sides, for sure.

That said, one of the reasons I try to avoid such conversations is because I try to appreciate the players for who they are/were rather than holding them up against the memories of other legends. When Kobe retires I’ll be lucky enough to say that I saw his entire career and cheered him on as he played for the team that I root for. Who cares if he compares favorably to another all time great? The fact that he’s in the conversation as one of the best that ever played is more than enough for me.

Yesterday on twitter I entertained a discussion about trading one of your favorite team’s championships to another one of your favorite teams in another sport. The discussion began with me reminiscing about how close the Oakland Raiders came to 3-peating during the same exact years that the Lakers 3-peated in the early 2000s. The Lakers ended up catching all the breaks that the Raiders didn’t and won three titles while the Raiders won none. So I wondered, would I trade any of the Lakers titles during my lifetime to the Raiders? A lot of followers said that they would definitely trade one title to another team, but I found it impossible to give up any of the Lakers titles because each was special.

Today, I came across Sporting News’ Top 10 NBA Teams Ever slide show and immediately realized how fortunate we are fortunate we are as Lakers fans. The list only featured six different franchises, and the two Lakers teams on the list (the 71-72 and 86-87 teams were #2 and #3, respectively) are teams that I didn’t even see play. I was born in 1987, so there have been seven Lakers championships since my birth, and only the one during the year of my birth made Sporting News’ Top 10 NBA Teams Ever list.

Although the 2011 Lakers went out in a disappointing fashion, seeing things like this really puts things in perspective. I know a lot of you are a tad bit older than I am, and can remember watching that 87 Lakers squad, and some of you can even claim to remember the 72 Lakers. Point is, we’ve seen some fantastic basketball over the years from the boys in Forum Blue and Gold. I would have loved for the Lakers to have brought home another title this year, but I’m appreciative that the Lakers have won more titles during my lifetime than the number of franchises included on that list.

Going through Lakers championship teams trying to decide whether or not I would forfeit one of their titles only brought an onslaught of memories for me. With all of that being said, what were some of your favorite Lakers teams and/or memories? Share your stories about the good times we’ve had over the years.

From Dave McMenamin, Land O’ Lakers: I caught up with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak for about 20 minutes on Tuesday, and we spent the bulk of our time talking about the upcoming NBA draft. There were, though, a couple of topics I couldn’t fit in the story. Before talking to him, I looked back at the story I wrote when we spoke shortly after last year’s draft, when he told me this about Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, who the Lakers selected at Nos. 43 and 58, respectively: “In terms of a grade, I think you have to ask me that question a year from now,” Kupchak said. A year later, I reminded him about the quote, and he relented. Sorta. “I would say both are incomplete,” Kupchak began. “I feel like Devin showed great promise on a veteran team. He really did some things that led us to believe he can be a player in this league. But then he got hurt and ended up missing the last 2-3 months of the season.

From Sebastian Pruiti, NBA Playbook: Last month, with a break during the Finals, I took a look at Mike Brown and what his time in Cleveland will tell us about how he will try to put Kobe Bryant in positions to score.  Today, we are going to look at Mike Brown and how he plans on getting his two seven-footers involved on the offensive end.  During his introductory press conference, coach Brown explained how his time with San Antonio will help shape his offense when using two seven-footers: I thought it would be interesting to go through some old San Antonio Spurs’ game tape and see what sets coach Brown can bring from San Antonio to Los Angeles.  Much like the sets we looked at with coach Brown and Kobe Bryant, these are very simple sets, but that doesn’t mean that these sets will be ineffective with Los Angeles. Note:  For the purposes of this post, David Robinson will be playing the role of Andrew Bynum and Tim Duncan will be playing the role of Pau Gasol.

From Mike Trudell, Basket Blog: Attack the clock. Brown: “Let’s get that ball from the back court to the front court within the first three and four seconds. Why? We don’t want to get to our second our third option and see that the shot clock is winding down to two seconds or something like that. We want to get the ball up the floor, and if we can run for a layup, you’ll never see me stop that. My last two years in Cleveland, we were a top 10 and top 5 offensive team in the NBA. We averaged over 100 points a game both those years.”

From Brian Champlin, Lakers Nation: Most Lakers’ fans will recall Robert Horry as I do. They watched him from afar and observed him to be the  consummate role player and teammate. He was the cog that always seemed to fit, a player who was rarely flashy or dominant but always saved his best performances for when the team needed him most. In crunch time he was, cliche as it sounds, never afraid of the moment. Yet this fearlessness was not born so much from some innate sense of self as it was the experiences of his life. Specifically, the birth of his daughter Ashlyn.

From Elizabeth Benson, Lakers Nation: With the hiring of new head coach Mike Brown, the Lakers community knows that defense is going to be the mentality for the team next season.  After all, the prevalent need for defense is one of the key reasons why Brown was hired as Phil Jackson’s successor.  The Lakers have made many moves during the past couple of years to bring defensive minded players to the squad, including acquiring Ron Artest and the development of Andrew Bynum.  Kobe Bryant has always a defensive threat to opponents, especially around the perimeter.

From Eric Pincus, Hoops World: Los Angeles Lakers forward Ron Artest took a trip down memory lane on Monday via Twitter (@ronartest), tweeting about his almost trade to the Los Angeles Clippers from the Indiana Pacers for Corey Maggette. Artest wrote, “I was a Clipper for ten minutes. Then in the middle of our conversation with me, Elgin [Baylor], Coach Dunleavy and Mark Stevens my agent . . . right in the middle of our takes about how we gonna bring a ring to the Clippers, Donnie Walsh called Mike and said Corey failed the [physical].” Note:  Some liberties taken in that quotation for syntax. “Corey failed the physical, then I went back on suspension with Indiana.  I was in LA for three months.  Then two weeks later, Sac-town traded Peja [Stojakovic] for me.  Kings were in last place,” continued Artest.  “Then I got there and we went to the playoffs!”

From Mark Medina, LA Times: The biggest area the Lakers lacked, argued former Coach Phil Jackson, was speed. Considering the uncertainty on whether Shannon Brown’s going to exercise his $2.37-million option, securing Smith would provide the Lakers insurance for a speedy and athletic backup at shooting guard. Smith would provide endless amounts of energy on the break, on defense and in hustle plays. His trash talking with Kobe Bryant over the years would actually earn his respect considering he’s touted Ron Artest and Matt Barnes for their willingness to get chippy with him. And Smith’s defensive ability should lift the burden off a veteran-heavy backcourt in Bryant andDerek Fisher and keep an aging Artest fresh. Expect Barnes and Smith to try to one up each other on body art too.

From K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune: Tex Winter’s health and strength have stabilized to the point his family is making plans for the legendary former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach to attend his induction ceremonies into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in early August, according to a family friend. When the Tribune first reported news of Winter’s induction in early April, it didn’t appear Winter would be able to attend the Aug. 12 ceremony in Springfield, Mass. Winter, 89, suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2009 and largely has been confined to care from family members since.

The Delicate Dance

Darius Soriano —  June 15, 2011

You’ll find no bigger fan of Derek Fisher than me.

Over the years I’ve defended his play, preached about his value, and downplayed some of (most of?) his shortcomings. He’s a player that I have a huge amount of respect for; a player that I’ve seen as a vital ingredient to the recent run of success that the Lakers have experienced – not to mention the three championships in the Kobe/Shaq era.

However, today, the Lakers are in a conundrum when it comes to this player that I’ve so loved over the past decade and a half.

You see, Derek Fisher is a leader for this team. He’s also a clutch performer. The other day I was watching a video of the Lakers run to the 2009 title and right in the middle of that push was D-Fish, giving speeches in the locker room and the huddle then hitting key shots that won games. After I watched that video, I replayed clips from 2010 and watched how his game 3 heroics likely saved the series for the Lakers and ultimately helped propel them to the championship over their bitter rivals.

His tenure with the team is littered with the moments that will live well beyond any of us. Chapters on Laker championships will have his name etched in stone and he’ll stand side by side with true legends of the game and he’ll do so as a career role player. Normal competitors don’t reach these heights. Derek Fisher is no normal competitor.

But, he is a player in full decline.

While all the intangibles remain intact, the tangibles are eroding. His individual defense, while spirited, is below average. His shot making is as well. As much as he’ll still hit the big shot, it’s the ones that come in the non-pressure packed moments that don’t fall at a consistent enough rate.

And now, there’s a new coach coming on board. With Mike Brown’s arrival comes a new scheme on both sides of the ball that will ask more of the point guard position than Phil Jackson’s Triangle. We don’t yet know how different these schemes will be, but history tells us the lead guard will need to drive and kick more; will need to create off the bounce. These are not Derek’s strong suits.

Plus, Brown will also preach defense. And while defending most floor generals is a team effort, it does start with the man on the ball. Will Derek hold up on an island? Will he be able to stay with his man, chase off the ball, rotate and recover with a strong close out when needed? These are skills often best performed with younger legs than those occupied by the #2 uniform on the team we call ours.

The questioning of how Fisher will succeed is voiced with more frequency and vigor than ever before. And answering them with an understanding nod and the anecdote that he’ll “get it done when it matters” is harder now as the volume on the critiques drowns out those with who hand out the praise.

But, the man still commands respect. He’s the president of the player’s union and one of the most eloquent and level headed players in the game. His peers seek him out for guidance and listen when he speaks. After Mike Brown was hired, one of the first players he met with was Derek Fisher. They sat down at dinner and discussed what went wrong this past season and what could be done to fix it next year. His input was sought out; his stature demanded as much.

Plus, he’s Kobe’s right hand man. Kobe famously once said that Fisher is the only teammate he listens to. Fisher’s also the one player that doesn’t get the stink eye when he doesn’t rotate the ball to #24 when his arm is outstretched and calling for it. Their relationship goes back to full court one on one battles as rookies and thrives to this day because of the mutual hard work and dedication that both have put in to achieve so much. They’ve reached the highest heights together; have been through all the battles – won and lost – side by side.

But this game typically isn’t about sentimentality. It’s about production and results.

So the Lakers enter into a delicate dance with their long time, proud warrior of a point guard. They’ll need his leadership, his calm voice of reason, and his pleas for desperate play. But they’ll also need production and someone capable of executing what’s asked of his position on the floor. On twitter, Roland Lazenby said, “Fans fuss about (players) like Fisher. They do get exposed, but they bring so much in smarts and experience. Smart coaches wince and live with it.”

Next season, Mike Brown will have to find this balance. He’ll surely need the grizzled vet, as will his team. The question now, is can he afford to use him as much he may want considering the results he produces when in the game. Only time will tell. But for a coach that will have the egos of some of the league’s elite players to navigate, it’s a player in Fisher’s position that may present trickiest tango of all.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Kobe Bryant can still make it happen, but not nearly with the same frequency as he once did. According to Hoopdata.com, Bryant’s shot attempts at the rim dropped by nearly 1.5 a game this season, while his attempts from 3-9 feet jumped from 2.3 in 2009-10 to 3.1. By way of comparison, in 2007-08, those ratios were very different: 5.1 attempts per game at the rack, 1.5 from 3-9. Night to night, his free throw attempts have declined over the years, as well. All of this confirms what we basically already know: Bryant is much more a post up/jump shooter, not the unstoppable penetrating force off the wing he once was, certainly not over the course of a long regular season. He’ll fire up the WABAC Machine from time to time, but picks his spots far more judiciously than the Kobe of yor

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: In the circus known as the NBA, Bill Russell has long been considered the ring master for the unprecedented 11 bands of championship jewelry he won in his 13-year playing career. But when you think about it, Phil Jackson should be known as the league’s true lord of the rings. The 13 rings Jackson earned — two from his 13-year career as a player with New York and New Jersey, and 11 from his 20-year run as head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles — outshine the rings of Russell, who is widely acknowledged as the greatest winner in team sports. (Russell also won two championships in his eight seasons as a head coach, but they came in his final two seasons with the Celtics when he was player-coach, hence his ring collection wound up at 11 rather than tied with Jackson at 13.)

From Daniel Buerge, Lakers Nation: The NBA season came to an end last night in Miami when the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Heat to win their first championship in team history. They beat one of the most publicized and scrutinized team in history, and did it emphatically. After winning Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the series the Mavericks knew they had two chances to eliminate the Heat, but both games would be in Miami. That didn’t sway the confidence of the Mavs, as they rose to the occasion and beat Miami in Game 6 to win the crown.  ?As is the case with almost any NBA champion, the story for the Mavericks centered around their best player and Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. After a solid series and an unbelievable playoffs, Dirk found himself struggling to find the range throughout the majority of Game 6. However, Dirk’s determination only grew stronger and he continued to fire up shots. At the end of the night he had a poor shooting percentage, but he also had an NBA championship.

From Elizabeth Benson, Lakers Nation: When the Los Angeles Lakers were swept out of the second round of this year’s playoffs, the major topic surrounded the possibility of acquiring Dwight Howard.  As some time has passed and the Laker community’s shock of an abrupt departure from the postseason has started to fade, the true needs and weaknesses are in full exposure, waiting to be addressed.  ?With the recent hiring of new head coach, Mike Brown, the first need can be checked off the list.  One of the Lakers’ needs is to become more youthful and athletic.  However, the issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible relates to the point guard position. Derek Fisher will without a doubt go down as one of the best point guards in the history of the Lakers.  Even though Fisher maintains the ability to make shots in the clutch, his level of performance for the entire 48 minutes of each game has been diminishing over the past two years.

From David Murphy, Searching for Slava: Our long national grind is over. It ended where in many ways, it began – Miami, FLA – home of the best that money could buy, the master-plan, the decision.  Superstars shelled into submission by a lanky bridesmaid who couldn’t spit in the ocean in the first half, supported by a gang of misfits who could.  It’s how it should be, the basketball gods must have been smiling. The knock on Nowitzki for years, has been that he’s soft, can’t or won’t play the interior, doesn’t come through when it really counts, in the playoffs, in the finals. This year was different – his Mavericks played like a recommitted team but the perception remained – they had failed too often and the public had turned away. Until they wound up in the finals, pitted against a team that had gone from media darling to pariah.  Suddenly, the game had new meaning.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: They don’t call him the “No Stats All-Star” for nothing. He consistently guards the opposing team’s best player and holds them under their season averages in points and shooting percentage. He provides a positive locker-room presence and thrives on mastering such intangibles as tipping loose balls to teammates, boxing out an opponent to free up a teammate to clean glass and showing remarkable efficiency in his shot selection. Battier has plenty of veteran experience and would earn immediate respect from many Lakers, including Kobe Bryant (who knows how suffocating Battier can be on defense), Ron Artest (who used to be his teammate at Houston) and Pau Gasol (who used to be his teammate in Memphis). There’s no need to wonder how Battier would fit in the pecking order because he’d be the guy making everyone else’s job easier. With Coach Mike Brown wanting to implement a defense-first mentality, Battier would be a perfect addition in fulfilling that philosophy.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: On paper, it appeared to Lakers forward Ron Artest that the team’s Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks would prove to be just another blip toward another championship run. It turns out he was wrong. “They blitzed us,” he said Sunday while appearing on ABC 7’s Sports Zone regarding the Mavericks’ four-game sweep against the Lakers. “We did not expect them to play like that honestly. I thought we were going to sweep them.” On paper, it appeared to Artest that the Miami Heat would win in the NBA Finals in either five or six games, believing the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the team’s lockdown defense would prove too difficult in stopping. Instead, James disappeared most of the fourth quarters, Dirk Nowitzki continued to make difficult shots and the Mavericks displayed the type of depth Artest argued is needed to win a championship.

With the NBA season ending last night, a few final thoughts on the Mavs and Heat (with some Lakers mixed in too…)

  • First off, congrats to the Mavericks for winning their first championship in franchise history. They played fantastic basketball, not only against the Heat but the entire playoffs. What I found most impressive about them as a team wasn’t the remarkable shooting expedition, the poise, or even the role players stepping up the way that they did. It’s how all those things combined to make every one of their post-season opponents look the same by the time the series ended: confused and defeated. No team could solve the riddle of how the Mavs pressured the paint through wonderful attacking schemes predicated off tremendous floor spacing. Kudos to them, they earned their place at the top of the mountain.
  • Obviously any congratulations of the Mavs must also include the singling out of Dirk for his fantastic playoffs and his well deserved Finals MVP. The once “soft” player that “couldn’t close” changed the perception of him (which really wasn’t fair anyway) with a fantastic playoff run that will now put him on the list of great players that actually broke through and won a title. No more Malone, Stockton, Miller, Ewing, Barkley comparisons for the big German and whether he realizes it or not right now, a burden has been lifted off his shoulders as that’s a tough stigma to carry. Special acknowledgement as well to the fact that Dirk won in a truly tough era where the league is as strong as it’s been in decades with many elite players and some fantastic teams.
  • Credit must also be given to Rick Carlisle. He pushed all the right buttons, made all the right substitutions and adjustments, called all the right timeouts. He got his team to defend on one end and play a steady, relentless style on the other that confounded the opposition. Just as some of his players, he’s elevated his status in this league and joined the ranks of Pop and Rivers as the active coaches that truly make a difference to their team in a way that led to the ultimate prize. He really was masterful.
  • However, we can’t reflect on these Finals without discussing the Heat and their failure to achieve what they set out to do. They fell short in many ways and proved that their elite talent base wasn’t enough this time. Be it coaching, the play of LeBron (no explanation needed) and Wade (he was simultaneously great and mistake prone), or the media missteps they made along the way, this team struggled to rise to the occasion while Dallas capitalized on every mistake.
  • That said, I don’t think anyone should be quick to dismiss the Heat as contenders for future championships. In several ways, they remind me of the 2008 Lakers. First off, there are the easy comparisons of Kobe/Wade (leader with experience that played excellent while still showing flaws), Pau/LeBron (the player with more talent than he showed), and Odom/Bosh (the front court player that had up and down performances but was outplayed by his direct counterpart). There’s also factors like the fact that they faced a team of hungry veterans that had fallen short so many times and looked at this series as (potentially) their last shot at a ring, the newness of their team and rapid ascension to elite status, and the need for some of the players who’d not yet seen this level of competition (Miller, Chalmers, Anthony) to get that needed seasoning. Obviously, this isn’t a perfectly parallel situation as I’m unsure who can be Miami’s Derek Fisher nor is it clear that there’s a player like Bynum or Ariza in the wings that can take a big step forward next year in helping this team win it all. Plus, and maybe most important, is that Coach Spoelstra is no Phil Jackson (who is?) and filling that void in coaching may be their biggest obstacle. Not to belittle what Spoelstra’s accomplished nor his coaching acumen, but it’s unclear if he’ll take that next step as a coach and this team needs a guy that certainly will. It’s interesting because Carlisle finally broke through as a head coach but that was after being fired in both Detroit and Indiana. Can Miami wait on Spoelstra?
  • Interesting enough, the Mavericks win only cements my thoughts further that the Lakers should not be discounted going into next season as one of the top 2 or 3 clear favorites for the title. The Lakers’ formula (at least what we know of it) of well put together top level talent is a combination of what the Mavs and the Heat brought to the table. With a renewed sense of hunger and purpose, some tweaks to the roster, and some slight improvement from some of their core players (none of which is a stretch) this team could certainly be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next season. Obviously coaching will be key and how the players buy in will be an issue. But, the Lakers’ window is still very much open. (Now, if only the player’s union and team owners can hammer out a CBA, I think we’d all be a lot happier.)

The NBA championship could be decided tonight.

No, the Lakers aren’t involved. There are no crucial moments to fret over; no stomach churning lead up to this contest. Instead, it’s two teams – the Mavs and the Heat – that will take center stage while we all watch.

I know many have a desired outcome to this series. Many would prefer the Mavs walk away victorious and claim that elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. After all, this could be the last chance for long time greats like Dirk and Kidd (two of my favorite non Lakers) to reach the mountain top and denying them this triumph would be some sort of cruelty. Meanwhile a team of young, in their prime stars like those on the Heat will have plenty of other chances to win this thing.

The other angle, obviously, is the dislike that many have for the Heat. Folks didn’t like “the decision”, the celebration that came after, or the swagger that it spawned – including all the media missteps along the way.

Personally, those things never bothered me much as games are decided on the court and the team would have to prove that they were worthy when the ball was jumped at center court, regardless of what I (or anyone else) thought of them. Winning isn’t easy and they would learn that and either reach the pinnacle or fall short like many others do. So far they’ve done well for themselves in getting to this point, but they’ve again found what we’ve already known and said. Winning is, indeed, hard.

In any event, game 6 is here and I’ll be watching. For the great basketball, the extremely talented players, and the chance to see the joy of one team and the despair of the other. We’re at the point where a team can taste that championship and those moments are the ones that I enjoy the most, even if they don’t involve the team that I call my own.

I’ll also be watching because this could be the last basketball we see for some time. The league owners are set to lock out the players next month and we could be in for a long, bitter negotiation that puts some, most, or all of next season in jeopardy. All of this saddens and upsets me to no end, as I’m sure it does to many of you (especially if you’re checking in on a basketball blog on a late Sunday afternoon).

But tonight, I’ll be watching to see if one team can claim the trophy while the other fights for their basketball lives. This game means something to me, even without the Lakers participating. I hope it’s a good one. Though, from what we’ve seen so far these playoffs, my hopes probably aren’t needed.