Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Faulty Logic

Sports writers and pundits were furious with Dirk Nowitzki. The towering power forward followed his impressive regular season run with a dismal showing in the playoffs. As the centerpiece of his team and the toast of the NBA in 2007 he was expected to be a force in the playoffs. It wasn’t so much that Dallas lost, Nowitzki was a virtual no show. Now the knock on Dirk is that he lacks the character to step up and deliver in big games like Tim Duncan. How dare he accept his MVP trophy?

It’s not fair. Sure, it would have been nice if Dirk had lived up to his billing but the blame for the Mavericks getting an early dismissal from the post season rests on the shoulders of the entire team. No matter how brilliant a player is he is going to have an off night. That player will recover from a slump faster if the rest of the team can pick up the slack. What if Dirk had been injured? Other people have to step up.

Dallas was out-coached as much as they were out played. The Warriors were just hungrier. Maybe Dallas thought they’d coast through, win the series in five games and rested up for a second round showdown with Utah. Maybe Dallas peaked too early. The fact remains that the entire team lost. Dirk isn’t the only player suiting up for the Mavs. As dominant as Dallas proved to be over the course of the regular season, one would have expected them to beat Golden State with their reserves on the floor for the entire series.

We’re inconsistent in sports. We laud a knucklehead like Kobe Bryant for being a dominant scoring machine but fail to take him to task for effectively dismantling a juggernaut with his ego. Kobe could have 8 championships by now and would have transitioned past Shaq as the undisputed leader of the team but he was impatient and wanted the Lakers all to himself. He forced Shaq out and even alienated Phil Jackson before the siren call of fame and fortune brought Jackson back to LA. That makes Phil a whore.

In baseball A-Rod is cast as a villain to Derek Jeter’s hero. It doesn’t matter that A-Rod is the kind of player who can single handedly make a team good enough to get to the playoffs, A-Rod has struggled in the post season. Jeter has made a few big plays but. statistically Jeter is the most overrated player in the game. He’s a weak defensive shortstop and a mediocre hitter. His post season stats aren’t even that spectacular but since he has been on a winning team and earned a championship ring he gets the benefit of the doubt.

Until recently Peyton Manning was regarded as a stat monkey who couldn’t win big games. This reputation cost him a Heisman trophy in college and almost cost him in the draft. Fortunately the Indianapolis Colts never bought into the hysteria. Now that Peyton has a ring nobody doubts his greatness but his performance in the Super Bowl was far from his best and it can be argued that the Bears did more to give the game away than the Colts did to win it.

Lebron James is regarded as a guy who can’t deliver in the clutch. When its mentioned that he can and does he is accused of failing to come through in big games. Of course statistics prove that theory wrong. Just this year Lebron has come up big….in the playoffs…in the fourth quarter. Lebron buried the Wizards with a big fourth quarter effort in the first round and put the screws to the Nets in game two of the second round. All it takes is one missed free throw or an errant jumper late in a game for analysts to start questioning his heart. Even Reggie Miller, who should know better, insinuated that the player to foul in the fourth quarter is James. That’s funny because Lebron’s stats improve in the fourth quarter. Reggie Miller is and always has been an idiot.

Michael Jordan had plenty of lousy last second performances. So did Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Joe Montana and John Elway lost plenty of games and failed to rally their teams more often than they led spectacular comebacks. The reason we don’t obsess about their failures is because they managed to be part of great teams that won championships. What we forget is that all of those players had brilliant supporting casts around them.

Does Lebron James have a Scottie Pippen picking up the slack? Does he have a sniper draining threes from the perimeter ala Paxson or Kerr? Does he get a consistent performance from his front court? NO. Jordan did. Even though Zydrunas Ilgauskas is more talented than any center Jordan ever played with, Z sometimes goes into hiding. Jordan’s centers always played hard. They were consistent. Z is not. You never know when Z is going to explode for a 20/20 night or implode and score 3 points.

Montana threw passes to the greatest receiver of all time and John Elway, who was a habitual loser until the very end of his career, suddenly became great when he had a 2000 yard rusher on his team. San Francisco not only continued to win after Montana left, Steve Young was a more efficient quarterback. Denver fell off after Elway retired but his retirement coincided with the departure of several other important players.

Championships are won by great teams but we try to credit one performer. We like to put a face with the title and that causes us to give too much credit to individual players. Plenty of great players came up short. Patrick Ewing couldn’t win a title because he was surrounded by lackluster players. Charles Barkley came up short because he didn’t have enough help. Even the great duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone fell short because they simply didn’t have the rest of the pieces in place. In the case of the Jazz the deficiency might have been in coaching.

We talk in terms of intangibles and trick ourselves into believing that Joe Montana is better than Dan Marino because of some immeasurable quality that compelled him to win. The reality is that Bill Walsh was a better coach than Don Shula and that the Dolphins, aside from Marino, were a mediocre team.

Lebron has intangibles. The fact that he happily dishes to his teammates when everybody knows he could throw down 60 a night makes the Cavaliers a better team. Everybody on that roster adores Lebron because he is true leader who respects everybody on the floor. Kobe doesn’t carry the same weight with his teammates because he shows them disrespect in the way he plays. It’s all Kobe all the time. With Lebron it’s all about the rest of the team. He makes them better and they all know it.

Dirk Nowitzki is similar. He’s a dominant player because he has the skills of a guard in a center’s body. He can stretch a team’s front court out by playing from the perimeter and once he draws the defense to him he can pass the ball in or use his skills to drive the lane. Dirk could score 40 points a game but he happily shares the ball with his teammates. That’s why the Mavericks win. Unfortunately for Dirk, Avery Johnson outsmarted himself in the playoffs and the Mavs went home.

Everybody knows this stuff. Fans talk about it all the time. What separates the Spurs from the Mavs? Nowitzki and Duncan are similar players who put up similar numbers with Duncan being more of a force inside while Dirk brings more to the perimeter. The difference is that Duncan gets help from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. Duncan also plays for a better coach. The Mavs let one of the grittiest players in the game slip away when Steve Nash signed with the Suns. One has to believe that the Mavericks would be unstoppable if they had Nash playing the point. Before the playoffs started everybody gave the Spurs the edge in the west. Dallas won more games but the Spurs were just better equipped to win the head to head series.

So why the outrage? Dirk Nowitzki played a phenomenal regular season and led his team to the best record in the NBA but nobody really expected the Mavs to get to the finals. Nobody expected it because we know that the best teams don’t always have the best records and that the best players don’t always have the most impressive stats. Dirk deserves the MVP award because the same people complaining about his early exit voted to give him the award. It’s not his fault they suspended reason.