Friday, June 15, 2007


ESPN has a channel that features replays of legendary athletic performances and highlight footage of some of the greatest players in sports. The channel is simply called ESPN Classic. Of course, 24 hours of programming gobbles up quite a bit of archived footage so ESPN producers sometimes have to reach.

One feature they have is a program called “Instant Classic”. Typically this forum is used to replay a recent game of some notoriety. A great example of one of these so-called “instant classics” is the recent Fiesta Bowl where Boise State upset Oklahoma. It was a great game and it more or less proved that the term “instant classic” isn’t quite as oxymoronic as some people perceive it to be.

We’ve all seen sports history in the making. Tom Brady coming off the bench and out of obscurity to lead the New England Patriots through the playoffs and on to a Super Bowl win was one of those moments in time where one can feel the legend being written. You just knew when Tom Brady flashed that million watt smile and hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy something special was happening. That wasn’t the case when Kurt Warner led the Rams to a title, his was a feel good story but it wasn’t one of those timeless moments.

We like those moments. Tom Brady took us back to Joe Montana and made everything seem OK. Football would always be football. The more things change the more they stay the same. We want great teams, great players and great moments but sometimes our desire to replicate history overcomes good sense. Such is the case with LeBron James and the San Antonio Spurs.

We want LeBron to be Michael Jordan and can’t figure out why he hasn’t won six titles yet. Part of it might be because LeBron just finished his third season and hasn’t had enough opportunities to win and part of it might be that at the age of 22 LeBron still has some work to do before he becomes the best player he can be. It’s also reasonable to place some of the blame on the rest of his team. Jordan seemed destined to share space in championship purgatory with Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins until Scottie Pippen showed up. In the King’s defense Jordan had a lot of work to do at the age of 22 as well. One might say that LeBron is better than Jordan was at this early stage in his career. One would have a hard time arguing otherwise. One thing's for sure: LeBron is a better teammate.

We are also pondering whether or not the Spurs are a dynasty. Which begs the question: what is a dynasty in sports? It’s not an official term but subjective opinion seems to maintain that a dynasty demonstrates a consistent level of success over a long period of time. If that’s the case the Spurs might have something going but many feel that their championships are too spread out to qualify them as a true dynasty. The Spurs haven’t won back to back and in the middle of this supposed dynasty the Lakers pulled off three titles in a row. Who has the dynasty?

In my not-so-humble opinion the test of time is what makes or breaks a sports dynasty. The Spurs are a great team right now but what will we think 15 years from now? Will they be held in the same esteem as the Celtics and the Lakers? It doesn’t matter what we think now; that’s a question for the ages but I think the fact that the Spurs allowed a conference rival to pull off a three-peat in the midst of their run will haunt the legacy.

Does a dynasty have to win multiple titles? Some would say so but the word implies some level of consistent dominance. You can't win a title, sleep walk through a season or two and win again. You have to win or be in the position to win year after year. To that end the Spurs aren’t the most dominant team in their conference or division. Since they broke through in 1999 they are 4-0 in the finals but the Lakers are 3-1 and Shaquille O’Neal has been a member of four championship teams with five appearances in the finals. Perhaps the Spurs dynasty will be overshadowed by Shaq’s. It’s hard to argue with his credentials.

Switching back to football one of the most impressive accomplishments is the four straight Super Bowl appearances by the Buffalo Bills in the 1990’s. Talk about consistency! This is a team that won four consecutive conference championships and from 1988 through 1993 made six consecutive post season appearances. And the NFL doesn’t have a playoff field like the NBA It’s hard to make the playoffs; you have to win to get in. The Bills continued to be highly competitive over a period of 12 years. From 1988 through 1999 they made the playoffs 10 times and compiled a regular season record of 124-74. Impressive? I dare you to say no. Dynasty? Well….

You’ve got to finish. Winning titles is certainly part of the dynasty equation but not the only one. A dynasty must demonstrate consistent success over a period of time. Dynasties are generally associated with dominance and that means the success must be significantly greater than a team’s rivals over that period. You can’t just be one of the best teams every year, you have to be the best more often than not. Michael Jordan demonstrated exactly what a dynasty is when he won three titles in a row, took a couple of seasons off and came back to win three more. Six titles in eight years and the Bulls were in the hunt during his two season hiatus. That's one efficient dynasty. You have to dust off the Bill Russell Celtics before you can find that sort of success. Granted that was a much different NBA. The compeition wasn't that impressive.

Go back to the Lakers. Not the Sha-Kobe Lakers that threw a three-peat monkey wrench in the midst of a Spurs dynasty but the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s; for that matter look at the Celtics of the same era. From the 1979-1980 season through 1990-1991 the Lakers made it to nine finals and won five of them. They made consecutive appearances and won back to back titles in the span but what’s important is that for more than 10 years the Lakers defined the playoffs and the NBA finals. During that stretch the Celtics won three titles in five appearances. If not for the Lakers the Celtics would have ruled the 1980’s.

That’s a dynasty. The Lakers dominated everybody. The Celtics, though often linked to the Lakers as their chief rival and regular foil simply don’t even compare when the results are examined years later. The Celtics were a great team but history proves that the Lakers were better…by far. Dominance.

The Spurs might be like the Celtics. The Lakers could make some moves, win two more titles over the next three years. Then we’ll look back at this era and call it Showtime II. The Cavaliers could get aggressive in the off season and embark on a period of dominance that overshadows everything the Spurs have done to this point. Or perhaps the Spurs will finally pull off that magical repeat next year and put history in a stranglehold. We don’t know how this book ends because there are still chapters waiting to be written.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about how to define the present and simply enjoy what we have. The Spurs are a great team and the Cavaliers clearly have a bright future. It’s hard to put what we’ve seen into historical perspective because we simply don’t have the vantage point of time. Let’s take a breath and wait.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cavs can't get any love

Everybody loves LeBron James now. At the start of the Eastern Conference Finals James was roundly criticized by everybody for kicking the ball out to his best three point shooter. Ironically one of those critics was Magic Johnson who made a name for himself executing that very sort of play. Apparently the difference between James and Johnson is that Johnson had the telepathic ability to will the ensuing shot into the basket. More criticism followed after the second game where LeBron seemed unable to get his team inspired in the third quarter although he got a little backhanded credit for taking the ball to the rim late in the game. The analysts seemed more intent on patting themselves on the back for being right than they were with giving James credit for taking ownership of the game.

The love affair started in game five. The Cavaliers played well at home and took two games from what appeared to be an uninspired Pistons club but nobody expected the Pistons to fall in game five. The Pistons are dangerous when the pressure’s on. That was where LeBron James stepped up late and didn’t quit until the Cavs won the game. He scored all 25 of the Cavaliers final points and displayed the sort of clutch performance associated with the best players in the history of the game.

Game six was interesting. The Pistons went back to the defense that had stifled James in the first two games and it worked. LeBron couldn’t get his offense on track but the difference was that his teammates were finally hitting shots. Larry Hughes drilled key threes early and punished the Pistons for collapsing on James. Then young Daniel Gibson took over and nailed shot after shot to finish the game. James made key plays but it was the same generosity that he displayed in game one that made it possible to beat the Pistons big in the sixth and final game. It wasn’t even competitive. The Pistons quit with five minutes left to play.

Nobody gave the Cavaliers a chance to beat the Pistons. Most experts speculated that the Cavaliers were fortunate to have drawn such an easy playoff bid. Washington and Miami limped into the playoffs with injuries to key players and the Bulls, by virtue of one ill-times loss ended up drawing a semifinal match with the Pistons. Cleveland, they insisted, was the third best team in the playoffs with Detroit being the runaway favorite to win it all.

Cleveland took it to Detroit in the conference finals. Charles Barkley, who picked the Pistons to win, declared Cleveland the winner by virtue of a 6 game sweep. He elaborates that Cleveland basically outplayed Detroit in the first two games in spite of coming up short on the scoreboard and that LeBron demoralized the Pistons in game five. Cleveland simply rose to the challenge.

Still Barkley and other pundits don’t give the Cavs much of a chance against the Spurs. Everybody sees the Spurs as an unbeatable force even though they lost to the Cavaliers in both of their regular season meetings. Granted that was then and this is the Finals where the Spurs have won before but the Spurs did get a gift from David Stern when the NBA saddled Phoenix with a suspension and that was after receiving the gift of favorable calls all through the playoffs.

The Western Conference was thrown for quite a loop when the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks choked against the Warriors. That gave the Spurs what amounted to a week of practice as they toyed with Utah in the Western Conference finals.

When you compare these teams the Spurs don’t have that big of an edge. The Spurs have no answer for LeBron James. Unless Bruce Bowen manages to get a foot under James when he goes to the rim and send the NBA’s best player to the injured list, James will have a brilliant series. The only players big enough to stop James aren’t fast enough to guard him.

The Spurs also don’t have an answer for Zydrunas Ilgauskas unless they opt to put that burden on Duncan’s shoulders. Duncan can shut Z down but Z’s slippery enough to make him work for it which will undoubtedly detract from Duncan’s contributions on offense. Defensively the Cavs will employ a platoon of the energetic Anderson Varejao, who frustrated Rasheed Wallace to the point of ejection, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall to wear The Big Fundamental down.

The Spurs have a big advantage with Tony Parker who could force a double team if Larry Hughes’ injury tightens up and Daniel Gibson gets overwhelmed. A double team will shut down Parker, leaving Manu Ginobli open to do damage but the Cavs managed to handle the depth and versatility of Detroit’s backcourt with consistency. It’s clear that Mike Brown really does know what he’s doing.

And that brings us to coaching. Brown is still pretty new at his job and Popovich is his mentor. The Spurs appear to have the edge in coaching but don’t overlook Mike Brown. Who had the bigger challenge? Brown, who brought his team back from an 0-2 start or Popovich who faced his biggest challenge of the post season with a league-induced advantage? One thing the experts seem to agree on is that the Spurs were on the verge of being eliminated before David Stern sat the Suns’ most explosive player out for a pivotal game six and the Suns almost pulled off the upset. Who’s the better coach?

The real advantage the Spurs have is with the officiating. The Spurs got past the Suns by playing dirty. Roll the tape and you see a team getting away with nasty little cheap shots throughout the entire series. Bruce Bowen hasn’t been reprimanded for maliciously trying to injure players by rolling their ankles and buckling their knees and it’s unlikely they’ll put the screws to him now. Maybe LeBron’s star has risen enough to warrant a little protection from such pedestrian tactics and the plan will backfire. That’s the real issue. Will the Spurs carry their magic blanket of NBA-sanctioned protection into this series or will the Cavs be given a fair shot at taking them down?