Lessons Learned from Dallas' Quick Playoff DemiseThe Dallas Mavericks not only avenged the Miami Heat's 2006 come from behind NBA Finals victory over Dallas with a come from behind NBA Finals victory over Miami in 2011 but the Mavericks also followed up their triumph exactly like the Heat did: by being swept in the first round the next season. The only other defending NBA champions that failed to win a single playoff game the next season are the 1957 Warriors, the 1970 Celtics and the 1999 Bulls (the latter two squads failed to qualify for the playoffs after the retirements of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan respectively).
The Mavericks became the first team to exit the 2012 playoffs, falling 4-0 to an Oklahoma City Thunder team that the Mavericks defeated 4-1 in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. It is never easy to defend a championship; that is why the NBA went nearly two decades--from Russell's Celtics to Magic Johnson's Lakers--without any team claiming back to back crowns. Since that time, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls scored a pair of three-peats, Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets won two championships in a row during Jordan's brief baseball hiatus and two separate Lakers' squads--both coached by Phil Jackson and featuring Kobe Bryant--won consecutive titles, with the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers pulling off a three-peat and then Bryant claiming back to back championships sans the Big Diesel. Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs won four championships but never successfully defended a crown, while Boston's current Hall of Fame trio has thus farwon just one title (and made one other NBA Finals appearance).
It is very difficult to make back to back NBA Finals appearances, let alone win consecutive titles. After the Mavericks swept the Lakers in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, I put the Lakers' recent accomplishments in historical perspective:
The 2011 Lakers were trying to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, a feat that has only been accomplished by three teams: the 1984-87 Celtics, the 1982-85 Lakers and the 1959-66 Celtics. If the Lakers had won the 2011 championship then they would have been the only team other than Bill Russell's Celtics to advance to at least four straight Finals and win at least three championships (the Jordan-Pippen Bulls "three-peated" twice, the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers "three-peated" once and the Mikan Lakers "three-peated" once but none of those teams also made it to four straight Finals).
Think for just a moment about the facts in the preceding paragraph: the Lakers were trying to do something that has only been achieved by the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport! Then think about this for a moment: Russell's Celtics were loaded with other Hall of Famers (including Top 50 players Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bill Sharman), the 1980's Celtics had three Top 50 players (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) plus another Hall of Famer (Dennis Johnson) and the 1980's Lakers had three Top 50 players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy). Each of those dynasties brought current or former All-Stars off of the bench during at least some of those seasons.
Some people try to fool the public by saying that the current Lakers team is talented and/or deep but in 2009 I wrote a detailed refutation of both notions (the 2010 Lakers added some talent by essentially swapping Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but that did not materially change the truth of what I asserted in 2009); the 2009 and 2010 Lakers were among the least talented and least deep champions of the past two decades and they were not even close to being as talented or deep as the Russell Celtics, Bird Celtics or Johnson Lakers: while the latter three teams had multiple Hall of Famers/Top 50 players, the current Lakers have one player of that caliber (Kobe Bryant), one All-Star who had not won a single playoff game prior to joining the Lakers (Pau Gasol), a solid sixth man who often had to start (Lamar Odom), a talented but raw young center with chronically bad knees (Andrew Bynum) and a collection of role players (Artest made his only All-Star appearance seven years and three teams ago and thus can hardly be compared to the perennial All-Stars who played alongside Russell, Bird and Johnson).
Dallas' ignominious title defense does not taint the accomplishments of the 2011 Mavericks but just underscores the true greatness of the teams that won back to back titles and the teams that made it to the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons. One of the ironic twists to Dallas' story is that the Lakers seemingly sabotaged the Mavericks' repeat chances by sending a Trojan Horse to Dallas, namely Lamar Odom; pro football Hall of Famer Bill Walsh consistently advocated getting rid of a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late and it certainly seems like the Lakers made a timely decision to part ways with Odom, a player who had a good 2011 regular season but did not contribute much to the Lakers' brief 2011 playoff run and who has been overrated by many commentators who act as if Odom--who has never been an All-Star, an All-NBA player or an All-Defensive Team selection--is an elite performer when he is actually just a good player who benefited tremendously from playing alongside Kobe Bryant (not only because Bryant draws double teams but also because the example that Bryant sets in terms of work ethic at least kept Odom relatively focused on the task at hand, something that clearly did not happen after Odom left L.A.).
Before the 2012 season, Dallas owner Mark Cuban parted ways with Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson; Chandler and Barea in particular played key roles for the 2011 championship team. I predicted "Tyson Chandler's departure will likely hurt the Mavericks more than it will help the New York Knicks" and that turned out to be quite correct; with Chandler, the Knicks went from being a low seeded team that got swept in the first round to being a low seeded team that is currently trailing 3-1 in the first round. New York's lack of progress is not Chandler's fault but he hardly transformed the team's fortunes the way that many people foolishly expected that he would; he made a bigger impact for the Mavericks, a more well balanced team that could properly utilize Chandler's skills without being overly reliant on him.
Cuban fully understood how difficult it would be to win back to back titles and he feared that if he kept his squad together then he would be stuck with an aging roster and serious salary cap issues; he essentially abdicated the team's title defense with the idea of reloading for the 2012-13 season, hoping to acquire Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams to provide help for Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has had a great career and he is one of the most underrated playoff performers of all-time: he has averaged 25.9 ppg and 10.3 rpg in 128 career playoff games, joining Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit as the only players in ABA/NBA history to average at least 25/10 over the course of a postseason career. The 2012 season does not detract from Nowitzki's impressive resume but it hardly added much to it, either; Nowitzki admittedly started the season out of shape and never really completely found his rhythm, though he posted decent numbers down the stretch as the Mavericks secured the seventh seed in the West: just like it is difficult for teams to make multiple NBA Finals appearances, it is also difficult for individual players to maintain All-NBA status on a perennial basis--that is why five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant and four-time NBA champion Tim Duncan deserve the ultimate respect for leading winning teams while performing at the highest possible level individually. Bryant has made the All-NBA First Team for six consecutive seasons (and nine times overall), while Duncan made the All-NBA First Team in each of his first eight seasons (1998-2005) and added a ninth selection in 2007.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:45 PM