Post-NBA Finals Thoughts

By Chris Le

What a season.

Removing bias (that is, my man crush on LeBron and the Spurs and my hatred for anything Lakers), this was a season that genuine basketball groupies will remember for a long time.

Drama, unpredictability, history—all there in hefty doses. Which made for a season of simple, childhood-like fun.  So fun, in fact, I’m erasing from memory accepting that it ended with the Lakers hoisting the trophy.

From an analyst/writer’s perspective, what’s most appealing about the NBA year is that it provides and answers its own questions.  Throughout the course of the eight-month season, opinions are verified (like, which is the best team?), some amended (who’s the best player?) and others left to be determined (who’s the best ever?).  And it keeps us guessing.

This season was especially fickle: LeBron raped the regular season, the Lakers faded with Kobe looking old and beaten, ditto with the Celtics; then in the playoffs, the Magic looked invincible, then vincible (which is an actual word according to dictionary.com.  I’m willing to overlook its omission from the more credible Merriam-Webster because it’s probably the most apt description for the 2010 Magic that could ever exist—unless the Oxford English Dictionary approves “Rashardible.”), the Celtics rode the Delorean back to 2008, and Kobe clicked into Jordan mode.

Each turn of event, at its respective moment in time, altered the basketball landscape and, in my mind, projected a different Finals matchup.  Between LeBron and Kobe, the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Cavs, I vacillated about 745 times.

And yeah, I realize the irony with my last post, in which I bemoaned the tendency to overreact.  Yet here I sit: a prisoner of the moment, a hypocrite, even worse, the dreaded flip-flopper.

But I couldn’t care less.

Whenever I’m accused of hypocrisy, I think back to junior year of high school, Mrs. Marc’s class, English 11 Honors: American Literature—the first time I laid eyes on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson, in the essay that changed my life, once wrote:

Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

If the pimpest of all Transcendentalists (sorry, H.D. Thoreau) supported waffling, then I can do the same without indignity.

So, summoning my inner Emerson, here is—in hard words—what I think today.  But ask me again tomorrow.

Before the Playoffs: Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league.

After: Deron Williams was the top dog during the regular season and throughout the first round.  As the most consistent, and at times most dominant, lead guard all year, the race wasn’t close at all, really.  And once he finally convinced me, I stayed convinced for about, oh, five seconds.  Rondo then went into “Fuck around and got a triple-double” mode.  Followed by Nash decimating the Spurs, displaying a ruthlessness and a will to win on par with the legends—only to be dismissed by the Lakers.

So, to recap: I went from Williams, to Rondo, to Nash, and back to Rondo.  I’ve flip-flopped more often than Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Vlade Divac combined.

Have I learned my lesson?  Have I finally grown a pair and stuck with Rondo?

Not quite.  Like George Clooney, it’s up in the air.  Because I’m still waiting on my boy Chris Paul, who, once healthy, will run a train on the league worse than the one given to Edward Norton in the shower by that big Nazi guy in American History X.

Before the Playoffs: The two-month-long NBA postseason is the most entertaining stretch in sports.

After: Confirmed.  More than ever, perhaps.  With this year’s unpredictability—from the demise of the Cavs to the Celtic phoenix rise—and the added theater of free agency and a looming draft, it’s bar none.

The playoffs can, however, be improved.

How?  Show more crowd reactions.  Aside from the game itself, it’s my favorite part of watching the NBA on television, really.  Nothing makes me smile like an entire section of people—always of jumbled demography—erupt in spontaneous orgasm after a play, or seeing the team bench rolling on the floor and holding each other back, with faces of something filthy like they witnessed an emcee lyrically murder another in a freestyle battle.  Grown men with potbellies jumping like children after a LeBron tomahawk slam, the pure joy on their homely faces is immediately transferred to anyone watching at home.

More shots of Kim Jong Il's sister at Lakers games!

Sixty percent of today’s reactions, I realize, would consist of frat boys chest-bumping, flexing biceps and lifting their Affliction T-shirts to reveal their not-really-but-maybe-at-the-right-angle-and-in-the-right-lighting six-pack abs.  It’s a risk, but a risk worth taking.

That’s why I miss the old days.  Check out any highlight reel from the mid-80’s on back and you’ll see balding middle-aged white guys who look like accountants awkwardly high-fiving or cupping their faces in awe.  (Like this.  Or this Zach Galifianakis-looking dude.)  White people are awkward.

Before the Playoffs: Katy Perry is annoying and can’t dance.

After: She still can’t dance (which, for a pop star, isn’t a career death warrant; look at Rihanna and Mary J. Blige), but “California Gurls,” an irresistibly charming paean to West Coast hotties, has momentarily saved her from my immediate criticism and maybe even bolstered her mass appeal.

Despite the ebbed novelty, my ears show minimal fatigue from its looping replay, and because of that, “Gurls,” followed by Drake’s “Find Your Love,” is a strong candidate for Song of the Summer.

Third in line?  I’m surprised—almost ashamed—to say I like the Black Eyed Peas’ “Rock Your Body.”  Their electro-infused brand of hip-pop—a sound once reserved for trashy, Euro discothèques—has finally kept my attention, and not my disdain.  And just in time for the biggest sporting event in the world.  It’s not the official song of the ’10 World Cup (this is), but Black Eyed Peas, musically, are made for the Cup.  Their brew is simple: energetic beats with lyrics of cheesy bonhomie that don’t clog the brain.  A mix that aligns perfectly with international sensibility and is gobbled on the world’s stage.  (See: Ricky Martin’s “Cup of Life” for the ’98 World Cup in France, which, I think, should be the official song for every World Cup, now and forever.  It’s perfect.)  It explains their overseas success, but not the inexplicable domestic obsession.  Will.i.am is, otherwise, the worst emcee in the business.

What does this have to do with basketball?  Absolutely nothing.  I’m just riffing on my previous blog.

Back to basketball …

Before the Playoffs: LeBron is the best player in the league.

After: Kobe.  Hate the guy, hate the team, and I hate to say it.  But it’s the truth.

I’ve always argued that, while Kobe is more skilled, LeBron’s overall impact on the game and teammates makes him more valuable, in the sense of being indispensable.  That may still be true, but I can no longer dismiss Kobe’s closing ability—a skill in which LeBron is proficient but has yet to master—and his insatiable will to be great.

That last part is important.  When Kobe lost to the Celtics in 2008, I could picture him at home replaying over and over in his mind Kevin Garnett’s “ANYTHING IS POSSIBBLLLLLEEEE!!!” war cry (which trails off into a high-pitched, incoherent ramble).   I could picture Kobe seething in his seat, eager to be better, thirsting for another ring, hungry to prove that he’s as good as he thinks he is—and believe me, no matter what Kobe says, he thinks he’s the best ever.

I don’t get this feeling from LeBron.  He’s probably at home right now watching SportsCenter, more worried than angry.  Worried that he has that much more to prove.  Worried that he might disappoint.  Worried, most of all, that he might fail.

And that’s the difference between him and Kobe.  Kobe is motivated only by his own hunger to be great; and LeBron, it seems, is motivated by the fear of losing.

Looking back, I was blinded by LeBron’s numbers.  Could you blame me?  They’re historic. Never have we seen such an exemplar of physical evolution, or such production, which is comparable only to the luminaries; LeBron is amazing on both television and paper.  Which made me forget that, while stars are made in the regular season, legends are made in the playoffs.  And the playoffs are one territory King James has yet to conquer.

But the gap is slim—slimmer than the media makes it out to be—and I’ll stop short of saying the pecking order is solidified for the next few years because age creeps furtively and suddenly.  Kobe turns 32 this summer, with battle-worn knees from some 1,200 games and 45,000 minutes.  Youthful legs are a finite gift, as Tim Duncan and KG can attest, and the end is always sooner than expected.

But otherwise, no more premature anointment.  Even if next year LeBron drops 30-10-10 a game during the regular season.

Kobe is in the lead until LeBron goes further in the playoffs.  It’s the only way to decide this debate.

Before the Playoffs: Kobe is the third best guard of all-time behind Jordan and Magic, and sits outside the 10 greatest players ever.

After: The first statement remains true … but not the second.

Kobe now has five rings, two of which he can claim to have earned “on his own” (whatever that means), and once again, displayed a brilliance reminiscent of Jordan.  With that, Kobe cements himself as the sixth greatest player ever.  Yes, the sixth greatest player ever.  Ahead of West, Robertson, Olajuwon, Shaq, Wilt and (sigh) Tim Duncan.  Those are some big-swinging dicks who are not easily unseated.  But on pure skill, years as Best Player on the Planet, sheer numbers and total times he makes you say “Fuck, this guy is just too damn good,” it’s hard to argue against Kobe.  Dude has earned it.

However, he remains looking up at Magic, Bird, Kareem, and of course, Russell and Jordan, both of whom likely will never be supplanted.

So, why do those five rank ahead of Kobe?

First of all, it’s not like Kobe had an all-time great series against Boston.  Aside from a brilliantly balanced Game 1 and a few jaw-drop moments here and thereafter, Kobe didn’t impress me—not by his own lofty standards.  He routinely disappeared in the 4th, was saved by Derek Fisher in Game 3, looked lost at times against the Celtics defense and had his worst offensive performance in the deciding Game 7.  You think Jordan would’ve gone 6 for 24 in a Game 7?  (Oh yeah, Jordan never needed a Game 7 to win a title.)

But what it boils down to is, I don’t think Kobe is as good a teammate.

I know, I know: blah, blah, blah—this rant again?  Didn’t Kobe prove last year that he’s unselfish?

He’s made improvements, sure.  But not a quantum leap.

Leadership-wise, Kobe has the look of young Jordan—the Jordan before he fully accepted “team ball” and won a title.  Which, obviously, is still enough for Kobe to win a championship.  But this is the Greatest of All-Time debate; it’s all about picking nits.  The inability of Kobe’s team still visibly weighs on him (kinda like LeBron), with frustration setting in and affecting his play.   After a brainfart three by Artest, for example, or a Vujacic missed rotation, Kobe will glower, showing disgust and disappointment—a look that screams, “Idiot!  Do I have to do everything?!”  Then he’ll turn into me-first Kobe and force the situation, though, to his credit, this tendency has waned of late.

When things are good, Kobe is the greatest teammate in the world: high-fives all-around, butt pats for everyone, even poor Adam Morrison, he’ll even bust out the “heartfelt” forehead-to-forehead motivational speech.

When times are bad?  Not so much.

Russell, Magic and Bird were always their teammates’ biggest fans, or, when upset, vocal in a constructive manner.  Latter-day Jordan was always cool and even deferred to 7th man Steve Kerr in the pivotal moment of the 1997 NBA Finals.  Call me when Kobe heads into a game-deciding situation with the intention of finding Jordan Farmar or Lamar Odom to take the last shot.  Yeah, I thought so.

It’s been a while since I last sat down, studied the résumés and made a list, but this is how my All-Time list currently looks:

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Magic Johnson
  4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  5. Larry Bird
  6. Kobe Bryant
  7. Wilt Chamberlain
  8. Tim Duncan
  9. Jerry West
  10. Oscar Robertson
  11. Hakeem Olajuwon
  12. Shaquille O’Neal

Kobe jumped from outside the top 10 to number 6, leapfrogging six demigods in the process.  Overreaction?  Am I, once again, just a prisoner of the moment?

We’ll see.  But that’s the great thing about basketball: Kobe has next season to prove me right or prove me wrong.  And that’s why I love the NBA—you just never know.

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10 responses to “Post-NBA Finals Thoughts

  1. stefanie aka joyce

    good stuff!! i’m sad that there’s no nba until the fall. but haha that asian lady always makes me laugh!

  2. I miss your work…

  3. Apparently that Korean lady is some ultra-rich business mogul. She’s my favorite, too.

    I think the point guard race next year is gonna be bananas. I’m actually a big fan of Rondo. It’s like they took Jason Kidd’s game and surgically implanted it into a lanky alien creature with enormous mitts. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to his career after they break up the Big 3 (which I don’t think is happening this summer, although Ray might leave for the right price). Rondo seems like a fun player to build around, although for some reason, I feel like he belongs on the Thunder.

    And kudos on using vincible in a write-up.

  4. Rondo – I like that comparison to Kidd, Chris G, minus the horrid FT shooting (5 for 19 in the Finals, are you kidding me?). That and his 3-point shooting are what he needs to work on if he wants to be the best PG in the league. I can’t imagine any of the Big 3 leaving, and when Rondo’s contract is up, he’ll be 29 and at the best, have a 37-year-old Paul Pierce still trying to play.

    Chris, I hate you for waffling on Kobe. I’ve decided the number of rings doesn’t mean anything, like how people say Steve Nash needs a ring to validate his career. No, he doesn’t. He will, without a doubt, go down as one of the greatest PG’s ever. Or how people say, Kobe is the best Laker ever, over Magic, after this latest championship. Right. Because it’s that clear-cut with the number of rings. It’s all just icing on the cake.

    How is Kobe suddenly the best player in the league? Not just from you, but everyone’s saying this after the Finals. I won’t argue with you on his mentality versus LeBron’s, but do we have to re-examine supporting casts again? I don’t think Gasol will ever get enough credit as the second-best player on the team, and I have no reservations with saying that despite this being Kobe’s team and him being the best player, I’ve long though Gasol was the team’s MVP. All right, Lakers fans. This where you go on your rabid rants.

  5. The PG debate should further heat up next year. The field is packed: CP3, Williams, Nash, Rondo, Rose; also throw in a healthy Tony Parker, the ever-improving Russell Westbrook, and John Wall.

    BJ, I don’t understand why you so readily dismiss rings as a gauge for greatness. I agree that Nash is already an all-timer, even ring-less. But with two rings, he’d be in the top five for point guards. Had Nash defeated the Spurs in ’07 or the Lakers this year and won the title, are you saying that would not have elevated his status?

    Because regular season greatness is fine and dandy but the playoffs are an entirely different beast. Defenses are more focused, and offensive refinement is required. It’s also more of a mental test. For the legends, games before the month of June are the preseason; deep in the playoffs is where they carve their place in history. The truest proof of postseason success? Championhips.

    And Kobe has continually proven—two years running now—that no one is on his level in the playoffs. I don’t share the boat with those who think Kobe is greater than Magic because of rings. But I’ll at least concede that Kobe is in the argument. He’s in the argument because of his all-around game (compared to Magic’s subpar defense), postseason dominance (Kobe’s series against Utah and the Suns was the best I’ve seen since Wade vs. the Mavs in ’06 and Duncan vs. the Nets in ’03), and, as I’ve said previously, the number of years as the games best player (which, again, is decided in the playoffs).

    I agree that Gasol’s value is underrated. But to say he’s the Lakers’ MVP—that’s like saying Ginobili was the Spurs’ MVP in ’05 or Parker in ’07. They may have been the player who brought them over the top, but like Duncan, Kobe is the player around which the team built.

  6. Elevate Nash’s status to what? I already view him as one of the all-time greats. I don’t bother ranking player-for-player, although I will engage in debate over it.

    It’s just that individual success can only do so much to team success. Bottom line: 1) you need a great cast, something LeBron doesn’t have, and 2) Kobe can’t win without Gasol. Obviously, every Jordan has his Pippen, but that gives me major reservations about Kobe’s playoff success from just being blessed with great big men.

    Hopefully, you can understand where I’m coming from. Maybe, you can even put that into perspective for me with comparable Hall-of-Famers.

  7. Sounds like we’re arguing different debates. You believe in two player categories: all-time greats and non-all-time greats; and you see no point in individual rankings. I like to rank—obviously, as 80 percent of my blogs comprise of lists. Haha. I’ll let this specific discussion die.

    You’re right, though: Kobe probably doesn’t win his last two rings, particularly the latest, without Gasol. But I can say the same about Duncan without Ginobili in ’07, and yes, Shaq without Kobe in the three-peat. (Yet their greatness isn’t questioned, particularly Shaq, who needed an All-Pro wingman in each championship, especially his last with Wade. Why? Because they were the best player on their team, as Kobe was these past two title years.) And LeBron obviously—desperately—needs a big man to succeed. So I won’t punish Kobe for failing to win without a complementary post player, which every wing in history outside Jordan could not do (thus Jordan remaining number 1, probably forever).

    And I didn’t bump LeBron because he has fewer rings than Kobe, or that wasn’t the reason ostensibly. It’s not so much the physical rings themselves, but how they were achieved, through four successive rounds of play. It’s about stepping up in the playoffs. Kobe’s done that, many times.

    LeBron? Here and there. Twice he has had the best regular season record, and most recently, the unanimous best team heading into the playoffs. (90 percent of the basketball world outside the borders of Los Angeles and Orlando thought the Cavs were taking it.) Twice LeBron has been ousted before the Finals. His teams have underachieved, there’s no other way to say it.

    Granted, his teammates underperform—a point I have harped on numerously. But some of the onus has to fall on LeBron, like how Kobe was lambasted during the mid-2000 dark period. It’s hypocrisy otherwise.

    Say LeBron re-signs with the Cavs and they hypothetically sign a quality big man (they won’t; no monies) and consequently win because of it (of course, along with LeBron playing the way I think he can—I’ll give him his just due; the same respect I’m paying Kobe now. I won’t diminish the achievement, saying LeBron won because of the acquisition. Because in the end, despite the supporting cast, winning comes down to the superstar.

  8. Thanks for putting that into perspective for me. I just hate when people (i.e. Lakers fans) say Kobe’s better than LeBron right now just because he won the championship.

    Totally different topic: postseason play. You’ve mentioned postseason play is a different beast, and I agree with you. We can also agree that the game changes, and it becomes a half-court game. That being the case, why do the Suns and Warriors bother to play run-and-gun when this style won’t work in the postseason?

  9. The Warriors are just a bad organization–from the front office, to a senile Don Nelson, to the mix-and-match collection of players. Not a recipe for success.

    With the Suns it’s a philosophy. The coach sees the personnel and decides that a run-and-gun style plays to theirs strengths.

    But offense isn’t what cripples the Suns and Warriors in the playoffs; it’s their inconsistent defense. The Warriors, well, let’s be honest, defense isn’t in their vocabulary, and neither will the word “playoffs” if they continue with their “best defense is a good offense” mentality. The Suns, however, developed toughness and defense this year (see their series against the Spurs). It’s just that their bench was inconsistent, particularly on the road, and not to mention Kobe went to work on them.

  10. Pingback: NBA Predictions | SportsCouch

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