NBA Finals Recap

Well, the NBA Finals have come and gone.  In between, we were left with a lot of fun and lots to examine.  I thought we could conduct a Finals post-mortem to pick up on some of the issues that were discussed and give our two cents and to identify some things that no one else has really discussed.  So, here’s goes:

-2010-11 Miami Heat, Most Hated Team Ever?: Unlike any team in recent memory, the Heat really were fun to root against.  They didn’t embrace the traditional gritty villain role.  They didn’t kicks foes when they were down as much as they seemed to embody the cocky, elitist, as though they were basketball version of the villain from some 1980s movie who assaulted you with snide comments.  Very few teams/players have occupied this exact sphere in any sports, let alone the NBA.  There were plenty who hated the 1980s Celtics and/or Lakers (depending upon where you lived).  The late 1980s Pistons were hated because of their chippy play.  In addition, all these teams were multi-title winners and had , in the eyes of all fans, earned their status.  The only other NBA situation that was remotely similar to the negative feeling evoked by this Heat team was the legitimate dislike most people/players had for Rick Barry in the 1970s for his tendency to complain and be unapologetically obnoxious.

Miami (mostly LeBron), on the other hand, seem care deeply about their reputations and winning but have senses of entitlement and self-worth that are instantly repellent when you hear them talk.  You wanted to see Bill Laimbeer get clocked in the face or to see Isiah bawling in disappointment (as opposed to bawling with happiness, which he also did on occasion).  You don’t want to see LeBron or Wade get nailed, you just want to see them lose and slink off the court.

I understand the antipathy to the Heat but I, personally, am a little more sympathetic.  Sure, the Heat’s lack of perspective is annoying but they probably deserve something of a break.  Catching LeBron and Wade making fun of Dirk Nowitzki in private is exactly the type of thing anyone might do and doesn’t make them big douches everyone perceives them to be.  LeBron’s post-game comments about the “haters” was a much more in the douchey category but it only shows that he totally egotistical but is hardly hateful.  I didn’t feel any satisfaction in their losing this tough series (though I could understand why so many did).  The bottom line is Miami will be around to watch and root against for years to come.  LeBron and Dwyane Wade seemed blissfully unaware of the fact that someone might dislike them for their decisions over the last year but they are sure to make peace with this and watching this team will only get even more interesting for all of us to watch in the future and that is something for all fans to be happy about. 

Did LeBron Choke/Shirk? As great as Dallas played, the big takeaway most observers made was that LeBron was oddly unaggressive in the last few games of the series, as he sat on the perimeter too often and watched Wade try to create shots.  I absolutely hate dime store psychological observations but it certainly did seem that James was less confident in this series than we have ever seen him before.  I don’t know the reason and I don’t expect it to last but this palpable sense of failing to take (much less make) the big shots will be a big part of the LeBron narrative until he wins a title.  This narrative will be overblown too (LeBron is still the best player in the NBA) but it is fair to say that we have never seen Michael Jordan ever not go down firing like that.

Why didn’t anyone make fun of LeBron via State Farm? I thought the most obvious joke in the world would be to run a clip of LeBron complaining about the “hater” after the series and then add in his annoying commercial for State Farm where he asks for “the world smallest violin” to mock someone he was in a traffic dispute with.  I guess it’ll come soon enough.

Heat Help? As an offshoot of the LeBron problem was the general failure of the Heat to create against the Mavs’ zone defense.  For whatever reason, the Heat chose to constantly jump in the air, as if they were going to shoot and then pass the ball at the last second around the perimeter, which either created a turnover or put the recipient of the pass in a poor position to shoot or pass.  Was this a failure of the coach to adjust?  Not so much.  The fact was that after James Jones went down, the only reliable scorer besides the Big Three was Mario Chalmers (7.8 ppg in the playoffs).  The other Heat rotation players (Mike Bibby, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Juwan Howard, and Joel Anthony) were so offensively inept that that if the Big Three weren’t ripping it up, they could not win.

On top of that, Pat Riley’s tendency to throw long contracts at reserves (see, e.g., Walker, Antoine) is already biting Miami in the ass yet again.  Miller and Anthony have four more years left on their deals, when they should’ve been working on year-to-year contracts.  Anthony might be tradeable but neither contract is particularly fungible.  In order to improve, the Heat will have to entice veterans to take below-market deals to pair up in a star situation.  The Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls all did this effectively over the years and there is no reason to think Miami can’t do it too.  The real trick will be finding the right vets to fill the holes.

Dallas Wins! In victory or defeat, Miami was the main story but the Mavs great run deserves attention too.  This wasn’t the best Dallas team of the last decade on paper, nor was this Dirk’s best playoff showing either but they had no great weaknesses and got hot at the right time.  How did it happen?  Dallas’ ability to make three-pointers was particularly evident during that whole run.  As a team, the Mavs shot an excellent .394% from three, which was quite an improvement from the regular seaosn.  In fact, here is how the Mavs’ shot from three in the playoffs versus the regular season:

Player 3s 3s Att. 3-Pt% (playoff) 3-Pt% (reg) Diff
Nowitzki 23 50 0.460 0.393 0.067
Terry 42 95 0.442 0.362 0.080
Marion 0 5 0.000 0.152 -0.152
Kidd 43 115 0.374 0.340 0.033
Barea 16 50 0.320 0.349 -0.029
Stojakovic 29 77 0.377 0.400 -0.023
Stevenson 27 68 0.397 0.378 0.019
Total % 0.394 0.365 0.029

Dallas shot much better from three in the playoffs.  Dirk and Terry were incredible from three and Jason Kidd and Deshawn Stevenson moved up from decent to good.  Only J.J.Barea and Peja Stojakovic declined and the declines were modest.  (As an interesting side note, Marion has basically stopped shooting threes.  He has hit eight in the last two regular seasons for Dallas and only 26 since leaving Phoenix in mid-2007-08).  Clearly, Dallas’ proficiency from three in the playoffs was a huge factor in getting this title.  Was this improvement luck or skill?  Dallas, as a team, hadn’t shot better than .372% in a regular season since 2006-07.  So, we’ll chalk this up to a very well-timed hot streak.

Dirk’s Legacy: The perception of Nowitzki has now changed around the league.  He now officially has that “winner” stamp for all-time.  This is silly.   Dirk has been a Hall of Famer for years.  As we noted in our Finals preview, Dirk’s offensive stats in this year’s playoffs aren’t significantly better than past playoffs (he was even better in 2005-06).  He’s been remarkably consistent, as a great player the whole time.  The fact that the players around him delivered shouldn’t change any of this.  Even so, this does seem like an appropriate time to take stock of Dirk’s place amongst the power forwards.  Here goes:

5.  Bob Pettit

4.  Charles Barkley

3.  Dirk Nowitzki

2.  Kevin Garnett

1.  Karl Malone

First off, had we considered Tim Duncan a power forward, I would have him first as power forward but, let’s be honest, he’s really a center.  As for the rest, Malone’s incredibly longevity makes him still the clear number one.  I think KG versus Dirk is a near dead heat.  I went with Garnett over Dirk only because, in their primes, KG was such a great defender/rebounder that he could fit well seamlessly into any team building effort  (you can’t blame KG for the crappy roster filler he was stuck with during much of his time in Minnesota).  Dirk passed Barkley a year or two ago and, if he continues to age well, he will pass KG with an outside shot at Mailman.

-Dirk vs. Bird: Bird wasn’t quite a power forward (they he could play the position) but many have wondered how he stacks up with Dirk.  The comparisons are natural.  Two big white guys who could/can really shoot.  Intuitively, however, Bird would still seem like the better player.  Both could/can score and both are solid rebounders but Bird passed like a guard while Dirk is a good passer for a big man.  Add in Bird’s legendary playoff performances and has an aura that might push him ahead of the Dirk (though Dirk’s captured some aura this post-season).  Looking at the cold numbers, though, Dirk has a pretty good case.  Here are each player’s number per 36 minutes for their regular season careers:

Players Games FGs FGAs FG% 3s 3FGAs 3% FTs FTAs FT% Rebs Ast Stl Blk Tos PF PTs PER
Bird 897 9.0 18.1 0.496 0.7 1.8 0.376 4.1 4.7 0.886 9.4 6.0 1.6 0.8 2.9 2.4 22.8 23.5
Nowitzki 993 7.9 16.6 0.476 1.2 3.1 0.381 5.6 6.4 0.877 8.3 2.6 0.9 1.0 1.9 2.5 22.6 23.7

On these numbers, it is close to a dead heat.  Dirk also has already played about 100 more games than Bird did his whole career and Nowitzki is still going strong. The playoffs, though, change the analysis a little. Bird has played many more playoff games (164 to 124) and though his PER in the playoffs is actually lower than Dirk’s so far (21.7 versus 24.7 for Dirk so far), it is close enough that that extra 40 games are enough to give him the overall edge in value over Dirk.  Still, it seems likely that if Dirk can keep this up for another few years and continue to play well in the playoffs, he will clearly be more valuable than Bird was.  For all the Boston fans, I realize that Bird’s career was shortened by injuries but that is the record we have to work with.

Did the title change Jason Kidd’s historical ranking? I frankly don’t see this.  J-Kidd is still a pretty good player but is a slightly above average point.  He helped the Mavs win the title but he was far from irreplaceable.  There is a plausible argument that the Mavs would’ve won this title had they kept Devin Harris instead of trading him for Kidd (Harris stagnated this year but was still a much better offensive player than Kidd at this stage of their careers).  But let’s not be too negative about a great pro like Kidd.  This ring obviously means a lot to Kidd and it is a crowning achievement for a great career.  Objectively, though, he was a helpful cog and not the key player, very much like Gary Payton’s ring with the 2005-06 Heat.  It is more apt to describe Kidd’s 2010-11 season as a cherry on the sundae but not an event that he should get too much credit for.  In any event, Kidd ranks in the upper tier of points All-Time and this title doesn’t hurt (I have him behind Magic Johnson, John Stockton, and Gary Payton and very close with Steve Nash for the post-1980 set).

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