Forget all the noise about the Clippers and Lakers; Dave Zirin sees two less-hyped teams battling for the Championship.
by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports
First, a relief that this is the first Louder Than a Bomb I’ve written in months that isn’t about labor issues, David Stern’s arrogance or my quixotic quest to get players and fans to kick out the owners and take over the League. Back to hoops.
Let’s start by looking at all the chaos and rumors that have surrounded Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and the NBA teams in L.A. CP3 ended up with the Clips, while Laker fans hold out hope that they’ll land DH. I’m not sure either player would work out that well for the Lakers.
There is no sport that operates with the historical clarity of basketball. In football, the rules are in a constant state of being erased and rewritten. Look at Tim Tebow’s success, or tandem running backs on every team, or zone blitzes that see nose guards drop back into coverage. If we were able to reanimate Vince Lombardi, he would be baffled. In baseball, past truisms about the value of stolen bases, home runs and even field managers have been turned upside down. But in the NBA, despite all the rule changes, upward athleticism and face-up big men, the formula for actually grabbing the ring has been as historically dependable as a Rick Barry free throw.
Only one true pass-first point guard has ever won the MVP—Steve Nash—and he’s never made the Finals. The League has had only one team in the last 50 years win a Championship without a serious presence at center (and yes, Tim Duncan is a center). That team, the Chicago Bulls, did it six times and is perhaps the greatest evidence of Jordan’s GOAT-hood.
Every team to hoist the trophy since ’79 has had a surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer leading their roster, except for the miracle that was the ’04 Pistons. With the exception of Shaq and Chauncey Billups, every Finals MVP since 1985 was drafted by their team. Every team since 1980 has had a coach willing to assert himself and be a presence on that sideline. Go down the list and you won’t see one of your so-called “player-coaches” who fade into the woodwork hoisting the big trophy.
In other words, the recipe for greatness is very established. You draft a superstar. You acquire a big man who can be a serious presence, by any means necessary. You don’t build a Championship team around a point guard unless that point guard happens to be 6-9 with the greatest passing skills in history. And you better have a coach willing to flex muscle when it counts. That’s why I found it laughable when everyone picked the Heat to win last year. This was a center-less team built around free agency with a coach looking over his shoulder for much of the year. That’s a recipe not for Championship glory, but a media circus.
I found it equally laughable when people were making frenzied and fearful predictions that the Lakers will be yet another “Dream Team” ready to dominate with Kobe, Howard and Paul. I love all three players as any fan would. But Kobe looked old and exposed in last year’s Playoffs. Paul is dragging a leg, playing on smarts and guile. Howard is a force of nature, but it’s entirely unclear how he’d play under the weight of expectations that L.A. would bring. As Shaq would say, there’s “dog” in Chris Paul just like there’s “dog” in Kobe. If there’s “dog” in Dwight Howard, by all evidence, it’s a labradoodle. Then there’s the new coach Mike Brown. This is not an Alpha Coach. This is the kind of person who thanked LeBron for “allowing” him to coach the team in Cleveland. Waylon Smithers ain’t winning you a Championship.
If you violate the formula, you will pay a price come Playoff time. Ask the Lakers team that Detroit broke every historical precedent to beat in ’04, with Payton and Malone adding nothing to the Lavender and Gold except the poignancy of their failure. Please don’t expect the Heat or Lakers in the Finals this year. Instead, use the above formula as your starting point. To me, that means the Chicago Bulls will take on the Oklahoma City Thunder for all the glory. Derrick Rose stretches the point guard corollary, but like another Chicago guard, he just might be special enough to rewrite the rules. I can’t hardly wait.