Justice

“Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn’t doing?” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said in an exasperated tone following Game 6: “When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished? That’s what’s special.” While this “Nobody believes in us, nobody is talking about us, everybody thinks we are going to lose” chip on Carlisle’s shoulder pervaded through his organization and helped drive his team to an underdog victory, it is also well-founded even after the Mavs’ conquest.

Anecdotally, I would estimate that 75% of the coverage in the aftermath of the NBA Finals has been dedicated to the Heat and trying to psychoanalyze LeBron’s mental and physical breakdown (which is admittedly very fascinating and puzzling). Of the 25% of the pie that has been devoted to the Mavericks, much attention has been given to owner Mark Cuban and his various poses with the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Even though it is clearly not as interesting to the general public, the fundamentally sound purity with which the Mavericks played in these playoffs and finals made for beautiful team basketball. “Our team’s not about individual ability,” Carlisle said, not subtly implying a juxtaposition between his Mavs and the Heat. “It’s about collective will, collective grit, collective guts.” As compelling as the Heat are, the Dallas Mavericks deserve more accolades and glory.

As the final seconds in Game 6 waned and it started to sink in that the Mavericks were NBA champions, one could not help but feel an immense sense of happiness for Dirk Nowitzki. Perpetually suffering playoff disappointment, Dirk had led his team to the playoffs every season since 2000-01. One year removed from his team’s debilitating loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals (you may have heard a thing or two about that series in the last couple weeks), Dirk led the Mavericks to a 67-15 regular season record and the #1 seed in the Western Conference. The Mavs, though, lost to the #8-seeded Warriors 4-2, led by their former coach Don Nelson and questions abounded about whether Dirk had the mental toughness to lead his team an NBA title as he shot 38.3% in the series.

Unable to withstand the mental pressure, Dirk ran away, traversing deep into the Australian outback. “I think I take losses harder probably than anyone else in this league,” Dirk lamented to ESPN’s Mark Stein.  At this point, and in the following two seasons which saw Dirk and the Mavericks win just one playoff series, questions abounded about whether their window of opportunity had shut.

Although he had always carried himself with grace and class and worked tirelessly to improve his game, there was constantly an element of doubt as to whether a franchise could win an NBA title with Dirk as its best player and whether he needed help in the form of another superstar or two. These questions and doubts were finally laid to rest on Sunday as Dirk headed into the locker room for a moment of solitude; Sisyphus had finally rolled the boulder up hill without it falling down, and, with this burden off his shoulders, he felt more relieved than ecstatic.

Beyond Dirk, one also felt great for Jason Kidd. “His view of the game is so different,” Carlisle said about Kidd, “He is savant-like.” Having played in the NBA for 17 seasons, Kidd has suffered the disappointment of losing in the NBA Finals twice. What I find so impressive about Kidd is that he was able to accept the fact that his aging body no longer allows him to be a superstar and that he has embraced the opportunity to thrive as a role player. While Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury would rather be the man on teams in Turkey and China, Kidd has self-consciously realized his limitations and sought to maximize his strengths for the greater good of the team, playing crafty defense, distributing the ball artfully, and developing a 3-point shot that was deficient earlier in his career.

Up and down the Mavericks roster, we see a band of scrappy players who follow Kidd’s lead, understanding and ably fulfilling their roles in the parlance of the greater good of the team. Tyson Chandler, a glue guy whose archetype (unselfishly energetic defender and rebounder who does not need the ball to be effective) seems to fit on championship teams year after year, was acquired by the Mavericks this past offseason from the Bobcats for NO serviceable players in return. Fifth year player JJ Barea, listed at 6’0″ but by all accounts is more accurately 5’9″, went undrafted out of Northeastern and shredded the Heat defense, finding open lanes to score and distribute in a manner which altered both tempo and momentum. Jason Terry, whose Larry O’Brien tattoo story has been well-documented, threatened to wake a sleeping giant, calling out LeBron James, but immediately started playing much better.

Like Kidd, Shawn Marion also made a transition from high profile stardom to maximizing his effectiveness as a role player. Brian Cardinal, an 11-year veteran playing on his sixth team, provided a dynamic spark off the bench with his hustle, grit, and timely hard fouls. DeShawn Stevenson hit key 3-pointers and tantalized the world with his tattoos (AMERICA!!). Top to bottom, the Mavericks conformed to fit a model of team basketball and won an NBA Finals in which it objectively had less talent.

With its playoff format’s forcing teams to win four best-of-seven series to win the title, the NBA does the best job of the six major US sports institutions in determining a meritocratic champion. Hot pitchers and goalies can singlehandedly shift MLB and NHL series and one-game sample sizes can produce quirky results in the NFL Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament. Only someone who stands to derive substantial personal financial benefits would advocate for the BCS as a fair and balanced system to determine the worthiest champion.

Accordingly, this specific Mavericks team was undeniably the best TEAM in an NBA season which featured the greatest level of both individual and organizational talent in recent memory. Moreover, this outcome felt like JUSTICE. If the Heat had won this year, after LeBron callously drove a stake through the city of Cleveland’s heart and the Big 3 staged an introductory pep rally that can now be described as premature celebration, it would have felt unpure. As in the rest of the world, the sports gods don’t always grant us justice so this should be something that we savor.

“This a true team. This is an old school bunch. We don’t run fast or jump high,” Carlisle said, “These guys had each others’ back. They played the right way.”

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5 Responses to Justice

  1. Ryan, you were supposed to devote 75% of this article to the Heat. Didn’t you get the memo?

  2. Ace Ventura says:

    Nice article.

  3. Phil rockwell says:

    Great article Ryan!

    Agree with your points, particularly about the special test of winning an NBA crown.

  4. Pingback: LeBron’s Future Decision « Keepthefiresburning's Blog

  5. Pingback: Sports Karma is Awesome « Keepthefiresburning's Blog

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