One star isn't enough in NBA
The Heat-Mavericks Finals are more proof that it takes a team to win the title
LeBron or Dirk couldn't win alone; they have complete talent-packed teams now
This is nothing new: Jordan couldn't win on his own, nor could Bird or Magic
Every once in a while, a man has to say something controversial, no matter what people think. Be bold, defy convention, risk offending people. Today is my day. Are you ready? Here we go:
Basketball is a team game.
We should all understand this implicitly, but for some reason, a lot of people don't. The NBA Finals are just beginning, but they have already turned the game upside down. You can already see the story: If the Miami Heat win the title, it will be because they have the stars, and stars win championships, and it was stupid of any of us to question the Heat this year. If the Dallas Mavericks win the title, it will be because Dirk Nowitzki is an all-time great, and he elevated his game in these playoffs.
Sorry, but basketball is just not that simple. The Heat and Mavs are here because they have the two best teams in the playoffs. If it were about the greatness of LeBron, he would have won a championship by now. He has played at a Hall-of-Fame level for at least six years. Nowitzki turns 33 in a few weeks. He is not appreciably better now than he was for the last seven years -- if he is better at all.
Yes, the Heat have those three stars -- LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh. Perhaps you heard about them. But if you strip away the hype and the fact that they all signed free-agent deals at the same time, this just means they have a lot of talent on their team. That wins in every sport.
This is why LeBron left Cleveland in the first place -- he didn't have enough talent around him. Now he does. I know it's heretical for me to say this, but the Heat are actually proving this is a team sport. LeBron is the same freak of nature he was in Cleveland. He is succeeding in the postseason because he has better players around him.
We have a tendency to simplify things -- to take a basic theory, stretch it out and use it to cover all situations. Every single person in the world does it. (See what I did there?)
This is what has happened in the NBA. The popular theory is that you need a true superstar, the best of the best, to win a championship. Therefore, whenever somebody wins a title, it is assumed that the superstar is the reason. And obviously, you do need a star, and that star has to play well in the playoffs. But Kobe Bryant, Wade, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard are all stars right now. I would put a healthy Deron Williams in that group, and you could argue for a few other players.
This star theory has become self-fulfilling: When a team wins, we elevate that team's best player to "true star" status. We assume that star must be special, even compared to other stars. Sometimes that is true. (I agree with Scottie Pippen that LeBron could surpass Michael Jordan as the best player ever, but he isn't there yet.) Even so, teams win championships.
Nowitzki has been on an ungodly run in these playoffs. He made 38 straight free throws, he blew away Oklahoma City and the Lakers -- he has been wonderful.
But compare these numbers:
PLAYER 1: 15 games, 28.4 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 51.7 percent from the field, 93 percent from the free-throw line, 3.2 turnovers.
PLAYER 2: 16 games, 26.8 points per game, 9.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 53 percent from the field, 93 percent from the free-throw line, 2.1 turnovers.
Look at those numbers closely. They don't provide a perfect measurement of a player -- they don't account for defense or pace. But they are useful. And most of us would agree that, if anything, Player 2 was better than Player 1.
Well, guess what.
Player 1 is Nowitzki in these playoffs.
Player 2 is Nowitzki in the last two postseasons before this -- when his team when 7-9 in the playoffs, and Dirk was supposedly a guy who couldn't deliver when it mattered.
The difference between Dirk last year and this year is that now he has Tyson Chandler, who defends, sucks up rebounds and scores without needing to touch the ball all the time. Chandler has become the epitome of a winning player. DeShawn Stevenson, who arrived midway through last season from Washington, is a defensive stopper. Jose Barea has emerged as a guy who can take some of the burden off Jason Kidd, who is mostly a spot-up shooter (something I never could have envisioned a decade ago). The Mavs are a better team now. It's not that Dirk has changed.
And please, please, PLEASE don't tell me James has suddenly learned how to be a clutch player. In Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals -- maybe the biggest game of his career, to that point -- he scored his team's last 25 points to stun the Pistons in double overtime. I attended that game, and when it was over, I wanted to reach out and touch LeBron -- not in a creepy, Bill Clinton/Paula Jones sort of way, but just to see if he was human or something out of those Terminator movies.
He has improved his jump shot since then, and that helps him down the stretch, when the game slows down and defenses tighten. But it also helps that defenses have to worry about his teammates more than they did in Cleveland.
A star is a start. That's all. When Kobe Bryant was 26 his Lakers missed the playoffs. The next year, he averaged a career high 35.4 points per game during the regular season and his team lost to Phoenix in the first round. (And don't tell me he was a ball hog back then and became a team player later. That year, Kobe shot 45 percent from the field, 34.7 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line that year -- all in line with his career averages.)
Kevin Garnett made one conference finals -- ONE -- in all those years in Minnesota. He was a better player in Minnesota than he ever was in Boston. He won the MVP there. But he won a championship in Boston.
That Celtics' 2008 title was supposedly a star-driven championship, but it wasn't really. Ray Allen was probably not one of the top 25 players in the league at that point in his career. Paul Pierce was not one of the top 10. I don't know if Garnett was one of the top five -- maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Don't get me wrong: They are all Hall of Famers, and I admired how they seamlessly wove their talents together that year. But they won because they had a lot of great pieces.
I won't sit here and tell you that you need a team instead of stars. That would be asinine. OF COURSE you need a ton of talent. But there are a number of ways to accumulate that talent. The NBA is not nearly as predictable as people will make it out to be if the Heat win.
In the recent Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls won Game 1, could have won Game 4 and should have won Game 5. The Heat prevailed for a few reasons; James' scintillating play down the stretch was only one of them. The Bulls are a defensive-oriented team who need another player who can break down a defense -- Rose was the only one who could really do it, and in crunch-time, the Heat knew it. That's why Rose looked so bad in the last two games. He had to do too much on his own.
If you watch the league a lot, you might feel my frustration. The quality of play throughout the NBA is higher than it's ever been -- there should be less of a focus on the best player on each team.
It's easy to see where this obsession with stars began. In the '80s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird led the league into the cultural mainstream while they won eight titles in nine years. Then Isiah Thomas and the Pistons won two titles.
And it really took hold when Michael Jordan won championships in his final six full seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan was the best player in the league and he won titles, therefore: The best player wins the championship.
Here is the problem with that: Those were not Jordan's six best seasons. At least, not all six. The Jordan of 1998, while still obviously great, was not better than the Jordan of 1988.
The offshoot of the stars-win-titles theory is that if you have a second star, you're all set. Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Shaq had Kobe. LeBron has Wade. Obviously, these are special combos, and in a five-man game, having two great players takes you a long way.
But this just proves my point: It is a team game. Tim Duncan was the most important part of four great teams. The last two Lakers champions were great teams -- it they didn't just win because of Kobe and Pau Gasol.
When the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers were upset by the Pistons in 2004, people were so shocked that even now, they say the Lakers were simply imploding because Shaq and Kobe hated each other. Never mind that they hated each other in their title years, too. Or that they still managed to make the Finals that year. Or that they beat the Spurs, who won the title the year before and would win it the year after. Or that those 2004 Finals were not even close -- the Pistons beat the Lakers in five, and it probably should have been a sweep. The Pistons didn't have superstars; therefore, they could not have simply won the championship. There had to be another reason.
At least one NBA star is about to win a championship. But the championship will not be won solely because of an NBA star. It's a beautiful game. Don't minimize it.