Friday, May 11, 2007

What is the Heart of a Champion?

OK, so what does it take to have playoff success?

Here’s a fun fact for Mavericks fans. In the 1998 playoffs, Tim Duncan (a rookie) and the Spurs lost in the second round to Utah. Since then, in the seven playoff seasons Duncan has played in (he sat out the ’00 playoffs injured), he has lost in the playoffs to exactly two teams:
  • 1. Shaq’s Lakers
  • 2. Dirk’s Mavericks
Detractors will point out that Duncan was injured for most of last season, but the reports were that his foot felt better when the playoffs came around, and in any event, against Dallas he averaged 32.3 points (on 55.6% FG) and 11.7 rebounds in 42.5 minutes a game. Anyone who watched that series remembers that Duncan was a beast.

What I’m getting at is the question, which my brother Jeremy along with half of America has raised, of whether Dirk has the “heart” to get Dallas a title. It’s quite possible, I guess, that he doesn’t. But a glance at recent NBA champions suggests that heart doesn’t usually get the job done anyway. Here are teams that have gone to the finals in the fifteen years since Bird and Magic last played a full season together:
  • ’06: Heat-Maverics
  • ’05: Spurs-Pistons
  • ’04: Pistons-Lakers
  • ’03: Spurs-Nets
  • ’02: Lakers-Nets
  • ’01: Lakers-Sixers
  • ’00: Lakers-Pacers
  • ’99: Spurs-Knicks
  • ’98: Bulls-Jazz
  • ’97: Bulls-Jazz
  • ’96: Bulls-Sonics
  • ’95: Rockets-Magic
  • ’94: Rockets-Knicks
  • ’93: Bulls-Suns
  • ’92: Bulls-Blazers
First of all, in the past 15 seasons, 15 different teams have reached the finals. That’s half the league, which means it’s not a huge stretch to get there. Mavericks fans had a great run last year, but it hardly makes us special.

But how many teams have won the championship in that span? Six: Heat, Spurs, Pistons, Lakers, Bulls, Rockets. Here are the players that got those teams their titles:
  • Shaq and Wade
  • Duncan
  • Billups and Wallace
  • Shaq and Kobe
  • Jordan and Pippen
  • Hakeem
Other than with the Pistons, it’s pretty obvious why those other teams won championships. Shaq, Duncan, and Jordan, in particular, are probably the three best players to play in the last 15 years––and if anyone were to challenge that claim, Kobe would surely be the next candidate. Hakeem was great, but he was just lucky to hit his prime at the same time that Jordan inexplicably retired for two seasons; otherwise he may well have been another Karl Malone.

Coming back to the question of heart, I think you could safely say that Jordan won his titles with heart––and by being the best basketball playing in the history of humankind. I think you could say that Wade won with heart as well, but you can’t discount the fact that Shaq was on that team; without Shaq, it’s not at all clear that Wade would have had the chance to pull off his heroics.

The other winners? I have a tough time believing that Shaq and Tim Duncan won championships because of their heart. It’s possible they did, of course, but they also happen to be the two biggest, strongest, and quickest post players of their era. And considering that one or the other of them has won 7 of the last 8 championships, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that every other star in the league has failed to win a title in that span simply because he didn’t have enough heart.

In the last 8 years, Duncan has only lost to Shaq and Dirk; Shaq has only lost to Duncan and the Pistons. The two big guys have basically dominated the league.

Next, here are the players in the last 15 years that led their teams to the finals but didn’t win the title:
  • Dirk
  • Kidd
  • Iverson
  • Mark Jackson / Reggie Miller
  • Ewing
  • Malone/Stockton
  • Payton/Kemp
  • Barkley
  • Drexler
Among those who have gotten to the finals but haven’t won, only Stockton/Malone, Patrick Ewing, and Jason Kidd have done it twice. (Ewing sat out the ’99 finals with an injury, so I suppose his legacy is debatable.)

So the question is, If Dirk doesn’t have enough “heart” to win a championship, who exactly do you want in his place? Who has what it takes?

Call Kobe the MVP if you like, but he hasn’t taken his team deep into the playoffs since Shaq left. We could say the Mavericks shouldn’t have let Nash go, but we all know he hasn’t been to the finals yet. And Kidd went twice, but he did it both times in an Eastern Conference where no team won more than 52 games for two straight years. Iverson and Payton are the only other guys on that list who are still in the league, and it doesn’t look like either of them is headed for a championship soon.

The league is full of veteran stars who have done far less in the playoffs than Dirk: Garnett, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Yao Ming, Jermaine O’Neal, Ray Allen. Shawn Marion has been to the WCF twice, but not as the best player on his team.

There are also young players who haven’t had much of a shot at the finals yet: Dwight Howard, Amare (this is only his third trip to the playoffs), Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony. Any one of those guys could theoretically dominate the league in future seasons, but most of them probably won’t.

Even LeBron still hasn’t beaten anyone good in the playoffs. Ten years from now, he might have a handful of rings, but then he might not have any.

Quick note (11:40pm Friday night): I just now read and the dmn blog, both of whom had posts in the last couple of days that are really similar to this one. I just thought I should say I hadn't read either of them when I wrote this. Ok, I said it.

So who’s going to take us there? Go for Jason Kidd and hope he can get the offense back on track before he retires? Get Paul Pierce and hope that all those losing seasons in Boston weren’t his fault?

At the end of the day, here’s what I think you do: you look around the room and say, “OK, somehow we’ve ended up with a league that only has two individuals who you can put on a team and bet on a title, and one of them is fading quickly. Duncan is the other one. Who, then, has (1) beaten Duncan in a playoff series and (2) is under the age of 35?”

One guy raises his hand.

OK, we’ll go with him.


JKnott said...

On point as always. I see you are finding good ways to procrastinate...or is your semester over with? I'm just beginning my papers.

ryan b said...

Love the post. That really puts things in perspective and it doesn't sound like some Mavericks fan just defending Dirk out of blind loyalty. But it also makes you think we really do need a big man if we are going to have a chance to win the championship. It will be interesting to see how the Suns-Spurs series turns out.

scoots said...

jknott--I turned in a paper today at 12:30, so I'm taking the rest of the day off before I start my next paper (classes are over, but I’ll be writing till the end of May).

ryan--Yeah, you just have to keep hoping that either you catch a break (Duncan seems to win only every other year), or else that Dirk finally puts together a complete playoff run.

Maybe this collapse will be the impetus he’ll need to finally develop a post game.

Incidentally, I'm spending my half-day off by watching Rocky Balboa, and one of the announcers in the movie just said (of Rocky’s opponent): “He’s undefeated, but he’s never been pushed to the limit. Many are questioning whether he has the heart of a champion.”

I love it.

Connor said...

I think the idea of having 'heart' is just another stupid sports cliche trying to add some underlying meaning to sports.

scoots said...

Holy crap. The Warriors are up 30 on Utah in the third quarter of game 3. I wonder if GS will lose a home game this postseason.

JKnott said...

What a game by Golden State! Davis is clearly the best player in the postseason so far.

scoots said...

Interesting comment from truehoop on Warriors-Jazz game 3: “Most of the game, Utah just could not get the ball to Carlos Boozer.”

scoots said...

Also interesting: Utah points guards Deron Williams and Derek Fisher are in constant foul trouble trying to guard Davis.

JKnott said...

You should be happy now, especially since it was a huge brainfart by Amare and Boris that got the Suns out of the playoffs.

scoots said...

I hadn't thought about it, but yeah, now that you mention it, it is sort of gratifying. Mostly, though, I'm impressed with Duncan.