Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hail to the Mavs, Hardly A Team of Lovable Losers

So the Dallas Mavericks closed out Miami Sunday night to claim their first NBA championship. I was touched by a few sights: Dirk Nowitzki walking off the court before the final buzzer, unable to contain his emotions; Chris Bosh bitterly covering his face as he walked to the locker room, feeling the mirror of what Nowitzki felt; and Mark Cuban bringing in Donald Carter to receive the Larry O'Brien trophy. Many have long thought that Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, at the least (not to mention several of Dallas's other veterans) deserved a championship to cap their careers. However, team prizes are not given to individuals for lifetime achievement; the LOB must be earned by playing the best basketball of any team in the league. This year, that was Dallas, which outpointed the two-time defending champs, the anointed team of the future, and the league's most talented team on its way to the 2011 title.

It is interesting how this year's two Finalists represented a fairly clean break from the playoff behemoths of the last several seasons. After the memorable NBA Finals series of 2006 that matched these two teams, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki struggled for the next few seasons while the Spurs, Suns, Lakers, Cavs, Pistons, Magic, and Celtics cleaned up in the playoffs. Wade's team lost three first-round series in the subsequent four years (including an embarrassing sweep by the young Bulls in 2007) and missed the playoffs in 2008. Nowitzki's Mavs lost three first-round series in the next four campaigns and lost in the second round in '09. In the press conference before Game 6, Nowitzki described the annual "hammering" that superstars receive from fans and pundits when they fail to end their season with a win.

Yet as Scoop Jackson points out here, those same observers tend to forget the years of futility once a team finally does win the sweetest prize. Jackson does not delve into the psychology of those analysts, but perhaps it is a case of the "fundamental attribution error" recognized by formal psychology: observers want to place Nowitzki, say, into one of a small number of personality types. They want to say he is soft, or tough, or killer, or clutch, or weak, or overconfident, or smart, or selfish, or stupid. They want to consider him as possessing such attribute innately and forever, rather than considering that he may possess many of these types, and his types might change over time. They also fail to note that contingent, situational factors outside the superstar's grasp like injuries, playoff upsets to other contenders, lucky roster moves, and the like can spell the difference between a championship or none, regardless of how well the star plays. Coupled with the natural psychological tendency to consider recent data and positive data (compared to old and negative data) more keenly, this makes it easy for observers to now consider Dirk a "winner", instead of updating their view of his career in a more nuanced fashion. Nowitzki actually seems canny, from this perspective, to a win a title later in his career rather than earlier; Wade, who won his lone title (the same number as Nowitzki) in his third year, now has to answer more questions about his winning capacity than Mr. Swish41 does.

Dallas is hardly a cuddly underdog: their aggregate player salary of about $84 MM for the 2010-11 season ranks third in the league. The internet mania of the late 1990s gave Mark Cuban a lot of money; he is one billionaire who seems to value winning over turning an economic profit on his team, to the extent that those two objectives clash, as I discussed a couple years ago. Dallas lost two-time All-Star Caron Butler to injury in January, and was able to fill his SF slot in the starting lineup with... four-time All-Star Shawn Marion! To plug Marion's spot as backup small forward, Dallas signed... three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic. When Stojakovic's defense against Miami's star wings proved terrible in the Finals, Dallas was able to spell him with their fourth-string small forward, Brian Cardinal, a former $40 MM backup for Memphis. Dallas also boasts FOUR starting-caliber point guards, two starting-caliber centers, and a former Final Four MVP in Corey Brewer, who barely played in the playoffs. Due to arcane NBA rules dealing with player movement, Cuban even paid over $2 MM this season to three players (Buckner, Novak, Thomas) With a owner like Cuban, Dallas should always be in the upper layer of teams. Even when Nowitzki slows and retires, top players should be keen to play for a big-spending owner who funds sleek locker rooms.

Many commenters are fussing that Miami's roster is fatally flawed and the Bosh-Wade-James troika should be broken up. But by most teams' standards, the Heat had a wildly successful season, finishing with the third-best record in the league and blitzing 12-3 through the Eastern playoffs. In the Finals, their lack of a good center hurt them, as Tyson Chandler was able to discourage any offensive forays down low by the three Heat stars, without worrying about Joel Anthony doing much left unattended. A summer of shooting practice by the two wing stars, plus the addition of a good two-way 7-footer younger than 35, plus a full training camp (recall that Wade was injured throughout last October) will help Miami improve, and they should rightly be considered next year's title favorites. There will be many free-agent centers in July [or after the completion of a labor agreement] including Sam Dalembert, Marc Gasol, Greg Oden, Yao Ming, Spencer Hawes, Nene Hilario, and the aforementioned Chandler. However, any center with his eyes on Miami will need to accept relatively low pay: Miami can offer only the mid-level exception [i.e. league average] salary, or if that option is killed in the new labor agreement, then perhaps just the veteran's minimum, to free agents.

Congratulations to Dallas!

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