Not Too Weary to Throw the Hat Again
When the Pistons vanquished the mighty Lakers in 2004, I’d never been as happy for a team I didn’t particularly care to watch. A motley collection of players, all of whom had been written off at various points in their careers, wrestled the trophy away from the defending champs when many assumed that the finals served little purpose other than enabling ABC to fill their time slots with something other than Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. While the Pistons’ victory affirmed the ravings of numerous crotchety old white men who pined for basketballs forgotten “right way,” it more significantly illustrated how a group of flawed individuals can work together to overcome their weaknesses and attain their highest goals. Yet as the Pistons seem to be abandoning the principles that made them so great in the first place, out west, the Mavericks are poised to rise like the 2004 champs, but in a far more entertaining way.
Like the Pistons, so many of the Mavericks are castaways, a collection of albatrosses shipped out from moribund franchises. Jerry Stackhouse embodied the spirit of selfishness and indifference towards team success in his disappointing days in DC; Jason Terry’s talent was overshadowed by his uselessness in leading the Hawks towards anywhere but irrelevance; in my first post to FD, I called Desagana Diop, “Jabba the Hut with legs”. Josh Howard, like Tayshaun Prince, was a celebrated college player that most thought would never amount to anything more than that. Even Dirk Nowitzki, a player that embodies both the promise of the Euro and empty promise of the Euro, was not long ago considered too soft and too limited defensively to ever lead a team to a championship. After dumping their celebrated big three (save for one critical piece), the Mavericks, much like the Pistons before them, gathered the sparest of spare parts, and fashioned a juggernaut.
The Pistons of today strut with arrogance and a sense of entitlement, carrying themselves as if they earned the title in January but the Mavericks walk the way of the Pistons of old. While writers would superimpose their own puritanical values on the Pistons, in 2004, they didn’t seem to be trying to embody or represent anything; they simply knew the gargantuan task ahead of them and achieved with quiet confidence, dignity, and single-minded determination. Similarly, the Mavericks understand the significance of each game in this series and how difficult and momentous it would be to finally overcome the Spurs along with their own personal demons. Yet if the Lakers ultimately rolled over for the Pistons in 2004, the Spurs have ceded nothing to the Mavericks. Nearly every possession of this series has featured two exceptionally talented teams playing to their strengths and at the peak of their respective games. While I certainly don’t consider myself a Spurs fan, only a fool would fail to see how good they are and what it takes to topple them. This series truly has been basketball, regardless of one’s aesthetic predispositions, at its highest level.
Yet the Mavericks/Pistons similarities end there. The Mavericks succeed with a great offense and a defense that, though much improved, is still not something to be relied upon against the Spurs. However, the Mavs’ offense could not differ more from the beautiful controlled chaos of the Suns. Every Mavericks basket symbolizes nothing less than a slap in the face of “right way” basketball proponents. For years, players like Dirk, Terry, and Stack have been maligned for exhibiting characteristics like “playing me-first basketball” and “needing the ball to score.” Yet before us stands a real team constructed of the kind of players once thought to be incapable of existing within that paradigm. The essence of their teamwork lies not within their seamless functioning as one unit, but in their ability to take turns taking over the game. No one of these semistars can dominate a game in its entirety, but each one can carry the load for a short period of time and then exhaustedly pass the fate of the team to the next eager performer. Other Mavericks teams of similar construction have ultimately failed because their players cared more about shining than winning (see Walker, Antoine). This team differs because while each of its players can assume the mantle of “the man,” they know they can only succeed when they take turns with it.
In a way, this year’s Mavericks have become the true underdog story, in contrast to the Pistons of 2004. Many writers argued that, given the right environment, the Pistons’ core could win a title. That a crew of unselfish talents could win at the highest level is not beyond anyone’s reasoning capacity. Yet for a time, Stack, Terry, Diop, and Dampier represented everything wrong with the league, from selfishness to laziness. To see them succeed, and succeed as a team, shows us that there’s hope for every team and for every individual. For a long time, I despised Jerry Stackhouse for the way he played, but after years of bouncing from team to team as each one gave up on him, he seems to finally now understand how he can best help his team, and I can’t help but pull for and identify with him. I want him to succeed, so the same fool sportswriters won’t be able to say again, “I knew he couldn’t do it,” as if he hasn’t changed.
In my mind, the fact that this has been an offensively oriented series has made it so much more entertaining and exciting than any other. In any series with the Pistons, there’s a sense that possessions don’t matter as much; the Piston’s can usually assume if they don’t make a shot, they’ll simply make a defensive stop on the other end. Secondly, since defense is a team endeavor, there’s a kind of diffusion of responsibility among the individual players; since the whole team is accountable, there isn’t as much pressure on one given player.
The Mavericks know that they can never simply assume they’ll be able to stop the Spurs. Because of the nature of their offense, each possession requires a player to simply step up and take sole responsibility for what may be the difference between a win and a loss. In game four, Terry and Stack knew they had to score, knew the shots would be difficult, knew that if they missed, their team would fall and they’d be second guessed and criticized, and still hit shot after shot.
If we watch basketball in hopes of witnessing history or the repetition of biblical allegories, then look no further than Cavs-Pistons. Yet if we watch basketball in hopes of seeing the sport played at its best, where every player on the court faces seemingly overwhelming pressure of both the karmic and in-game variety, then keep the television on and go to work the next morning sleep deprived.