In the midst of their 13-game winning streak, which abruptly came to an end last night, I became endlessly intrigued with the Dallas Mavericks. They made no sense and in a way disgusted me [NOTE: this confusion regarding the Mavs, and much of what will follow in this post, was perhaps more elegantly encapsulated last playoff season by ForEvers Burns here]. The team consists of virtually 12 players who, if they played on the Atlanta Hawks, would be the best player on the team (Jason Terry actually did, and was). Watching the Mavericks play for me, is like eating too much candy--they are comprised of simply a lot of really good players, with very specific deficiencies, who somehow always end up getting the job done. I guess it's to Avery's credit that he can take a team of slightly-below-average defenders (save for Diop and Dampier...ok, Howard on-the-ball) and coach them into the team that allows the second-fewest points per game in the league.
What's more, this type of team composition deems them to be the only team in the league that is quite literally, a collective of individuals. Looking back, I guess the Nowitzki Mavs have always been this way, but they are the only team structured in such a fashion. Some teams come close, but don't quite fit the descriptoin. The Suns, for better or for worse, have a central figure (Nash). The Nuggets may evolve into this sort of team when Carmelo gets back, but are not quite there. The Knicks, one could argue, are the "horribly awry" version of this system (i.e. Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson, David Lee, Channing Frye, on and on--saying those names brings a sparkle to the eye, but placing them alongside one another yields a fairly flat result).
And so, I couldn't have been more enthralled last night, when we witnessed the "collective of individuals" versus the Lakers, the team that more than any other, is defined by the "single individual." To me, this was a battle that would answer questions surrounding the age-old Freedarko favorite topic: the individual as a force within the superordinate collective of The Association. Throw whatever I have said previously on this topic out the window. Last night would tell us, how much this League truly is a league of the individual[style]. Were the Mavericks to win, this would let me know--let us all know--that the collective of individuals is the structure that currently prevails. But were Kobe to win (and it was indeed KOBE, not Walton and Vujacic, who will both make millions off of the open looks they are getting), this would be a victory for Jordan, Bird, and Magic...to a lesser extent, this would be a victory for '00-era Shaq. Ever since those weird Spurs/Pistons championships, it has been, much to my own personal concern, up for debate as to whether the INDIVIDUAL could reemerge as the emblem of the current Association. As far as I know, Wade last year brought us well on our way. But I wasn't convinced. And last provided further support for an affirmative answer.
If watching the Mavericks is like eating too much candy, watching the Lakers is like eating a nice filet mignon. It's all there, in one nice proportionate serving. I'm not quite sure where the (re-)emergence of Odom will take this team when he returns, but as of now, and as it has been for the past couple years, the team is K24's.
It's funny when NBA players earn certain identities that actually grow more encompassing than the player's self itself. Maybe one day the local color guy refers to a player as TEAM X's version of "The Microwave" or TEAM X's "very own Bruce Bowen." What generally happens is that the guy lives up to those monikers, heating things up off the bench or becoming a defensive stopper. And it's not just the player who confirms this expectation; members of the opposing team start respecting the prowess, leading to odd situations where all of a sudden, some castaway who had a fantastic playoff series becomes the object of so much attention. All of this is a long-winded way of saying, just as Kobe has legitimately EARNED his title as "guy who takes over in the 4th quarter," it is hilarious to watch teams respect this to the point of completely disregarding other guys on his team. As I have said before, Kobe has the WORST supporting cast of any superstar in the NBA. And to make Sasha, Luke, and to a lesser extent Smush Parker, look like heroes last night was the true testament to his greatness.
Last night was about the NBA as the triumph of the individual. Not a collective of individuals and not Avery Johnson preaching that "5 guys must play as one." Last night was about the ego--Kobe's, as well as Phil Jackson's as well. For it is Phil who is bold enough to allow that ego lead his team all the way to infinity.