Saturday, June 24, 2006

Soon, But Not Yet

We're getting pretty close. In fact, I thought this was the year. I thought this would be the year where the NBA finally made the switch from a league of hard-nosed halfcourt defenses and offenses built on working for high-quality shots to soft team defense and run-and-gun team shooting. Bill Simmons thought this was the year. Is there a more highly regarded, more widely read, sportswriter these days? Surely, if he believed the change was about to happen, we must be getting close. Just look at who has won the league's Most Valuable Player award the past two years. Was it a Jordanesque player who competed hard at the defensive end and attacked the basket on offense? No. It was a "team" guy (whatever that means). Steve Nash hasn't made a defensive stop since he was on the soccer field at Santa Clara. But that doesn't matter anymore. He led an offense that basketball fans love to watch. Lots of jump shots, few hard drives to the basket, and few tough defensive stands. Most of the teams in the NBA now look very similar to the Phoenix Suns. The Dallas Mavericks gunned their way through the Western Conference, and nearly to an NBA title. Pretty soon, the game that I grew up watching will no longer exist. Soon, Dirk, but not yet.

Soon Mark Cuban won't need to complain about officiating. Soon his superstar will be able to hide his defensive defficiencies in a league filled with zone defenses and flopping man-to-man defenders. Soon, but not yet.

It did my heart good to watch Alonzo Mourning play one last game. It made me smile to watch Dwyane Wade attack the basket with wreckless abandon while 5 opposing players searched hopelessly for a way to stop him. For one last night, I saw the game that I love played the way I love to see it played. A group of individuals, who undestood that they needed to play within the team concept, but who also realized that the team's success depended on each individual's ability to stay between his man and the basket. And when one player was beaten off the dribble, Shaq and Mourning were waiting at the rim to contest each shot. Not with the matador swipes that Dirk and the parade of new age players demonstate, but with the tenacity that basketball was once played. After a few blocked shots and hard fouls, Dallas stopped attacking the basket. They became exactly what the fans wanted. Exactly what Bill Simmons and Mark Cuban wanted. A team of jump shooters. After all, that's the most exciting way to play. 7-footers playing as if they are 6' 5. Point guards like Devin Harris and Jason Terry, who possess blazing first steps, content to settle for 20-foot jumpers. It's far more exciting than watching players post up or take defenders off the dribble.

Unfortunately for the Mavericks, once their jump shots stopped falling, their offense got stuck in first gear. No team has ever shot their way to an NBA championship. As legends like Bill Russell and Michael Jordan have reminded us over the years, defense wins championships. And, to take it one step further, efficient offenses win championships. The closer you get to the basket, the easier it is to score. Plain and simple.

I fear that I may have watched my kind of basketball for the final time. Players like Shaq and Mourning are a dying breed. Wade will always be in attack mode, refusing to settle for jump shots if there is even a remote chance that he can get into the paint. But will Dwyane Wade ever have the supporting cast that he had this year? Will he ever again play with a team that dedicates itelf to playing solid, consistent half court basketball? This Miami team may be together for another year or two, but probably not past that. For those fans who prefer watching the Suns and Mavericks, I am happy for you. You are about to get what you want. Even the Detroit Pistons, poster boys for hard-nosed basketball, found themselves settling for jump shots this year. We may never see a team like Miami again. Did they play a single team in the postseason that was not significantly quicker and more athletic than them? Did they play a single team that did not shoot the basketball better than them? I would answer "no" in both cases, but somehow, they still won an NBA championship.

The league has fallen in love with Dirk and Nash. It has fallen in love with the jump shot. And if that is what the fan base desires, then that is what the league should showcase. But as far as I am concerned, I would rather watch the tired, old Miami Heat any day of the week. I could have watched Rick Fox and Robert Horry feed the post in L.A. for 2 more decades. Sadly, those guys have ridden off into the sunset. Players like Horry, Shaq and Mourning may continue to play, but they are well past their prime, and no one else will step into the league and play their kind of basketball.

"Shoot. Shoot. Shoot." That is the league's new mantra. In my eyes, taking open jump shots as a result of good ball movement and an attempt at working for a shot closer to the basket is completely fine and even beautiful to watch. But 20-foot jump shots with plenty of time on the shotclock is a foreign concept to me. I just don't enjoy it.

I am not asking anyone to agree with me. I just figured that this was an appropriate time for me to say goodbye to the game I grew up watching. In the future, when Dirk Nowitzki hoists the MVP award at the end of the NBA Finals, I will be happy for him. But I won't enjoy watching it. As far as I'm concerned I hope "soon" means 20 years from now. Sadly, I think it's a lot closer than that.

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