The lessons of the NBA Finals

June, 13, 2011
6/13/11
5:15
PM ET
If you're like me, you watched last night's NBA Finals with totally transparant bias.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Photo by Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty ImagesLeBron James, right, of the Miami Heat congratulates Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks after the Mavericks won the NBA title on Sunday.
You cheered in joy when J.J. Barea carved Miami's defense into shreds. You pumped your fist wildly when Dirk Nowitzki hit key shots down the stretch. You giggled like a schoolgirl at Dwyane Wade's late turnovers, at LeBron James' hot-potato passing, at this vaunted team's apparent lack of spine. You hissed when James told the media that people who disliked him just did so as a distraction from their own problems. (First, not true. Second, how insulated can someone be?) You got slightly verklempt when Nowitzki, overcome with emotion, bolted off the court and into the locker room for a private, reflective, triumphant moment of release.

Then you sat back, drank it all in, took a deep breath and wondered ... what does this NBA Finals teach us about basketball? And, in particular, about college basketball?

There have already been a few arguments in this space. Perhaps the most circulated came from Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, who argued that James' decision to skip college and miss the pressure-cooker of the NCAA tournament was the reason for his late-game meltdowns in this year's Finals. DeCourcy argues that other great NBA champions learned how to deal with pressure in college, and were better for it when they arrived in the Finals. Of course, this argument ignores Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and, now, Nowitzki, and it also glosses over the eight years and numerous clutch crunch-time moments provided by James thus far in his career.

More persuasive is the theory that James is a product of the worst portions of the AAU system. In AAU basketball, star players are treated with kid gloves. Teams are formed and re-formed opportunistically. All-Star squads are kind of the point. Individual exposure -- your brand, what people know about you, what scouts say -- is vastly more important than wins or losses.

This dovetails nicely with James' story. It also speaks to the one salient thing we know about James as a person: That, for all his otherworldly talent on the floor, he doesn't seem to understand what we want from him outside it. He didn't realize The Decision was a horrible idea. He didn't get that the fireworks-filled preseason welcome party -- now an all-time YouTube classic -- was even worse. He insinuated Nowitzki was overplaying his illness even after Dirk punked the Heat and took a 3-2 series lead. Sometimes, James gave glimpses of understanding. More often, though, he said things that made you sit there and go, "Dude, come on. Do you not hear yourself? Is anyone coaching you on this? Does anyone coach you? Can anyone?"

That's the essential fact about James, at least to this point: He doesn't get it. He doesn't get it because no one's ever really had to tell him what "it" is. He's King James, lord of all he surveys, and woe to the entourage member or business manager with the balls to break that bubble.

Forget the pressure argument: Perhaps that's why James -- and so many other young players fancying themselves as the next Kings -- need college experience. Maybe a college coach is the best person to pop the bubble. Maybe that's what James has needed all along.

Then again, that's just mental guesswork, the projections of the outside writer on someone whose interior life has always been something of a mystery to us. Which brings us to the true lesson of these NBA Finals, the one you could actually see on the court over the course of six games: The Heat had the better players. The Dallas Mavericks were the better team.

Yes, this is an easy cliché. So what? It's still true. The Heat were a team of stars, constructed under the time-tested adage that NBA titles are won by the best two players on the court. The idea, at some level, is that you acquire the best talent you can and let the rest fall into place.

The Mavericks, on the other hand, were a good, old-fashioned, top-to-bottom basketball team. They were constructed with cohesion in mind. They wanted passers and playmakers and ball-movers and were willing to sacrifice sheer talent -- Devin Harris is unquestionably more talented than Jason Kidd, and compare the two now -- for the sake of leadership, commitment and sheer hoops knowledge.

[+] EnlargeThe Beatles
AP File PhotoLike The Beatles, this season's Dallas Mavericks were an excellent team.
They were coached in masterful fashion by Rick Carlisle, a technical wizard unafraid to use advanced statistics to understand the game, who deflty maximized his team's strengths and minimized its weaknesses. Each player complemented the next, the interconnected strengths entwining and forming something far more formidable than the sum of its parts. Any good team -- the Mavericks, the Beatles, the Power Rangers -- shares these indefinable but all-too-important traits.

Talent is important. But when you can blend that talent with something more, with something collective, that's when every basketball player's dream -- greatness -- becomes a reality. Greatness isn't a nickname or a clothing line or the number of zeroes on your paycheck. It's never that easy.

Do you love basketball? Do you cheer as loudly for a good defensive rotation -- or an intelligent swing pass, or a perfectly timed back cut -- as you do at the sight of a thunderous dunk? Can you find yourself lost zen-like in a well-played pickup game? Do you realize that this is what basketball, at its core, is really all about?

That's why we watch. At least, that's why I watch. Oh, I like dunks as much as the next guy. I think LeBron's shoes are awfully spiffy. But when you get right down to it, basketball's brilliance comes from things that are far more difficult to put your finger on. Dedication. Teamwork. Understanding. Trust. Most of all? Shared commitment. A common goal.

We spend plenty of time trying to figure out why sports are More Meaningful to us than just scorelines and salaries. Well, here you go. This stuff -- this boring, trite, cliche stuff -- is as true at the NBA level as it is in college. That's the lesson of the 2011 NBA Finals, and it's far more applicable to college basketball than the same old arguments about the age limit or the AAU machine. That's what basketball really is. That's what the takeaway should be. Simple? Yes. As universal now as ever before? Oh yeah.

Last night, when NBA TV analyst Chris Webber asked Jason Kidd what he'd say to young kids across the world dreaming of one day being a world champion, Kidd did what he did all season long: He praised his teammates. He talked about the long hours in the gym, the hard work it takes to be a 17-year veteran fighting off scores of your more athletic would-be replacements.

Then, he took a second, looked across the table, and continued:

"The biggest thing I want to get across to the kids: You've got to pass the ball."

Hopefully, those kids -- current college players, high-schoolers, and 10-year-old driveway dreamers the world over -- were listening. I know I was.

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