The meaninglessness of playoff toughness

May, 9, 2011
5/09/11
12:25
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Whose job was it to inspire Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum? They failed.

Every playoffs, we talk about mental toughness. This is the time of year when we curse the memory of legendary softies who rolled over and played dead (Charles Smith comes to mind) and praise the real men who take over when the chips are down (right this way, Mr. Bryant). This is the time of high pain thresholds, a willingness to take -- and make -- the big shots.

This is a time to throw away your metaphors of basketball as a game and usher in the language of war. (There are some players who wave the white flag when things get tough; the other kind wins titles.)

It would be a cinch to create mental toughness rankings, based on reputation. If you had done so a month ago, as the playoffs started, that list would have been led by the two-time defending champion Lakers who would have been trailed closely by the battle-tested "ubuntu" Celtics and the placid-in-the-eye-of-the-hurricane Spurs.

Everyone saw Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks fold like a house of cards, a first seed falling to a last, in the first round against the Warriors. That's no small part of why they were a popular pick to be upset in the first round this year -- they fold. They would have been last in the rankings.

Joining Dallas near the bottom would have been the Miami Heat, who are led by the NBA player who has most commonly been called "quitter," LeBron James.

What a difference a month makes
Those mythical rankings of April 15 would have been blown to bits by now. Most amazingly, of the playoffs' remaining stars, the reputed cupcakes Dirk Nowitzki and James are smiling the broadest, while the "not battle-tested enough" Bulls, Thunder, Grizzlies and Hawks are very much still alive.

The Spurs lost in the first round, the Lakers were shattered in every way imaginable, and the Celtics are on video hollering at each other in timeouts.

The Lakers have leadership, of a kind
Kobe Bryant is hailed as one of the NBA's great leaders. Phil Jackson is almost certainly the best coach in NBA history. As president of the Players Association, Derek Fisher has literally been voted the leader of the NBA's players -- and might be the NBA player most valued for his contributions beyond actually playing.

And yet, with Andrew Bynum's out-of-control quotes and elbows, Pau Gasol's badly broken spirit, and a series of mental breakdowns from Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes -- it's impossible to a find a team more overtly lacking leadership.

What happened?

It all comes down to how you define leadership. As the most skilled, hardest working and gutsiest, I suspect Bryant has fulfilled the duties of a leader as he sees them. He assigned himself the big responsibilities. He did the hard things.

Wanted: inspiration
A few years ago, David Thorpe shared with me words that I'm certain have the potential to change teams of every kind: The measure of a leader is how much he inspires his followers.

That is why the Lakers lost this series. Kobe Bryant's injuries have kept him from his best, and it was time for the Lakers to explore their other super-talents. Just when it was time to see what Gasol and Bynum could do, the big men had tiny inspiration.

They demonstrated their disaffection in different ways, Gasol with a pouting half-heartedness, Bynum with various escalating forms of fury.

Somehow, despite all that leadership the Lakers have at their disposal, nobody was able to fire up the players who had the size and skills to -- in a world where Bryant couldn't save them solo -- make the Lakers a great team.

In fact, the opposite happened. Jackson continually tore down Gasol in the press -- a tactic that sometimes inspires some players to new heights, but in this case shamed the Spaniard all the way back into his shell.

Bryant, meanwhile, advanced the theory that his big men would not save the team.

Fisher blew into that wind, attempting a certain kind of unity ... but it was not enough.

Disdain
The first quarter of Game 4 was winding down with the Mavericks and Lakers tied -- until some poorly coordinated defense and a turnover contributed to two quick Dallas 3s. Mavericks up by six, Lakers under stress. (In retrospect, this was the moment the game slipped away.)

Fisher dribbled up the court. Bryant called for the ball on the right wing, but in accordance with the tenets of Jackson's entire tenure, Fisher got the ball to Gasol with deep position. The triangle runs well when the ball starts in the post.

Also, if the Lakers needed Gasol on board to play their best, they'd have to get him involved.

Bryant was shocked that he didn't get the ball. Incredulous and barking. As Gasol worked in the post, the Lakers all watched (no cutting, no screening, no triangle) as Bryant raised not just his palms but both arms, entirely up to the heavens. How on earth could you give the ball to him and not to me?

The unintented secondary message to Gasol: You're not up to this.

By Thorpe's definition, this is anti-leadership.

(Bynum's saying the Lakers have deep-seated "trust issues" echoes loudly in that moment. Also, that emotion of Bryant's was a particular one: Disdain. Malcolm Gladwell's reporting on the work of relationship researchers tells that in marriages disdain most reliably predicts divorce.)

Gasol gave the ball up, Fisher swung the ball, and Bryant instantly fired a contested 3. Bryant missed, then ended up scoring after a Lamar Odom offensive rebound. But the Lakers were already done. The Lakers' mental edge -- once the envy of the league -- had morphed into broadscale unhinging.

How could we be so wrong?
In assuming, as so many of us did, that the Lakers had a playoff advantage in poise, we clearly made a whopper of a mistake.

What was that mistake, though, exactly?

Maybe we just didn't have enough information. You think the weather is tough to predict? That's a cakewalk compared to human behavior. Psychological profiling is a dodgy art even for the guy administering the Myers-Briggs tests, with the finest of instruments and insights. From afar, through the TV and post-game interviews, maybe we just don't have the insight we need to creat mental toughness power rankings that are worth a damn.

Or, here's another radical theory. Maybe there is no such type of person. Maybe the playoffs were never anything but basketball. Maybe it's not that we're doing a bad job identifying the players with the special gifts of mental toughness, but that there are not such players.

Maybe who wins is really not about exciting war stuff like who has the resolve, but about boring basketball stuff like who closes out shooters, who gets the good rebounding position, who spaces the floor, moves the ball, runs the best pick-and-roll, and all that basketball stuff.

Maybe Dirk Nowitzki and the Lakers conspired, in other words, to not just invert the mental toughness scale, but to destroy it.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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