Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The big disappointment
By Henry Abbott
People in San Antonio, Dallas and Portland have taken significant time out of their busy days to skewer me, over the last couple of days, for naming Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Roy and Tim Duncan as the most disappointing players of the NBA postseason.
The anger is mighty! But misguided.
We all see eye to eye that players like Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams and Jason Kidd performed poorly, in a manner that hurt their teams. If we were naming a bad-compared-to-expectations team, they'd all make my short list. Similarly, if we were naming a needs-a-new-approach-to-the-game list I'd start with Michael Beasley, Shawn Marion and Rasheed Wallace.
And I get that sticking someone on either of those lists would be kind of an insult, if not to the players, then at least to their play.
But disappointing is different. It's almost like: Which player could most use a hug? Who just wants to forget these playoffs ever happened?
That's something that could happen to any of us, and it's no reflection on a person's character.
If your car has a flat tire and you're late to the big meeting, that's disappointing. When the stock market tanks people are disappointed.
Injuries, for instance, are extremely disappointing. What could be more disappointing than Greg Oden's career thus far? But I don't think it's any insult to Oden to say that. He'd probably agree with that assessment. When terrible things happen, it's disappointing.
So it goes for those three players. Generally great at what they do. At times even heroic. But on vacation somewhere, disappointed, wishing these playoffs never happened.
Almost nobody has outplayed Nowitzki in these playoffs. And yet the season ended like every Maverick season ends: With disappointment. It's impossible to expect him to play any better. It's impossible to think his owner could have spent any more money on talent to complement him. And yet through a massive string of coaches (Don Nelson, Avery Johnson, Rick Carlisle) and teammates (Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Juwan Howard, Nick Van Exel, Antoine Walker, Keith Van Horn, Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Devin Harris, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood) somehow or another things have always been frustrating in the postseason. Some of that is just the team's inability to declare victory. Making the Finals was a massive accomplishment, but my lasting memory of that year was not a fist pumped in the air, but Mark Cuban's unrestrained bitterness at how it ended. It didn't feel like any kind of victory.
Nowitzki doesn't need to play better. That's not why he topped my list. He topped my list because this was the year that the hope died. Raise your hand if you expect a Nowitzki-led Mavs team to win a title. It's getting harder to believe, right? Every year every smart person says watch out for the Mavericks. Every year the regular season suggests they could win it all. For me, this was the year I stopped thinking like that. They flamed out again, even though Nowitzki was amazing again. If that's not disappointing, I don't know what is.
If you dig around at the bottom of John Hollinger's big list of playoff PER, down there after Beasley, Carlos Arroyo, Johan Petro, Dorell Wright and the like, you'll find an all-NBA player in Brandon Roy. He's 134th out of 143 players in the playoffs. There is no way this could be anything other than a crushing disappointment to Roy, his employers, his family and Blazer fans everywhere. He played terribly on both ends of the floor, keeping more productive teammates on the bench, even as Portland hung tough in a close series against a strong Suns team.
That's pretty much the whole story. I feel I should have to explain no more.
Of course it was because of his knee injury. No Roy is not to blame. And hats off to him for battling back heroically! But we're not naming the biggest jerks. We're naming the biggest disappointments. Getting injured and stinking it up, while benching your much more productive teammates ... that's just horribly sad and above all disappointing.
Also, he's not entirely blameless here. Superstars have more power than coaches, GMs, and just about anybody else in the league. Roy used his power, in the media no less (even after he had played poorly in games 4 and 5), to pressure Nate McMillan to start in Game 6. Roy did start, and played 37 minutes. It was pretty ugly. But McMillan would have been second-guessed for the rest of his career if he played his best available, instead of his biggest name, players the most minutes.
The story with Duncan is much like Roy's. Because of injury, father time or something he didn't play as well as we're used to. He was far better than Roy. On offense, he was even good. But the Suns run a metric ton of pick-and-roll, which puts stress on the defending big man to be nimble. He wasn't. The Suns averaged 110 points per game and waltzed to victory. In year's past, the Suns' approach didn't work as well in no small part because of Duncan's departed ability to frustrate it. San Antonio is a small-market team that blew up the budget to win now, and in no small part because of Duncan's lack of mobility -- which is certainly not his fault -- they are on vacation already. That's not to impugn Duncan in any way. But it's a massive disappointment.