Kobe Bryant has officially asked the Lakers to trade him.
Why? As Terrell Owens' former publicity agent might have said, Kobe has 136 million reasons to be a happy little Laker. But he's not. The gist of it is that Kobe believes that the Lakers (specifically Jerry Buss) lied to him about their long-term plans and are now trying to make him (via a Deep Throat-esque "insider") the scapegoat for the team's woes. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that the organization is either unwilling or incapable of providing him with championship-caliber teammates. Enough, apparently, is enough.
From Kobe's perspective, the whole saga hinges on making people believe that:
1. He had nothing whatsoever to do with breaking up the team -- exiling Shaq, running off Karl Malone, letting Gary Payton walk -- that made it to the 2004 NBA Finals, and
2. The Lakers promised him during the summer of 2004 that they were in "win now" mode and not "rebuild around Kobe" mode.
Sorry, but I'm not buying it. I mean, it's been three years -- three years!! -- since Jerry Buss hit the Reset button on the Lakers mini-dynasty. Kobe had to have some idea before right now that the team was rebuilding. It's not like he went to bed one night with teammates like Shaq, Malone, Payton, Derek Fisher, and Rick Fox...and then suddenly woke up the next day surrounded by stiffs like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. How can he be acting so shocked? It's been three years, Kobe. Where've you been?
Kobe's a smart guy. You cannot convince me otherwise. He's not coming to this realization out of the clear blue. Phil Jackson wrote a freaking book about how Kobe couldn't coexist with Shaq, and how the Lakers were ready, willing, and able to mortgage the team's future to hold onto the young superstar, even if it meant dumping the old superstar and the legendary coach. And I don't care what Kobe says, he and his people knew what was written in that book practically the minute it was published. He didn't pick it up just yesterday.
I can't help but feel that Kobe's rewriting history because he's finally realized he can't do it alone. For most of the past three years, I think Kobe honestly believed that all he needed was one or two decent players to back him up. Well, he's finally starting to get it -- one superstar does not a champion make -- and he's freaking out. He's like a woman who's just turned 30 and says to herself, "I thought I'd be married by now. I should be having babies by now. I only have a few productive years left before I'm old and ugly and I can't have babies anymore! OH MY GOD!!"
This isn't just me hating on Kobe, either. It simply makes no logical sense that Kobe didn't see what was going on around him. He's acting like he just slipped on a banana peel. If he'd lost his nut during the Lakers' first Shaq-less year, maybe then I would have believe him. Maybe. But now? No way.
Mind you, Lakers management had there grubby little paws in this mess. As a group, they were like a high-stakes poker player who lost his mind and decided to go all in even though all he had was one ace and a bunch of crap cards. They figured any hand that they dealt would be a winner as long as they had Kobe in it, and Kobe seemed to believe the same thing. Because Kobe's like Mike, right?
People don't truly understand what an ideal situation Jordan had in Chicago. The Bulls didn't start winning titles until Jordan was surrounded by the perfect supporting: veteran players who were hungry to win and willing to work within the system (John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartright, Steve Kerr, Ron Harber, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, et al.), legitimate all-stars who took the pressure off him and enhanced his game (Pippen, Grant, Rodman), and a coach who was able to keep everybody relatively happy and supremely motivated (Phil Jackson). But those systems are fragile. Look at what happened when Jordan came back to the Bulls in 1995. Until they added Rodman, they were just another really good team...even with Jordan.
And let's take a closer look at the players that Kobe claims the Lakers supposedly failed to land:
Baron Davis: According to Kobe, the Lakers believe that Davis is "injury prone." Uh, Davis is injury prone. Don't let this year's great playoff run fool you. He's missed 98 games over the last four seasons, including 19 this year. His numbers also had been steadily declining until the Warriors hired Don Nelson, who immediately instituted a run-and-gun offense.
Carlos Boozer: In the summer of 2004, Boozer signed a contract with the Jazz worth almost $70 million dollars. The Lakers didn't have that kind of money to throw at Boozer after signing Kobe. And even if they did...would they really have committed that kind of cash to a guy who, at the time, had career averages of 12 points and 8 rebounds per game? I mean, they could have spent a little more and held onto Shaq. Besides, Boozer seems like a no-brainer now, but don't forget that he missed 80 games in his first two seasons with the Jazz and looked like a bust until he broke out this year.
Ron Artest: You're kidding, right?
All in all, it's a bad situation for everybody involved. Can Kobe really force a trade? Would the Lakers actually do it, knowing they'd never get comparable value? And they can forget about cutting a quick and equitable deal, because the whole world knows Kobe has the Lakers over the barrel. Jerry Buss will have very little negotiating power, and Kobe's no-trade agreement ensures that he has the final say over where he goes.
Let the games begin.
This has been going on for years: a star player charges headlong toward the basket and then either flails his arms or drops to the floor like a lead brick. Tweet! Foul. The San Antonio Spurs -- specifically Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and especially Manu Ginobili -- have become the undisputed ninja masters of this tactic, and they used it last night to con the referees into an endless litany of freethrows en route to a 41-20 advantage from the line and a 91-79 victory.
By games end, the Spurs had more freethrows (30) than field goals (28), which was a staple of basketball in the 1940s but is generally looked down upon these days. Jerry Sloan and Derek Fisher became so riled up after a late-game Ginobili flop that they got themselves ejected, which led to even more Spurs freethrows and effectively ended the game. The Energy Solutions Arena crowd, which usually doesn't do anything more controversial than boo really loudly, threw lip balm at the retreating Spurs after the game.
It's just another example of lousy NBA officiating. I have two requests for David Stern:
1. Please, for the sake of all that's holy, do something about flopping. It's a throbbing hemorrhoid on the tender butt cheeks of professional basketball. Every player hates flopping, yet every player does it...even Shaq, the loudest anti-flop complainer of them all. And the fans hate it too. It's not fun to watch. There isn't a single redeeming quality to the flop. It's a cheap and cowardly play. The players obviously aren't going to police themselves on this, because it provides an obvious competitive advantage. The league has to step in because it's getting worse by the year.
2. Adopt a "challenge" policy similar to the NFL. Allow NBA coaches to challege two (or more?) calls a game. Make the referees review some of their crummy decisions on the spot. If it is indeed a bad call, it should be overturned; maybe that would embarrass the officials into making the right call next time. If it was the right call, then the challenging team should lose a timeout, or maybe the opposing team should be awarded a technical freethrow. Whatever. But at least it would provide some measure of justice and relief against the obvious and egregious bad officiating.
Is this post a bunch of sour grapes? Maybe. But that doesn't mean that flopping and flailing isn't ridiculous. Imagine if guys started flopping in your pickup league. How well do you suppose that would go over? Take a look at this hilarious YouTube clip and then you be the judge:
Let the crucifixion of Dirk Nowitzki officially begin.
You know the story: The Dallas Mavericks won 67 games this season -- which tied for the sixth best win total in NBA history -- but still got eliminated in the first round by the Golden State Warriors, a team that won only 42 games and qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. And the Mavs weren't just eliminated, mind you. They personally established several new "greatest playoff upset" records that will be talked about and rehashed for years to come. That's humiliation on a grand and historic scale.
Mr. "MVP-to-be" Nowitzki averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds in the series, but he shot 38 percent from the field and 21 percent from three-point range -- 12 and 20 percent dropoffs from his regular season totals. The final game of the series was also his worst: 8 points on 2-for-13 shooting, 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 turnovers. But the numbers don't really tell the whole story. Dirk was a non-factor througout the series, and most of the time you could hardly even tell he was on the court. He played a total of 239 minutes, but he looked like an MVP for only three of them. That 3-minute tour de force staved of elimination and produced a couple days worth of "Dirk earned his MVP" stories, but in the end it only delayed the inevitable.
Make no mistake, though. This was a team loss. Only Josh Howard picked up his game (21 PPG, 10 RPG, 51 percent shooting) in the playoffs. The rest of the Mavericks sunk like a turd in the toilet, both offensively and defensively. The Mavericks had more talent, more depth, and more playoff experience than the Warriors. They also had that "we should've been the champs last year" swagger that underscored their desire to win the championship this year. Then simply got outplayed.
Last summer, after disappearing in the NBA Finals, Dirk took some shrapnel, but he's definitely going to fall on the grenade for this one. In some ways, it's unfair. After all, he didn't establish the de facto rule that the MVP has to be the best player from one of the best teams in the league. And it's not his fault that the media seemed to decide, en masse, that Steve Nash simply couldn't be allowed to win a third straight MVP. If he is indeed named MVP, as everyone suspects, it will be by default. He didn't ask for the award, or the weight of expectations that go with it.
That's how it work, though, and this will forever be remembered as the series that in which the MVP didn't come through.
But I don't blame Dirk. Not completely, anyway. Yes, I do think he should have done more to expand his game this season, particularly by taking advantage of his size and playing closer to the basket. Everybody likes to compare Nowitzki to Larry Bird, who also had a dynamite outside shot but was terribly slow afoot. In 1984, the Lakers employed the same tactic against Bird that the Warriors used against Nowitzki: using a smaller, quicker defender to either deny him the ball or keep a hand in his face at all times. Bird's adjustment was the obvious one: take his defender, Michael Cooper, down low and beat the crap out of him. It worked.
Why didn't Dirk do the same thing? I guess it's just not his game. But that's when the coaching staff and his teammates need to step in and say, "Uh, Dirk, you're half a foot taller than the guy guarding you. Maybe you should get into the post." That's not rocket science, people. It's Basketball 101. How could they miss that?
I think the Mavericks got complacent. They made the NBA Finals last year and they rampaged through the regular season this year. But they did it with a lot of outside shooting and one-on-one play. Over the past three seasons, they've won 58, 60, and 67 games while being one of the worst passing teams in the league. Didn't anyone realize how much the Mavericks relied on Dirk shooting over people? And on Jason Terry and Josh Howard taking their man off the dribble?
And it didn't help that the team wasn't mentally prepared. They coasted through the last couple weeks, and the starters barely played in the last three or four games of the regular season. Meanwhile the Warriors were fighting for their playoff lives, winning nine of their last ten and 16 of 21 overall. They were psyched, their fans were psyched, and the Mavericks were just twiddling their thumbs waiting for the coronation.
It's happened before. The 1999-2000 Lakers also won 67 games but got pushed to the limit in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. But nobody remembers that because they managed to win the series and, a few weeks later, the title. But that's history for you. It's incredibly kind to the winners, and exceptionally cruel to the losers.