Last night, the Dallas Mavericks (the only team for which I ever bought season tickets) won the NBA Championship. Today, the storylines focus on the gritty, savvy experienced group of veterans that helped Dirk hoist his first ever Larry O'Brien Trophy, as well as the derision that followed the Decision.
There's plenty of other places to congratulate the Mavericks or pile on the Heat. Here at TST, I'd rather focus on a couple takeaways that the Rams would be wise to heed as this team turns the corner. No, the 2011 Rams are indistinguishable from the two basketball teams whose seasons ended last night. But champions are champions. Regardless of the sport, there are common bonds. I offer three of those after the jump.
Given how often people like to rail on Spagnuolo's four pillars, I doubt it's the kind of topic that gets many Ram fans excited at this point. Still, I couldn't help but pay attention to the overwhelmingly obvious influence of character on this year's NBA Finals. Let's start with the Mavericks.
Sure, they were made up largely of boring ex-stars who gave the NBA media less to talk about than Ricky Rubio did over the last year. There was one person in the organization, though, who has consistently been the focus of negative press and a fair amount of scorn from the fans: Mark Cuban. A little more than a decade ago, Cuban bought the Mavs and instantly provided the world with a caricature of himself that you either appreciated or hated.
A loudmouth owner, who took it to opposing players, fans and even the commissioner, wallet be damned. This year, though, he was different. Perhaps he had finally learned the lessons of failures past. Perhaps he just didn't have much to complain about. EIther way, the Mavericks won their first championship in the same year that Cuban shut up in the playoffs. Anyone who thinks that makes for an interesting coincidence understand neither what interesting is, not what a coincidence is. It was the highest level of character he had shown since entering the NBA landscape, and last night you could tell how badly he had been holding back.
For the Heat, on the other hand, of course the story begins and ends with LeBron James. Having pulled the media's eyes squarely into his bubble last July, LeBron played the part for most of the season and even throughout the playoffs. In dispatching of the Celtics and Bulls, LeBron looked prepared for the scrutiny and the pressure. He was carrying the Heat in the way people had assumed he would. But for whatever reason, something changed against Dallas.
The answers aren't obvious. In fact, right now there aren't any answers. There is one truth though that is indisputable: LeBron wasn't LeBron when he needed to be. For whatever reason, LeBron was no longer the swagger-dripping athlete-monster who carved up teams single-handedly while simultaneously tossing shreds of his own brand into Southeast Asia. He wasn't all tongue and smiles and intensity. He was pretty normal. And to a degree, it's an indication of his character.
Dirk got it done. Ben Roethlisberger has gotten it done. Derek Jeter has gotten it done. It's not just "clutch." It's character. It's an unwillingness to cave from the moment, to shirk when it's most understandable. It's a fierce adherence to the kind of dream that people simply cannot comprehend. It's the ability to go beyond human capability. Champions put that level of character on display on the biggest stage. And the primary reason the Heat aren't ending this season with the same jubilation with which they started is LeBron's inability to summon the necessary character to will his team to victory.
Sam, please, please, please know this.
Talent isn't everything
In "talent in 2011" terms, LeBron+Wade+Bosh>Nowitzki+Kidd+Terry. Miami's headline trio is stronger, more athletic and more dynamic than Dallas' cagey veteran triumvirate. So what? Dallas won. Which suggests a very, very simple maxim: talent is only part of the equation.
There are other important pieces: chemistry, focus, desire, work ethic, experience (the kind you get not from just getting old, but learning from your past), etc. The paradox is that talent is the most important piece. So whiel Miami were ultimately more talented than Dallas, had plenty of experience and had their sights set on the Finals both publicly and (assumedly) privately from day one, the chemistry wasn't there. It wasn't until this series that Wade was pushed to lead the team, whereas LeBron had done so for the majority of the postseason.
There's an argument to be made, as ESPN's Michael Wallace did, that Dallas' substance was too much for Miami's style. I would counter by just removing Dallas from the equation. Miami, in the end, favored their style over their substance. Three All-Stars in their prime. Possibly the most complete basketball player and the most athletic (LeBron and Wade, respectively) in the league paired together on the same team. Through the first three series (each of which Miami won four games to one), the substance of Miami complemented the style. In the Finals, the style sagged when the substance dissolved.
The Rams went through the same thing as the GSOT crumbled into memories. In 2006, Marc Bulger threw for the third-most yards in the league, tossing just 8 interceptions in nearly 600 attempts. On the surface, it was a revival of the offensive juggernaut that had taken the Rams to the top. But, as was exposed in the following years much like the Heat in the Finals, what was being digested was the style, not the substance.
Torry Holt gained 150 less yards in 2006 than he did in 2005, despite playing two less games. Isaac Bruce scored three touchdowns, replicating his output from 2005...except he played the full season in '06 and just 11 games in '05. Making things worse was a defense that couldn't stop anyone, draft misses that hadn't stocked talent behidn the aging stars, and an offensive line that was, in parts, nearing their career's end (Todd Steussie and Adam Timmerman) or completely unstable and unreliable (Alex Barron and Richie Incognito).
You can't ignore style; it puts up points, creates great highlight videos and delivers individual accolades. But whereas style can be breathtaking, substance is the requisite component for success. Speaking of which...
Success is necessarily born out of failure
Every champion, either individual or collective, won because they lost. Kurt Warner? He was out of the league making sure there was Garlic Parmesan Rice-A-Roni on aisle three. Aaron Rodgers? Before Green Bay hated Brett Favre, they loved him and hated Rodgers for driving him out. Drew Brees? San Diego didn't really care. Peyton Manning? Many in Knoxville believe the only reason the Volunteers won the first BCS Championship was that Peyton wasn't there.
Unless you just don't pay any attention to non-Rams sport narratives, you know how long Dirk, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion (to say nothing of the other vets) waited to get a ring. But Wade had his losses as well. Sure, they came earlier than most, but Wade's not an average basketball player. He took Marquette to the Final Four in his last collegiate season before being destroyed by Kansas. His ascendance into the top tier of active basketball players began with the 04-05 run, in which the Heat lost a painful game 7 to the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals. And Wade was already down two games to none the next season before ref-raping his way through four consecutive games for the title.
And yes, LeBron has lost some very important games in very important series. His game 7 performance from the 2007-08 series against Boston was mesmerizing. He was captivating in this year's run with the Heat. But as was suggested in this Sports Illustrated piece back in January:
...he looked forward to no longer carrying the offense night after night. "Now the pressure of making every shot or shooting a high percentage for our team to win is not a big deal anymore," says James.
Instead of being relieved of the burden, he looked forward to less responsibility. Instead of recognizing how many doors this opened, he was closing doors of his own.
The Rams can't afford this mindset going forward. As a team that has pulled itself out of the basement of the league, they can't assume that additional talents lessen the necessary production from the existing contributors. Adding a backup running back shouldn't be a signal to Steven Jackson to take it easy. Adding a tight end and more receiving weapons shouldn't push Sam to look forward to not carrying the offense. It's designed to make the job easier.
In the end, you can either accept reality or try to create your own. This year's Heat, last year's Jets, recent Yankee teams - these teams have lived on their own terms, relied on talent and forgotten the lessons of their failures. It's not as easy as adding a player or changing a play or any one fix that will suddenly catapult you beyond where you have been. It's about accepting reality and being willing to compete within the confines of that reality. When the best teams do that, they have the best chance at winning.
I'd be surprised if Miami isn't in the Finals next year. And I'd also be surprised if the Mavericks are. But for a Rams team that is looking at a future fork in the road, this year's NBA Finals offered a pretty convincing set of directions. Take the high road, and ride it out.