By winning the 2011 NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks proved that even in the modern era of professional sports, championships can be had by playing the right way. And along the way they proved that any franchise can win a title. Well, almost any.
Given that the Denver Nuggets will likely never appear in an NBA Finals in my lifetime (sorry, I'm just not that lucky), for the past 30-plus years I've had to settle for rooting for good NBA Finals series to hold my attention in early June. On a few rare occasions I've rooted for one team over a good series - the 1988 Detroit Pistons, the 1994 Houston Rockets and the 2008 Boston Celtics are the only that come to mind - but I've never really had a dog in the NBA Finals race.
Until this year.
Denver Stiffs readers know that as soon as the Mavericks drew the hated Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, I was firmly seated on the Mavericks bandwagon. And when Dallas drew a rematch with the Miami Heat for the 2011 championship, there was no doubt in my mind who I'd be rooting for. Little did I know, however, that I'd be rooting for the Mavericks as if they were wearing powder blue and gold uniforms and had Rocky as their mascot!
Maybe I just hate the Heat that much. Maybe being a diehard John Elway fan I'm a sucker for old superstars in need of a ring to validate their brilliant athletic careers. Whatever the reason, I found myself completely enthralled by this year's NBA Finals and routinely on the edge of my seat...especially in the fourth quarter of each closely contested game. You'd think I had grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, if you had seen me watching these games.
The 2011 Mavericks may prove to be a one-off champion like the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, the 2004 Pistons, the 2006 Heat or the 2008 Celtics, but they have to be one of the more likable champions in recent NBA history. Even with DeShawn Stevenson on the roster.
Consider the players involved...
Dirk Nowitzki, routinely mentioned along with Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor and John Stockton in the "greatest superstar never to win a championship" sentence, was on the wrong side of a tough 2006 NBA Finals defeat followed by a humiliating first round playoff upset in 2007 when his first-seeded, 67-win Mavericks lost to an eighth-seeded, 42-win Golden State Warriors squad. That low point was akin to Elway's 13-win Broncos losing to the Jaguars in 1996, before Elway went on to win two straight Super Bowls. And yet like Elway before him, Nowitzki was able to stay persistent, stay classy in the face of the "can he ever win the big one?" questions constantly thrown at him and persevere to win a championship. Throw in Miami's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (possibly) mocking Nowitzki's Game 4 fever and I think NBA fans worldwide agree: good for Dirk!
Jason Terry, who may be a bit too god-oriented for my personal taste, came up with huge performances in Games 5 and 6 after being called out for being un-clutch by Nowitzki earlier in the series. This shooting guard was so championship obsessed that he tattooed the Larry O'Brien trophy on his right arm. Alongside Nowitzki, Terry had to endure the painful 2006 NBA Finals collapse after being up 2-0 and the 2007 playoff disaster against Golden State. And yet they both never gave up and got their ring. Amazing.
Jason Kidd - who shouldn't get a free pass for the past problems in his personal life - has finally erased the memory of the "Three Js" disaster in Dallas and, at 38 years old, has grown into one of the NBA's most respected elder statesmen. I think we're all seeing now why Mike Krzyzewski insisted on having Kidd on the 2008 Olympic team and why Coach K wanted Kidd around for the 2010 World Championship practices.
Tyson Chandler, left for dead by Chicago, New Orleans and Charlotte, gave an exceptional blue collar performance all season long, culminating with some great rebounding and defensive toughness in the 2011 Finals. And that was without any backup as Brendan Haywood missed most of the Finals due to injury.
How about Shawn Marion? The one-time "Matrix" seemed to fade into oblivion in recent seasons past, but had to step up big time when Caron Butler went down with a season-ending knee injury around New Year's. And step up he did, providing surprisingly good offense and stingy defense throughout the Finals.
And what more can be said about Juan Jose Barea (besides the fact that he's dating a former Miss Universe)? This undrafted, diminutive Nugget killer turned out to be a Laker, Thunder and Heat killer, too. Watching Barea slice and dice the bigger, more athletic Heat should give undersized basketball players worldwide a little more hope that regardless of how tall you are, if you can play you can play.
Before getting to the Heat's disappointing "effort," we must acknowledge the fine coaching job done by Rick Carlisle and the Dallas organization built up by Mark Cuban. Carlisle - who was fired by the Pistons a year after winning the Coach of the Year Award - and then had the misfortune of coaching Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal in Indiana, proved to be the best coach in the 2011 NBA Playoffs, besting some good bench callers along the way in Nate McMillan, Phil Jackson, Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra. With Jackson retiring, Carlisle joins Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers as the only active coaches with a championship ring.
And longtime Stiffs readers know I've been enamored with Cuban for years. Yes, he's a loudmouth and can certainly be obnoxious, but by moving aside on Sunday night so that David Stern could present Mavericks founder Donald Carter with the championship trophy first showed that Cuban is actually a class act. Moreover, any young sports fan must admit that Cuban has revolutionized professional sports ownership as we know it (for the good) and I'm sure most of us would behave with the same passion for our team if we had the privilege of owning an NBA team. Moving forward I'll be rooting for Cuban to help solve the NBA's revenue sharing problems, something he has acknowledged (in person to me) wanting to do.
Now a few words about LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
I've made no secret of my profound dislike for "King" James, vowing never to root for the crown-less, self-anointed King after he stabbed the state of Ohio in the back last July. And while I stand by that column and will never root for LeBron, I was thoroughly disappointed by the "effort" put forth by him and his Heat teammates in this series, especially in Game 6 at home. Somewhere, the Basketball Gods are shaking their heads with disgust.
Granted, in Game 6 the Heat shot free throws akin to the post-Melo Denver Nuggets, but for LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh to waltz listlessly through the fourth quarter with no sense of urgency is an insult to any player who has ever played for or wanted to play for an NBA Championship. Just ask Dirk Nowitzki (or Nuggets fans for that matter) how often NBA Championship appearances come about. For most associated with the NBA, those opportunities are few and far between and should be treasured. In no way did the "Big Three" treasure this opportunity.
What a shame. What a sham.
After watching the 2011 NBA Finals, how anyone could think that LeBron - who will never be anything more than the Alex Rodriguez to Dwyane Wade's Derek Jeter - is even close to the airspace owned by the likes of Jordan, Bird, Magic, Kobe is a flat out joke. LeBron James will win a championship some day. He has too much talent and too much talent around him not to. But I'll be hard pressed to ever call him a champion.
But rather than excoriate a pathetic effort by Miami, we should be cheering a championship effort by a bunch of old guys in Dallas. Even though the Mavericks are a big market team backed by an owner with the deepest of pockets (and the willingness to spend), they are only the ninth franchise to win an NBA Championship in the last 31 years, and they were seeded third entering the 2011 playoffs.
And thus, Dirk Nowitzki and his Mavericks showed the rest of the NBA world that anything is possible. Hell, maybe even our Nuggets could climb that championship mountain some day.