Just say NO. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Some random reflections from the playoffs and the season will be forthcoming in the next couple of days. Starting with two right here...
Game 5 of the Indiana-Miami Series was a Good Lesson
I like the Indiana Pacers. They're my favorite team still in the playoffs, even more than the Spurs. I like how they're built. I like how they play. I've even thought that they've had a legitimate chance to upset Miami in this series. But Game 5 was a fantastic lesson on how far you have to go in order to rise to the very top of this league.
After four games the Pacers had the depleted Heat dead to rights. Measuring by basketball alone, 5 guys were beating 1.5. It's just like every high school coach across the country preaches: play together, play hard, keep the court balanced and your head in it and you can overcome anything. The Pacers were overcoming! But see, this incarnation of the Pacers hasn't been to the Finals. This incarnation of the Heat has. And Miami knew that if they were getting beat in strictly basketball terms they had to change the game. So they did. They basically beat the crap out of Indiana in that fifth game. There's no more elegant way to put it. Flagrant fouls...physicality...shoving the ball, the game...and the Pacers' noses right back into their faces. It wasn't pretty. It may not have been that kosher. But dang, was it effective. When they got clubbed over the head the Pacers ran and hid. Miami took the game by 32 and ripped momentum away.
Seeing this game I was reminded of the Houston-Portland first-round series in 2009. That was the 54-win season, the pinnacle of the Roy-Oden-Aldridge era. The Blazers played great during the regular season, rattled off 10 wins in their final 11 games, claimed home-court advantage against the Rockets. They were sleek. They were stocked. They walked in to the Rose Garden for Game 1 all ready to play some basketball. The Rockets, on the other hand, walked into the Rose Garden ready to kick the Blazers in the solar plexus then knee them to the forehead when they were doubled over in pain. And so they did. The young pups took a serious physical beating, lost 81-108 on their home floor, and never recovered.
If you want to be a true upper echelon team in this league you have to endure everything an opponent can throw at you. That includes forearms, elbows, Flagrant 2's, and nasty, disruptive game plans. If you want to remain at that level you have to be willing to do anything necessary in order to keep your spot. If Team A sits down to play a nice game of pinochle for the night's purse and Team B pulls out a machete and says, "Give me all the money now!" you know what? Team B got the money. When you get this close to the prize that's all that matters.
Sadly the Blazers never really got to follow up on their lesson, not fielding a healthy team in any playoff series thereafter. We'll see if the Pacers can learn.
Teams Should Stop Helping Out the Lakers
As happens every time the Los Angeles Lakers exit the playoffs short of a title, people are starting to ask what they need to do in order to get into contention again. Most agree that they'll make moves and plenty of people are saying that Pau Gasol is the guy they'll part with.
That's a "no duh" assertion from the Laker point of view. The guy is still good, but not that good. He's 32 and he posted lower numbers this year than he has since 2004. Plus he makes $19 million in each of the next two seasons. By all rights he should be difficult to trade. The Lakers should be stuck with that production and contract until 2014. But you know there's going to be some fool team to help them out, taking on Gasol for apparent garbage if not a decent player.
Here is the only condition under which a team should take Gasol: he makes the difference between no title shots and 1-2 title shots for your team. The number of teams for whom that is true is limited. The number of teams for whom that is true who are also in position to make a trade for that kind of salary approaches the vanishing point.
Most likely the Lakers will shop him for less talent value, maybe a place-keeper player and some garbage to clear off their cap. That may not improve the team immediately, but guess what happens in the summer of 2013 when those contracts come off the cap?
Reveling in geekdom, I tend to play a lot of board games. Many board games start by giving players special powers that bend otherwise inviolable rules of the contest. Most players can only move 2 spaces on the board, for instance, but one guy has the special power of moving 3. One of the keys to winning under such conditions is understanding each player's special power and limiting its effectiveness.
The special power card of the Los Angeles Lakers says this: "May Convert Cap Space into a Premium Free Agent Instantly. (Player may take any free agent card off the board as long as he has enough Cap Space to cover the salary.)" That's their gig. That's what they do. If we were all sitting around the table playing a game and somebody held that card, the table talk would begin. "Do NOT give that guy cap space. You will lose the game. Make him work for it."
Obviously the NBA is more complex with 30 teams. It's not the job of all other 29 teams to keep the Lakers down either. But L.A. sits high in the rankings every year and it would behoove the rest of the league not to bail them out. It's not that hard. Only a handful of franchises have special powers. When you see one, don't play into it. Yes, Gasol may give you a couple more wins but he's also going to cap you up, he's not going to lead you to the promised land, and you're going to free up L.A. to grab a Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. No matter who you are, you can't think that's a good idea.
Having a team take a half-dozen extra wins and letting the Lakers renew their lineup is exactly like playing with a guy who makes a trade that will ensure him 5th place in your little 8-player board game at the cost of ensuring the guy who's ahead will win. That guy's a jerk and that game is no fun anymore.
So listen...this isn't that hard, league. Do not touch Gasol. Let L.A. finish paying him first and then get him.