Oh ye, of little hoop faith.
Five years ago, when Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks choked away the 2006 NBA championship to Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat, headlines were a tad bit different than they have been over the last two days.
Dirk, now referred to as the hands-down greatest international player of all time, was the latest and most glaring example of everything wrong with European talents back then.
They’re marshmallow soft. They’re weak-minded. They flop. They would rather shoot jumpers from the outside than bang it out in the paint.
Every single critic who thought Nowitzki wasn't a franchise player, but rather a second-fiddle option to a true talent like Wade or LeBron James, felt vindicated by those 2006 Finals. The calls for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to blow up that team and start anew could be heard all the way to Los Angeles.
In 2007, Kobe Bean Bryant, a man whose psyche -- back in those days, at least -- needed to be bubbled-wrapped whenever he left the house, temporarily went insane. Absolutely, unquestionably nuts. Over the course of 24 hours, he went on a hodgepodge of talk radio shows to request a trade, then not request a trade, then request a trade and then not request a trade for about 10 times before his handlers finally pried the telephone away from his trembling hands.
As Los Angeles residents collectively sobbed into their pillows every night, speculation ran rampant that a Nowitzki-for-Bryant swap would make perfect sense. And, given how close the Lakers were to pulling the trigger on a mind-blowingly awful deal with the Bulls that centered around Chicago giving up Luol Deng (yikes!), it’s reasonable to assume that a Dirk-for-Kobe move was something that L.A., theoretically, would have been interested in.
Unfortunately -- or maybe, fortunately -- Cuban wasn’t willing to part ways with his big German investment. For better or worse, Dirk was his man, and he was sticking by him.
Fast-forward to 2011, now. The Lakers are in a very precarious situation heading into this offseason. New de facto boss, Jim Buss, a.k.a. Fredo Corleone in some circles, refuses to part ways with Andrew Bynum. Not for Dwight Howard, not for Chris Paul, not for Michael Jordan. No matter whom the player is, no matter how many free horseback riding lessons are offered as part of the package, the new Buss in charge will not give up what he feels is the crown jewel of his collection of talent.
Of course, Buss putting his foot down on the matter hardly makes it a closed case. Bynum, over the last four years, still hasn’t played in more than 65 regular season games. His durability still remains a huge question mark going into next year, just as it has been since he entered the league with relatively little overall basketball experience. And, the relationship between him and Kobe, reportedly never all that great, is still one of the more interesting subplots that deserves attention heading into 2012.
The talent and promise is obviously there for Bynum, the 23-year-old big man who averaged 14 and 10 in the playoffs this year, but at the same time, the haunting images of Yao Ming and Greg Oden’s wasted careers remain fresh in everyone’s minds. He could be really good. Or, he could be the latest casualty of too much size on a body ill-equipped to deal with the stress and strain that comes standard in a grueling NBA schedule.
Nevertheless, Jim has faith. It was he who found Bynum with the Lakers’ only high draft pick of the last 15 or so years. It was Jim, despite the suggestions of everyone involved -- including Kobe -- who refused to part with Bynum to acquire the likes of Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and, of course, Al Harrington (yikes!).
Maybe that faith will be rewarded, much like Cuban’s faith was on Sunday night. After all, Dirk, despite his awe-inspiring postseason run in 2011, would have still been referred to as a guy you can’t build a championship contender around if he hadn’t won a title. He’d still have been the same player who Cuban should have traded back in 2007, if the Mavericks hadn’t shocked the Heatles in six games.
That’s what the NBA is, and that’s why it’s great. It’s a dice roll, where everyone is an expert until they’re wrong, and everyone is wrong until they are right again. Dirk was a failure, until he wasn’t. LeBron is a despicable human being, until he saves seven orphans and a puppy from a burning building. Kobe couldn’t win without Shaq, until he did, at which point Shaq became overrated and could only redeem himself by virtue of a Boston Celtics title that never came.
It’s all nonsense, really.
Buss is either a genius for refusing to give up Bynum, or he is the epitome of stupidity. But, as Cuban proved five years after the fact, sometimes sticking to your guns despite what the critics are saying can pay off.