On Sunday I took my Mom to see Thor instead of watching game four between the Mavericks and the Lakers. I don’t normally skip playoff games but it was Mother’s Day, and even though Mama Johnston is a fan of hoops neither of us felt compelled to watch. When I finally saw the outcome of the game, a blowout win for the Mavs, I experienced the thrill of commonly held basketball beliefs being violated. The Mavericks were not supposed to win that series. The Lakers were not supposed to lose, and certainly not supposed to get swept. There is a lot to chew on when we get reminded that our ideas are not natural laws. One lesson from the Mavericks’ sweep is an important one for fans of the Blazers: perennially good can become great without suffering through a rebuilding effort.
The Lakers are the defending champions, one of the most storied franchises in the NBA, are in a major (and perhaps more importantly, glamorous) market, and have famous people seated farther away from courtside than they would ever tolerate at any other NBA game. Things have gone the Lakers’ way for a while, and being confronted with failure so far from the title was a shock. Magic Johnson went on ESPN talking about the need to blow up the team for crying out loud, a sentiment that is not his alone.
The belief that the Lakers need to start all over strikes me as that initial emotional and irrational reaction we humans often have to a surprising and unwanted situation. The team has excellent and proven players, a less dramatic re-tooling seems like a better strategy at this point in time. I have a pet theory, incubating since watching so many Blazers’ fans declare the need to rebuild earlier this season, that people tend to forget what a rebuilding effort really feels like and too easily believe in the necessity of it. It is a very uncertain path that often involves a lot of losing. (Can we blame this on the same human component that throughout history has lead people to believe than an oncoming war will be more brief than it turns out to be?) A total rebuild is a tough path but justifiable when necessary. It is necessary less often than many seem to think it is.
Look at the Dallas Mavericks. In the minds of many, as recently as a week ago, they were destined to spend eternity being good enough to win fifty games a season without ever truly competing for a title. After making the Finals 2006, the Mavericks won over fifty games every season and never advanced beyond the semifinals of the playoffs. In three of those seasons they lost in the first round, including losing to the eighth seeded Warriors in 2007. The Mavericks did not blow it up. They made changes, they searched for the best formula, they tinkered and took risks, but there was no complete rebuild. Now it looks like patience is being rewarded. The Mavericks swept the Lakers and look every bit like a serious championship candidate.
The Lakers are NBA royalty and it follows that discussion of their defeat will focus more on what is wrong with them than what is right with Dallas. Lost somewhere in the Mavericks victory is an important lesson to basketball in general and the Blazers in particular; a team can leap from perennially good to great without having to endure the pain of being gutted first.