In a lot of ways, the recently deceased Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks took different paths to the same point. Each has had a bunch of good years, some deep playoff runs, some disappointment, and one title.
Maybe each could have had two-if Kendrick Perkins hadn't gotten hurt in game 6 a few years back, if different referees had worked the '06 series--but that's basketball for you.
The fact that one team did it with just one superstar and a host of greater and lesser role players, and the other did it with three past All-Stars and one new one, tells you that there are, as always, a number of ways to skin the basketball cat. It tells you that team is, still, unfortunately, an indefinable concept.
The Celtics, also, began all at once. They made a big splash, the kind of splash the Mavericks are hoping to make this summer and the next, and emerged fully form not just a title contender, but a title winner. A couple of times it looked like the Celtics would do what the Mavericks did last year, break up the Big Three, trade Rondo, but they didn't. Instead, they stuck with it to the bitter end.
There weren't any titles, after 2008. But there were close calls. And no one can say, after the Celtics fell just one quarter short of another, and most improbable, NBA Finals experience, that they didn't squeeze every ounce of juice out of this partnership, that formed so suddenly, that proved so stable.
How they did it, this year, I'll never know, with sub 40% shooting series' from Allen and Pierce, with them losing the one absolutely transcendent Rajon Rondo game they got. But they really almost did it. It was tied, going into the fourth quarter of Game 7. You can't ask for more than that.
It didn't happen. And now-with the team clearly on its last legs, and Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett entering unrestricted free agency, they leave with a little regret but, if they're honest, not very much. They allowed the thing they were doing to reach its natural end.
And there is the difference. The Dallas Mavericks-deliberately, and with aforethought, did not do that. By report, they did it because it was time to start preparing for life without Dirk, but the Celtics, as well as this year's resurgent Spurs, showed that a too aggressive fear of age can be as wildly off base as too great a reliance on it.
Tim Duncan, who did such a fine job reminding everyone of his talents in this, his first healthy year in a while, is 36. Kevin Garnett, whose playoff numbers this year (19.2 points, 10.3 rebounds) are in fact more or less in line with his career averages (19.3-10.6), was undoubtedly the Celtics second best player. Not only that, but KG has played 6,000 minutes more, even, than Duncan-he's been around forever, and he's rarely injured. And there he still is.
Obviously, the highest amount of years any non-Mav free agent could sign with the Mavericks for is four years-which means Dirk, at the end of Deron Williams' first Mavericks contract, or whoever's, would be only 37. Obviously, Dirk will not be the same at 37 as he was at 32, but there is no reason, particularly given his skill set, to believe he can't still be a devastating offensive weapon at that ripe old age. But the Mavericks, obviously, didn't see it that way.
Or maybe, they just saw that unlike the Celtics, there is no backup to Dirk Nowitzki. Unlike the Celtics, they didn't have a Rondo to take over when the old guys needed a breather, and they didn't have three of a kind, in case one was having a bad night. Maybe it's not that the Mavericks thought Dirk couldn't do it any more; maybe it's just that they thought that only Dirk couldn't do it. That, rather than seeing the Mavs go half blow-it-up, what we're actually seeing is a highly dramatic pit stop.
Maybe they were 100% committed to signing Tyson Chandler, if he accepted Cuban's 20 mil for one year offer, and if it was clear, at this point, that Dwight Howard was off the table. And maybe, after seeing what OKC did to the Lakers and the Spurs, the Mavericks brain trust didn't think any of this, but did think the Mavs couldn't keep competing with the young guys as presently constituted, and maybe, about that, they were 100% right.
But here it is: The more that I watch the NBA, and it has been over two decades now, the more I know what General Managers can't afford to know, what their jobs depend on not knowing. You build a team to compete for a title---you can't build one to win it. GMs can't control key injuries. They can't stop Fisher hitting a leaner with .4 seconds left, Manu from fouling Dirk on that dunk at the end of regulation.
They can't go back to Game 7 of the Celtics-Heat series and make Ray Allen or Paul Pierce hot from the field. All they can do is get Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rondo together. That's why everyone who suggests the Heat should blow it up if they don't win is crazy-they're clearly good enough to win. They were within two games last year, they're within four at the moment. You just don't always, even when you're good enough.
It's interesting to remember, now, that in the 1998 draft, Rick Pitino's Celtics were pretty sure they were gonna sneak a young German named Dirk Nowitzki out from under everyone's nose, with the #10 pick in the NBA draft, until the Mavericks took him 9th (or traded with Milwaukee to take him 9th). Instead, they got Paul Pierce, who had a long, fine and noteworthy career that rarely got close to the hardware until he was 30 years old, and the Celtics grabbed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, one year after they picked up a young Rajon Rondo.
And so, failing to be like the Celtics in one way, finding and core and playing out its string together, despite the yearly challenges that entail, the Mavericks now have to hope they can be like the Celtics in another, redefining a future starting with nothing but the guy who's always been there, drafted the same year, one ahead of the other. It may be a little late-but as Dirk, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion learned last year, it's never over till it's over.