Monday, July 7

Counter-Point: The NBA Finals

Still working on the kinks, but this point: counter-point feature will be a regular one on the site.

In response to Catfish's point:

The 91 finals did mark an important start to the "Jordan Rules Era" of the NBA. By beating the Lakers 4-0 in a sweep it was a clear indicator that the hard nosed (and most enjoyable) era of the 80s was over. Magic, Bird, and the Bad boys had created a golden era of the NBA possibly never to be duplicated with the salaries and league expansion of today.

In this day and age, strong role payers such as Dennis Rodman, Robert Parrish, and Michael Cooper would not be inclined to stay with a franchise for so long. We see too often where good nuclei of teams are broken up over a free agent leaving, salary cap issues, or in-fighting. Joe Johnson to the Hawks would be the best example one could think of recently. But I digress.
With the Bird/Magic Era ending and Jordan finally overtaking the two-time defending champion Bad Boys of Detroit, it began a new phase of NBA prominence and globalization. Jordan took advantage, not only beating the Lakers, but making them an after thought. Any sports fan who has watched any basketball holds the image of Jordan gliding past Magic and switching hands mid air in a display of graceful acrobatics as Marv Albert exclaimed "A spectacular move by Michael Jordan!" Jordan had already become a household name due to his sneakers, and his Spike Lee Commercials, but now he held a championship with more to come.

Phil Jackson is, and will ever be, one of the most debated subjects in NBA history. Those on one side say he is nothing but the mere beneficiary of supreme talent. "Anyone can win with Jordan, Shaq and Kobe" they say. On the other side remain his staunch supporters, those who contend other coaches have held greatness in their hands, yet have never tasted the locker room champagne. After this years job of reaching the finals with "just Kobe" and the cast around him, many were willing to meet somewhere in the middle. The plain and simple fact was Doug Collins is a good coach. He was never given the opportunity to be a great one. He was the one who took the beatings year after year in the playoffs at the hands of the Bird-led Celtics and the Detroit steamroller. He was making progress, but for whatever the reason, he was ousted. Phil picked up where Doug left off and made the most of his opportunity. Wielding Jordan like a flaming sword he smote any opponents in his path. Phil became the dragon slayer with that first championship. In the ensuing ones he would become the dragon himself.

After the '91 season, the Bulls took control. Dispatching a talented Blazers team in the 92 finals and hacking down a very worthy '93 Suns team led by league MVP Charles Barkely. The three-peat (copyright Pat Riley) was complete. The only thing that could stop Jordan and Jackson were themselves. Unfortunately tragedy in the life of MJ pushed him away from basketball for two years. The murder of his father changed Jordan forever, as it would anyone. No blame can ever be placed on Jordan for what he did, it is just one of those facts of life that everyone must accept. He left for two years, which will forever create a gap in his collection of rings.

Jackson had few options for replacing Jordan. That is a bit of an understatement: how do you replace the greatest player in the league, perhaps ever? Jackson plodded along with what he had but Pete Myers was not the answer. Phil made the playoffs, but the lack of a game breaker, and Pippen's discontent (to Kukoch's delight) kept the team from the pinnacle. Jordan returned as 45 in the 95 playoffs but the rust was apparent as the Knicks with Riley (whom Jackson had taken down in the previous years) at the helm.

This two year gap of Jordan-less NBA basketball created one of the most distinct and landmark events in the league and perhaps all sports. It was as if someone slipped some Kool-Aid into the flux capacitor and the time-space continuum was thrown off its axis for two years. There was light, hope for those who have never tasted the ultimate prize. The NBA became a free-for-all and teams knew Jordan would not be gone forever so the time was now.

Many, including my esteemed colleague would contend that the Houston Rockets' championships of '94 and '95 require asterisks. The plain and simple fact was the NBA was no different those two years, the rules were the same, the style of play similar, and they still used two hoops and 98 (1/2) Ft. of court. Jordan was missing, but again that is plain and simple fact.

The Rockets had a good team, nay a great team. Rudy T stepped out of the shadow of Kermit Washington's fist and into the spotlight as a great leader and inspirer of men. Hakeem, taken before Jordan in the infamous draft of 84, stamped his place in history. Not only did Hakeem secure the middle with his long-armed defense, he dazzled the masses and befuddled opponents with his ballet-whirling dirvish-octopussy style post offense. The 94 season marked a rise of the Rockets, winning the west and taking down the New York Knicks in a very entertaining NBA finals that was overshadowed by the beginning (sigh) of the OJ chronicles. Hakeem outshined Patrick Ewing in a rematch of the battle of the 84 NCAA championship. In the '95 playoff run, Hakeem made the recently crowned MVP David Robinson look like a mere merchant seaman taking on a commodore of a fleet. Robinson had taken the MVP and the scoring title based on his incredible 73 point performance against the Clippers at the end of the season to secure the scoring title over Shaq. The spurs he led were a team of seasoned, smart players: Robinson, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Sean Elliot. Hakeem stole the show. In the finals against the upstart Orlando Magic, the Rockets made it laughable. Shaq, considered the future of the league at that time, would retain that title as Hakeem became the present and took the title. That year Hakeem became the unstoppable force down low as the Rockets staved off elimination multiple times in the Western Conference playoffs.

It wasn't just Hakeem and Rudy T at the helm that made Houston great, it was the entire squad. Kenny Smith ran the show with tactical precision. Sam Cassell provided youthful exuberance from the perimeter. Robert Horry hit shots and was a force down low, laying the genesis for the "Big Shot Rob" title he carries today. Mario Ellie (pre-gray goatee) played incredible during the playoffs. Clyde Drexler put them over the top.

The Rockets were a great team, fun to watch, and repeat champions. However, it is not their consecutive titles that makes them the biggest impact of the NBA finals in the 80-present era of the league, it is the impact it had on those whom it denied. The argument may seem outlandish: not winning is a bigger impact than winning, but think about it. With this up for grabs two years of the league, so many players who had gone ringless had a chance to attain the goal.

First we look to the east. The finals runner up in '94 were the Knicks. The Knicks of the 90s were the red-headed step-child to the Jordan Bulls. Whether it was early in the decade with Benard King lamenting to the press "the Jordan Rules" after he vowed to shut MJ down or later on as Starks, Mason, Oakley, and Ewing pushed the Bulls to the brink, yet fell to them every time. The Knicks had the correct sense of urgency in 93-94. Riley impressed on them either directly or subconsciously that the wolf was out of the den, and the meat was there for the taking. In, fact the wolf had gone off to play minor league baseball in Birmingham, Alabama and there was no better time that now. They thundered to the finals, but were denied. The John Starks' hobbled and poor 2 for 18 performance still wears on me, and I'm not even a Knick fan. So there is was, Ewing was denied the NBA ring, and he would never get a better shot (No the 99 finals were not a better shot).

The Knicks dispatched another future HOFer, Reggie Miller, who would also taste the Jordan hand slap in the 90s. Despite making Spike Lee look foolish, Reggie failed to push the Pacers into the finals that year and the fell the following year in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Magic.
The Magic were considered an upstart team when they made the finals in '95. Shaq and Penny were the Beta version of Shaq and Kobe, and 3D Dennis Scott (pre- kida basketball camp flip out) was the outside gunner. Nick Anderson wasn't duckwalking, he was playing strong for the Magic. Horace Grant had been aquired from the Bulls and provided even the slimmest scent of Jordan's rarefied air. The Rockets clubbed the Magic though and it wouldn't be long until O'Neal left for greener pastures, high payrolls, and the bright lights of L.A. Greener for basketball maybe, the Hollywood side left us with Khazam and Steel. The Magic never recovered: Penny faded away, Coaching changes were made, but never did the Magic sniff the Conference finals again. But O-town purists will say Dwight Howard will change that.

The Eastern fallout from the Rockets run was big, but nothing compared to the wasteland laid in the west. The Rockets denied many who would have their only chance to collect the dream season. The Seattle Supersonics were the top seed in '94 , but their golden opportunity was not destroyed by Hakeem, but it was fellow African Dikembe Mutombo laying on the Key Arena floor, holding the ball in front of his smiling face, that doomed the Soncis. They would get another shot, but it would be against a primed MJ and a Bulls team that had set the record with 72 regular season wins. Kemp, the glove, and George Karl have to wince when they think about the 94 playoffs.

The Utah Jazz were had not yet reached the NBA finals in the 94 and 95 seasons, but they were perennial playoff contenders. This was Stockton, and Malone in their prime. They fell as a 5 seed in 94 and to the Spurs but really lost a good opportunity in 95 when they were the 3 seed in the west and lost in the opening round to the 6th seeded and eventual champion Rockets. The Jerry Sloan train kept rolling on in the late 90s but his dynamic tandem of Stockton/Malone could not overcome the Jordan machine and fell to them two years in a row, including in heartbreaking fashion in '98. I won't elaborate on what happened, I'll just leave my hand up. Sloan continues to plod on without his best duo, and has success, and offends John Ameachi's sensibilities, but a golden opportunity was missed while Jordan was away.

The Suns hopes were dashed in '94 and '95 by the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs. Both of the series went to seven games, with the Rockets taking it both times. In 95, the 6th seeded Rockets came back from a 3-1 deficit. Barkley, and his Phoenix teammate Kevin Johnson were eliminated from ring contention in the two years following their fall to the Bulls. If Barkley were a gambling man, you might have told him those two years were the best chance for him to claim a ring. Barkely would eventually leave for a defunct Houston team with Scotty Pippen in a mix of Jordan defeat and former Jordan glory mixed with aging superstars that could not compete and then hang it up with no ring.

The Spurs were taken out by the Rockets in the two years of Jordan-less play, but the team held together long enough for another rip in the universe to occur: the acquisition of the number one draft pick. If the Spurs had not grabbed Duncan away from the Celtics, oh how history would be different. As it was, Duncan teamed with David Robinson for a title in 99, the first post Jordan (Wizards Jordan does not count) finals victory in the NBA. Although it was good to see players like Avery Johnson and David Robinson get a ring, without Duncan, it would not be possible.

The ripple effect of the Rockets back to back titles ran through the whole league in the 90s. It was that small window in time were hall of fame legacies were altered. People always say what if the Rockets had to play the Bulls, but what if the Rockets had not won? What if Barkely, Stockton/Malone, Kemp/Payton, Ewing, Reggie had claimed one? Hakeem would not be held in such esteem as he is now, and no one would belabor the point that the aforementioned greats had no ring.

In terms of this year's finals, KG, Peirce, and Ray Allen fell somewhat into that category. But up until this year's western conference, the NBA had been a mish-mash of changing styles, zone defenses and diluted talent. The odd thing is that the Lakers made such ease of the run through the west only to get smashed in the Finals. Phil Jackson's debate will surely heat up again due to this outcome, and Kobe is now in danger of becoming what he was before this season: a superior talent, who whines when he's not winning, and can't win the ring on his own. The NBA could be headed for another run like that in late 80s and early 90s where teams come together and play up-tempo style. The Western teams have some great talent with CP3, the big three in San Antonio, Williams/Boozer in Utah, Yao (when healthy) and Tmac, and of course Kobe and Phil in L.A. But there is no Jordan juggernaut. LeBron could reach that status but that is indeterminate as of yet. Also in the east is Howard in O-town, Detroit may be on the down slope but still potent, and Boston. But will the Celtics stay together? If they do can they duplicate this year? This years finals were a major impact, but as far as this era of the NBA, it was the Rockets claiming reign over the NBA in Jordan's absence that shaped certain players legacies and future events in the league after Jordan left.

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