Sunday, July 18, 2004

Holy Prosperous Pairings!

Dynamic duos, pairings of people who, together, accomplish more than they could as individuals. But it's more than that. Dynamic duos often accomplish more together than many more people could accomplish. Abbot and Costello, Bausch and Lomb, And of course, the original dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, have become cultural icons, recognizable to anyone who has they're contacts in. But what happens when these duos split up? How much success can one member have without the other?

Before meeting up and establishing a peroxide empire Bausch was a failed chemist best known for developing an unpopular brand of edible silly putty, while Lomb was trying to sell people on the idea of cleaning they're glasses with steel wool. Most people would rather forget the films that Abbott and Costello released as individuals, after they're messy break up in which Abbott said he didn't appreciate Costello coming in to each scheduled shooting fat and out of shape, unable to fulfill the rigorous duties required of slapstick comedy, while Costello claimed that Abbott was a "gag hog." Occasionally, one partner goes on to continued success while the other fades away to less embellished glory. Thus was the case of Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Grayson, for reasons of his own decided to leave Wayne Manner for a crime fighting life of his own, first as Robin, and later as Nightwing. After his own comic book venture failed he was forced to join the moderately successful New Teen Titans, once again forced into an ensemble role. Meanwhile Batman enjoyed continued success, proving that he had in fact been the main draw and the pillar behind the dynamic duo's longevity. Of course this success was not without its difficulties. Batman went through three more Robins and became a darker and darker Knight as time went on.

With all of these examples close at hand it is surprising that the lessons they teach us are so often ignored by professional basketball players. Recent NBA history is full of examples of successful dynamic duos and the results of they're parting. Yet, as the break up of the Lakers shows, players are still more concerned with proving that they are The Man, than with putting themselves in position to win championships. Shaq didn't like "the direction the team was headed" and "didn't want to be a part of it." Meanwhile, common opinion holds that Doc Buss fired Phil and traded The Diesel in order to appease Kobe. All of this a result of two star players wanting to be acknowledged as The Man, rather than admit how much of they're success depended on each other. By doing so they ignored recent history that shows how a team with two superstars can dominate the league, while a team with one is usually bounced early in the playoffs.

Exhibit One: Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury.

Teammates from 1996 to 1999 (3 seasons) Garnett and Starbury were being hailed as the duo that could make the T-Wolves a force in the West. This was before Kobe blossomed and while the Lakers were going through Del Harris, Magic and Kurt Rambis on the bench. While together Garnett averaged 18.8 PPG while Star averaged 17.0 PPG and 8.6 APG. Star left because he didn't feel that he and Garnett could coexist, saying that he had to be able to score more and have the offense run not just through him, but to him. Since then Star has improved his scoring average by about 3.5 PPG but has never again met the career high 9.3 APG he had his last year in Minnesota. Garnett has also raised his PPG by about 3.5. Neither player has been to the finals, '04 was the first time Garnett had been passed the first round, and Star has been traded twice. Garnett's recent success didn't come until the emergence of Wally Sczerbiak, another good young scorer with whom Garnett has had a rocky relationship.

Exhibit Two: Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady

Two more guys who couldn't agree on who was The Man. T-Mac and VC were in Toronto together from 98-00 (2 seasons) and were on they're way to challenging the Knicks and Heat for dominance in the East. Again, McGrady left because he couldn't share the spotlight with VC, he wanted go out and be the guy who got the credit. Of course at the time T-Mac was a guy who averaged 7.0 PPG as rookie before VC arrived, and then 9.3, and 15.4 PPG while VC came in as a rookie and hit for 18.3, and then 25.7 PPG. T-Mac felt like he was being overshadowed so he left for Orlando where his PPG average shot up more than 11 points. During that same stretch VC's PPG average dropped as knee injuries and media controversies robbed him of his explosiveness and sunny demeanor. As with the Garnett and Marbury neither player has been to the finals and T-Mac's Magic were dismal last season.

It should be noted that T-Mac thought he was going south to pair up with Grant Hill, and at a time when The Magic felt like they were on the verge of signing Tim Duncan. Things didn't work out as Duncan stayed in San Antonio (where he won another title as part of the "Twin Towers" dynamic duo) and Hill never played more than a few unproductive games per year due to an ankle injury similar to the one suffered by Garrison Hearst.

Exhibit Three: MJ and Pippen

No one needs to mention what these two accomplished together. Also, there was never any doubt about who was The Man on this team. Mike was the boss. Always. But the fact remains that Mike never won without Scotty and Scotty never won without Mike. Not even when Scotty went to Houston with Hakeem, Sir Charles, and The Glide.

Here, the circumstances of their parting was due to more than just ego or a failure to coexist. The first time they split it was because Mike thought he could play baseball. The second time it was because the Jerries thought they could win without anyone ("organizations win championships").

Which brings us to Shaq and Kobe. When the Diesel went to LA as a free agent it was on the heels of first losing to Houston in the finals and then watching MJ return to begin a second run at the top of the heap. Shaq was coming out of a dynamic duo situation in Orlando where he was teamed with a rising star in Penny Hardaway. The year they went to the finals Shaq averaged 29.3 PPG and 11.5 RPG, Penny averaged 20.9 PPG and a career high 7.2 APG. The year before Shaq left his PPG slid to 26.6, while Hardaway's rose to 21.7 with his APG fell to 7.1. The difference was enough to send The Daddy to Los Angeles.

Shaq’s first year So-Cal the Lakers drafted a high school kid from Philly named Kobe Bryant who averaged 7.1 PPG and did nothing to threaten Shaq's standing as The Man. This was the case, by and large, through the first championship year of 99-00. That year Shaq hit a career high 29.7 PPG while Kobe contributed a then career high 22.5PPG to with 4.9 APG. That off season things began to go down hill. The rift between Kobe and Shaq, and Kobe and Phil, and Kobe and the rest of the team, came light and began to take over as The Story surrounding the Lakers. The rumors flew, Kobe for J-Kidd and Shawn Marion, Kobe staying, Shaq wanting out etc. Shaq complained about Kobe being selfish, Kobe complained about Shaq being fat. Shaq responding with is famous "If you don't feed the big dog, the big dog won't guard the yard." Yet through it all they managed to win two more titles while Kobe's APG actually rose each year until this recent season.

This recent season, the one that ended it all. The Lakers brought in two aging former stars who were supposed to return the Lakers to their perch atop the NBA world. It didn't happen. Instead The Glove looked old and confused, the Mailman got hurt, and the Shaq/ Kobe/ Phil feud blew up. Now, the Lakers are back to square one and I don't see a title in the near future for either Shaq or Kobe. I've seen analysis that says the Heat got a great deal, that they become the favorites in the East, that the Lakers could end up as a lottery team, that Kobe made a mistake by alienating Shaq and Phil, that the basketball world is now up for grabs.

So, will Shaq/ Kobe be another Abbott and Costello? Or will one be Batman while the other goes on as a moderately successful Nightwing?

A lot of folks seem to think that the Heat will run away with the East based on the idea that Shaq will be angry and motivated to come to Miami in shape, that Pat Riley will be able to get out of Shaq what he got out of Kareem, and that, as the only truly big center in the conference, that The Daddy will be able to dominate the paint as he had in the past. I disagree.

First off the people who say that the Heat are now the favorites in the East seem to be forgetting how the smaller but quicker and more motivated Wallace and Wallace held Shaq in check during the finals, how Shaq has been slower and less dominate in each season since 99-00 when he went 29.7 PPG, 13.7 RPG, and 3.0 BPG. Shaq's numbers since 99-00:

PPG: 28.7, 27.2, 27.5, 21.5
RPG: 12.7, 10.7, 11.1, 11.5
BPG: 2.8, 2.0, 2.4, 2.5

Shaq has also hinted at retiring to become either a cop or a fireman, and got off his "company time" line when asked why he waited until training camp to have surgery. Also, while Dwayne Wade is a nice player, he's no Kobe. Time will tell whether he and Shaq will become a dynamic duo. One thing's for sure, Shaq and Eddie Jones couldn't do it in 96 and they won't do it alone now. Also, people seem to be banking on the idea that a healthy motivated Shaq is the same as 28 year old Shaq. It's not. Shaq, at 32 is beat up more than he was five years ago when the Lakers began their run. While Shaq may get the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly the NBA Finals, I can't see them beating the Rockets, Mavs, Kings, or T-wolves in a seven game series.

As for Kobe, well, now is the time to make good on all the MJ comparisons. The one thing that MJ had, which Kobe has yet to show, is an ability to be a respected leader. Everyone fell in line with MJ because they knew he made them better. They knew that even though the plays at the end of the game were drawn up for MJ, even though MJ carried the team, he trusted his teammates (Steve Kerr, John Paxon etc.) enough to go to them and help them succeed. Look at all the big contracts signed by former Bulls after the team was blown up (Luc Longley, _____) simply because Mike made these guys play better than they actually were. Kobe has shown brief flashes of that (hitting Big Shot Rob in the corner to beat the Blazers) but not enough. Also, Kobe has yet to win the respect of his teammates in a way that allows him to be a leader because people want to follow him.

One positive for Kobe, and another MJ comparison, is that the current wisdom that you need a dominant center in order to win, is belied by the fact that MJ never played with a dominant big man. MJ had a great second banana in SF Pippen, and Kobe has a good second option in SF Lamar Odom. MJ had a good PF in Horace Grant, Kobe could have something similar if Malone returns. (Of course if Malone comes back why not join Shaq in Miami?) If Payton can be as good as BJ Armstrong (not a lofty goal, but questionable based on GP's performance last year), and Slava, or Divac can be as good as Bill Wennington then the blueprint is set provided that Kobe can be as good as MJ. All long shots, but the precedent is set for a team to win with a great 2 guard and no center to speak of.

That said, I don't think Kobe will lead the Lakers to the finals any time soon. Of course it depends on how Rudy T can bring along guys like Luke Walton and Kareem Rush. The rest of the West was already catching up with LA and I don't see the current team beating Minnesota, Sacramento, San Antonio, Dallas or Houston in a seven game series. Also, Houston has a potential dynamic duo in T-Mac and Yao, and another in Minnesota with the afore mentioned Garnett and Sczerbiak.

What should have happened? If I were Mitch Kupchak, or Doc Buss I would have traded Shaq for T-Mac straight up, let Kobe walk and go after a center next year. After all, if you're going to blow it up, blow the roof off and get rid of all the residual bad karma. T-Mac would have had a fresh start on a big stage, which might have energized him and the franchise. The Lakers could have had a fresh start and some cap room to go after a big man later on, after all if they make the playoffs this year it'll be a miracle.

So there it is. T-Mac and Yao should see this before McGrady goes into free agency next year. Rasheed Wallace should see this before deciding to leave Detroit. But if we diverge from NBA logic and decide to use history as our guide, we shouldn't expect them to. Instead players will keep chasing money and cred rather than rings.

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