Sunday, May 23, 2010

Come Playoff Time In The NBA, Does Talent Actually Reign Supreme?

To say that this year’s NBA playoffs has been less than exciting would be beyond a euphemism. It has produced four sweeps and only one game seven, while in the progress of adding two more sweeps to its resume’.

However, while the lopsidedness of the games has bored some to tears, the surprising dominance of some teams and equally shocking flatness of others has led me to ask questions I’ve fought with for years.

What if there are some teams that are built for the regular season, while other are built for the playoffs? Perhaps more importantly, does talent always prevail in the playoffs; or is there a more important factor?

Many have tried to tell me this before-that there are some players that shine when the light is brightest- I always thought that talent on paper would prevail.

It wasn’t until the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Los Angeles Lakers decided to simultaneously prove me wrong, that I have finally awoken to what seems to be an indisputable reality: talent is but one factor in the quest for a championship and actually becomes a smaller factor in the post season.

The first team that arose this suspicion was the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Everything was set for LeBron and his crew to storm through this postseason and claim their first title. They had the best record, the best player with a great supporting cast, home-court advantage, rest, and the swagger that came with all of these things. These advantages didn’t seem to matter though, as Boston just dominated them in a series where Cleveland never seemed to have the upper hand.

My only explanation is that they weren’t build for playoff basketball. Postseason ball is much different from its predecessor.

Mo Williams might be a great scorer, but lacked the ability to distribute when his game was off; LeBron, while an excellent teammate, lacked the ability to instill fire into a team that needed it so badly; and finally, the team didn’t have a strong inside presence.

While these things aren’t a huge deal in an 82-game-season, they are quintessential parts of a champion.

On the other side of the coin is the group of teams that over perform come May and ruin everyone’s predictions. The Lakers and Celtics seem to be these teams every year.

To say that the Lakers were an underdog coming into the post season is a stretch; however, to say people didn’t have doubts, is another.

From the beginning of the season, most analysts identified Los Angeles as the best team in basketball on paper. Throughout the regular season though, this didn’t seem to be the case. They were vulnerable all season and were barely above .500 after the All-Star break. The Lakers seemed to be a team that was falling apart at the wrong time.

Instead of continuing the downward trend, the Lakers were invigorated by playoff basketball. After losing two straight games to the Oklahoma City Thunder to even the first round series up at 2-a-piece, the Lakers have won eight straight games and are rolling on all cylinders. All of a sudden, they are the team everyone thought they would be.

Finally, the Celtics cemented my belief that talent couldn’t be the only factor. On paper, they aren’t close to as good as Cleveland. Hell, they aren’t even able to match the Magic in talent.

However, as soon as that last regular season game ended, every player on that team became 100% better.

Rajon Rondo might as well be a 25-year-old Jason Kidd; Kevin Garnett looks five years younger, and Paul Pierce finds a way to be clutch even at his worst. Even Kendrick Perkins looks like Bill Russell on defense. Simply put, this isn’t the same team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

The conclusion that I have made is that some teams are impossible to judge in the regular season because quite frankly, they don’t care. The first 82 games are just one small step in winning a championship.

With the Lakers and Celtics, what transpires from November through April doesn’t matter; it might as well be the preseason.

In addition to that premise, I’m starting to think that while it is true that talent is the sole factor in winning in the regular season, there are bigger factors in the playoffs. As cliché as it sounds, team defense reigns supreme in the playoffs. Not only that, but talent is also trumped by clutch play inside two minutes and the ability to make adjustments between games.

When you look at the Lakers and Celtics, these are the things that make them great. By the same token, these are the very same things that were the only weaknesses in Cleveland’s game.

The ability to win in the regular season and that of the post season take very different things. Building a team that is capable of being successful at both is so difficult. That is why building a title contender is almost impossible to do with any certainty.

If there was a formula for doing it, then being a general manager would be significantly easier.

Unfortunately for fans in Cleveland and other franchises that desperately want to figure it out, this isn’t the case. Building a team of intricate pieces to win a championship is something few people know. It is what ESPN’s Bill Simmons calls “the Secret.”

While the other 28 teams in the NBA seem to struggle to figure out what that is, it seems like the Lakers and Celtics know it very well.

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