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MMB Idol Audition 5: "The Purity of Our Game:" a Layman's Perspective

Editor's Note: Better late than never! Here is our fifth and final submission. The vote starts this weekend, so soak it all in, kids!

In the afterglow of the franchise's first championship, the journalistic hunt was on for the million dollar quote.  My favorite of these didn't come from the notoriously brash Jason Terry, the inscrutable Jason Kidd (even after winning the championship, he still had that "Did I leave the stove on?" look) and certainly not the low-talking super-duper star Dirk Nowitzki.  Dirk may have the prettiest shot in basketball and an underrated sense of deadpan humor, but he's no Pulitzer candidate.  No, the definitive quote came from floor general Rick Carlisle:

This is one of the really unique teams. This is my opinion now. This is one of the unique teams in NBA history. Because it wasn't about high-flying star power. Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn't doing? When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished? That's what's special.

That's the kind of quote that elicits vigorous head-nods from every MFFL, but what does it mean?  What is Basketball in its purist sense?  What is basketball played right and just how do we know when we are watching it take place?

To see the game as Rick Carlisle sees it is tantamount to reading Dostoevsky in Russian.  It is the kind of esoteric knowledge that would drive a Gnostic to rapturous fits.  To know basketball as someone like Coach Carlisle is to know every dimension of the court, to see several moves ahead.  Of the ten bodies on the court, not a one is taken for granted.  Screens, sprints, drives, rolls, lunges, with or without the ball, each movement is a keystone to the round-ball cathedral.

I absorb the game at a much less cerebral level.  Despite my love of basketball, I am wholly ignorant of the clockworks that make it run and I am terrible at playing it.  Incapable of making a pure shot in a real contest, I instead resign myself to overcommitted, pesky defense and unspeakably awkward floaters that, on rare occasion, miraculously go in.  It's basically the worst version of Bruce Bowen, who I will always despise, but whose dropkicks I will gladly appropriate.

Nevertheless, when Carlisle speaks of the "purity of [the 2011 Mavericks'] game," I do have a picture, even if it is rudimentary.  Anybody could see it with this team.  You could decipher it from the thousand-yard stares each member of the roster wore through 21 games.  And even sideline dilettantes like me could sometimes see it in their play.  Personally, I think two sequences in the fourth quarter of Dallas's series-closing win against Portland epitomized their immaculate form of basketball.

9:49        Brendan Haywood shooting foul (LaMarcus Aldridge draws the foul)

9:49        LaMarcus Aldridge makes free throw 1 of 2

9:49        LaMarcus Aldridge makes free throw 2 of 2

9:30        Dirk Nowitzki makes 13-foot two point shot       

9:19        Brendan Haywood shooting foul (Wesley Matthews draws the foul)      

9:19        Wesley Matthews makes free throw 1 of 2

9:19        Wesley Matthews makes free throw 2 of 2

8:56        Dirk Nowitzki makes 17-foot two point shot

---                          

3:06        Shawn Marion shooting foul (Gerald Wallace draws the foul)

3:06        Gerald Wallace makes free throw 1 of 2

3:06        Gerald Wallace makes free throw 2 of 2

2:56        Gerald Wallace personal foul (Jason Terry draws the foul)

2:55        Jason Terry backcourt

2:35        LaMarcus Aldridge misses jumper

2:33        LaMarcus Aldridge offensive rebound

2:33        Dirk Nowitzki personal foul (LaMarcus Aldridge draws the foul)

2:33        LaMarcus Aldridge misses free throw 1 of 2

2:33        LaMarcus Aldridge misses free throw 2 of 2

2:32        Dirk Nowitzki defensive rebound

2:13        Shawn Marion makes 4-foot two point shot      

2:00        Shawn Marion personal foul (Gerald Wallace draws the foul)    

2:00        Gerald Wallace makes free throw 1 of 2

2:00        Gerald Wallace makes free throw 2 of 2

1:42        Jason Terry makes 14-foot two point shot

As Bill Simmons points out in his Book of Basketball, recent hand-checking rule changes favor players who drive into a crowded lane and fall down like Gerald Ford on roller skates, drawing the shooting foul.  The two preceding sequences, totaling just over two minutes of playing time, have Portland making 8 points out of a possible 10 from the charity line, while Dallas makes 8 points out of a possible 8 by taking good basketball shots and making them.  In real time, the difference appeared even more extreme.  The Trailblazers looked like con artists; the Mavericks looked like basketball players.

Taking good shots and making them.  Unless I've been misled, that is the underlying principle of the game.  Add to that maxim preventing good shots and chasing down the misses and I think you have the building blocks of pure basketball.  Fouls are an aberration, an imperfect correction thrown at the game to restore fairness.  Despite the reality of their abuse, fouls were never meant to be used for strategy.

The question is whether that purity also shows up statistically when compared to other notable Finals-winning teams.  For these purposes, I've chosen the '91 Bulls (the first trophy of the Jordan era), the '04 Pistons (often considered the last team-champion) and the '86 Celtics, who are considered among the greatest teams in NBA history and likely the basis for Carlisle's notions of a perfect basketball team.  The regular season numbers:

 

W

L

 

FG%

3P%

FT%

ORB

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS/G

Pts. Diff

'86 Celtics

67

15

Team

51%

35%

79%

1054

3807

2387

641

511

1360

114.1

9.4

Opponent

46%

27%

75%

1089

3406

1924

725

341

1258

104.7

 

'91 Bulls

61

21

Team

51%

37%

76%

1148

3490

2212

822

438

1184

110

9

Opponent

48%

30%

77%

1062

3224

2016

633

348

1402

101

'04 Pistons

54

28

Team

44%

34%

75%

1014

3506

1702

659

570

1241

90.1

5.8

Opponent

41%

30%

74%

980

3333

1561

649

410

1310

84.3

'11 Mavericks

57

25

Team

48%

37%

78%

780

3398

1954

557

352

1145

100.2

4.2

Opponent

45%

34%

75%

880

3339

1689

623

303

1114

96

 

The Mavericks didn't exceed their peers in anything except turnovers and only tie three-point efficiency with the '91 Bulls.  Some of this can be explained by the fact that, between injuries to Butler, Dirk, Beaubois, Haywood and Chandler, the 2011 Mavericks had no time to develop consistency.  But their post-season numbers are no more conspicuous.

 

W

L

 

FG%

3P%

FT%

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

TOPG

PTS/G

Pts. Diff

'86 Celtics

15

3

Team

51%

39%

79%

45.2

34.3

10.8

7.3

15.2

114.4

10.3

Opponent

46%

32%

73%

 

 

 

 

14.9

104.1

'91 Bulls

16

1

Team

51%

33%

76%

40.2

27.1

10.1

4.8

12.5

103.9

11.7

Opponent

45%

33%

80%

 

 

 

 

15.9

92.2

'04 Pistons

16

7

Team

41%

30%

73%

44.8

27.9

11.5

10.3

14.9

87.1

6.4

Opponent

39%

28%

72%

 

 

 

 

15.6

80.7

'11 Mavericks

16

5

Team

46%

39%

81%

38.4

26.4

9.3

5.4

12.9

98.2

5.7

Opponent

45%

29%

77%

 

 

 

 

13.6

92.5

 

Again, nothing jumps out at you beyond very efficient shooting from the arc and the free throw line.  Everything else falls neatly into our assumptions.  The '86 Celtics move and chase the ball, the Pistons strangle their opponents into sub 40 and sub 30 shooting from two and three-point ranges and the '91 Bulls' scoring accelerates them past the opposition.  What do the 2011 Mavericks do?  Advanced metrics might do more for their cause, but they don't shine through any of the basic indicators.

For the last decade, the terms "Dirk Nowitzki" and "Dallas Mavericks" have been journalistically interchangeable.  Go read any article from the same time period that refers to the team as a personage and they are essentially about Nowitzki.  The Mavericks' window is closing.  The Mavericks' window is shut.  The Mavericks are soft.  The _allas Mavericks can't defend.  The Mavericks lack athleticism.  The Mavericks are getting older.  It is lazy, repetitive writing, but it is also telling.  Dirk anchors his team in an unlikely manner.  Hanging out there at the elbow, ready to catch and shoot, the focus of the team's offense.  It would be like our solar system suddenly deciding to revolve around Saturn.  But Dirk is our core and as goes Nowitzki, so goes the Dallas Mavericks.

It is well known by now that Nowitzki's unique game is a product of Holger Geschwindner's peculiar tutelage.  Holger is something of a guru in the religion of basketball, stoically perched atop a mountain of hardwood knowledge, dispensing perspicacity about the sport in riddles and requiring his German protégé to endure strange drills.  He has compared basketball to Jazz and physics and pretty much everything except a sport.  A young Geschwindner was enamored with the three-dimensionality of basketball.  To him, it's all vector calculus and spherical coordinates and it's all beautiful.

In the movie Pistol: the Birth of a Legend (a great old-school basketball film with a befuddling mall-rock soundtrack), Press Maravich draws a 2" circle on a basketball and claims it's what he knows about the sport, the ball representing all there is to know.  The root of the Mavericks' basketball purity may lie in the fact that Geschwindner could easily circle one hemisphere of the ball and Dirk about a quarter.

One basketball analyst said that everything about Dirk from the waist down is chaos and everything above the belt is basketball perfection.  There are too many exhibits of this from the 2011 playoffs - roughly 192 - to recount them all.  Perhaps the most pristine example was the 3-pointer he launched with 7:05 left in the third quarter of The Finals' game 5.  The ball traced a path that went out the top of the TV set before again breaking the frame and swishing in.  Basketball doesn't get any more three-dimensional than that shot.  I have to believe a shot that pure was the fruition of Naismith's vision that began 120 years ago in a Springfield YMCA.

There are a lot of things that factored into the 2011 Dallas Mavericks hauling home the Larry O'Brien Trophy, from Shawn Marion's defense to Kidd's coolness to Terry's irrational confidence to something about staggered screens I will probably never understand.  Yet, the reason I think this year's victory feels so right to Mavericks fans is that it accords with Rick Carlisle's rhetoric and Nowitzki's character.  No, he's not high-flying (A Malaysian fan tweeted that he couldn't jump over a hamburger.  Dirk re-tweeted the accusation and agreed.) 

Dirk is so immersed in the game that he doesn't even draw reference in Carlisle's parallel.  On the one hand: LeBron James.  On the other: basketball purity.  Nowitzki surrenders his very personality to basketball played the right way, so that when you look at him, you don't see Dirk Werner Nowitzki as much as you see the sport to which he is beholden.  His teammates saw it too and followed.

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks are more than a championship team with Dirk Nowitzki on the roster the way the 1999 and 2003 Spurs included David Robinson.  This is a team that was led by Nowitzki and won on his terms: basketball as jazz, basketball as physics, basketball as piety.  That kind of philosophical perseverance will never get its own stat line.  There is no column for "basketball holiness."  Consequently, we will never see another player like Nowitzki or another team like this year's Mavericks.  From where I sit, it is pure basketball.  I don't quite understand it and, truthfully, I don't want to.

Reader Submitted

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