The "It" Factor
I don't know why. There's no rational explanation for it. Amaré Stoudemire, who could be the best power forward in the game, cannot be guarded. Seriously. The Spurs certainly can't guard him. If you ever get a chance to see Stoudemire, check it out, because he's amazing to watch. There's almost nothing he can't do offensively - he can even shoot from the outside and make free throws at an 80% clip. But he doesn't make any effort defensively. He could easily be half as good defensively as he is offensively, and that would be amazing. But he isn't. He doesn't make the effort. That's coaching. But it's not just that. When the Spurs need a big shot, Tim Duncan makes a three-pointer to tie Game 1. A freakin' three-pointer! When the Spurs need a defensive stop, they get it. When the Spurs go on a run, Mike D'Antoni, who is a very good offensive coach, doesn't send in one of his scrubs to foul Tony Parker hard. I'm not saying he should be dirty, but Tony Parker is getting lay-up after lay-up, and nobody wants to step in and stop him. And D'Antoni doesn't seem to want to send in somebody from his bench to simply knock Parker down a few times. Because D'Antoni doesn't use his bench. It's simply astonishing that, after last year when Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for a game against San Antonio and the Suns almost won the game before running out of gas because, yes, they have no depth, D'Antoni didn't think that this year it might be smart to give his bench some work. But he didn't, and now the Suns are down 0-2.
This isn't really about the Suns, however. Well, it sort of is, but it's more about what makes a team a champion. It's something completely intangible. It's not exactly luck, although that's a part of it. It's not exactly hard work, either, although that's a big part of it. It's a weird combination of those two things and other things, and some very good teams in the past simply haven't had it. Unfortunately, many of the teams I have liked don't have it. Mainly because they play in Philadelphia.
The last team I have rooted for that had the combination of extraordinary talent and whatever extra you need to win a championship was ... the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers. Yeah, that's pretty sad. They're the last professional team from Philly to win a major championship (Villanova won the NCAA Tournament in 1985, and the Philadelphia Stars, the USFL team, won in 1984), and they had it. The Sixers of the late 1970s were very talented, but they kept losing in the Finals. In 1977 they won the first two games before losing four in a row to Portland. In 1980 a freakin' rookie point guard, some dude named Earvin Johnson, played center in the deciding game and lit them up as the Lakers beat them. But the talent was there. But they didn't have it. Then they got Moses Malone. Malone gave them what they were lacking: someone who wouldn't take shit from other teams. In the 1983 playoffs, the went 12-1, sweeping the Lakers in the Finals. What a glorious playoff run.
Toughness isn't it, though, or at least not all of it. For the Sixers, it was. For the Suns, it might be, and that's why they added Shaquille O'Neal. But he's not as tough as he used to be, and even when he's playing tough, they're still lacking something. Anyway, since then, I have fallen for teams that simply didn't have an intangible to get that ring. The Eagles of the late 1980s/early 1990s were ferocious on defense and had the amazing Randall Cunningham at quarterback. Yet they couldn't get over the hump. In 1991 Cunningham got injured in the first game of the season. The defense was one of the few that finished first against the run and against the pass, but without Cunningham, they didn't make the playoffs (despite finishing 10-6). Two years later Cunningham got hurt again and they missed the playoffs. Recently, of course, the Eagles have been very good, but they haven't won the Super Bowl. They were clearly the better team in 2002 and 2003, but they lost the NFC Championship Game at home. In 2004, they finally made it to the Super Bowl, but they lost to a team that clearly has it, the New England Cheaters ("it" in this case being high-tech espionage). Now, the window for Donovan McNabb appears to have closed. I hope not.
Meanwhile, the Phillies haven't had it for years. Even in 1993, when they won the pennant, it was clear they were complete underdogs, and their loss in the World Series, while extremely painful (the 15-14 loss when the Phillies had a 14-9 lead late; the last Mitch Williams pitch), was not as horrifying as some of the Eagles' losses, because I didn't expect much. They had it in 1980, the year they won their only World Series. But that was a long time ago.
The 76ers had it in 2001, when Larry Brown coached 'em up and Allen Iverson won the MVP, but they were clearly not as talented as Los Angeles, and Iverson could only will them to a win in the first game of the Finals before they lost four straight. But then there are the other basketball teams I've enjoyed. When I lived in Portland, I followed the Trail Blazers. Portland in the late 1990s had a very good team. In 2000, they led the Lakers in Los Angeles by 15 points in the fourth quarter, but let it go. They just didn't have it. And now I'm in Phoenix, where they Suns obviously don't have it. Another Phoenix team, the Diamondbacks, definitely had it in 2001, when they ended the Yankees' dynasty. They had plenty of talent, but when Randy Johnson came out of the bullpen in Game 7 that year, you just knew they were going to win, even though they were losing and had to face Mariano Rivera. Johnson and Schilling were just that good that year.
It's really annoying, because I've never been a bandwagon jumper. I like the teams I grew up with. I liked the Trail Blazers because I lived in Portland, and I like the Suns because I live here, and I also love the style they play. So I can't just say "Well, I'm a Spurs fan," and then rejoice when they win. It just wouldn't work. I'm a Philadelphia fan until I die, which means I'll probably be stuck with teams that suck or are good enough to make the playoffs and possibly play for a championship, but never get over the hump. It's just like Philadelphia itself - it doesn't have it anymore, and that's just too bad.
So what do you do when you don't have it? Well, owners and general managers don't like to hear this, but you have to blow things up. My father is frustrated with Andy Reid because he just doesn't seem to be a championship coach. He's a very good coach, don't get me wrong, but he just doesn't seem to be able to make that crucial adjustment that allows his team to go further. I was hoping the Eagles would keep McNabb and get rid of Reid after last season, but it looks like they're keeping both. With regard to the Suns, I think Steve Kerr, the GM, needs to have a chat with Mike D'Antoni this summer. He needs to tell him that they'll have Shaq for the full season next year, but Steve Nash is getting old and their window is closing (if it hasn't already closed). He also needs to tell him that there's a reason they have 13 players on the roster, and D'Antoni needs to play them. D. J. Strawberry (Darryl's kid) is a rookie this year, and although he's very raw, especially on offense, he's very long and plays defense really hard. Why can't he get a few minutes in this playoff series to see if he could slow Manu Ginobili down? He doesn't need to score, after all. He just needs to play defense. But he rarely played during the season, so D'Antoni doesn't trust him. Kerr needs to step in, because D'Antoni is never going to change unless he's forced to. I don't know if it will work, but it couldn't hurt. It would keep Nash and O'Neal fresh, at least.
I don't think it will work, however. Most of time, when you realize the team just doesn't have it, they need to go through a rebuilding phase. The Lakers had it early in the century, but Kobe destroyed it. Ironically, Kobe has it, but the talent around him wasn't very good for a few years. Now they have talent, and they look like a championship team. The Eagles are still a decent team, but they need a shake-up, and I think it's only going to come if they get rid of Reid. The Suns might need to ditch D'Antoni. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.
The Suns can still win this series. They need some luck, some calls to go their way, and the Spurs to screw up just a little bit. They're close, but they don't have it. Unless the Spurs give it up, they're done. And the NBA will once again be a little more boring. Stupid Spurs!!!!!!