After NBC grabbed the NBA rights during the 1990-91 season, it gave the world three fantastic gifts: Marv Albert finally calling the Finals; a catchy theme song from none other than John Tesh; and, of course, a new form of formulaic TV advertising in which the announcer breathlessly screamed, "Magic! Michael! It's the Lakers and the Bulls! The NBA Finals, only on NBC!"
The latter move turned into a running joke for me and my buddy JackO: Every spring, we would try to figure out the worst possible matchup with the worst possible stars for comedy's sake, then scream the promo like the NBC announcer. Things peaked during the 1998 playoffs, when the distinct possibility of Utah-Indiana could have led to NBC pimping something like, "Ostertag! Smits! It's the Pacers and the Jazz! The NBA Finals on NBC!" That one killed us.
There are two reasons why I'm telling you this: First, we had to retire the joke last weekend after eight memorable years because nothing could ever beat "Pronger! Brind'Amour! It's the Oilers and the Hurricanes. The NHL Finals, only on OLN!" That's the all-time possible nadir for any team sport -- we could have sat in a remote log cabin for three straight weeks over the winter, living off canned goods and lukewarm Rolling Rocks, and not come up with anything better. (Important note: Game 1 of the NHL Finals was watched by 611,000 households, ranking lower than the Arizona-Northwestern women's softball game on the same night. I don't think this is a coincidence.) And second, if NBC was still covering the Finals, we could have had the most star-studded promo in 13 years: "Shaq! Wade! Nowitzki! Cuban! It's the Mavericks and the Heat! The NBA Finals, only on NBC!"
Why 13 years? Because that was the last great NBA Finals: Michael and Scottie against Barkley and KJ, two exciting teams, two outstanding superstars in their primes, tons of intriguing role players, two major cities ... you couldn't ask for a better series. On paper, Miami-Dallas has a chance to be just as good. Over the past four days, at least 20 people have asked me for my Finals pick, everyone from friends to my mom to my mailman, Roland, who seems to be the only other person in Los Angeles besides me who still can't believe that Mike Dunleavy put Daniel Ewing on Raja Bell. Roland likes Dallas, and frankly, so do I. The Mavs are a better team.
So why not just pick the Mavs and be done with it? Because there are some interesting questions that need to be discussed ...Question No. 1. Who's the best player in this series?
We covered this last Friday, but Nowitzki has been playing at a level higher than any forward since Bird in the '86 Finals. More importantly, Miami doesn't have anyone to guard him. I can't imagine any scenario in which he doesn't average 30-40 a night.
So Wade is looking at a draw coming out of the gate. Even though his shot comes and goes (like MJ in the early years), he can attack the basket whenever he wants (almost like a running back slamming into the line for 4 yards a pop) and always manages to get more benefit-of-the-doubt calls than anyone but LeBron. But Dallas should be able to wear him down by throwing Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels at him -- one great defensive player, one decent one, 12 fouls -- and punishing him every time he gets into the paint (which Detroit couldn't do because it went only six deep). If he's forced to cover Harris or Terry -- which seems likely because GP is more washed-up than Shannen Doherty at this point -- they also can make him work on defense and keep running him off picks. This won't be an easy series for him, that's for sure.
The bigger issue (and one I haven't fully figured out): How good is Dwyane Wade? What's the ceiling here? I keep hearing the MJ comparison thrown out, which is obviously ridiculous because Jordan was the most talented player ever, as well as the most competitive player ever, and I just don't think that's going to happen again. (We have a better chance of watching Kevin Federline win an Emmy.) Wade also seems like a nicer guy by all accounts -- genuinely respectful, soft-spoken and articulate, an NBA wet dream -- as opposed to MJ, who played the part but was domineering, meanspirited and pathologically competitive, sometimes to the detriment of his team. (Although nobody crossed MJ either; for instance, when GP snapped back at Wade in the Chicago series and kept jawing and jawing until their teammates finally intervened, I thought that was fascinating because this never, ever, EVER would have happened to Michael Jordan.) Wade reminds me more of Hakeem Olajuwon, another dignified competitor with ice in his veins, someone who was just as streaky and always kept coming and coming. You never wanted to have money against Hakeem, either.
So who's the best player in the series? Nowitzki. But not by much.
Question No. 2. What's the dumbest-yet-entertaining fantasy pool you can create for the NBA Finals?
I'm going with this one: "Predict the ABC Halftime Puff Piece!" You have to predict which seven subjects will get the Puff Piece treatment during halftime of each Finals game -- just make a list and weigh your picks from "Most Confident" (you get 7 points if it happens) to "Least Confident" (you get 1 point). Get nine friends to join you, everyone throws in 50 bucks, and there you go. Did you ever think halftime of an NBA Finals game would be exciting? Well, think again.
Here's my list of potential subjects (from most confident to least confident):
7. "Mark Cuban -- singlehandedly keeping Frankenstein's haircut alive."
6. "Alonzo Mourning -- did you know he has one kidney?"
5. "DeSagana Diop -- he's a hero back in Senegal, and we're going to spend a ton of money to fly back there and show you some documentary-style footage of the country when we could have just used stock footage."
4. "Dirk Nowitzki -- the search for a personality continues."
3. "Avery Johnson -- he's not just the coach of the year, we're reuniting him with his illegitimate brother, Chris Kattan!"
2. "Jason Williams -- no, no, no, not the one who shot his chauffeur, the OTHER one ..."
1. "Stan Van Gundy -- the search for his remains, Day 185."
Question No. 3. Antoine Walker ... you feeling anything? Anything at all?
Absolutely. I've been enjoying his homeless man's Robert Horry routine throughout the playoffs. And the wiggle near the end of Game 6 was phenomenal. But it's interesting that it took Antoine 10 full years and nearly $140 million worth of contracts to realize that he's better off as a complementary player, someone who can make open 3s, crash the boards, guard guys in the low post and that's about it. His refusal to accept this reality probably took 3-4 years of my father's life. Warrants mentioning.
Speaking of Boston, kudos have to go out to Danny Ainge, who gave the 2004 Pistons a title by helping to facilitate the Rasheed Wallace trade for no real reason, then helped the 2006 Miami Bandwagon by accepting the pu-pu platter (a second-round pick, a semi-useless trade exemption that they used to acquire Dan Dickau, Qyntel Woods and his pit bull stable, and some Brazilian guy named Alberto) in a sign-and-trade so Miami could pay Antoine $54 million (a good $20 million more than the mid-level exemption). When Danny said he wanted to win a title, give him some credit -- he never specified which team.
(And yes, I'm just bitter that it's been exactly 20 years since the Celtics won their 16th and final title with the greatest NBA team of all time and then Lenny Bias brought two decades of bad karma on us. Did I mention that Chad Ford speculated in Wednesday's blog that the Celtics were considering JJ Redick with their seventh pick? Just kill me. Seriously. Bludgeon me in the head. I can't take it anymore. My soul is being wrenched.)
Question No. 4: Is there a sports gimmick that's more secretly lousy than the 2-3-2 gimmick in the NBA Finals?
No. It's inane. I hate it. You have one format for the first three rounds of the playoffs, followed by a new format for the Finals? Really? This is logical? This makes sense to everybody? Why not just add a 4-point shot and a multicolored ball?
Question No. 5: What does Shaq have up his sleeve in this series?
Thanks to a throwback Game 6 against the Pistons (28 points, 15 rebounds) and a five-day layoff filled with "Shaq is back!" stories, it seems like many fans and experts convinced themselves that Shaq will destroy the Mavs just like he crushed the 2001 Sixers or the 2002 Nets. First of all, that's silly talk -- 2002 Shaq is gone. He might be able to reach back into the ESPN Classic vault for one very good game in this series, maybe even two, but not more than that; the last truly dominant game he ever played was Game 4 of the 2004 Finals, when he slapped up a 36-20 against a fantastic Pistons team and caused Phil Jackson (who knew it was over) to say sadly after the game something like, "We wasted one of the all-time great Shaquille O'Neal games."
Second, I have been watching Big Daddy carefully for the past two seasons; he can dominate for little stretches, but certainly not for whole games, and he's always at his best when Miami is leading by double digits and Shaq doesn't have to worry about getting fouled (like with Game 6 against the Pistons). The proof is in the tapes. Both ESPN Classic and NBA TV are running NBA marathons this weekend -- if you have a chance, watch one of those Lakers games when Shaq was in his prime. The guy was a force of nature; nobody could stop him. He's in a different stage of his career now, capable of controlling a game under optimum conditions, always good for a 20-10, semi-neutered in close games because he doesn't want to get fouled, and that's about it. Not only is Shaq the third-best player in this series, but Dallas has bodies, fouls and barbecue food to throw at him.
And sure, five years ago, Shaq would have annihilated guys like Diop and Dampier and probably decided the series by himself. But it's 2006. He's finishing up his 14th season. Unlike someone like Kareem, who led the '85 Lakers past Boston under similar "the old guy is back!" circumstances, Shaq doesn't have one of those easy, fall-out-of-bed moves like the sky hook -- everything is a chore to him, whether it's getting position, absorbing contact, swinging his elbows on his dropstep or anything else. When you get older, it becomes harder and harder. Especially when you're in lousy shape.
(The real problem here: Because so many of these guys shave their heads, it's 10 times harder to tell when they're slipping. After all, Shaq doesn't look any different than he did 10 years ago. Neither does GP. Hell, even Michael Jordan doesn't look much different then he did 15 years ago, save for the wispy mustache that makes him look like he should be playing the sax for Eddie and the Cruisers, and he's in his mid-40s. You just can't tell. Personally, I wish everyone grew their hair out -- wouldn't you rather see Sam Cassell battling these younger guys with one of those Gus Williams-esque balding afros, or Shaq carrying the Heat past the Pistons with Sherman Helmsley's old hairline? And why does this only work for black people? Why can't I just start shaving my head and immediately become ageless? I find the whole thing very unfair.)
Question No. 6. What's the major difference between writing my column in Boston and writing my column in Los Angeles?
Put it this way: If I still lived in Boston, I would be typing this right now at the Charlestown Dunkin' Donuts, as two 250-pound cops threw down powdered donuts and complained about the Red Sox bullpen and kept ignoring calls to help out at a possible armed robbery at the Sovereign Bank. Instead, I'm at a Peet's in Hollywood, surrounded by wannabe actors and actresses and people wearing bicycling outfits in public, and the dude wearing the lime-green polo at the table next to me just answered a cell phone that had Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" as its ring tone. I feel like you need to know these things.
Question No. 7: Who's been the bigger breakout star of the past few weeks -- Josh Howard on the Mavs, or Heidi on "The Hills?"
Come on, nobody's touching Heidi. She's like a cross between Kristin Cavalleri, Tara Reid, Kellie Pickler and Satan; I haven't enjoyed a TV character this much since Kramer. But you have to hand it to Howard, who escalated his all-around game with an awesome performance in the Phoenix series and seems poised to win the 2006 Ben Wallace Award for "The Guy Who Was Always A Little Underrated, Then Played Well On The Big Stage And Eventually Became Overrated Because Everyone Wouldn't Stop Talking About How Underrated He Was."
And yes, I always thought Howard was a little overrated. Not anymore. He's so underrated, you'll be seeing him in my Top-40 Trade Value column next month. Although I look forward to things swinging around and Howard becoming overrated again.
Question No. 8: What's the worst-case scenario for each team?
For Miami, it's the supporting cast -- in close games, if you double-team Wade, the Heat still need the likes of GP, Walker and Posey to make open jumpers. Would you trust these guys in the spotlight of the Finals? Me neither. Taking it a step further, should anyone REALLY be able to win a championship when they're playing the Artist Formerly Known as GP at crunch-time? He's been running on fumes for three years. I just think he'll end up killing them in at least one game, maybe two.
For Dallas, it's foul trouble -- they have the right guys to guard Shaq and Wade, but you can't predict those games when all the calls start going Miami's way. And that's the thing that bothers me about this series: No team depends on the refs quite like the Heat. When the refs are calling all the bumps on Shaq and protecting Wade on every drive, they're unstoppable. When they're calling everything fairly, they're eminently beatable. If they're not getting any calls, they're just about hopeless. I could see the refs swinging two games in Miami's favor during this series, possibly three. In fact, I'm already depressed about it and the series hasn't even started yet.
Question No. 9a: On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you for the possibility of Stern handing the trophy to Cuban?
Somewhere between 29 and 35.
Question No. 9b: Is there any chance that Jason Kapono and Keith Van Horn could end up guarding each other in this series while Mike Doleac looks on happily from the bench?
Question No. 9c: What will go down as the most unbelievable turn of events this week -- Paul Mokeski officially being four wins away from earning a championship ring, DeSagana Diop starting at center in an NBA Finals game, Nomar homering off Pedro in Dodger Stadium, Theo from "Road Rules" appearing on two different reality shows in a 24-hour span, Lillian Garcia getting accidentally knocked off the top rope during "Monday Night Raw," Adam Carolla's wife giving birth to twins, or Rocco Baldelli making it through a nine-inning Major League Baseball game without having an anvil land on him?
I'm going with Theo's incredible double dip in "Fresh Meat" and "Last Comic Standing." Remember when Toni The Bug-Eyed Maniac Chick appeared in "Paradise Hotel" and "Love Cruise" in the same calendar year and THAT was a big deal? Theo's double dip was the reality equivalent of Wilt's 100-point game. It can't be topped. We'll be telling our grand kids about this. I'm convinced.
Question No. 9d: Do you ever find yourself staring at Pat Riley on HD and wondering what kind of work he's had done?
Question No. 9e: Between Nowitzki, Hasselhoff, the World Cup and the release of "Munich" on DVD, could this go down as the Summer of Germany? And should we all be a little frightened?
Not yet. Wait to see if the chick who sang "99 Luftballoons" makes a comeback.
Question No. 9f: Do you think Eva Longoria was furious that the Spurs and Tony Parker got bounced in the second round and cost her all that camera time?
No question about it. Which reminds me, who's going to win the Joumanna Kidd/Eva Longoria Award for "go-to chick for cutaways during the Finals?" Can Shaq's wife raise her game? Will Nowitzki break out some smoking-hot, semi-skanky Euro girlfriend who wears bad clothes and smokes during timeouts? Will the cameramen just settle on panning the crowd in Miami and Dallas -- unquestionably the two best arenas for smoking-hot female spectators other than L.A. -- and try to fill the void that way? Or does the NBA need to arrange an emergency relationship between Devin Harris and the girl who plays Kate on "Lost"? We really need to figure this out.
Question No. 10: What's the real reason Dallas is going to win?
One word: Karma.
Not to go all Earl Hickey on you, but Miami has flagrantly defied the Karma Gods as much as any NBA team over the past 15 years. Just glance around at this year's team ...
Pat Riley: Took the Knicks to Game 7 of the Finals in '94 and the conference semis in '95, then stabbed their entire fan base in the back by jumping ship to their archrival (in especially sleazy, underhanded fashion). Bring up Riley's name to any diehard Knicks fan -- they react like Jennifer Aniston finding out that the Pitt-Jolie kid was born two days before "The Break-Up" came out. They can't handle him.
(BAD KARMA RATING: 9 out of 10)
Alonzo Mourning: Traded to Toronto in the Vince Carter deal, Zo pulled a complete hissy-fit and demanded his release -- but with the catch that they still had to pay him -- then held them hostage for his money before getting his release and signing with the Heat so he could piggy-back Wade and Shaq for an elusive title. And if he didn't have the whole kidney transplant thing going on, he would have looked like a total scumbag. I know I say this all the time, but just ONCE, I want to see one of these teams say, "Screw you, we're paying you, we want you to play for us, and if you're not here tomorrow, we're suspending you without pay until you show up." Just once.
(BAD KARMA RATING: 7 out of 10)
Jason Williams: Along with Bonzi Wells and Stro Swift, Williams caused enough problems in Memphis that Hubie Brown ultimately had to walk away because the stress of the job was affecting his health.
(BAD KARMA RATING: 3 out of 10)
Shaquille O'Neal: Everyone thinks that Kobe demanded his own team, which was why Shaq ended up getting traded. Actually, this is only half-true. Shaq was woefully out of shape for the 2002-03 season -- although he had just won three straight titles and was probably Kobe'd out, so I can't totally blame him -- then pushed for a lucrative extension that summer even though he had two more years remaining on his contract. Faced with a power struggle between their two superstars, as well as a gigantic financial commitment to Shaq, the Lakers panicked and stupidly held a fire sale (getting 45 cents on the dollar for him). Then Shaq deflected any local blame in Los Angeles by blaming Kobe and declaring war on him, one of his smartest political moves and yet another reason why Shaq needs to run for office some day. It wasn't nearly as sleazy as the Riley/Mourning things, but it was still a little slimy. And remember, he did the same thing to everyone in Orlando.
(BAD KARMA RATING: 6 out of 10)
Dwyane Wade: Keeps pushing the whole "I want to be the first guy from the 2003 Draft to win a title" spiel, which would be fine except Darko already has a ring. How dare you disrespect Darko like that, Dwyane Wade!
(BAD KARMA RATING: 2 OUT OF 10)
Pat Riley, Part II: Stole the team from Stan Van Gundy, then apparently had him whacked -- we haven't seen the Hedgehog since. Just a crazy turn of events. Combined with what happened with the Knicks, Riley's bad karma almost can't be calculated. Still, I'm going to try. (BAD KARMA RATING: 19 out of 10)
Add everything up and that's waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much bad karma. Put me down for the Mavericks in six, Nowitzki for Finals MVP and Stern handing the trophy to a sobbing Cuban, but not before making one of those biting, caustic Stern comments like, "Mark, you're living proof that money CAN buy everything!"
(That's right ... Shaq! Wade! Nowitzki! Cuban! It's the Heat and the Mavericks! The NBA Finals on ABC!)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.