Ian and Tony Take On the NBA, Part 6

I have a flaw. Shocking, I know. (Just one? Yea, yea, I know that joke. Flaws aplenty, my friend, flaws aplenty.) But you know my kryptonite, Coach: I’m competitive.

On the basketball court, not a bad thing. In sports predictions, a shortcut to bankruptcy, guys named Vinny coming after you with a baseball bat, all that good stuff. There’s a fine line, you see, between rooting for a team and betting on them. And when you’re publishing your predictions for all the world to see, you might as well be forking over the mortgage.

You can root for bad teams all you want, and the only downside is you spend many grouchy mornings cursing the sports section. When you’re asked for a prediction, you’re supposed to put that aside and pick the team that you think can win. Not the one you want to win. The one you expect to win.

The neurons don’t fire in that part of my brain. There’s a short circuit. I make the incredible leap of logic that if I want them to win, then they’re going to win. No wonder I keep buying lottery tickets.

So let’s be clear: I want the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA Championship. I have been a Shaquille O’Neal fan since I started playing this sport, and when you put him with the best player in the league, my brain starts doing jumping jacks. Forget all the complications. My brain has an astonishing ability to suppress what it doesn’t want to hear. The Cavs are going to win the NBA Championship. That’s called T.O. Logic, and it’s right because I said so.  

Given that background, you may be surprised to learn that I agree with your top 3, Coach. Celts, Magic, Cavs: in that order. Shaq’s teams have always been streaky, except for a few years with the Lakers when no one could touch him and Kobe. I like inconsistent teams. They make the heart beat a little faster, the ulcer sting a little stronger, the victory a little sweeter when they win the games no one expects them to win. I don’t expect the Cavs to put together a record like the Magic and Celts. Those two are very strong, consistent teams. I just expect LeBron and Shaq to turn it on when it counts: the playoffs. Shaq’s always been good at that.

He’s also been good at telling management what he wants, and he’s usually been right. So if he wants Stephen Jackson, I want Stephen Jackson.

And I’ve been hearing that mismatch argument his whole career. The thing is, the only player to ever pose a serious mismatch was Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaq learned how to beat guys like him by the time Olajuwon’s reincarnation, Tim Duncan, came to town. So you can talk about fast guys and strong guys and guys who’ve got moves he’s never seen. He can beat them all.

On a related note, I’m going to go Old School on you again. I’ve never been impressed by the small-lineup, transition game the kids play these days. My teams are the teams of Chamberlain and Russell and Abdul-Jabbar. Michael Jordan was the exception, not the rule. And even he made his money on a half-court offense. You can run up and down the court all you like, but if you can’t score with five-on-five, half-court, against the best defense in the league, you can’t win a championship. Basketball isn’t a track meet. I know you’ve told your players that, Coach. Show me a good one-two inside-out, and I’ll show you a championship contender.

I love the Magic. If some great misfortune befalls the Cavs, I’ll rally behind the Magic. If the half-court one-two punch makes great teams, the truly legendary ones have a third wheel that make the team impossible to guard. You can double up on two guys at once, but at three the math falls apart. Remember Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy? Or Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor?  The Magic can’t hold a candle to those guys, but they’ve got enough to scare anyone in the league. If you’re not excited to see Jameer Nelson, Dwight Howard, and Vince Carter together, then you need to find a new sport to watch.

And the Celtics are scary good. Match their threesome against the Magic’s threesome, and we’re going to have some epic games. The trouble is, neither team can match up against the Cavs. You laugh now, but just wait.

For the Magic, you put Howard on Shaq, obviously. Then who’s going to guard LeBron? Vince Carter? Hardly a defensive powerhouse. Anderson? Brass? There are maybe three guys in the league who can guard LeBron reasonably well, and it ain’t them. Shaq will pull Howard out of the lane, and it’s the LeBron Show. The Magic get front row tickets for free. They should be grateful.

For the Celtics, I’m guessing Garnett on Shaq and Pierce on LeBron. You could try Rasheed Wallace on Shaq, but that’s going to result in a lot of dunks and a technical for Sheed’s whining. Nothing like watching a grown man cry after he gets dunked on. I’ll grant you this: The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA. And I’m the President of the “Defense Wins Championships” Club, so I’ve got a healthy respect for these guys. But I’m willing to bet that Garnett can’t guard Shaq and Ilgauskas at the same time. You think they’re a handicap, I say nightmare for any team that doesn’t have two solid big guys. Remember the Twin Towers? Okay, Ilgauskas doesn’t compare to David Robinson or Tim Duncan, but the point remains: Ilgauskas’s scoring average will go up this year, not down. Mark my words. And if Mike Brown has half the IQ I’m expecting from him, he’ll steal Gregg Popovich’s playbook and tire Garnett out on defense trying to protect the paint. (I remember Shaq stopping Robinson and Duncan at the same time, but that was before the defensive three-second, and Shaq was far better—and bigger—than Garnett in his prime.)

Now if Danny Ferry can just get us a three-point shooter, we’ll have that one-two-three combo that makes me so happy. What’s that you say? LeBron and Shaq are trying to get Stephen Jackson? Do I detect the scent of fear in the air? I think it’s coming from Massachusetts…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Bulls, Heat, Cavaliers, Magic, Celtics. And the Cavs go to the Finals.

You wanted an old war story? Here you go. It’s not mine, but the player in question had a similar career to mine…

1972-73 was Wilt Chamberlain’s last season in the NBA. He was 37 years old, same as Shaq is now. He wasn’t fortunate enough to be playing with the rising superstar of the league, so we’ll say Shaq has an advantage. Even so, Wilt won his 11th rebounding crown, led the Lakers to the Finals, and set the single season record for field goal percentage.

No, they’re not equals. No, their career paths are not similar, though each one is responsible for the league instituting a form of the three-second violation. Yes, they were both the most dominant players in the league in their prime in a way no other center has ever been (except maybe George Mikan). Yes, these stories have a similar ending, only Shaq gets the ring.