The Anticlimax

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Wouldn’t it have been great if an overweight Shaquille O’Neal hadn’t suited up for the Cavaliers or Celtics, or if Hakeem Olajuwon had finished his career in Houston, instead of playing one last meaningless season in Toronto? And, of course, wouldn’t we all have preferred Michael Jordan retiring for good after that game-winning shot against the Jazz, as opposed to ending his career in Washington Wizards’ colours? 
 
  

The point is, we all want superstar players to go out on a high—we want to be able to draw a nice, clean line under the inspiring narrative that was their careers. Nothing messy. No late career trades to struggling teams. No feuding with coaches in their twilight years. No forced retirements. No shocking announcements about life threatening illnesses. We want to see the best go out swinging, and go out on their terms. In other words, everything that the ending of Allen Iverson’s career wasn’t.

But not everyone can be the NBA’s version of John Elway. In reality, superstars rarely have a perfect ending to their careers.

Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki—two of the greatest players to ever play the game—would’ve undoubtedly hoped to spend their final years in the NBA playing for contenders, and chasing the Larry O’Brien trophy. The way things stand, however, both superstars are going to spend the next few years mired in mediocrity. Although both men have plenty left in the tank personally, they’ll be playing for teams that will be stuck in the NBA’s dreaded no-man’s land—not good enough to comfortably make the playoffs and contend, but not terrible enough to fall into the lottery and improve through the draft. Again, not exactly how Bryant and Nowitzki would’ve envisaged the final years of their respective careers.

For Kobe, the problem is partly of his own making. The Lakers don’t often miss out on high profile free agents, especially free agents that have had a year sampling the delights of Hollywood. But Dwight Howard wanted no part of the Lakers. Sure, his dislike of Mike D’antoni was a factor, as was the Lakers’ depth (or lack of it), but the prickly, unforgiving, and extremely patronizing nature of Bryant’s relationship with teammates in general, made it very easy for Howard to run to Houston, shake Daryl Morey’s hand, and sign on the dotted line.

Put simply: it’s hard for other superstars to exist in Kobe’s world, particularly if they don’t share his borderline-sociopathic desire to win at all costs. Even Shaq was eventually forced out. 
 
  

With no Dwight Howard, a hobbled, past-his-prime Steve Nash, and Bryant likely to miss the opening months of the season (despite what Jim Buss says), there are no easy solutions for the Lakers. In theory they could blow the tottering ship to smithereens. The 2014 draft is said to be one for the ages, and the Lakers could rebuild around a top-5 pick—hopefully a future superstar. But the Lakers have rarely built through the draft and building from the ground up wouldn’t suit Kobe, a player who wants to win now.

And management has made moves that suggest that the team isn’t tanking next season. They’ve papered over the cracks by singing the likes of Chris Kaman and Nick Young (How long before Kobe threatens Young with violence?). These are signings that will make the team competitive enough to finish in the 8-10 range in a stacked Western Conference. That gets the Lakers nowhere, however. It simply attempts to provide Kobe with the illusion that management is holding the fort for him until he returns to lead them to glory. Whether he’s buying it is another story, of course.

Optimistic Lakers fans point to the summer of 2014 when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony could all potentially opt-out of their contracts and become free-agents. The Lakers would only have two players on the books (Nash and Robert Scare) and could make a run at one of two of those marquee names. But, as Jared Dublin points out, because of cap-holds, the Lakers won’t quite have as much cap space as everyone believes.

The Lakers wouldn’t dare let Kobe go when he becomes a free agent in 2014. They’ll do everything in their power to re-sign him. He means too much to Lakers fan, and frankly, he deserves to retire in purple and gold. But his unrelenting desire for that 6th ring is unlikely to be met with any tangible success, and could even hurt his team moving forward.
 
 

For Dirk Nowitzki the picture is similarly bleak. After the Mavericks improbable 2011 run to glory, owner Mark Cuban decided—for the benefit of future flexibility—to blow up the team, essentially forfeiting any chance of repeating in 2012. Out went important role players like J.J. Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson, and of course, a key cog in the machine, Tyson Chandler, was allowed to walk in free agency.

Cuban has been much criticized for his decisions in the summer of 2011, but his reasoning was understandable. The Mavericks had probably hit their ceiling and it was the right time to move on. Cuban also had his eye on high-profile free agents, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Howard. Cuban whiffed on the chance to bring Williams to Big D in 2012 (Shark Tank was too important, I guess) but subsequently signed a bunch of players to one-year deals in order to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2013. Once again, however, his foray into free agency was unsuccessful, as Paul re-upped with the Clippers and Howard chose Houston.

And that’s when it gets really depressing for Dirk and Mavericks fans.

Instead of Dwight Howard, Dirk will play alongside Samuel Dalembert next season, a perfectly serviceable center, but a huge fall-off in quality. And instead of the promise of Deron Williams and Chris Paul, there’s Jose Calderon. I’m a big fan of Calderon from his days with the Raptors—a big fan of his offensive play, at least—and he makes sense on a contender. But at 32, a playoff bubble team like the Mavericks should not be giving him a 4-year deal worth close to $30 million. And while last season it made complete sense to sign O.J. Mayo—a player with a whole lot to prove—to a one-year deal, signing an inefficient gunner like Monta Ellis to 3 years, is hard to defend.

As with Kobe, the Mavericks want to ensure that their franchise player goes out on a high—or at least has the potential to. Like the Lakers, they’ve failed to sign big free agents, and like the Lakers, they cannot entertain the possibility of a rebuild. The Mavericks, again like their Los Angeles counterparts, don’t partake in patient long-term reconstruction, especially when they have a superstar whose window is closing.

Nowitzki has stated in public and private that he’d be willing—just like LeBron—to take a pay-cut if his team surrounds him with the right kind of talent. He understandably wants to compete for that second championship. But Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will only ensure that Dirk will be competing for the chance to scrape into the playoffs for the next couple years. Nothing more. And signing those players to multi-year deals—there’s about $16 million tied up between those two, per season—ensures that the Mavericks will be mediocre for quite some time.

Both Bryant and Nowitzki will be free agents at the end of 2013-14 and it’s hard to imagine either of their teams refusing to re-sign their franchise stars. But unless either team can hit the free agency jackpot in 2014 (their lack of recent success indicates that they won’t), both Bryant and Nowitzki will have to make a major decision about whether they’re willing to spend their remaining seasons toiling in mediocrity. For a personal standpoint both players will continue to put up great numbers with their teams (Kobe will no doubt be gunning for Kareem’s points record) but both are unlikely to be relevant when it comes to the festivities in May and June if they remain with the teams they’ve spent their entire careers with. Their loyalties with be severely tested.

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