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The Los Angeles Lakers And The Power Of Three

Bill Simmons’ NBA regular-season wrap-up column listed all the instances in league history in which a team won three straight championships. The total number – five – is actually surprisingly low given the NBA’s dynastic nature, although the ’59-’66 Celtics did accomplish the feat two and a half times. But the important takeaway here is three of those five – the ’91-’93 Bulls, ’96-’98 Bulls, and ’00-’02 Lakers – did their dominant work in the last 20 years. Recent NBA history runs in threes.

The 2011 NBA playoffs are really about one team: the Los Angeles Lakers. There’s a certain poetic justice in their quest – four three-peats for Phil Jackson, six titles for Kobe Bryant, and a tie with the Boston Celtics for the most NBA championships. But if the Lakers make it three straight this June, as Simmons very begrudgingly acknowledges, that places them in extremely rare territory. It’s something Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and plenty of other champions commonly placed among the “greatest teams of all time” never accomplished. Does this make the Kobe-Pau teams among the best in history? Hell, are they among the best Laker teams in history?

Our gut reaction – especially now, but even should they prevail in June – is probably “no.” Between having Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom to throw at Shaq and Ron Artest to pester young Kobe, this team could give the ’01 Lakers a solid competition, in some whatifsports universe. But unlike the best of the ’90s Bulls or early-2000s Laker teams, they’ve never put together a dominating postseason run. It took six games in both 2009 and 2010 to dispose of relatively mediocre Western Conference Finals opponents (Denver and Phoenix respectively) and in their one showdown with a championship-caliber opponent, their decisive victory came through a facet of the game – offensive rebounding – that tilted in their favor so egregiously only because of a Game 6 injury to the opponent’s starting center. The 2011 team is unlikely to win with substantially more ease than the versions with younger Bryants and Fishers. And from the sentimental side of things, they haven’t, through no fault of their own, managed that iconic play that’ll appear on “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year, 2.0” commercials 20 years from now. There’s been no Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop, no push-off on Byron Russell, no switch-hands-in-the-air layup. There’s nothing exuding greatness.

But assuming the Lakers’ complete Jackson’s collection this June, they’ll have entered that rarified air, whether or not we appreciate it at the time. And it will suddenly seem foreign to think we ever questioned they’d get there. We forget that Michael Jordan once faced the same doubts now plaguing LeBron James, that the Bulls didn’t have home-court advantage every year, that the Lakers faced a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter of that Game 7 against Portland. It will all make sense: Jackson will have his 12 rings, Bryant will have his six, and they’ll be as much a part of NBA lore as every dynasty before them.

What’s made the recent three-peaters so special, molded them into our minds as “champions,” is the ability to combat father time, logic, or both. In 1993, the Bulls dropped the first two games of the conference finals to the top-seeded New York Knicks, but stormed back to take the next four, the indelible moment being Charles Smith’s ill-fated stuff attempts at the end of Game 5. Sorry, Patrick Ewing – no NBA Finals for you. In 1998, the Bulls faced an Indiana Pacers team primed to finally break onto the league’s biggest stage, but outrebounded the Pacers 50-34 en route to a gutsy Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals win. Sorry, Reggie Miller – no NBA Finals for you. And attribute the Lakers’ win in their 2002 seven-game epic with Sacramento to whatever combination of fortunate bounces and NBA conspiracies you like, but coming back from a 24-point deficit while trailing 2-1 in the series – and putting Robert Horry in position to make that game-winning 3-pointer – is the definitive archetype here. Sorry, Chris Webber – no NBA Finals for you.

The beauty of the 2011 playoffs lies in the near-guarantee the Lakers will get that chance. Maybe they’ll beat Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City again, this time in the conference finals. Or perhaps they’ll turn back Tim Duncan’s last, best charge in a titanic battle for the soul of the post-Jordan NBA. And should the Lakers reach the Finals, they’ll represent either the last foil to James’ or Derrick Rose’s full ascent to NBA royalty or the last barrier to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics getting that crucial second title.

In the next two months, somewhere along the line, the Lakers will face a potential Waterloo. And if they survive, they’ll earn the respect their numbers will imply.

The Official NBA All-Star Break Power Poll

We’re a little more than halfway through the 2010-11 NBA season, and since I did this once before and someone said he was moderately entertained by it, let’s do another all-star break power poll. I’m ranking teams by their chances (determined by me, of course), of winning the NBA Finals. Since it’s pro basketball, feel free to stop after No. 3 or so.

OK; let’s go.

These Teams Might Win The Title

1. Los Angeles Lakers
In Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, the Lakers out-offensive rebounded the Celtics 23-8. So, no, they weren’t about to trade their starting center for a small forward.

2. San Antonio Spurs
If a team has the best record in the NBA but it plays in San Antonio, does it make a sound? If it has Tim Duncan, then yes, because it whines a lot.

3. Boston Celtics
Pictures like this are why I love the NBA.They’re also good examples of how jumping on Paul Pierce’s back after he makes a game-winning shot is a stupid thing to do if you’re Nate Robinson.

4. Chicago Bulls
Remember when the Bulls were the insider pick for LeBron’s landing spot? Yeah, me neither.

5. Miami Heat
The Heat’s opponents’ should just play Chris Bosh’s Conan interview before games, in lieu of light-show introductions. Unlike me, Bosh never learned the truly cool people don’t have to try.

6. Dallas Mavericks
Thanks to Mark Cuban’s strategy of stockpiling the most random, over-the-hill veterans he can find, should this year’s team win an NBA title, not only would Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry finally avenge the 2006 Mavs, but Peja Stojakovic (2002 Kings), Shawn Marion (2007 Suns), and Jason Kidd (2003 Nets) would make for the most interesting “They finally won a championship” group ever.

These Teams Might Not Embarrass Themselves In The Playoffs

7. Oklahoma City Thunder
Would wearing a Kevin Durant Sonics jersey be incredibly awesome or incredibly depressing?

8. Orlando Magic
Had no one in Orlando’s front office heard “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”? Here’s how it translates to basketball: Don’t trade for Gilbert Arenas. Even if that means more Rashard Lewis.

9. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are 0-14 in their last 14 Eastern Conference Semifinals appearances. That’s dating back to 1971.

10. New Orleans Hornets
They’re 33-25 — now imagine this team with Tyson Chandler instead of Emeka Okafor. While we’re imagining things: Chris Paul in another jersey, the Hornets in not-New Orleans.

These Teams Might Win A Playoff Game Or Two

11. Portland Trail Blazers
“Knock, knock.” “Who’s the—, hold on a second, that light knocking just busted Brandon Roy’s knees again.”

12. New York Knicks
Guess who’s back, back again. Isiah’s back, tell a friend.

13. Utah Jazz
Did anyone doubt Karl Malone would cement his reputation as the NBA’s resident cranky, retired superstar just seven years after his retirement?

These Teams Might Give Their Fans Reasons To Watch April Games

14. Denver Nuggets
Nuggets Nation is ecstatic that Masai Ujiri succeeded in prying Timofey Mozgov from the Knicks.

15. Memphis Grizzlies
Prediction: If Greivis Vasquez continues to shoot 36.8% from the floor, he won’t be in the league very long.

16. Philadelphia 76ers
Pitchers and catchers have already reported; we’re done here.

17. Phoenix Suns
No, you can’t replace Amare Stoudemire with Hakim Warrick.

18. Charlotte Bobcats
I read online that Kwame Brown’s performance could be considered “resurgent.” He’s currently averaging 7.0 points a game.

These Teams Might Not Be In The Same Conversation As Cleveland

19. Houston Rockets
Houston fans must be tiring of the “What Seed Would The Rockets Be If They Played In The East” game. On the other hand, it’s not as if they’ll see a playoff game anytime soon.

20. Golden State Warriors
I appreciate the Warriors’ refusal, steadfast over a period of decades, to adapt a style that might win them some contests. It’s like the Democrats who kept hiring Bob Shrum.

21. Indiana Pacers
That you have three Duke players on your team is generally a strong sign your team is not very good. And that’s just the general rule — Josh McRoberts as a starter takes this to a whole other level.

22. Milwaukee Bucks
When your leading scorer averages 15.4 points per game on 37.5% shooting, you should feel rather fortunate to be 21-34.

23. Los Angeles Clippers
Any team with a worse record than the Milwaukee Bucks probably doesn’t deserve us fawning over it. And Blake Griffin didn’t deserve a goddamn car and choir, either.

24. Detroit Pistons
Joe Dumars spent a combined $90 million on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva before the 2009-10 season. Neither player currently starts.

Teams That Might Get The No. 1 Overall Pick (Again)

25. Sacramento Kings
Reportedly the organization is seeking to relocate. They’re considering Anaheim. Here’s a better idea: SEATTLE.

26. Washington Wizards
Say what you will about the Wizards’ road record (you might even say it’s not very good), but don’t come to Verizon Center unprepared: The Wizards are over .500 (14-13) there.

27. Minnesota Timberwolves
Remember when everyone thought Sebastian Telfair was The Next Big Thing? Well, he’s on Minnesota now.

28. Toronto Raptors
On the bright side, Raptors fans no longer feel compelled to root for Chris Bosh. Also, DeMar DeRozen: robbed.

29. New Jersey Nets
Mikhail Prokhorov is no Roman Abromovich: Avery Johnson hasn’t been fired yet.

30. Cleveland Cavaliers
Wow, I can’t believe LeBron didn’t want to stay.

 

Three Fantastic Games And One Very Satisfying Rout

Green Bay 21, Philadelphia 16

The Eagles’ second straight first-round loss should serve as a gut check for their fans. Philadelphia was NFL royalty for much of the 2010 season, earning the attention and acclaim of a New England or Pittsburgh. But after Sunday’s defeat, Philadelphia must be asking itself: Is this it? For all the hype around Michael Vick and the Eagles’ newfound ability to run the ball and the Miracle at the Meadowlands II, the Eagles finished 10-6 (fine, 10-5, removing Week 17) and were fortunate not to lose this game by more than five points. The Eagles haven’t been elite in a very long time – Philadelphia hasn’t earned a bye since 2004, Terrell Owens’ only full season as an Eagle. Since the remarkable NFC championship game run, they’ve never quite put it together when they needed to, choking away a winnable divisional game at New Orleans in January 2007, miraculously reaching a fifth NFC title game in 2009 but losing at Arizona, losing to Dallas with a No. 2 seed on the line in Week 17 last year, and now, with Donovan McNabb not around to take the blame anymore, again blowing a great chance at a first-round bye and being forced to play a wild-card game against a team that was simply better. Andy Reid still hasn’t committed to keeping Vick long-term, and while his performance for most of 2010 was magnificent, his last few games do raise the nagging questions of whether he can stay healthy and whether he can play at his midseason level for several more seasons.

Baltimore 30, Kansas City 7

Ravens fans should recognize this victory, even if doing so requires dredging up memories of years when the Ravens would win a few games by more than one score. 2010 aside, the Ravens are very good, even in the postseason, at thoroughly beating inferior teams. Baltimore crushed Miami 27-9 in a wild-card game two years ago and beat a deeply flawed Patriots team 33-14 last year; when the Ravens’ offense can control the ball, the defense usually spends the second half thundering through its opponents, and it does so especially when facing Matt Cassel. As for Kansas City’s meek performance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and it shouldn’t be chalked up to the “distraction” of Charlie Weis leaving for Florida; the Chiefs had a one-dimensional offense well before Weis’ imminent departure. Kansas City had played only two playoff teams all season – and its one victory in those games came at Seattle. This was the Chiefs’ seventh-straight postseason loss, which brings me to this: The Chiefs never get enough historical credit for being awful. They earn some brownie points because of Arrowhead Stadium and because Joe Montana played there for all of two seasons and because they won Super Bowl 4. But here’s the history of the franchise since the merger: Make two playoff appearances between 1970 and 1989, become a consistent contender for about a decade under Marty Schottenheimer, because they were under Marty Schottenheimer, go 3-7 in playoff games, including 0-2 as a 13-3 No. 1 seed, return to irrelevance with three hapless playoff appearances scattered randomly throughout the 2000s. So the Chiefs are basically the Browns. Everyone makes fun of the Browns for being from Cleveland, but at least Cleveland’s annual failure is hilarious and a metaphor for the decline of American industry and on national TV; Kansas City has just been very irrelevant for a very long time.

New York 17, Indianapolis 16

The Jets make a ridiculously easy target for anyone wishing to extol the virtues of modesty or decency or having a competent quarterback, and a loss to Indianapolis and Peyton Manning surely would have made the Tony Dungys of the world very happy. So we should all celebrate the Jets’ victory a little bit. Many observers noted that three of four road teams won last weekend, and that since 2004, home teams are only 13-15 in wild-card games. But there’s a pretty simple explanation: The NFL’s eight-division structure means more teams than before are going on the road with better records than their opponents. This year, Baltimore and New York both had better records than their opponents but had the misfortune of playing in the same division as the two best teams in football, and Green Bay had the same record as Philadelphia but was three seeds lower. The only team with a record advantage to lose was 11-5 New Orleans – and the inane divisional structure meant the Saints were playing in Seattle against a Seahawks team with four fewer wins. In the 28 wild-card games from 2004-2010, in only 13 did the home team have a better record, and the road team had a better record in 9. In the 28 wild-card games from 1995-2001, the last seven years of the NFL’s old six division structure (in which the 4/5 game featured two wild-card teams, guaranteeing the 5 seed would not have a better record than the 4 seed), home teams went 23-5, but the home team had a better record in 21 games, and the road team never did. So after an ESPN talking head offers us the 13-15 statistic, maybe they’ll give us the perfectly reasonable explanation for why that’s happening. And maybe the NFL will recognize something’s wrong with a playoff system in which teams with a worse record get home games nearly as often as teams that, you know, actually deserve them.

Seattle 41, New Orleans 36

In the 2009 season, the Saints played seven games outside – September wins at Philadelphia and Buffalo (cold-weather cities, but certainly not in early fall), two wins at Miami (one against the Dolphins, one against the Colts in the Super Bowl), wins against terrible Tampa Bay and Washington teams, and then a meaningless loss to Carolina. In 2010, they played eight – drivel at the likes of San Francisco, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Dallas, and then three in the cold. They beat lowly Cincinnati by four, lost at Baltimore, and then, you guessed it, lost to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks last Saturday. Am I judging them for this? Yes.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

“The last four games between these two teams have each been decided by three points, and each team has won two of them.” That’s the stat we’ve heard over and over this week, and it’s true – with one Andre the Giant sized caveat: Pittsburgh beat Baltimore with Ben Roethlisberger twice by three, and Baltimore beat Pittsburgh without Roethlisberger twice by three. Here are the real numbers: Roethlisberger is 5-0 against the Ravens since 2008, and he’s 8-2 against them all-time, with both the Ravens’ wins coming in 2006, the only year since Roethlisberger entered the league that Baltimore was clearly better than Pittsburgh. The real storyline here isn’t “Wow, what a physical, hard-hitting, old-fashioned football game these two evenly-matched teams will play,” but rather “Can the Ravens finally beat their long-time nemesis?” I’ll go out on a limb and say Pittsburgh by three, 16-13.

Green Bay at Atlanta

The Falcons enter as 2.5 point favorites – only the second time in five years that a home team wasn’t favored by at least three in a divisional game. Las Vegas thinks (or, more probable, thinks the general public thinks) the No. 6 seed Packers are better than the No. 1 seed Falcons. This creates a great dynamic often not present in playoff games: Both teams’ seasons will have been failures should they lose. Green Bay, remember, was a preseason favorite to reach the Super Bowl, and, despite its 10-6 record, has played well enough to warrant that expectation come playoff time. Atlanta, of course, is the No. 1 overall seed, and you don’t finish 13-3 every year. Both AFC games enjoy this dynamic, but any game involving Seattle certainly does not. Green Bay will take this, 27-20; I remain unsold on Matt Ryan, while Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFC.

Seattle at Chicago

The AP story after the Seahawks bested New Orleans last Saturday claimed, “the Seahawks did more than just validate their place in the postseason.” But the 41-36 win and Seattle’s 7-9 record are entirely separate issues. Intelligent frustration at the Seahawks making the postseason at 7-9 wasn’t, “It’s a shame such a lousy team is making the playoffs; the games won’t be as interesting because they’ll get crushed.” Instead, the issue was, “We know the playoffs are a crapshoot, so it’s unfair that such a lousy team gets a chance.” The outcome of the game was surprising, but upsets happen pretty routinely in sports. The object of restricting access to what are ultimately random playoff tournaments is to ensure the winner at least has some viable claim to the prize. 7-9 Seattle shouldn’t have been hosting 11-5 New Orleans not just because the Saints performed objectively better during the season but also because it allows for this very outcome. That said, the Seahawks played the game of their collective lives against the Saints and only won by 5; Chicago, 30-20.

New York at New England

Cynics love to bemoan big markets and big teams, but the buildup to Pats and Jets has reminded me why I’ll take New York vs. Boston any time, in anything. Making haughty comments about how Rex Ryan is putting more pressure on his team and might have to eat his words makes for an easy column, but does anyone who follows the NFL on days besides Sunday really wish Ryan would shut up? Following sports should mean more than watching Merrill Hoge and Ron Jaworski breaking down game tape; I want to see Ryan criticize Tom Brady for watching Lombardi instead of the Jets/Colts tilt, I want to see Ryan futilely attempt to drag Bill Belichick into some sort of media war, I want to see Antonio Cromartie decide he’d rather be known as the guy who said the stupid thing about Tom Brady than the guy who can’t remember his kids’ names. I love Wes Welker now. These covers are why the newspaper industry can’t be allowed to die. My only disappointment stems from the Jets constructing an inevitably horrible Monday: Either they idiotically lit the flame under Brady and Belichick and got smoked again, or their comments somehow inspired Mark Sanchez to throw accurate passes, and the Patriots fell in a shocker. The great thing about this week’s trash talk is it doesn’t matter; Brady would have picked Cromartie apart regardless, just as Belichick would have outcoached Ryan even if it weren’t “personal.” New England will win, 30-17.

No, Let’s Not Disband The One Thing The NHL’s Doing Right

SI.com recently published a Dan Shaughnessy column with the following lede: “Sorry, but the expiration date on the Winter Classic has come and gone. Time to retire the outdoor hockey game.”

I think this deserves a meek attempt at Fire Joe Morgan-style commentary.

The Caps beat the Penguins, 3-1, but this was not what the league had in mind.
Crosby and Ovechkin were on the same ice, so this was exactly what the league had in mind.

It was playable, but barely. Watching on television, you could see puddling and water splashing in the trail of the puck sliding across the ice. One side of the surface was worse than the other, so the teams changed ends halfway through the third period.
They did this in Buffalo in 2008, too. And “it was great.”

Shaughnessy continues, telling us why Pittsburgh didn’t deserve the Winter Classic.

Let’s start with the host city. OK, professional hockey was born in Pittsburgh 100 years ago, but it’s simply not a metropolis we associate with hockey.
I in no way associate with hockey the city where Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby have played and won three Stanley Cups. Miami’s a better hockey town.

Buffalo is not an original six town, but there’s no disputing its qualification as a winter sports mecca.
If Buffalo’s a winter sports mecca, I think Pittsburgh’s at least a winter sports Wailing Wall.

Chicago and Boston are part of NHL genesis. Nuff said.
Should we just eliminate the other 24 teams and have a six-team league again? And that NHL genesis has combined for one title in the last 35 years.

Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium worked because it’s in Buffalo and got the requisite snow flurries to made for spectacular television.
Buffalo is a better site than Pittsburgh because on January 1, 2008 it snowed in Buffalo, whereas on January 1, 2011 it did not snow in Pittsburgh.

Heinz Field, on the other hand, is a new facility singularly associated with football and the Steelers. It’s not old-timey like Fenway or Wrigley..
So what’s the minimum age requirement – 90 years, maybe?

It’s simply a football field. Nothing more.
Since only the Red Sox play at Fenway Park, is it simply a baseball field, nothing more?

If it’s cold enough, I would be OK with any outdoor game in
I think he’s advocating the NHL announce the Winter Classic location on Christmas, based on ten-day weather forecasts.

Detroit, Montreal or Toronto.
The stated purpose of the Winter Classic is growing the game in the United States, which is a country that Montreal and Toronto are not in.

Yankee Stadium might even work.
Might? Because Wrigley and Fenway are “palaces of worship,” but Yankee Stadium is what, simply a baseball field, nothing more?

If the event is going to work it’s got to be really good television and Pittsburgh didn’t have the Currier & Ives snowfall, mittened fans, or players spewing hot air into the cold night.
Crosby, Ovechkin, and the best rivalry in hockey? Doesn’t work. Mittened fans? Works.

If you freeze it, they will come. That’s been the theme in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. But it’s a tough sell in a modern football facility with raindrops falling in 50 degree temperatures.
Rating for Flyers-Bruins? 2.1. Rating for Capitals-Penguins? 2.3.

I tried watching the Winter Classic Saturday night and it didn’t work. The snow globe effect was gone.
If we all buy Dan Shaughnessy snow globes with Bruins insignia, maybe he’ll let us keep the Winter Classic.

“In the third period, weather became a problem,” Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin admitted after the victory.
Other quote from Alex Ovechkin: “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Outdoors is good. Cold is good. Snow flurries make it even better. But rain just doesn’t work and television won’t wait. Time for the NHL to come back inside to play.
In summary, the NHL should postpone the Winter Classic indefinitely until it can control the weather.

Forgive, And Don’t Forget

When did the Gilbert Arenas era end in Washington? It was before he was unceremoniously dumped in a swap of terrible contracts with Orlando, his albatross contract deemed more burdensome than Rashard Lewis’. It was before the Wizards won the draft lottery and selected John Wall, proclaiming the point guard the new face of their franchise. And yes, it was before Arenas brought guns into the Wizards’ locker room in late 2009.

It’s tough to remember now, but Agent Zero was real once. Rebounding from the stinging six-game defeat to Cleveland in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, Arenas compiled the best season of his then-burgeoning NBA career in 2007. He hit memorable game winners to beat Utah and Milwaukee; he outdueled Kobe Bryant in scoring 60 points to lead the Wizards to victory in Los Angeles; he called out Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni over an national team beef, claiming he would score 50 points on him – and he did. His performance earned Wizards coach Eddie Jordan the right to coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He made the All-NBA second team. But he tore his MCL and missed the 2007 postseason.

After that, he played just 68 games for the Wizards. His scoring, shooting percentage, and minutes dropped precipitously. He was Hibachi – a bowl of fire – no more. He had a chance to regain his luster a year after the injury, in Game 4 of a series he barely played in. The Wizards were down 2-1 to Cleveland, needing a win at home to keep realistic hopes alive. Arenas played a series-high 32 minutes, and with less than a minute to go, he banked in the game-tying basket. But after a Delonte West 3-pointer regained the lead for the Cavaliers, responsibility again fell to the Wizards’ franchise player. Arenas’ 3-point attempt was the last of his Washington postseason career, and his miss put the nail in the coffin of both the Wizards’ postseason hopes and, while no one knew it then, Arenas’ career in Washington.

Arenas followed the 2008 playoffs by declaring free agency and eventually re-signing with the Wizards, inking a 6-year, $111 million contract. We all know what happened next – he played in two games in 2008-09, brought a gun into Verizon Center in 2009-10, and was traded to the Magic in 2010-11. Somewhere in between the end of Arenas’ short-lived on-court dominance and Dec. 18, we lost touch with our once-beloved superstar. The trade was neither goodbye nor good riddance – it was merely the last chapter of a book we’d already put down.

By December 2010, Arenas’ continuing presence on the Wizards sideline was, if nothing else, exceedingly awkward. Media members had written their Arenas obituaries last fall – he’s a fun guy who made some serious mistakes, if you missed the meme – and when your employer removes a gigantic banner of you from your place of work, it’s a rather obvious sign they wish you’d simply leave. There was speculation the Wizards would try to void his contract and widespread belief they’d have traded him by the start of the season, but when the season began, there was Gilbert Arenas – now No. 9 – overstaying his welcome because he had nowhere else to go.

I was at Verizon Center on Dec. 10 to watch the Wizards host the New York Knicks. The fans gave Arenas a respectful ovation upon his introduction. There was at least more enthusiasm for Arenas than for Al Thornton. But Wall was introduced right after Arenas, and the difference was palpable. Wall hasn’t done anything for the Wizards yet, he’s still a rookie – an oft-injured, poor-shooting one at that. But he’s a sign of what could be, not what once was.

Still, in their loss to the rejuvenated Knicks, what once was outplayed what could be. The Knicks forced Wall into jumpers, and while he had one dashing layup that brought the crowd to its feet, he scored only 8 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Arenas tantalized. Late in the fourth quarter, he knocked down in succession a long two, a 3-pointer, and a layup before drawing a charge on Amare Stoudemire. And with the Wizards down by five with a minute-and-a-half to play, he hit a jumper to make it a one-possession game. But just like Game 4 two-and-a-half years ago, he never broke through. After drawing the charge, he missed a three. And when the Wizards got the ball back after his late jumper, he missed again. Arenas was always good enough to make us remember not just once was but also what could have been. It was that feeling that made the 2010-11 Wizards an uncomfortable mix of past, present, and future – and it was that feeling that put the franchise in this mess to begin with.

The final three seasons of Arenas’ original contract ended in anguished what-ifs for the Wizards, and not just because each concluded with a loss to LeBron James and his crab dribble. Before the Bulls and Celtics played 73 overtimes in 2009’s first round, the Wizards and Cavaliers played a six-game tilt in which three of the final four games were decided by a point on late baskets. Of course, all three late baskets were made by Cleveland – the first two by James, the last by Damon Jones, whose go-ahead 3-pointer in Washington followed Arenas missing two free throws with the Wizards up one. The Wizards’ shot at redemption was spoiled in 2007 when Arenas and Caron Butler were sidelined with injuries, leading to a Cavaliers sweep of a team that was 10 games over .500 before two of its three best players went down. And in 2008 – without Arenas’ services for most of the season – the Wizards clawed to the five seed in the East, beat the eventual champion Celtics in three of four games, and lost another six-game series to Cleveland, with Arenas either injured or hurt for the entire matchup. It was after this season, which ended in an embarrassing blowout loss in Verizon Center (sound familiar?), that GM Ernie Grunfeld had a choice. Arenas had a lucrative offer on the table to return to Golden State. He would require near franchise-player money to return to the District. And he demanded the team also re-sign 10-year veteran Antwan Jamison.

Doubling down on Arenas was the popular choice with most of the fanbase (if not the most basketball-savvy portion of the fanbase), and it’s easy to understand why Grunfeld fell for the temptation. At the time, I did too. But just because the Wizards might’ve been the best team in an extraordinarily weak Eastern Conference in 2007 didn’t mean Grunfeld should’ve kept together a team that never won more than 45 games and had glaring defensive deficiencies. Faulting Grunfeld for not foreseeing Arenas’ injuries persisting or for the all-star thinking bringing a gun into the locker room isn’t a horrifically stupid thing to do isn’t fair, and we don’t know what pressure he faced to put a competitive team on the floor during owner Abe Pollin’s final years. But we can surmise Grunfeld was looking backward, not forward, when he locked into place a core that had little chance of competing for an NBA championship.

That wasn’t Arenas’ fault. He liked Washington, Washington liked him, and he even took a little less money to stay with a team that, had all gone according to plan, should’ve made the playoffs a few more times and had some fun doing it. As his time in the capital spiraled to an end that quickly became apparent and unavoidable, take a moment to remember where the Wizards were when Arenas found them. The team had made the playoffs once in the past 15 seasons, and not at all since 1997. The team hadn’t won a playoff series since 1982. And the team had just suffered the ultimate humiliation.

The Wizards in the two years before Arenas’ arrival were in the national consciousness to a surprising degree; Michael Jordan’s ill-fated comeback made Washington basketball a must-see attraction. But that attention only reinforced the underlying reality that Jordan’s decision to play for the Wizards was only theoretically feasible because of the franchise’s complete irrelevance: The Wizards were nothing, so Jordan could don their jersey for a few seasons and be only Michael Jordan, not Michael Jordan the Washington Wizard. The entire franchise was reduced to Jordan’s plaything.

Arenas, from the moment he signed his contract to when construction crews removed his banner from the exterior walls of Verizon Center, was Gilbert Arenas the Washington Wizard. With Arenas, the Wizards mattered, and of their own volition this time. So remember the game-winner against Chicago in 2005. Remember the intensity of those Cavaliers games. Remember the depths from which Arenas brought the franchise.

Remember it’s better to have loved and to have lost than to have never loved at all.

The NFL Rivalry That Means Something

On Jan. 21, 2007, Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts back from an 18-point deficit, driving 80 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown with only minutes to play, to defeat the New England Patriots 38-34 and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career. And so the best single-era rivalry in NFL history was born.

The Patriots and Colts were nominally rivals before the 2007 AFC championship game – their regular-season battles were nationally televised affairs and the Manning-Tom Brady quarterback debate was already in full swing – but the Colts’ fall victories in Foxborough in 2005 and 2006 had all the significance of the pre-2004 Red Sox winning a few Sunday Night Baseball games in Yankee Stadium in mid-July. The matchup was stuck in Russell-Chamberlain mode, and with Brady and the Patriots forever Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics and Manning and the Colts forever Wilt Chamberlain and whatever team he played for (see what I did there? Very clever, I know), Patriots-Colts’ games served primarily to enable analysts to tell us that, in The National Football League, great defense beats great offense. The individual games remained intriguing because the teams were so good, but the rivalry at-large was stale. But the Colts’ victory in January 2007 changed all that.

The NFL in the 2000s belonged to Indianapolis and New England: The Colts won 115 regular season games and the Patriots won 112, which is nearly a game a season more than the No. 3 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots and Colts won four of 10 Super Bowls, a figure that doesn’t do their dominance justice. New England won in 2001, 2003, and 2004; Indianapolis won in 2006. But if Rodney Harrison dislodges Eli Manning’s pass from David Tyree’s helmet (or the Pats’ defensive line wraps Manning up, or any of about a million other things), 2007’s on that list, and 2005 (Ben Roethlisberger somehow tacking Nick Harper at midfield) and 2009 (That onside kick to begin the second half) aren’t far behind. One can obviously employ the Tuck Rule in the other direction, and writing a revisionist history isn’t the point here, but for all the talk of NFL parity, Indianapolis and New England (and to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh) have figured in nearly every momentous play of the last decade’s postseasons.

And the central figures have been Brady and Manning. A recent NFL Network special ranked Manning as the eighth-best player of all time and Brady as the 21st – among quarterbacks, Manning was No. 3, behind only Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas, while Brady ranked No. 7, with Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, and Brett Favre (!?) separating him from the Colts star. Montana and Unitas generally occupy the top two spots of QB lists, so Manning reaching the third spot – ahead of both the game’s elder statesmen and the ’90s cluster – likely speaks to the degree to which he’s dominated his era, earning 4 MVP awards and 5 first-team All Pro selections. Brady has only one of each, both from 2007. In a way, the two are competing on opposite tracks: Manning’s surpassed Favre and Dan Marino on the statistical dominance ladder, whereas Brady’s perfected the “champion” model originated by Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw. Perhaps fittingly, the other’s presence will likely keep either from ever passing Montana (3 first-team All Pro selections and 4 Super Bowl rings) as Brady has kept Manning from Super Bowl trophies and Manning has kept Brady from individual accolades.

But it’s simplistic to frame Brady as the playoff success guy and Manning as the regular-season statistics guy. Manning actually has a slightly higher postseason QB rating (albeit one largely acquired by beating up on Denver in the first round while Bill Belichick had the week off to scheme ways to force Manning into four-interception games), and Brady’s the one who threw for 50 touchdowns in a season and quarterbacked the highest-scoring offense in league history. Brady’s 14-4 playoff record finds itself frequently tossed into conversation against Manning’s 9-9 mark, but the comparison isn’t especially fair – Brady missed the playoffs with a mediocre 9-7 team in 2002 and only has 7 overall seasons as a starter, while Manning entered the postseason without much hope of advancing in 2000 and 2002 and has reached the playoffs three more times than Brady. On the flip side, it’s unclear to what degree Manning has benefited from superior receivers. While Indianapolis’ ability to weave in players such as Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie certainly reflects positively on Manning, stars such as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne never went to different teams, while most Patriots’ receivers eventually did, with poor results – see Deion Branch in Seattle. When Brady finally received decidedly above-average receivers, he responded with 2007.

Instructively, Brady’s NFL Network top 100 bit was read by Derek Jeter, the athlete perhaps most similar to Brady. The four-minute segment was mostly mush – plenty of the he’s-a-competitor-who-just-wants-to-win line that’s saturated stories about both players for years – but it reinforced the chief mantra behind both the Patriot quarterback and Yankee shortstop: They’re perfect athletes, from their on-field performances to their Madison Avenue appeal. Ray Lewis, reading Manning’s bit, spent the better part of the segment analyzing how Manning threw a perfect pass to Dallas Clark for a crucial first down in the 2006 divisional playoffs. The stated message: “This guy works his ass off.” Of course, it’s Manning who was the No. 1 overall pick and handed a starting job and Brady who was picked in the sixth round and only got his chance because of injury, but that story has been so ingrained in the Brady narrative by now that it furthers the Brady-as-quintessential-American-superstar motif and subsequent backlash. Manning’s the technocrat; Brady’s the one who makes it look easy. (An enterprising Steelers fan might choose this moment to add a third persona to the ring: Ben Roethlisberger, the rugged – take that however you like – leader, with more Super Bowl rings than Manning and passing stats comparable to Brady. For now, I’ll simply posit that he’s much better than Bradshaw ever was.)

But the rivalry extends beyond the quarterbacks. From 2002-2008, Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy offered about as sharp a coaching contrast as the NFL provides: At their respective bests’, a workaholic defensive genius faced an unquestioned leader of men; at their worsts’, a sadistic cheater faced a pretentious moralist. Belichick won’t be serving on presidential councils anytime soon, while I doubt it’s ever occurred to Dungy to videotape another team’s signals. Belichick fairly joined Manning on most writers’ decade All-Pro teams, and his grouchy demeanor and patented sweatshirts only added to the acclaim he received from his mastery of Manning in 2003 and 2004 and ability to withstand staff defections. But the only reason Dungy’s proselytizing is remotely acceptable is his Super Bowl championship – tarred by playoff failures in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy did beat Belichick and did lead a team to a championship. With Jim Caldwell now in charge, the Colts no longer have a counterweight as dynamic as Belichick, which really is a pity, but with Caldwell resembling Dungy in so many other ways, it’s not a sea change.

The Belichick/Dungy contrast mirrors a larger difference in organizational philosophy. The Patriots have constantly been the ones pushing the envelope – cutting Lawyer Milloy right before the 2003 season, trading for the enigmatic Randy Moss, strategically trading players before they hit the open market. Some of these differences arise because the Colts have simply drafted better, and therefore had less incentive to make radical personnel moves to compensate, but I also think the Colts’ organization wouldn’t be too receptive to going for it on fourth-and-2 from its own 28 or trading Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour before the start of the 2009 season.

Ultimately, their respective paths from 14-0 starts most clearly delineate between the two franchises. The 2007 Patriots, to quote world-famous Pats fan Bill Simmons, were on an “Eff You” mission from the moment Spygate became a story. Brady said the team had a desire to “kill teams.” They scored 52 points against a helpless Joe Gibbs. They couldn’t NOT go for the perfect season, and they didn’t, winning a very competitive game against the Giants to move to 16-0 and set up their playoff run. In 2009, the Colts faced the same decision – and chose the exact opposite route. Fortunately, both teams finished the postseason identically, so we don’t know which approach was “better.” But we did learn that the chance to be the greatest team in NFL history meant something to New England – and that it meant nothing to Indianapolis. Once the Colts decided, rightly or wrongly, that going for 19-0 would harm their Super Bowl chances, the decision was made. Belichick will likely always maintain that he went for 19-0 because he felt it put his team in the best position to claim that 19th win, and that may be true, but I think the allure of an undefeated season played a role, too. I hope it did.

The Patriots-Colts rivalry isn’t predicated on mutual hatred and a plethora of cheap shots: It’s not Steelers-Ravens – it’s more Lakers-Spurs. Bad blood exists between the teams – the Colts likely remain bitter about the Patriots’ defensive tactics in those Foxborough snow wars; the Patriots probably smirk that Bill Polian successfully pushed for rule changes in response. But the rivalry hasn’t been marred by Joey Porter cheap shots; it’s a rivalry not because the teams hate each other, but for a much better reason: Each team has stood in the way of the other winning championships. New England’s currently winning the rivalry, claiming “the only stat that counts” 3-1 as well as a 8-5 overall edge and 2-1 postseason margin since Brady’s ascent in 2001. They were the team of the 2000s. But the Colts have the advantage in regular-season wins and have had elite, championship-caliber teams more often. Their recent domination of the rivalry was so complete that pangs of fear struck ever Patriots’ fan the moment Indianapolis closed to 31-21 on Sunday. No matter that the Patriots were still 10 points ahead, with the ball. So when the two teams met in Foxborough yesterday – and for as long as the faces of the rivalry remain Brady and Manning – they engaged in a battle that transcends one game or one season: They’re fighting to win an entire era.