So it's a playoffs without the Rockets. This is sad, yet the Rockets and their fans can walk away from this season knowing that the team we had, the coach we had, and the front office we had, did everything they possibly could to win now, and in the future. The taste of the season is not as sweet as we'd hoped, but it's far from bitter.
What have we learned? Well, that Yao is pretty freaking important, I'd say. What else? That we have the pieces for an amazing, possibly historic, Rockets team in place assuming Yao comes back and that we draft a guy who is capable of the following:
1, Playing good defense at the center position and rebounding.
2. Staying healthy.
3. Being over 6'10" tall.
4. Converting garbage, passing occasionally to shooters, and making unobstructed dunk shots.
5. Setting bone-shaking high picks.
So with that in mind let me dive right into a completely frivolous and geeky "analysis" of the Western Conference Playoffs as seen through D&D.
Everyone is doing lists right now, recaps, reminders, capsules, and potted histories. There are also a ton of playoff previews. I love that kind of stuff, and it is all pretty nebbish. But not nebbishy enough. So I offer you a moral analysis of the Western Conference Playoffs as seen through my interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons (tm) alignments. Yes, the whole WC playoffs, as seen through Dungeons and Dragons alignments. You don't have to tell anyone you know EXACTLY what I'm talking about.
Is that geeky enough for you? Is it?
Please note - anyone getting genuinely upset by this will receive the mockery they richly deserve. Also, I know I owe this joke concept to Lore Sjoberg, so you don't have to tell me that, either. He's due to get half of whatever I receive for this. I haven't played D&D in a very long time, it may all be different now.
Denver Nuggets (Chaotic Neutral) v Utah Jazz (Lawful Evil)
Denver is far from my favorite team, as I have expounded upon at length. I find their typical personal presentation to be laughable and unconvincing when their actual position in life is taken into account. But I admire their utter commitment to chaos. You really never freaking know what Denver might do. They could destroy any team in the league, they could destroy themselves. They could miss a playoff game due to severe tattoo poisoning, they could hold down an opponent and put a tattoo of Carmelo Anthony's ass on that opponent's face. The loss of George Karl (get well George - really one of the most interesting and entertaining figures in the league) makes them even less predictable. Their Mountain Fortress makes Denver a hard place to play (Altitude Sickness Save Required).
Signature Players for Alignment: JR Smith and Birdman, pure, pure chaos on the court.
But Utah has a Mountain Fortress of Evil of their own. And make no mistake, the Jazz are Lawful Evil. From their monicker that perpetually makes a mockery of one of America's loveliest contributions to art, to their persistent and inexplicable sense of grievance, persecution and thus, somehow, permission to Do Wrong, the Jazz are despicable and Evil. They are systematic in the operation of their endless pick and rolls, they have had the same Lich King coaching them for seemingly centuries. They are the ambulance chasing lawyers of the NBA, always on the hunt for a questionable fee or free throw, a rule advantage or whistle, thus Lawful, in a perverse way. Their homecourt is sponsored by a company that LOVES NUCLEAR WASTE (You think I'm kidding? NYSE: ES). They also have a legion of maniacal chanting acolytes, which makes Sloan the Thulsa Doom of the NBA. Their Hall of Famers are amongst the biggest jerks to ever stride an NBA court, true Paragons of Douchebaggery.
You may claim that no team with Deron Williams can be wholly evil. You'd be wrong. Anyone who watched Williams this season knows that he's both improved and gone completely over to the Dark Side. There's no saving him now. He must be destroyed with a stake through the heart, or something lest he become another Evil Jazz Witch-King Paragon of Douchebaggery (like Stockton and Malone before him).
Signature Player for Alignment: Carlos Boozer, Contractual Backstabber and Cheap-Shot Artist
Prophesy: Denver in 7. Note - Now in 5 due to the AK47 and Okur injuries. Do you see that tiny tiny tear in my eye? So sad, why couldn't they both lose?
Portland Trailblazers (Lawful Good) v Phoenix Suns (Chaotic Good)
Portland's monotonous grinding offense, and slow pace spells Lawful, yet it is somehow redeemed by the generally high (Good) character of Blazer players. Even while he's spent significant time experimenting with the dreaded "Kobe Face" this season, their (sadly absent) star Brandon Roy remains A Force for Good (if a thorn in the Rockets' side). Despite the Injury Trials of Job, the Trailblazers have soldiered on, and have received their just reward with a playoff spot. Whether they make it out of the first round is doubtful, without Roy, but Portland can leave knowing they Fought The Good Fight. Honestly, does any decent person hate the Trailblazers?
Portland The City loves their team with a faithfulness that should instruct young marrieds everywhere. That's pretty Lawful Good as well. The Rose City is also quickly becoming one of the absolute most interesting, and coolest, cities in the world. It'll get there in a walk if it can tone down the endless self-congratulation.
Signature Player for Alignment: Brandon Roy - Embodies right-thinking methodical basketball Goodness. Benefits from The Law in the form of Free Throws.
Replacement Signature Player - Marcus Camby, the noble mercenary. He might be "too old for this shit", but he's gonna play it straight up, no matter what.
Phoenix (Chaotic Good)
Even though 8 seconds or less is a relic of the past, Phoenix thrives on chaos. It creates it with pull up threes, with thundering Amare drive & dunks, and with mind-warping Nash passes. They can't really lock down on D, so they'll fool you into bad choices. PHX is the giddy court jester of the NBA. Certainly not the king, but infinitely more entertaining. And maybe The Fool should be the king of the NBA. Would that be so bad? Do you mind watching Phoenix play? Would you mind seeing Phoenix win? Phoenix represents basketball Goodness, can there be any doubt? There are few jerks on this team, and lots of talented misfits who couldn't find a home elsewhere, yet somehow came together to become an elite force in Phoenix. That's good too.
Signature Player for Alignment - Steve Nash. Clearly Good (and even funny) Nash thrives on chaos, on deception, and guile, combined with hands so fast that there is no real defense for him. Lots of young gunslinging Point Guards walk into the Sunset Saloon to find out if the Old Man is getting slow on the draw. Few stumble back into the desert to tell the tale.
Augury: Phoenix in 6.
Dallas Mavericks (Neutral Evil) vs San Antonio Spurs (Lawful Neutral) (Ooh, bias! Texas bias! Oh no!)
Dallas (Neutral Evil)
I had a hard time coming up with the Dallas alignment. Probably their owner has something to do with it. Mark Cuban is somewhat evil, but amusingly so. I admire Mark Cuban in the way I admire cigarette advertising. Cuban's is the sad story of a once-noble owner who has become jaded and dispirited under the merciless hand of High King Stern. He's become what he once despised. A moral lesson for all of us, should we more or less luck into a belated dot com fortune (though I applaud buying the puts on Yahoo - that was genius).
More straightforwardly evil is Jason Kidd. I never liked him before, don't like him now, and never will like him later. Perhaps if he saves a whole orphanage from a fire or something, I'll reconsider, especially if he perishes in the attempt. Jason Terry is some sort of low-level imp - his gleeful gloating, streaky Rocket-hating shooting and generally poor manners make him an evil little weevil.
The City of Dallas is also evil. Some have said that Dallas is brittle, shallow, smug, self-impressed, cruel and vain. Jimmy Dale Gilmore thinks Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye. But lacking much nice to say myself, I'll merely note that I respect their mass transit. I truly do.
But what to do with Dirk Nowitzki? He's one of my favorite players. Humble, hard-working, decent, talented, under-appreciated Dirk Nowitzki almost single-handedly changes Dallas' alignment. I view him as one of those brave priests of antiquity who set out to convert The Heathens of The North. He's never quite succeeded, but they respect him too much to kill him.
Signature Player For Alignment: Jason Kidd, neither lawful, nor chaotic, just devoted to evil for its own sake, is Captain Kidd.
San Antonio (Lawful Neutral)
At one time San Antonio was Lawful Good, the veritable Paladins of the NBA. The Spurs played Basketball The Right Way. They played D, they passed, they were unselfish, and self-sacrificing. A place for every player and every player in his place, with Duncan the Ordained King at the top, and all others his mighty, but loyal, vassals in a great chain of basketball being.
Tim Duncan and David Robinson were such unabashedly Good and Wholesome presences in the NBA that it became a kind of self-parody. Somehow their fundamental excellence and decency proved unexciting to America.
San Antonio has been an almost Model Kingdom. They jumped on the Lightning Bug PG trend before almost anyone else, and somehow, some way, partially redeemed France itself. They introduced an Argentine with an Italian name, who proved (when healthy) to be a more exciting, more thrilling, player than the NBA's Chosen One.
The Spurs embody Boy Scout virtues: loyal, brave, clean, reverent, thrifty, and several more. Their Bishop Coach is stoic and crafty. Their ownership is quiet, modest and shrewd. And yet. And yet...
Something seems to have gone wrong in San Antonio, an insidious institutional change embodied perhaps, by Richard Jefferson, a player who SEEMS ok, yet is in some way a lurking evil, a moral compromise for the sake of success. Somehow all that Spurs do no longer seems to be in the service of The Greater Basketball Good, but of empty ritual. The Spurs exist to be the Spurs, a moving escalator in an empty building. San Antonio now seems to be more concerned about the preservation of their legacy than the reasons for that legacy. The flesh may be weak, or injured, but the spirit is somehow lacking as well.
I didn't think it would be that way. I thought we'd see Tim Duncan, the silent king, raging against the dying of the light. And indeed, Duncan The Great has fought valiantly, and when feeling well remains one of the best players in the history of the NBA. Maybe he will yet rally his team, maybe they will vanquish their evil foes. My hope is that I'll see the Spurs I once so admired one last time. My fear is that I'll see a display of professionalism gone slightly sour.
Signature Player for Alignment: Who but Tim Duncan?
Scrying: Dallas in 7, you think King Duncan falls without a fight?
Los Angeles Lakers (Lawful Evil) v Oklahoma City Thunder (True Neutral)
Los Angeles (Lawful Evil)
LA is The Man, The System, City Hall, The House. They are the loaded dice, the rigged wheel, and stacked deck of the NBA. And they are the official, predictable, and indignant, denials of the same Nobody spends like they do, and nobody earns like they do, nobody gets certain refs in big games as often as they do. Is LA going deep into the playoffs an unwritten requirement of the NBA's TV contracts? Only High King Stern knows for sure.
You might think The Fat Cats are twisted, but you'd be a fool to say they aren't smart. They didn't get to be the lord of all they survey, the biggest game in the second biggest city in the US by being dumb. (Except for that Walton contract, that was dumb.)
They aren't over the hill, they ARE the hill, and they've got the trophies to prove it. I'll go out on a limb and call the current form of the Lakers Lawful Evil.
But perhaps you want more proof? How about a coach who quotes gentle holy men of Zen by way of twisting a verbal knife into foes? How about a star player who can never overcome the taint of moral compromise, of deep doubt, no matter how much success he garners on the court? How about a trade for a second and crucial star that drew fines from High King Stern upon those who expressed outrage? How about spending close to double the salary of their first round foe?
Signature Player for Alignment: Who but Kobe, the Dr Faustus of the NBA?
Oklahoma City (Neutral)
How dare I call Bill Simmons' beloved Zombie Sonics neutral? Well, they obviously embody balance right now. It was bad to leave Seattle, but they've been nothing but good to OKC. Their owner might be a jerk, but their GM is brilliant. They broke the Emerald City's heart, but won the love of a lonely wallflower of a town, spurned by all other professional sports. Are they evil? Are they good? Are they both, or either, depending on how you look at them?
I also think OKC is neutral because they are young, unformed. Kevin Durant is like the hero of some fairly predictable epic fantasy. He's young, but he's already unstoppable, like the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy of badassery. He's ferociously talented and has the gifts to score the basketball like nobody else in the NBA, yet he's a devoted teammate, and by all accounts, a nice kid. The Thunder are young and unselfish, yet they clearly have the talent to be successful. But success so young might spoil them. Might make them feel entitled. They could go either way. My sense is that this is a Good team, eventually, if they can overcome the franchise's past, but what sort? We don't know yet.
Honestly, I don't think the Thunder has to worry about getting spoiled by playoff success, because LA is the Evil Empire, and the Empire is not going to fall to a bunch of scrappy handsome young fellows bursting with talent, team play and youthful idealism. Sorry, but the focus group told the sponsors that they just don't like that kind of crap. They're used to seeing purple and yellow, and they'll buy fewer razors, cars and burritos if they don't see it.
Signature Player for Alignment: Kevin Durant, The Chosen One, facing the first moral test of his career.
Divination: Lakers in 7