Friday, May 09, 2008

Closing the window

The recent defeat of the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs provided another example of an age-old lesson in team sports.

You don't get many chances at a championship. What's more, you don't know when the window of opportunity is going to close.

Both the Suns and the Mavericks had some great teams in the past few years, but both came up short in attempts to win championships. Dallas did make it to the finals once, but lost to Miami. Both teams decided it needed something else to get over the hump this year, so it made major trades in a last-chance action to do so. Phoenix acquired Shaquille O'Neal; Dallas picked up Jason Kidd. It didn't help.

Teams sometimes sense when opportunity is at hand, so they are tempted to make a trade to improve their chances a few months before the playoffs. The catch is that it's obviously impossible to know what the correct deal might be.

About 18 years ago, the Boston Red Sox decided they needed some help in the bullpen for the stretch drive. So they acquired Larry Andersen from the Astros for a prospect. Andersen had one save in a Red Sox uniform, while the prospect turned out to be Jeff Bagwell. All right, Bagwell is going to the Hall of Fame, and Anderson only helped get the Red Sox to the first round of the playoffs. That didn't work.

In 1987, the Tigers thought they needed a veteran pitcher for a bump to the playoffs. So they gave up a prospect for Doyle Alexander. Alexander helped Detroit win the division, but the prospect was John Smoltz, who is still pitching and pitching well 21 years later.

Deals like that always look terrible in hindsight, but you can't blame them for being made. Teams try to go for a ring when they have a chance, sacrificing part of the future for the present ... even though in economic terms the team probably would be better off being merely very good for several years rather than a champion once and mediocre after that.

And sometimes those opportunities for championships appear without any notice. In 1993, the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves in the Western Conference Finals. They were hosting the Los Angeles Kings in Game Seven. A date with the not-so-intimidating Montreal Canadiens was waiting for the winner, and all of Canada was ready for that series. The Maple Leafs were at home and were the better team. But they didn't have the best player. Wayne Gretzky personally took charge for the Kings, playing one of the best games in his life to lead Los Angeles to the win and to the finals.

The Leafs haven't been so close to the Stanley Cup finals since then. As I said to a friend from The Hockey News a while after that, "YOU'VE GOT TO WIN THAT GAME IF YOU ARE THE LEAFS!"

Two years ago, the Buffalo Sabres were obviously one of the top teams in the NHL and a clear Stanley Cup contender. They dispatched two opponents in the playoffs, and then met the Carolina Hurricanes in the Conference finals. The problem was that the Sabres kept losing defensemen to injury. When Game Seven rolled around, Buffalo had three minor leaguers on the blue line. The Sabres couldn't hold a third-period lead, and the Hurricanes won the game and the series.

Carolina beat eighth-place Edmonton for the Cup; the Sabres probably would have done the same thing. A year later, the Sabres had the best record in the league but had lost some depth and grit in J.P. Dumont, Jay McKee and Mike Grier. The window was closing. Buffalo lost to Ottawa in the conference finals of 2007, and missed the playoffs entirely in 2008 as players such as Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell went elsewhere.

Sports history is littered with such teams. The Houston Oilers (Earl Campbell, etc.) were mighty good in the late 1970's, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were always in their way. The Chicago Bulls of the 1970's (Bob Love/Chet Walker/etc.) often had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks in front of them. The Atlanta Braves were in the playoffs constantly in the 1990's, but only had one championship. The Cleveland Indians had a one run lead in Game Seven of the series and their closer on the mound against Florida in 1997, but couldn't hold the lead. The nucleus never got another shot at a ring.

There are no guarantees in this business. Which makes it fun. And tough.

1 comment:

Glenn Locke, The Tall Thin Guy said...

I remember that Kings-Leafs game 7 in 93. I was in Vegas on my drive around the country. Looking for a sports bet, I figured the Kings had Gretzky, and the Leafs had Dave Andreychuk. Easy money!