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Eastern Conference Finals: Who Do You Want?

I come to you today not as a semi-objective analyst or an elite member of the grassroots media, but as a fan — heart on my sleeve, the longing for a championship that will cure all ills trumping all other considerations. For a moment it is not objectivity that rules here, or even truth, but emotion, desire, and need. Come along with me, on this roller coaster ride of emotions and championship aspirations that are all part of rooting for Kobe Bryant's Lakers.

Tuesday night, I spent three hours in a CPR course that should have taken an hour and a half at the absolute most. It was excruciatingly slow and pointless, and it caused me to miss my dinner and most of my evening plans. I was pissed off.

The wife and I headed to our favorite bar in a nearby small Kansas town (all of our in-town bars are filled with smoke, which doesn't suit either of us). We arrived in time to catch most of the fourth quarter of Game 4 between the Magic and the Cavaliers. The bar was only meant to be open for another 20 minutes, but the bartender graciously let us stick around until the end of the game.

What followed, for me, was 45 minutes to an hour of internal anguish over the question of which team I should be rooting for. On the surface, it's very simple; three factors were at play:

  1. The longer the Eastern Conference Finals goes, the better; I don't want the Magic sitting at home, preparing for the Lakers while the Western Conference slugfest continues.
  2. The Lakers match up better against the Cavaliers, and as such, the Cavs would seem to be a preferable Finals matchup (more thoughts on this issue below, which is far more complicated than it appears at first)
  3. Dwight Howard is my favorite non-Laker, and I LOVE the Magic. At the same time, I can't deny that I take a certain amount of pleasure in seeing the Cavs fall back to reality, especially when it's the Magic delivering the reality check.

Click on through to read more about the complexities of my inner struggle regarding the Eastern Conference Finals...

This was a classic head versus heart situation. My head told me that I had every reason to want a Cleveland win, at least in Game 4, and probably overall as well. The matchup issues Orlando poses should be obvious to everyone watching by now. The Cavs and their fans could tell you all about it. But the scary thought is that the Magic provide a similar matchup nightmare for the Lakers. I feel confident about a Lakers championship over the Cavaliers; the Magic, on the other hand, make me nervous.

But my heart just loves Orlando, and has a serious distaste for Cleveland. Part of it, for Orlando, is the style of game they play. It's exciting! It's also the kind of game that supposedly doesn't work in the playoffs. I can't remember the last time when such an unconventional team was so close to competing in the Finals, and the idea that the team whose style isn't suited to the postseason could dominate the playoffs and win a championship has a certain appeal to it.

Meanwhile, I simply love Dwight Howard. He's a beast, a freak of nature. At the same time, he's also a thoroughly enjoyable human being. He represents the hope that truly dominant NBA superstars could be self-aware, and yet not arrogant; intense, and yet not unlikable; competitive, and yet not assholes; dominant, and yet capable of having fun and letting it show. He is a comedian in his own right, a big kid who refuses to grow up in all the right ways. Most of all, he is genuine and without pretention. Kobe Bryant's public image at times seems cold and calculating, a bit too well-spoken (personally, I love that about him, but it irks some poeple). LeBron James is self-entitled and unabashedly arrogant, and one big, always-on self-promotion; you're not looking at a human being, you're looking at a living, breathing, 24/7 marketing campaign. Dwight Howard? He's just who he is. And who he is just happens to be a truly likable person.

Then, of course, there is my distaste for Cleveland and, in a round about way, LeBron James. To be fair to James, this is less about him than it is about the media and the fans. In fact, I'll repeat that, so that I'm clear: I don't have a problem with LeBron James; I have a problem with the media and fans that give him more credit than he has yet earned. That buzzer beater in Game 2? That was the second game-winning shot of his entire career, the first of the playoffs. Kobe Bryant does that in his sleep, and he has done it in the Finals. Everybody is in such a hurry to annoint LeBron the King, even before he has won anything, but as Kobe has shown us in these conference finals, that appears to have been a bit premature.

How I View LeBron

This may surprise you — if you’ve read some of my past work, you may have gotten the opposite impression — but I’m a big fan of LeBron James. How can I not be? Much like Kobe Bryant, I can’t help but respect the rare combination of incredible talent and the work ethic to match. After all, those areas of life in which I am the most naturally talented also tend to be the ones in which I put forth the least effort, tempted instead to "get by" on talent alone. That refusal to simply be satisfied with unthinkable natural talent is why I hold so much respect for Kobe, and that is also the type of person that Kobe tends to have high regard for.

LeBron James is such a player, and as such, it would be hypocritical and just plain irrational for me not to have a great amount of respect and awe for him, for the same reasons.

But I also believe that credit should only be given where it is due. To give a person credit for something that they have not actually achieved is, in fact, a disservice to that person — it devalues what they have actually achieved, and renders our professed respect for them insincere.

Unfortunately, this is what we have tended to do with LeBron James. Knowing that he is the future, and seeing his vast potential, which we know he has the work ethic to fulfill, we get ahead of ourselves, giving him credit for things he has not yet accomplished. It is not fair to those, like Kobe Bryant, who have put in the effort and achieved those things. It is not fair to those, like Dwyane Wade, who don’t get the same special treatment based on as-yet-unrealized potential. And most of all, it is not fair to LeBron James, who deserves to be given respect for what he has accomplished, not for some unrealistic, airbrushed perception of who we want him to be.

This, quite simply, is what I strive to do: To give credit where it is due, at all times, but to expect that a person should earn his reputation, not have it handed to him. Only then will it be of any value.

I've made my position on LeBron James clear in the past. It's not that I don't respect him; I think he's a tremendous player, I respect and fear him, and I'm convinced that he will retire as one of the best to ever play the game. I'm just a bit more realistic about his progress, not expecting him to have mastered everything at the young age of 24. (See the extended quote to the right for more.)

My distaste for LeBron and his team has more to do with the media than the players themselves. I'm tired of the constant onslaught, the short memories and revisionist history, the double standard which praises LeBron for the exact same things that Kobe has been endlessly criticized for. The way the media all but proclaimed the Cavs to be the inevitable eventual NBA champions after they ran roughshod over two of the weakest teams in the playoffs, while the Lakers struggled against some truly impressive competition, only increased my distaste for the entire situation.

So it is that I can't help but enjoy seeing LeBron and the Cavs struggle against the first legitimate competition they have faced. It's not an attitude of spitefulness; it's simply a sigh of relief that comes from being vindicated. The untouchable Cavaliers have been brought down to earth; now they can share in our sufferings, and the media can write a harsh word or two about them, for a change, instead of always about my Lakers.

So it is that I was tormented on Tuesday night, torn between between my head, which told me rationally that a Cleveland win is better for my Lakers in every way, and my heart, which was uncontrollable in the quiet pleasure it took in seeing the Cavs struggle as my Lakers have, and in the satisfaction of feeling vindicated based on previous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of LeBron James and his Cavaliers.

In the end, my heart won, overpowering my head and forcing me to root for Superman and the Magic. Needless to say, Dwight Howard and Crew lifted my spirits, easily erasing from memory the three miserable hours that had started my night off on the wrong foot.

Nonetheless, the inner struggle remains – and believe it or not, it is even more complicated than I have yet explained.

Consider this: So far, I've discussed which team would be a better matchup for the Lakers in the Finals. But I haven't accounted for two decidedly less pleasant ideas: the possibility that the Lakers might not make it to the Finals, and the other possibility that they might make it there and lose.

Surely you see where I'm going. Should the Lakers and Cavs both lose – especially if they both lose to the Magic – the only significant change in the current status quo will be the official arrival of Dwight Howard to the big stage. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James? Not much changes. But if the Lakers lose, and the Cavaliers go on to win? Nothing could be worse.

It's not that such an event would shake my faith in my team, or my favorite player, nor would it have much of an effect on my position in the Kobe vs. LeBron debate. The issue here has less to do with reality than perception. If LeBron wins and Kobe does not, the discussion will be considered closed, and Lakers fans will never hear the end of it. Quite frankly, I don't have the energy for that.

Worst of all would be the possibility of LeBron winning and Kobe losing in a matchup between their two teams in the Finals. If the Lakers lose to Denver, and the Cavs beat Orlando and then go on to win the championship, it will be bad enough. But if the Cavs actually beat the Lakers in the Finals, life as a Lakers fan, and a Kobe Bryant fan, will be difficult.

Of course, the flip side is also true. If LeBron loses to the Magic, and the Lakers beat them, the "Who is better?" discussion will be placed on hold indefinitely – likely until LeBron actually does win a championship. But if LeBron and the Cavs come back to beat the Magic, only to be defeated by Kobe and the Lakers in the Finals? Glory of glory! Many of the remaining negative attitudes towards Kobe will shift dramatically, he will get the credit he deserves, and the LeBron James holdouts will bite their tongues. Until LeBron wins at least one, his proponents won't have a leg to stand on. From this perspective, and with faith in my team and its floor leader, there can be nothing more apetizing (at least now that the Celtics are out) than the Cavs getting to the Finals so that the Lakers can beat them there.

This issue is compounded, once again, by my love for Dwight Howard and the Magic. The idea of the Lakers not winning the championship this year makes me nauseous. But if the Lakers must lose, I can think of no player and team that I would prefer they lose to than Dwight Howard and his Magic. Such an outcome would be difficult, but after the initial shock of a second straight Finals loss, the consolation prize would be my second-hand joy at the Magic's success.

You see my dilemma? Late in the fourth quarter, I turned to my wife and put the question to her: Is the potential reward of beating LeBron and the Cavs in the Finals worth the potential risk of them beating Kobe and the Lakers?

That is the question. And having outlined my dilemma, I put it to you. Of course, we don't actually have any say in the outcome. As my wife so pragmatically put it, "It doesn't matter, because there's really nothing you can do about it." She's right of course – but we're sports fans! This is what we do! So while I understand that que sera sera, I still want to know what you think, what you're hoping for, as a Lakers fan – and why.

And of course, be sure to tune in here for Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

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