DALLAS -- What if?
That is the question every person in the Sacramento Kings organization will ask quietly to themselves -- or aloud to no one in particular -- for the rest of the summer. Maybe longer. What if Chris Webber didn't tear the lateral meniscus in his left knee and wasn't sidelined for the remainder of the postseason?
My advice to the Kings is don't bang your heads against the wall searching for the answer too long. They will still be watching the Western Conference finals on TV. But it's hard to say if the outcome of the series against the Mavericks would have been any different if Webber had not gone down. They beat the Kings once in this series with Webber in the lineup as it was. Even with Webber, the Kings aren't all that much more talented than the Mavs.
Webber's absence was less about points and rebounds and more about giving the Kings peace of mind. Webber is their best player. Anytime a team loses its best player, doubt creeps in and takes up residence in the minds of the remaining players. The Kings just couldn't get it out of their minds. We don't have Chris Webber.
"We didn't have Chris. What do you expect?" Bobby Jackson said after the Kings' Game 7 defeat.
Outside of Tim Duncan, there would have been no one in Webber's path that he couldn't dominate right through to the Larry O'Brien trophy presentation. Without Webber, the other 11 guys on the team felt so alone. They didn't admit it but they were. They knew it was solely on their shoulders to get this team to the Finals and win it all. And that was a bit too much for many of the Kings to handle.
In Saturday's Game 7, the Kings did not have that confident gleam in their eyes. And it's perfectly evident that their defense does not qualify them to play in the conference finals. Let alone the Finals. The Mavericks made shot after shot when they needed. They got key rebounds. They dove on the floor. They were the better team.
Each Kings starter at some point in the series was a complete no-show. Vlade Divac fouled himself silly in Game 5. Mike Bibby didn't even play in the second half of Game 6. But the most crucial, and perplexing, vanishing act was Doug Christie's no-show in Game 7. He had been their best player throughout the series, filling every column of the stat sheet to the brim. But Saturday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Christie failed to make a single basket.
All right, these kind of games do happen. That's basketball. But it's too bad for such an excellent player that it had to happen in a Game 7. The bigger "What if?" should be what if Christie had his usual game?
The Kings cannot use Webber's injury as an excuse. The Mavericks' win does not have an asterisk by it. They are the better team. The Kings didn't have Webber for this series, but the Mavericks didn't have a Webber to begin with.
Last year, when the Kings defeated Dallas 4-1 in the second round, Mavericks head coach Don Nelson got a letter in his mailbox a couple of days later. The letter congratulated him and his team on a great season and for playing so hard in the playoffs. It was signed by each of the Maloof brothers, the owners of the Sacramento Kings.
"I was very moved by that," said Nelson. "In all my years in this league, I never gotten a gesture anything like that." When Nelson gets a moments peace, he will sit down and write a similar letter to the Maloofs and Kings head coach Rick Adelman.
It may provide the Kings with a bit of solace but nowhere in the letter will they find the answer to the one question that will haunt them for many months.
Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.