The Shaq- Kobe era was a great time for Laker fans. The Lakers were to win three titles in that time period and none of them came easy. Inspite of Shaq’s dominance in the paint and Kobe’s all-round game, they were hard put to beat back the challenges of the San Antonio Spurs of Tim Duncan, the Sacramento Kings and the Portland Trailblazers.There were some close escapes such as the time they were behind by double digits in the second half of a deciding game against Portland and came roaring back to pip the Trailblazers at the post. Or the times Robert Horry bailed them out with his clutch three pointers. Or the time Derek Fisher swished in a three pointer with no time left on the clock,after having taken the inbounds pass with 0.6 seconds left on the clock.
Since then, I’ve had to revise my opinion about Shaq. I never was a big fan of his, even when he was with the Lakers, because I thought he was a bully who used his weight and height to advantage but had no real basketball skills. He had no outside shot, no ‘sky-hook ‘like Kareem, was a poor free throw shooter and a lousy passer. He didn’t take care of his body and he was always moaning about not getting paid enough and he carried on a love -hate relationship with Kobe. I was happy when Jerry Buss finally tired of his demands and traded him to Miami. With what has happened since then ,with him wearing out his welcome in Miami and in Phoenix, it has proved to be the right decision even though he did win a title with the Heat and Kobe is only now about to win a title in the post Shaq era. It’s ironic that Shaq now wants to come back to the Lakers after his criticism of the organization and his mean-spirited taunting of Kobe. At one time his antics may have been amusing but his recent behavior , particulary his derogatory comments about Dwight Howard , have exposed him for what he is- a once great player whose fast-fading skills have accentuated his fundamental paranoia and meanness.
The post Shaq Lakers have brought their share of heartache to Laker fans. After a period in which nothing seemed to work out , not the trades, not the draft, everything seemed to fall in place with the blockbuster trade for Paul Gasol. How Mitch Kupchak stole him from the Grizzlies I will never figure out but that trade, the blossoming of Lamar Odom and the development of Andrew Bynum should keep the Lakers in title contention for the next three or four years.
Last years loss to the Celtics was a terrible disappointment to me and the Laker Nation. I still get a little upset when I think of the stunt that Paul Pierce pulled. Supposedly injured, severely enough that he had to be carted off the court in a wheelchair, he returned with no ill effects scant minutes later and played as well as ever. I’ve never heard any explanation of this incident but have no doubt it was orchestrated by Danny Ainge , the Celtic GM and Red Auerbach’s successor ( in more ways than one). It definitely was a factor in that one game though I’m not saying that was the reason the Lakers lost the series. I’d had my doubts about the Laker bench and the finals exposed their shortcomings. Sasha and Jordan Farmar played spottily, Odom disappeared for long stretches and Pau Gasol, who was playing out of position at center, was no match for the physical Kendrick Perkins.The game in LA that the Lakers lost after being ahead by 20+ points was the final nail in the coffin; after that there was no way they were going to pull offf a series win. The final game in which they got creamed by almost 40 points was a Laker nightmare ; somewhere , no doubt, Red Auerbach must have fired up his cigar.
This whole season has been a roller coaster ride; the early dominance, then the eerrie deja -vu of Andrew Bynum’s injury, the near sweep of an uncharacteristically soft Jazz team, the incomprehensible losses to a Houston Rockets team playing without Yao-Ming and Tracy McGrady, the hardfought victories over the re-built Nuggets all have kept Laker fans hopeful but uneasy. Now, finally, the Lakers seem to hit their stride against the unpredictable , streaky Magic. Gasol is playing much tougher than last year, Ariza is playing great defense, Odom is proving a headache to match up against and Kobe is living up to his billing as the best player on the planet. I am not counting out the Magic yet but the odds are against them. As long as the Lakers can maintain their intensity, they should be able to raise a 15th championship banner to the rafters at Staples Center. If it happens, when it happens, it can’t come soon enough for me. It’s not just that the Lakers will have won , but that Phil Jackson will have passed Red Auerbach with 10 championship rings and Kobe will have won a ring without Shaq. Hopefully, it will be the first of several more so that I won’t have to hear the specious argument that Kobe should not be compared to Michael Jordan because the latter has more NBA titles to his credit.I don’t think the number of titles is a criteria of greatness ; basketball is a team game and many great players have one or even no titles because they played on weak teams and lacked a supporting cast.
What of the future ? I am not one of those who thinks that this will be the start of a Laker dynasty. Yes, the Lakers are a good team and appear to be loaded but, in these days of salary caps and free agency, it is foolish to think beyond the current season. Many , many things could go wrong and a season ending injury can derail title hopes in the twinkling of an eye.See Kevin Garnett and the Celtics this year. Even otherwise, there are the impending free agencies of Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza ( realistically, the Lakers will be able to re-sign only one of them ), Kobe Bryant’s opt out clause, Derek Fisher’s age and the Celtics return to health next year.Additionally , there will be stiff challenges from the Denver Nuggets, the Houston Rockets and the fast improving Portland Trailblazers in the West. San Antonio and New Orleans appear to have taken a step back this year but next year could be a different story. And that’s only the West. In the Eastern conference, Orlando are on the upswing and will only get better as Dwight Howard develops his offensive talents and I know that Danny Ferry , the Cavaliers GM, will be busting the bank to get LeBron James the support he needs to win a title. Perhaps a trade with Phoenix for Shaq? I haven’t even mentioned Boston Celtics and Kevin Garnett’s guarantee that he will return from injury and lead the Celtics to championships in 2010 and 2011! Garnett is a great player but that is not going to happen.I used to like Garnett when he was with Minnesota but playing for the Celtics seems to have brought out the worst in him. I’m tired of his incessant ranting and posturing.The Celtics may be contenders, strong contenders but so will a number of other teams including the Lakers.
Who is my favorite Laker of all time ? A difficult question to answer since there are so many that I have liked over the years. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Sharman, Wilt Chamberlain, Happy Hairston, Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,James Worthy, A.C.Green, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant…. The list is long and it is a difficult choice. Probably, I would have to say Magic Johnson with Jerry West and Kobe Bryant running him close. Notice that I’m merely saying that he’s my favorite player, not necessarily the best. It is impossible to compare players , espescially those of different eras. Jerry West was a fierce competitor,a deadly scorer who was fearless driving the lane and had a great outside shot ; he also was a great passer and played terrific defense. Kobe Bryant… well we are seeing him in action and I don’t need to detail his greatness. However Magic was Magic.A passer par excellence, who developed his outside game later in his career, he was a gritty player whose defensive capabilities were underrated. He also turned in the greatest single game performance I have ever seen when he stepped in for the injured Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 finals. But what set him apart from the others and indeed from any other player was his sheer enjoyment of the game, an enjoyment that infected all who watched him play.
Among a group of fans of fans celebrating outside Staples Center I noticed one with a T-shirt proclaiming THERE IS ONLY ONE MAGIC.
Truer words were never said.