June 2004 - Posts

The drama has yet to subside, with a new flurry of articles around the Web on the Lakers and their future.  This much we know for sure: Phil is out of the picture.  What will happen to Shaq, though, remains to be seen.  Clearly, he wants to be traded, but will that happen?  And if so, to whom?

David Aldridge chimes in, saying a trade to the Nets or Grizzlies makes the most sense.  In David's article he tosses around a number of speculative scenarios: Shaq to the Celtics, Shaq to the Pistons, Shaq to the Mavs, and so on.  Out of all of the conceivable possibilities, the only ones that didn't make my skin crawl at the thought of such a trade were the ones involving Indiana and Sacramento, because both of those scenarios involved big men with some skill and years coming down to L.A.  The other possibilities - Shaq to the Celtics for Pierce and chump change, Shaq to Cleveland for Ilgaulkus and less than chump change, or Shaq to Dallas for Nash, Forston, Daniels, and Howard - are all disasters waiting to happen.  The Lakers need a frontcourt.  I don't care how good Kobe Bryant is, the Lakers will be hard pressed to do anything more than what the Mavs have been able to do over the past several seasons if they do not get a dominant interior.  What's interesting, though, is David's end analysis:

Now, do I believe in any of these scenarios? If you pushed me, I guess the Nets and Memphis make the most sense. If you have a dollar, though, you might still bet it on Shaq's temper to ultimately subside, and a new coach being able to assure the Big Man he still has a seat at the table. Money is still important and O'Neal has been adamant that he won't take a pay cut when his deal is up in two years.

An article by Michael Ventre follows a similar theme to Aldridge's: it runs through potential trade situations and the concludes: “There are as many possibilities as there are franchises in the NBA, not the least of which being that Shaq will calm down and decide he’s better off in Los Angeles playing with Kobe...“

The challenge with trading Shaq is his monstrous salary, both this coming year and the one after.  He's going to be grossing close to $30 million in this upcoming season, and over $30 the following.  These are Michael Jordan-like numbers.  For a team to absorb this type of salary increase, they'd have to either:

  1. Be an insane businessman, and not mind taking it in the pants in luxury taxes at season's end (and not even Cuban's that crazy or rich), or
  2. Demolish their team for #34

The more I think about it and read about the possible trade outcomes, the more I think Shaq will end up staying in L.A.  If Shaq stays, what will Kobe do?  If Shaq stays, and is pissed, will he play hard, trying to show Buss that he is indeed, the M.D.E., or will he play soft in order to “get Buss back.”  Regardless of where Shaq ends up, next year's going to be quite interesting...

Posted by Scott
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I've always been amazed at the drama that surrounds the Lakers on and off the court during the regular season, but who knew it could get as dicey as it has lately?  First, Phil officially resigned from his head coaching position.  Then Shaq demanded a trade, and skipped out on his exit interview with general manager Mitch Kupchak.  And now Shaq gave a bit of a scintilating interview with ESPN the Magazine (some choice quotes further down).  What's next?  Well, it's time for Kobe to chime in, methinks.  He'll no doubt have some words to share as well.

Out of all of this mess one thing is clear - owner Jerry Buss has made up his mind: the team will be restructed around Kobe, and reportedly will offer part of team ownership and a max contract in order to keep Kobe in L.A.  They got rid of (or will get rid of) those who Kobe's ego won't let him get along with: Phil and Shaq.  In one swoop of the pen, Jerry Buss is ready to give Kobe what he's always wanted - a team where Kobe was the unquestionable superstar, the go-to guy.  In certain ways, it makes sense to build around Kobe; in another, equally rational sense, it's complete insanity.

Building around Kobe makes sense because he is young enough to give another good ten years.  Building around Kobe makes sense because he is one of the most popular players in the NBA.  People come to the Staples Center to watch Kobe, not Shaq.  Imagine your average NBA fan, who watches games now and then, enjoys the highlights on Sportscenter.  What do you think he wants to see?  Would he rather see Kobe dunk, snake past defenders, and hit next to impossible shots with the clock fastly approaching all zeros, or would he prefer watching Shaq get low position and make a simple hook, or non-glamourous dunk?  I think the answer is obvious.  (I prefer watching Shaq, myself.)

Part of me can understand why Buss is opting to build around Kobe rather than keep Phil and Shaq.  But a larger part of me thinks that this approach is ludicrous.  For all we know the only basketball Kobe might be playing next year is prison yard ball.  Plus Kobe strikes me as a very ego-centric individual, a type A personality to the extreme.  These are the guys at the workplace who insist on doing everything themselves, because they want it done right.  These are the guys you work with that don't get invited to happy hour, and wouldn't go even if you did ask.  And basketball, as the Detroit Pistons unmercifully illustrated this year, is about the team, not the individual.  How can a guy with such a pigheaded personality hope to lead a team to anything but an early playoff exit?  (In the same breathe, though, it makes business sense: as the leader he'll dunk more, impress more, wow the fans more.  He'll sell more tickets and more jerseys, assuming his multi-million dollar defense team can keep him a free man.)

Now, to that interview Shaq gave.  Shaq makes a few good points.  First, he argues that Buss and Kupchak aren't showing him the respect that he deserves by basically saying one thing and doing another.

If you don't want me here, just let me know. I'll do my time, and we can make up a story together, and it can be easy. But don't say, 'Hey, if you do this [recruit Malone], and you do this [recruit Payton], I'll get you whatever you need, baby.' And then when I do that and it comes time, and here you are messing around and jiggling around.
I'm not a dummy. I understand they want to go younger -- [Kobe's] only 25, 26. I'm not tripping over that. But let me know, just let me know. I don't have a problem, just let me know. Give me that respect and give me that courtesy. Let me know.

Another point noted in the interview was how Shaq acted more magnanimously than Kobe did this season.  Kobe ripped Shaq in the preseason, calling him fat.  He complained that Shaq wasn't carrying his weight and feigned injuries to get out of games.  But did we hear any retorts from Shaq this year, like we had in year's past?  I don't remember any.  And Shaq had ripe opportunities.  Remember when Kobe cut his finger “moving” and missed a few games?  Or how his rape trial forced him to show up late to practices and games?

[The rift] didn't flare up again, because I promised Karl and Gary and all my other teammates.  He's already going through a delicate situation [in Eagle, Colo.] and I don't want to add to it. So I said, 'Just be the bigger man.'

Shaq also disses Kobe's “me first” style of play, something his stepfather did (perhaps on his behalf) on national TV back in the WCF semifinals against the Spurs.  Shaq also enjoys having Phil as his coach, for a number of reasons.  For one, Phil was the first (and only) coach that Shaq has won a title with.  He was with the Lakers for a couple of years, unable to get over the hump, until Phil came into town.  Second, Phil's triangle offense makes Shaq the center of action, and who wouldn't like that?

So what will happen to Shaq?  Where will he go?  Some think he might be headed to Orlando, but Magic GM John Weisbrod has stated that accomplishing such a trade would be next to impossible.  To quote Weisbrod: “when you look at the financial piece of that, it's almost an impossibility.”  Shaq is on the books for $27.7 million next year and $30.6 million the year after that.  What teams can afford that?  I'm not sure what the assorted cap spaces look like, but I know one team seems to always have enough money and the gumption to try anything: the Dallas Mavericks.  It would be interesting to see both Shaq and Phil head on over to Dallas.  Personally I don't think this is too far of a stretch, as Don Nelson will likely be replaced this offseason, and I'm sure Mark Cuban would like to finally get a decent center on his team.  To get Shaq, though, what would the Mavs have to give up?  Too much, perhaps.

This is going to be one interesting and drama-filled offseason.  Maybe I'll be posting more frequently than I had earlier anticipated!

Posted by Scott
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According to this ESPN.com story, the speculation regarding Phil Jackson's future with the Lakers has ended - he's stepping down, ending his five year run as head coach of the Lakers.  Jackson, however, might be offered another position in the Lakers organization.  Personally, I see him taking a year or two off, and then return to coaching, but only PJ and his agent know for sure, I guess.  Or maybe Charlie Rosen, who predicted this back in May in This is Jackson's Los Angeles Swan Song, when he said: “This much is an iron-clad certainty: No matter what happens during the rest of these playoffs, Phil Jackson will not return to coach the Lakers next season. All that's up for grabs is his next destination.“  I guess we'll see this offseason if Charlie's complete prediction is correct:

Yet my own fanciful brain fevers insist that should the Lakers lose, P.J. and his monstrous sidekick will resurface in Dallas. Why not? Don Nelson has been walking on eggshells for a while. Mark Cuban has the bucks and the gumption to make dramatic moves — and Cuban also has a burning desire to win a championship. How about trading Antoine Walker, Michael Finley and Antawn Jamison for the Big Winner?

The next question is who is going to step in and fill Phil's void?  Reportedly the Lakers are talking to Rudy Tomjanovich and George Karl, among others.  I really hope the Lakers don't hire Karl, I've never thought he was that good of a manager of player egos and conflicts (Phil's forte).  This is a skill that would be crucial if both Bryant and Shaq stayed put (which is looking more unlikely as each day passes).

Unless Jackson takes another coaching job offer during the offseason, he will retire with 14 years experience of head coaching with the best winning percentage for a head coach - 72.5% with 832 wins and 316 loses - in any of the major U.S. sports.

Posted by Scott
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Well, Detroit won Game 5 tonight, as I predicted, by a double-digit margin.  The final score was 100-87, although the game wasn't close at all from about midway through the 3rd, when the Pistons opened up a 20+ point lead.  As with the previous four games, the Pistons outplayed the Lakers, and deserved to win the game, and the series.  Eric Neel has a good piece on why the Pistons were underrated - they were going against 6-1 odds in Vegas.

This series looked like the series in the past six years, but the Lakers played the roll of the Leastern Conference team this time.  While the Lakers did manage to miraculously win Game 2, the series was never in doubt, really.  I was hoping the Lakers phenomenal closing of Game 2 would lead to a win in Game 3, but, as you know, the Pistons dominated the Lakers in Game 3, setting the done for the remaining two games.

With the end of the NBA season, this blog of mine will likely be a bit less active.  Of course, expect me to chime in as the Lakers offseason moves unfold - it will be interesting to see what team (or semblence of a team) comes out of this year's offseason.  Also this summer will spell out the fate for Kobe Bryant - will he have more years as a dazzling NBA player, or will he be relegated to life behind bars?

Finally, a big congratulations to the Pistons - they played excellent basketball this postseason, thanks in large part to the intelligent pickup of Rasheed Wallace.  If they can keep their core players together and on the same page, they should be a force next year as well.

Can't wait until November!  Should be an interesting off-season...

Posted by Scott

Game 5 - perhaps the final game in this year's NBA season - is set to kickoff in about an hour in Detroit.  If the Pistons win, it's all she wrote for the 2003/2004 Lakers, a team whose season was beset by drama, court cases, injuries, and, inbetween all those messes, some very spectacular basketball.  I'd like to see the Lakers win tonight and make a series out of these Finals, but given Detroit's dominance throughout, the only one day off from the last game, and the Lakers' lackluster play this series, I expect Detroit to win this game by double-digits.

Ric Bucher has an article on ESPN.com titled Lakers' Wrongs Making Things Right, his thesis being that the Lakers shouldn't win this year, not with their intrasquad bickering, Kobe's rape case, and the dispondent play as a whole.  He contends basketball championships should be won by teams playing cohesively, not by a bunch of infighting superstars.  I tend to agree.  Ric also gives credit to the Lakers for accomplishing what they have this season despite their maladies:

Put aside all that tired talk of four Hall of Famers and the sheen that comes from winning three of the previous four championships and look at who the Lakers really were this season:  Kobe Bryant, the team's best player, had knee surgery that eliminated his usual offseason regimen and had a recurring problem with a sprained shooting shoulder that forced him to miss a career-high 17 games, all while facing the prospect of a lifetime prison term for rape; Shaquille O'Neal, the team's most dominant force, saw his free-throw shooting plummet below 50 percent and his speed and hops deteriorate from a combination of age, injury and weight to the point that more than a few teams, including the Pistons, no longer considered it necessary to double-team him ...; Malone, the league's second-leading all-time scorer, sustained the first major injury of his 19-year career, missing 40 games to a torn right knee ligament, his right leg being the one he took off on in his unorthodox style...; Gary Payton, a ball-handling and scoring point guard, arrived thinking he could coerce Phil Jackson to junk the triangle offense in favor of an uptempo attack through him. He actually had some success at first, but the loss of Malone short-circuited the fastbreak, which left Payton as a stand-still 3-point jump shooter, even less of a strength for him than defense for Malone.

And yet this team reached the NBA Finals, going through the Yao Ming-led Rockets, defending-champion Spurs and the No. 1-seeded Timberwolves.

Well, it's do or die time.  Come on Lakers, let's get this series back to L.A.!

Posted by Scott

After getting blown out by 20 in Game 3 the Lakers needed to win Game 4 to knot the series at two games apiece.  Shaq, with two days of rest, came ready to play, and had a breakout game, scoring 36 points on 76% shooting.  He also netted 20 boards and had a pair of nice assists.  Sadly, Shaq did not get much help from his team mates, and Shaq's 36 points comprised 45% of the Lakers 80.  Kobe, with 20 points on 32% shooting (ouch!), was the only other Laker in double digits.

Despite the imbalance of scoring, the Lakers were right in it to start off the 4th quarter.  However, the Pistons outplayed them and made some big shots, finishing the game with a victory, 88-80.  With this win, Detroit moves one game away from being crowned the 2003/2004 NBA champions.  Game 5 - the final game in Detroit this series - is on Tuesday, giving the aging Lakers only one day of rest.

Malone, who reinjured his knee in the 3rd quarter of Game 2 has been hobbled ever since.  He still has been starting for some reason, but has been both a defensive and offensive liability.  His movement is quite limited, and he's been getting abused by 'Sheed in the post.  Payton continues to be ineffective as well, basically serving as a stationary object the Piston guards regularly blow right by.

Should Malone with his injury, and Payton with his ineffective play, be starting?  According to this AP story:

Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Devean George, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher -- all members of the Lakers' championship teams from 2000-2002 -- met with Jackson on Saturday to suggest the coach start them as a unit because of their experience with the team. 

Jackson refused to announce his lineup at that time, saying: "You'll see at game time."

O'Neal, Bryant, George, Malone and Gary Payton got the call, as usual.

It'll be interesting to see if Phil changes his starting five for Game 5.  Part of me thinks he might, since the Lakers have been seriously outplayed in the first four games, but doing so would be emotionally difficult, as the media would likely bill it as a knock on Phil's leadership/skill/decision-making prowress, especially if the Lakers with a modified starting lineup play exceedingly better than the current starters.

All we need is the next three games... Go Lakers!

Posted by Scott

A little Laker luck came through last night, with the Lakers winning a game they didn't deserve.  The end score - the Lakers beat the Pistons, 99-91, in an overtime game with a very exciting end to regulation.  Before going into this game, though, let's take a step back to Game 1 of the Finals......

In Game 1, the Lakers played abysmal and lost by double-digits, 87-75.  Shaq had a huge game, shooting 81%, making 13 shots, and hitting 67% of his free throws, ratcheting up 34 points and 11 boards.  His dominance was possible because Larry Brown decided to only double him on rare occassions, so Shaq had a number of little chippy jump shots from three to six feet out.  He had time to dribble, bump, get his space, and extend over his defender, without having to worry about a help defender sagging.

What was frustrating was that Shaq didn't score 60.  Seriously, he should have been given the ball every possession.  He was virtually their only offensive output in the first half.  Kobe played all right, scoring 25, although his shooting was a bit off.  What stymied the Lakers was Detroit's defense, along with the Lakers forgetting that they, too, need to play D.  When brining the ball down, the Lakers had to get setup a good five feet out from the top of the arc.  Many of their plays didn't really get “going” until there was 15 or less seconds on the shotclock.  On the other end of the court, the Lakers played lax D, giving Billups 22 points on 8-14 shooting.  Kobe did a great job defending Rip Hamilton, but the other players didn't carry their weight.  Other than Shaq and Kobe, the next highest scorer was Devon George, with 5 points.

With the Lakers down one game in the series, Game 2 was a must win.  (Factoid: no team has gone down two games in the Finals and come back to win.  Having to win 4-5 is too tough at that level, and a virtual uncertainty barring an injury to a key player on the opposing team.)  The Lakers came out with more energy in Game 2, playing tighter D and putting pressure on the ball as the Pistons brought it up the court.  The Lakers needed some role players to step up this game, after Shaq and Kobe carried the load on their own in Game 1 - would it be Malone?  Payton?  Nope, they both had disappointing games.  Karl, in fact, got injured in the 3rd quarter, and was limited to 9 points and some lax D, although he did have a couple of amazing assists in the second half.

The role player of this game was rookie Luke Walton, in his first Finals game appearance ever.  Luke had 7 points, 2 being an impressive coast-to-coast run down the floor.  (Watching that I kept dreading he's get that ball stolen from him or, worse, would travel.)  Luke's biggest contribution, though, was his energy and his passing - he had 8 assists and 5 boards - all of this in 27 minutes of play in 53 minute game (due to the OT).

Despite Luke's injection of energy, the Lakers were down by as many as 9 late in the 4th quarter, after having held an 11 point lead in the 3rd.  The Lakers motto this playoff seems to be, “What?  You mean there's a 4th quarter?”  I don't know if they just mail it in the last quarter, or just give it their all a quarter too early in the 3rd, but they've consistently been able to take a commanding lead in the 3rd, only to let it evaporate in the final and most important quarter. 

The Lakers were down by 6 with about 40 seconds left or so, with the ball.  Kobe jacked up a 3 and missed, but Shaq got the rebound and slammed it home, getting fouled by Hamilton.  Shaq hit the free throw, putting the Lakers within 3.  The Pistons game downcourt, but were unable to get a basket.  With 10 seconds left, the Lakers got possession and called their final timeout.  The inbounds came to Shaq (who the Pistons didn't foul).  Shaq handed it off to Walton, who then gave it over to Kobe.  Kobe dribbled, dribbled, and then shot it - the 3.  Slowly it sailed up and then... swish!  TIED GAME!  With 2 seconds left the Pistons had a chance to win it, but didn't get a shot off.

Kobe's shot - the first three he had made all game, having missed four earlier attempts - seemed to suck the wind out of the Pistons.  In overtime, Kobe had a beautiful assist to O'Neal, and then had a couple impressive drives that resulted in difficult shots that fell.  The Lakers jumped up to a six point lead, and the Pistons faltered.  In OT the Pistons looked like a deer caught in headlights.  There was no movement on offense as had been demonstrated in the previous four quarters.  Long story short, the Lakers outscored the Pistons 10-2 in the OT period, knotting the series at one apiece.

Game 3 is in Detroit tomorrow, which will also be the host for Games 4 and 5.

Bill Simmons offerred the following insight:

Of course, since I was trapped across the Atlantic, I wasn't able to write my annual NBA Finals preview. Maybe you missed it, but here's something I wrote right after the Game 1 upset:

"This series reminds me of the 1990 World Series between Cincinnati and Oakland. Everyone counted out the Reds before the series, everyone thought the A's were invincible ... and then the Series started and within 20 minutes, you were thinking to yourself, 'Hey, this might be a good series!' and suddenly the Invincible Juggernaut didn't look so invincible anymore. I love when that happens in sports."

Now you're thinking, "Wait a second, I don't remember reading that." Well, I wrote it three years ago for my old Web site, right after Philly stole Game 1 of the 2001 Finals in L.A. Remember that game? They show that game on Classic sometimes -- Iverson launched 41 shots and scored something like 48, including seven straight in OT. And everyone was like, "Hmmmmmmm." The feedback following the Game 1s in 2001 and 2004 is virtually identical:

"Maybe they aren't better, but they match up extremely well against this Lakers team. They have a bunch of bodies to throw at Shaq. And nobody will have them more prepared than Larry Brown."

"They figured out how to beat this Lakers team -- don't double-team Shaq, let him get his points and try to shut down everyone else."

"They're going to keep running (fill in: Iverson or Hamilton) off picks and trying to wear Kobe down. On the other end, Kobe's still going to get his points, but (fill in: Snow/McKie or Prince) will at least make him work for it."

"Some of these Lakers are wearing down -- you can push the ball off Laker misses and beat (fill in: Shaw/Harper/Grant or Payton/Malone) down the court."

"This Lakers team just isn't as hungry. Kobe and Shaq don't even seem like they like playing with each other anymore."

He has more great comments at his article, go read it all.  Personally, I think the Lakers are in for a greater challenge than they, or many others, had expected.  My grandfather thought the Lakers would have this series in 4.  I'm still holding to my initial analysis - Lakers in 6 - but after seeing the Lakers effort the last two games, I wouldn't be surprised to see Lakers in 7, or, dred, perhaps Pistons in as many.  In any event, it's great to see that we have a series, even if it is frustrating that the Lakers aren't playing up to their potential.  Barring a Detroit meltdown, this will be the first real series we've had since '98, when Malone's Jazz lost for the second time in a row to Jordan's unstoppable Bulls.

One down, three to go... Go Lakers!

Posted by Scott

Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off in a little over three hours from now, about 125 miles north of here, at the Staples Center in downtown LA.  Tonight's game will set the tone for the series, I imagine, so I'm hoping the Lakers come out strong and in charge.  I want to see Shaq dominate, Kobe amaze, and Malone frustrate.  I'm hoping to see Rush's and Fisher's shots fall.  It would be nice to get some productive offense out of Payton and George, but I'd be happier with limited offense but stellar defense.

I think if the Pistons plan on winning this series, they'll need to come out and win Game 1 or Game 2.  I don't see the Pistons able to beat the Lakers 4 games out of 5.  The Lakers losing this one, though, is not the end of the world.  In 2002, when the Lakers were their most dominant, sweeping the first three rounds of the playoffs, they went in and lost Game 1 of the Finals to the 76ers, and then promptly came back to win the next four.  But what the Lakers must do is bring their A-game, their A-attitude, and their A-desire, sending a message to the Pistons that there isn't going to be any sleepwalking in this series.

Hoping tonight's a great and exciting game!  Go Lakers!

Posted by Scott

With the Pacers losing Game 6 tonight, 69-65, the 2004 NBA Finals will be the Lakers vs. the Pistons.  I watched most of Game 6 tonight, and it was a pretty exciting game after the first quarter.  Of course, as the score reflects, it was not a shootout, but rather a battle of defense.  There were some very impressive blocks and steals this game, including several big time swats from O'Neal, and a couple from Prince.

What really hurt the Pacers in this game was Ron Artest's play in the final few minutes.  With the game tied, Artest got bumped by Rip Hamilton, which he took as a cheap shot, I guess.  Ron responded in the only way he knew how - by giving a blow to Rip right across the chops, resulting in a prompt flagrant foul call.  Rip hit both shots, giving the Pistons a two point lead.  Then, a few possessions later, the Pacers were down by 4 with 18 seconds left.  All they needed was a quick 2 or 3, and then to foul.  Unfortunately, the Pacers had no timeouts, so they couldn't collect their thoughts before proceeding, but what was frustrating was to see Artest bring the ball down the court and then, without passing or trying any other option, launches up a three pointer a good 8 feet behind the three-point line.  He missed, of course, and the Pistons got the rebound, sealing the game.

I'm not saying Artest is the sole reason the Pacers lost, but he definitely decreased their chances of winning with his low basketball IQ late in the game.

So it's going to be Lakers versus the Pistons, with Game 1 of the Finals on this coming Sunday.  The Lakers will have home court advantage, meaning the first two games will be played in L.A., with the next three in Detroit.  My prediction: the series will go 6, with the Lakers winning the NBA title.  The X-factor will be injuries: the Lakers have a very shallow bench.  How many minutes have Russell, Walton, or Fox played in these playoffs?  It's pretty much just Shaq, Kobe, Malone, Payton, George, Fisher, Slavo, and Kareem Rush (who had one hell of a Game 6, by the way).  The Pistons, on the other hand, have a much deeper rotation, and can weather an injured player better than the Lakers.  The Lakers, I think, are the favorites because of Shaq and Kobe.  Those two guys have really been the core reason the Lakers won their first three championships to kick off the 21st century.

Game 1 on Sunday!  Go Lakers!

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