In my earlier blog entry that announced Kobe's decision to sign a long-term deal with the Lakers I wrote:
Today Kobe Bryant announced that he was resigning with the Lakers for a seven year deal worth over $136 million - that averages to nearly $20 per year. Bryant supposedly was listening to offers from Chicago, Denver, New York, and the Clippers, but decided to stay with the Lakers, and why not? I mean, this whole team was restructured with one thing in mind: placate Kobe. Not only have Buss and Kupcheck shipped off Shaq and given Kobe a coach who will give him the ball, but they've also payed him more than any other team could afford. Top it off with Bryant's popularity in La La land, and it doesn't make sense for him to go anywhere else.
Back before the season started a person by the name of “laker lover” posted the following comment in response to my blog entry:
i believe that it is a very good thing for kobe to be signing with the lakers now he can prove his is the best player in the leauge and most likely the BEST PLAYER OF ALL TIME move over MIKE! kobe is better. kobe will lead his team to the promise land like mike did but michael jordan was way overrated he had a supporting cast and that made him shine more than he deserved kobe had to play with shaq the biggest baby in the leauge but now kobe will once show everyone why the lakers gave him the money they did he is by far the GREATEST PLAYER to ever play the game of basketball.
A little overexuberant, especially in comparing kid Kobe to MJ, but what can you expect from someone who can't afford a keyboard with working Shift and Caps Lock keys? What prompted my to re-read this old entry of mine was a comment posted today by a fellow going by the name BD, who asks laker lover the following question:
Do you still feel the same now? Your predictions were way off. In fact, you may have just witnessed the beginning of a long decline of the Laker legacy of always being a competitive team.
I've caught the tail end of the last few Lakers games on the radio (AM 570) and the postgame radio call-in show has been slowly transmogrifying from a Kobe love fest to a “Why did we trade Shaq?” hate-a-thon. It's not too surprising, I guess. The Lakers are, after all, in a major slump and quickly careening out out of playoff contention, while the Shaq-led Heat are sitting atop the standings with the NBA's best record (52-17 at the time of this entry, facing the second best team - the Suns - tonight). Kobe's once impeccable popularity in LA has disappeared quicker than I thought possible. No one likes watching a brooding star on a hapless team, regardless of how many highlight reels that star can fill.
So what are the Lakers to do, short of inventing a time machine, turning back time, and undoing the Shaq trade? Trade Kobe? Not in a million years, that would be like Philly trading AI or the Raptors trading VC. (OK, bad example, but it tooks years of Carter bitching, sitting out hurt, and acting like a cancer on his team before he did get traded.) These are marquee players that bring in revenue. And dollars trump wins, egos, and drama in this league - just ask Donald Sterling, the Clippers owner, who makes a handsome profit each year with his chronically-losing mishap of a team.
Personally I think the Lakers are going to be in a world of lower playoff seed spots for the rest of this decade, regardless of who they bring in because Kobe is not a team player. Name one team with players who didn't play team ball and won the championship? Winning teams may have a star player (or two), but they all have solid roll players who step up and play their part. The unsung heros. The Paxsons, the Kenny Smiths, the Horance Grants, the Ron Harpers, the Robert Horrys, the Sean Elliots, the Steve Kerrs, the Bill Lambiers, the Byron Scotts. But roll players are do a team no good if the star does not trust them and put them in a position to deliver.
Here's the litmus test - imagine that it's Game 7 in the NBA Finals, Lakers down by 1 with less than five seconds left in the game. Lakers are inbounding. You know it's going to Kobe; I know it's going to Kobe; the whole stadium knows it's going to Kobe. Not surprisingly, Kobe gets the ball, dribbles, and is quickly double-teamed, time winding down. Here's the million dollar question: does Kobe pass to the open man for the last shot or does he go up against two defenders? Sadly, I think Kobe would place fate in his own hands and take the challenging, double-teamed shot attempt. And that decision of Kobe's is why the Lakers are destined to a subpar run through the rest of Kobe's prime playing days. ... UNLESS a coach, or his wife, or someone can talk some sense into him and help him realize that winning in basketball is not a solitary effort. This isn't one-on-one street ball. But if Phil Jackson couldn't impart this wisdom onto Kobe, what coach possibly could?
I think the real problem stems from Kobe getting too much too early. How many basketball players have won three championships? How many have done that by the time they were 24? Just one - Kobe Bryant. Kobe won too early in his career, taking the rings for granted. As he aged and his skills improved, he started demanding the ball more, taking a more individualistic approach toward the game. PJ, Shaq, and Kobe were with the Lakers from 2000 through 2004, the Lakers winning it all the first three years, but falling short the last two. And why was that? Because of Shaq being out of shape? Roll players (e.g., Horry losing his touch, Fox's injuries, etc.) falling short? Sure, those had an effect, but the major culprit was Kobe's play.
In the first championship run, Kobe was a youngster, letting Shaq lead the team and playing good team ball. Afterwards, he wanted more responsibility, more ball time, more leadership. His requests were quelled for another year, and in that second championship, with Kobe playing second fiddle and both Shaq and Kobe's skills and talent culminating, the Lakers were their most dominant since PJ/Shaq/Kobe's pairing. It would be all downhill from that second championship, as Kobe, coming into his own physically and talent-wise, wanted to be the man. Wanted that last second shot instead of Big Shot Rob. Wanted to be the main offensive option. Didn't want no coach to be telling him how to play. The results were predictable - barely escaping from the WCF the following year against a better Sacramento Kings team. Losing to the Spurs in 2003, and getting whipped by the paragon of team, the Detroit Pistons, in 2004. Too freaking predictable.
And now Shaq is gone; Phil is gone; no one remains but Kobe, and his attitude and behavior hasn't changed on iota. The Lakers are headed for an early summer vacation this year and likely in the next several years to come. Things won't change until Kobe does, and he's not getting any younger.
Mavericks head coach Don Nelson resigned today, handing over the reigns to assistant coach and sometimes head coach Avery Johnson.
"The team," Nelson conceded at his farewell news conference, "is responding better to Avery at this point."
Doesn't surprise me. Nelson has had some health and personal issues over the season, handing over coaching responsibilities to Johnson a few times, priming him as his replacement. I've never followed the Mavs too closely, but my unresearched, uneducated opinion is that Nellie and his staff are not among the elite coaches in the league. The way I see it is that a team can get to the playoffs on a mix of player talent and luck, but it once in the playoffs talent and luck become less important than experience, leadership, and coaching. There's a reason 7 game series are oftentimes won by the team with greater playoff experience, more mettle, and better coaches, even if they are beaten on a purely talent level.
Look back at the names of coaches who have regularly gotten their teams late into the playoffs and had success:
Talent can only get you so far, but coaching is part of what dictates how one team can be victorious over another. The Mavs have been mainstays in the playoffs most of this century, thanks in large part to Cuban's deep pockets and willingness to roll the dice. But why haven't they jumped the hurdle? You could argue that it was because they were outmatched by superior teams - the dominant Lakers with Shaq and Kobe; the Spurs with Duncan at the height of his career; the Kings, firing on all cylinders - you can also probably blame Cubes as much as you credit him - a team needs a constancy, a core nucleus that cannot be built when bringing in new players each and every year. But part of this, I'd imagine, is due to coaching. What could a Jackson, Popovich, or Riley do in Dallas?
Finally, to play a fun “what-if” with the Mavs, what if they had been able to get Shaq in the offseason for Finley and Jamison, or some combination like that? While the Mavs have a respectable record - 42 and 22 at this point in the season - might they have been the team with the most wins in the season thus far instead of Miami? Granted, the Heat have the advantage of playing in the Eastern Conference, and have one of the most entertaining and emerging stars in Wade, but it's still fun to imagine a front court of Dirk and Shaq.
Come playoff time I think this year will boast the most exciting, competitive playoff games from both conferences since the early 90s. What happened to the Eastern Conference, anyway? In the 90s there were some great teams: the Bulls were solid throughout the 90s, even during Jordan's baseball hiatus. The Pacers were a tough team when Reggie Miller was at his peak in the late 90s. The Knicks were competitive when Ewing was in the top of his game, and even afterwards for several years, with Houston, Spree, Johnson, and other solid players. Even the Magic were a serious threat for those few years when they had Shaq on their roster. (Name a season where a team with Shaq on it wasn't a threat.)
But once Jordan left the East became rather barren, not winning an NBA championship - or even providing an interesting series - until Detroit's success last year. Last year saw the start of the resurgance of the Eastern Conference and this year that conference's growth continues. Of course having Shaq switch conferences helped contribute to this, but so did the emergence of James and Wade, the surprising play of the Baby Bulls, and Detroit's continued successful play.
And of course the West continues to dazzle. The Spurs continue their slow, steady, boring domination of the League, playing as strongly and consistently as they have since their championship in '99. The Suns and Sonics continue to rack up the Ws, as well. The rest of the West, though? Pretty mediocre this year. The Kings moved C-Webb to the 76ers, Houston continues to play like the ho-hum team they are, and will continue to be until Yao Ming becomes the player every one hyped him up to be. The Lakers, sans Shaq, are hovering in the 8 spot, but are in a slump and likely to be supplanted by the improving Nuggets.
What this all boils down to is that we're in store for some of the most exciting and entertaining ECSF, WCSF, ECF, WCF, and Finals series we've had in a looooooooooooooong time. My hope is that the Suns and Sonics will play one another in the WCF. Could there possibly be a more up-tempo series? Do you see any Suns/Spurs game's total points scored coming below 200? Didn't think so. (Of course, my official prediction is that the Spurs will be in the WCF and win it. They have the experience, grit, and coaching staff to get them to the Finals this year. After all, they would have made it last year had it not been for 0.4 seconds....) And in the East, how about Miami vs. Detroit? That would be another great series.
I predict Spurs vs. Pistons in the Finals, but I think we can all agree that a Heat vs. Suns/Sonics would be more exciting, and, hell, it might be more plausible if we had best of 3 series... but I can't see the Spurs or Pistons losing a best of 7, and it's hard to envision the Suns going too far, seeing as their success all season long has hinged on an aging, no-defense-playing Canadian. One minor injury during the offseason to Mr. Nash and the Suns have about as much a chance of making it to the Finals as do the Lakers.