Saturday, June 19, 2010

The 2010 Laker Championship: What It All Means

It wasn't perfect, but hell, it was taken care of. In a game that meant so much to so many people in both Boston and Los Angeles, it was sheer motivation that turned out to be the deciding factor in a drama-filled seven game series. Last night we witnessed probably one of the ugliest Game 7's in NBA history, yet I guarantee nobody turned off their TV, not even when the Celtics were ahead of the Lakers by 13 with 8:15 left to play in the third; we all knew something great was still coming. Regardless of which side you were rooting for, I think we can all agree that this one will be shown on ESPN Classic for years to come, if not for the gritty looks that every player wore (except for Paul Pierce; he had the same "lights are on but nobody's home" look that he always has, except when he's whistled for a foul and can't believe it, or when he's being carted off the court in a wheelchair) in the fourth quarter, then for Pau Gasol's timely offensive rebound after Kobe's 543rd terrible shot, or Ron Artest's "hold-your-breath" three point shot that made it's way through the net to answer Rasheed Wallace's three pointer out of the timeout, or even Sasha Vujacic turning down his body temperature to come off the bench and hit two monumental free throws with the game on the line. Yes, the Celtics had their big moments as well, but none really in the fourth quarter; this was the Lakers' night to close out the victory, and close it they did. When the game ended, I immediately turned, high fived, and hugged my father. On an emotional level, I would have been devastated had the Lakers lost this game, especially because this game needed to be won by the Lakers to further emphasize the fact that they are the greatest franchise in the NBA, both presently and historically. If they had lost, I don't know what I would have done. I can't even fathom the amount of angst that would have come along with a loss, so thank God they won. But now there are things to be thought about, and multiple meanings for different people. So what does this mean for everyone involved on the Laker side? That's what I'm going to try to figure out...

Phil Jackson's Future With the Club

In terms of relevance, I'd say this is the biggest storyline of them all. Apparently Dr. Jerry Buss is offering him a paltry $5 million per year, down considerably from his $12 million salary that is currently due to expire. He said after the game that he has to look at some things medically before he makes a final decision, but then added that there were in fact some other non-medical related issues that he has to check out, and obviously that has to do with his contract. Yes, we ARE in a recession, but the Lakers are the most lucrative franchise in the NBA. They have the money to re-sign him to at least a $10 million per year contract, and Phil knows it. To not re-sign Phil would be throwing the 2011 championship down the drain; Kobe isn't going to listen to anyone else, and look what happened when the Lakers thought they would be fine with Rudy Tomjanovich in 2005. They need Phil more than Phil needs them, and they should be doing everything and anything in their power to keep him. The guy has ELEVEN NBA Championships and has figured out how to control the volatile temperament that exudes Kobe Bryant. He deserves a fair shake.

Derek Fisher's Impending Free Agency

This would be issue #2 that is looming over the Lakers' chances for a 2011 three-peat. Besides Phil, Fisher has been the one constant that has been with Kobe every single time he has stood on that podium at the end of the season. Not only is he the voice of reason on the floor, he is undoubtedly the captain of this Laker team. During the regular season, he was the last person Laker fans wanted to see shooting the ball; every game it seemed like there was at least one or two people crying out via their Facebook updates for Fisher to stop shooting, much like Laker fans have done with Ron Artest this entire postseason. Having said that, during the playoffs he was a different player. He came through in clutch moments (Game 3 vs. Boston, Game 7 vs. Boston, Game 3 vs. Utah) and also helped contain Deron Williams and Ray Allen, the latter of which was the most important, as it helped save Kobe's legs from the rigors of marathon sprinting that Allen routinely puts his defenders through. Fisher may have lost some speed over the years, but he more than makes up for it with his physicality and willingness to be in the moment. He is the Ron Harper of the 2000 Laker team, and he definitely needs to be resigned.

Kobe Bryant's Laker Legacy

This is probably the toughest call of all. Now that Kobe has five rings, where do we put him? Understand that Los Angeles is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill franchise. We do not retire numbers for just anyone. Playoff heroes, fan favorites, and mainstay franchise role players don't get recognized in Los Angeles. To have your number retired in Los Angeles, you need to be a basketball god. You need to be the first or second best player on at least one Laker team that won a championship. Having understood that, I think Kobe is probably the second-greatest Laker of all time, behind the one and only Magic Johnson. I think he needs one more championship to be on par with Magic, two to surpass him. Kobe said it best regarding this topic, "All this means is that now I can have dinner with Magic", and those are my sentiments exactly.
My list of all-time Laker greats:

  1. Magic Johnson

  2. Kobe Bryant

  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  4. Jerry West

  5. Shaquille O'Neal

I have him above Kareem despite Kareem being atop the NBA all-time leaderboard for points scored. Kobe was the clear second-best player on three championship teams, but then was the apparent best player on two more champions and an NBA Finalist, giving him five rings as a Laker, two as the best player on his team, something Kareem cannot say. He's earned NBA Finals MVP twice while Kareem only did it once. For what it's worth, Magic is pretty much responsible for the rejuvenation of Kareem's career, making the choice to put Kobe ahead of him that much easier.

Kobe vs. Shaq

Probably the easiest and the most trivial subplot of all is the feud between Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal that is all but dead, but I decided to bring it up anyways. From my point of view, it looks like Shaq worked hard one offseason and got into shape enough to be a factor on a championship team since being exiled from LA. Since then he has made stops in Phoenix and Cleveland, both of them coming with much hype upon his arrival and ending in disappointment. He was supposed to help Phoenix beat the Spurs in the playoffs, and couldn't. He was supposed to "win a ring for the king" and couldn't. The only thing he really managed to do was make a fool of himself in 2008, freestyling at a nightclub after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. His infamous "Kobe, you can't do without me" lyric was just another piece of fuel added to the fire that drove Kobe Bryant to win two more championships and get ahead of him in titles.
O'Neal was also the main reason the Lakers didn't win five titles in a row; he lacked the work ethic and couldn't handle Kobe wanting to stretch out his wings. I don't blame him as much for the alpha-dog struggle as I do for the conditioning. He was the anchor to that team, both offensively and defensively, and there was no excuse for him being out of shape. Every single offseason, Bryant has welcomed the challenge of getting into exorbitant shape for every single season, and every season it has payed off. He wants to win more badly than probably any other player in the league, and that's exactly what separates him from everyone else. Right now Kobe is head and shoulders above Shaq.

Lakers vs. Celtics

To be honest, I don't think this one is a contest either. I realize we have to take into consideration the history behind every franchise, but give me a break. Since 1980, the Lakers have made 16 Finals appearances (1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010) and won 10 of them ('80, '82, '85, '87, '88, '00, '01, '02, '09, '10) with a 3-2 record against the Celtics during that span. The Celtics have made 7 Finals appearances (1981, '84, '85, 1986, '87, '08, '10), winning 4 of them ('81, '84, '86, '08). So in the past 30 years, that brings the NBA Finals appearances count to 16-7 in favor of the Lakers, NBA titles count to 10-4 in favor of the Lakers, and a 3-2 record in the NBA Finals against the Celtics, just for good measure. As far as I'm concerned, the Lakers own the Celtics in terms of NBA royalty, because at some point we have to start taking into account the longevity and frequency of a franchise's success, and the Lakers have done just that since 1980.

2008 Vanquished?

I'm not buying Doc Rivers' postgame comments about how this team never truly got a chance to defend their 2008 title because Kendrick Perkins wasn't on the floor for Games 6 and 7; Perkins was easily the worst player out there for the Celtics, and they had the chance in Game 3 to set the tone for the next two games and make true on Paul Pierce's arrogant declaration of "We ain't coming back to LA", but they didn't. They lost Game 3 to the Lakers and lost the series. Their best four players were out on the court, and they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. What the Lakers' victory does do is expose the Celtics for the drooling, slobbering, dancing-at-the-free-throw-
line, obnoxiously profane clowns that they are.
Now that that's out of my system, I do believe that players like Gasol and Odom needed that series to happen. Maybe Gasol more than Odom; the Spaniard needed to hear that people thought he was soft. He was too European for an American-style game. Not enough muscle. Not enough pride. All of those things were said about Gasol after that dreadful 2008 series, and he put in the time in the weight room and mentally carried those words with him as motivation on his way to two NBA titles. So are the Lakers vindicated for 2008 because they beat the Celtics this year? I'm torn on this, but I'm going to have to say yes, although they couldn't have won this year without getting out-muscled in 2008.

Ron Artest, How Fortunes Change

This might be the best story out of them all. This is a guy that was part of the worst brawl in NBA history. Prior to 2010, he was always the craziest guy on the court. Nobody knew what he was going to do next, and everyone in the stands was relatively mortified because there was a slight chance of having a huge basketball player hurtle towards them in the stands and attempt to rip their eyes out. Ron (we're on a first name basis) was suspended for the entire 2005 season after he viciously attacked a fan in the stands after throwing a cup of beer on him while he was laying on the scorer's table at the Palace in Auburn Hills. Since then he has earned multiple ejections, flagrant fouls, and technicals based solely on his reputation as a thug. In 2010, however, he has re-created himself, being the defensive, physical presence that this Lakers team needed. I would even go as far as saying he was the Dennis Rodman of this Laker team. He knew he wasn't the star on the team when he accepted the contract, but he wanted to show everyone that he could control himself and be a big factor on this team. After the game he thanked his psychiatrist, all of his homies in the hood, and pretty much anyone that had any relevance to him during his change. With this championship and with the multiple times that he made plays based on pure grit and muscle, he becomes a beloved figure in LA. To me, he's like the child with a learning disorder that everyone wants to see succeed, and finally he did. It was great to see Ron-Ron on stage with the commissioner and a winning team. Congrats, dude. Shout out to your homies in Queensbridge anytime.

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