Page 2 columnist
Just so you know, I'm more fired up than Cuba Gooding Jr. before the Tyson-Lewis fight. Now the Lakers are a dynasty? A dynasty? They win three straight titles and they're a dynasty? Since when was a dynasty created in three years? What happens if they win six straight titles? Are they a double-dynasty?
Admittedly, Shaq and Kobe ... er, the Lakers deserve all the credit in the world for pulling off the three-peat. They could have imploded three different times -- when Portland was threatening to put them away in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Finals, when Shaq and Kobe were battling over "Alpha Dog" status during the 2001 season, when a talented Sacramento team gave them everything they could handle this spring -- yet they always persevered, always finding that extra gear when it mattered. There wasn't one game over the past three seasons when they needed a victory and didn't get it.
But calling them a "dynasty"? Isn't it a little early? Dynasties unfold at their own pace; it usually takes longer than three years, and you can't fully appreciate them until they're just wrapping up. Russell and the Celts, Keith and Mick, Joe D and the Yanks, Carson and McMahon, Dryden and the Habs, Fuji and Saito, Brandon and Dylan ... now those were dynasties. Every dynasty needs one moment when the wheels look like they're about to come off, yet the team in question rallies to reclaim their throne -- like Bill Russell's aging Celtics getting squashed by Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers in 1967, then regrouping and capturing titles in '68 and '69. Until you've been truly tested, you can't be considered a dynasty. And usually, that test comes from within.
Here's what Russell wrote in his autobiography, "Second Wind":
"It's much harder to keep a championship than to win one. After you've won once, some of the key figures are likely to grow dissatisfied with the role they play, so it's harder to keep the team focused on doing what it takes to win. Also, you've already done it, so you can't rely on the same drive that makes people climb mountains for the first time; winning isn't new anymore. Also, there's a temptation to believe that the last championship will somehow win the next one automatically. You have to keep going out there game after game. Besides, you're getting older, and less willing to put up with aggravation and pain.
"... When you find someone who at age 30 or 35 has the motivation to overrule that increasing pain and aggravation, you have a champion. Rarely will you see an athlete who hasn't put on 10 or 15 pounds over a full career, but even rarer are the ones who don't put on the same amount of mental fat. That's the biggest killer of aging champions, because it works on your concentration and your mental toughness, which are the margin of victory; it prevents you from using your mind to compensate for your diminished physical skills."
The Lakers haven't been tested like that ... but it's coming. For instance, if MJ's Bulls stopped winning titles after their third in '93, we wouldn't have called them a dynasty. Only after they reclaimed the championship in '96, held off a spirited Jazz team in '97 (officially claiming "dynasty" status), then prevailed one final time when they were running on fumes in '98 ... only then did they cement their reputation. That was a truly great team, a group of guys that answered just about every challenge over an extended period of time.
My favorite game of that entire run happened during the final title season, in Game 7 of the Indiana series. The Pacers had the ball with a three-point lead and three minutes to play ... but Chicago's veterans just wanted it more. Remember Michael Jordan beating 7-foot-4 Rik Smits on a jump ball, or Pippen outhustling Reggie Miller for a crucial rebound in the final minute? Remember how the Bulls crashed the offensive boards that night (24 in all), doing whatever it took to win the game? Remember how MJ struggled with an erratic jumper, so he started driving recklessly to the basket, willing himself to the foul line again and again? Remember Jordan and Pippen standing with their hands on their knees at midcourt in the final seconds, completely spent? They wouldn't allow the Bulls to lose that game.
And when you think about it, isn't that what being a dynasty is all about? That was my favorite NBA game of the past 10 years, only because you learn everything about a team when it's struggling and clawing to remain on top. Former goalie Ken Dryden wrote about this phenomenon in his book "The Game," written during his final season with the Canadiens:
"(Winning) becomes a state of mind, an obligation, an expectation; in the end, an attitude. Excellence. It's a rare chance to play with the best, to be the best. When you have it, you don't want to give it up. It's not easy and it's not always fun ... when you win as often as we do, you earn a right to lose. It's losing to remember what winning feels like. But it's a game of chicken. If you let it go, you might never get it back. You may find it's a high-paid, pressureless comfort to your liking. I can feel it happening this year. If we win, next year will be worse."
And that's where the Lakers are sitting right now. Three straight titles, nothing left to prove. After they finished off New Jersey in Game 4 on Wednesday night, they seemed pretty subdued for a team that had just swept the NBA Finals, probably because they knew they had been on cruise control for most of the season. But as Dryden wrote, you can only play that game of chicken for so long, a running internal battle of wills which eventually determines the difference between "Multiple Champion" and "Dynasty."
Take Isiah's Pistons, who fell into the right place at the right time -- a two-year pocket of opportunity between the decline of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson teams and the rise of Jordan's Bulls. After winning consecutive titles in '89 and '90, they were summarily swept by Chicago in '91 ... and their starters stormed to the locker room in the waning seconds of Game 4, refusing to acknowledge the Bulls or even shake hands, a classless final act by a team that seemed happier handing over its throne instead of fighting for it. No dynasty there.
Compare them to my favorite team of all time, the '87 Celtics, coming off their third title in six years and ravaged by injuries to Kevin McHale (playing on broken foot), Bill Walton (incapacitated by a broken foot), Danny Ainge (sprained ankle) and Robert Parish (badly sprained ankle). With every reason to quit, the defending champs gamely fought on, prevailing in two agonizing seven-game series (against the Bucks and Pistons), even stretching the Lakers to six games in the Finals. That team had nothing left in the tank -- I can still see McHale limping up the court in agony -- yet they struggled to the bitter end. These are the things that champions do.
And maybe this Lakers team will cruise along for an entire decade of championships without getting tested like that ... but somehow I doubt it. Every dynasty faces at least one major test before claiming "Dynasty" status, and I just can't believe that the Sacramento series this spring -- when everyone on the Kings looked terrified coming down the stretch of Game 7 (save for Mike Bibby) -- was the ultimate test for these Lakers. But it's coming.
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Since we can't predict the future or anoint the Lakers as a dynasty yet, here's the discussion we should be having: Regardless of how it ends, where does this three-year Lakers run rank among the "dominant runs in NBA history"?
Now that's a different story. I never thought you could compare "Dominant Runs" beyond one specific theme: The dominance of Team X solely relating to everyone else in their particular era. These Lakers don't seem any more or less unstoppable than MJ's Chicago teams did during the '90s, or those great Celtics teams from the early-'60s, or even the Celtics and Lakers in the '80s. All that matters is that they're in the mix. By winning a third title, these Lakers earned the right to say, "You can't bring up a 'Dominant Runs' discussion without at least mentioning us." It's like being a billionaire -- you become a member of an exclusive club.
Assessing the Lakers, they have one thing setting them apart from just about everyone else: Shaq and Kobe. Yeah, you knew that already, but bear with me ...
After three straight Finals averaging a double-double and scoring in the mid-30s, Shaq cemented his place in the Pantheon for "Completely Unstoppable Playoff Performers From the Past 25 Years," along with Jordan (1991-1993, 1996-1998), Magic (1987), Bird (1986), Moses (1983) and Hakeem (1994-1995). There really isn't anything else to say; he's the modern-day Wilt. And Kobe cemented his place in the Pantheon for "Second Bananas From the Past 25 Years," surpassing James Worthy, Kevin McHale, Scottie Pippen and Joe Dumars, and moving right alongside Magic Johnson (1980, 1982, 1985) and Julius Erving (1983).
They are the two best players in the league. Period. And they play on the same team. In other words, it's a once-in-a-lifetime situation ... not only has it never happened before, it's never even come close to happening before. Only three times in the past 25 years has a championship team featured two of the top five players in the league -- the '86 Celtics (Bird & McHale), the '96 and '97 Bulls (Jordan & Pippen), and the Lakers from 1980-1985 (Magic & Kareem).
In a 29-team league, the team with the dominant player should probably win the title every season. If that same team features the second-most dominant player as well, they should definitely win the title every time, even with Devean George as a sixth man. The '83 Sixers had Bobby Jones, the '86 Celts had Bill Walton, the '82 Lakers had Bob McAdoo ... the 2002 Lakers had Devean George. I almost feel like ending this column right now. Would George have even been a ball boy for Magic's Lakers back in the '80s? And does this even matter? In this day and age, you could surround Shaq and Kobe with 10 Devean Georges and they probably would still win the championship every year until they get bored. Even Dick Bavetta isn't strong enough to stop them.
So they're a dominant team, but does that mean they're a great team? Can "Two Future Hall-of-Famers, two superb role players and a cast of nobodies" truly pass as a great team? These guys barely escaped the Sacramento series (the real Finals). As clutch as Bob Horry has been over the years, he remains undersized for a power forward, something that hasn't haunted the Lakers in the Finals (he guarded Austin Croshere, Keith Van Horn and Tyrone Hill over the past three years). Every team would love to have Rick Fox, but it's hard to believe that he's the fourth-best player on a three-time champion. And Derek Fisher was badly exposed by Mike Bibby in the Kings series as average at best.
As for that bench ... yikes. Even Billy Corgan had a better supporting cast. The 2000 and 2001 benches were at least mediocre (Shaw, Ron Harper, Horace Grant and Tyronn Lue all had their moments), but this year's bench was dreadful. How many big leads have they blown with Shaq or Kobe getting a breather? Imagine if the NBA kept a plus-minus rating like hockey does? Could any of these subs have gotten minutes for any of the other teams that made the Conference Finals? Other than George playing the game of his life in Game 3, did anybody come off LA's bench to contribute anything in the NBA Finals beyond turnovers and butt slaps?
Yup, the 2002 Lakers were a five-man team, through and through. Against the Kings, it nearly cost them the series. Against many of the great NBA teams from the past 25 years, it would have finished them. That's why "Dominant Runs" can't really be compared, only because you can't account for the ebb and flow of league-wide talent. For instance, if you shifted MJ's Chicago teams back by eight years -- back to the mid-'80s, the pre-expansion days of just 23 teams, when contenders went eight-deep and featured 2-3 Hall of Fame-caliber players -- would they have cruised to three straight titles? Probably not. Timing was everything.
Fast-forward to next spring. The Lakers searching for reasons to motivate themselves for a fourth straight title run. Shaq still hampered by his arthritic toe. Phil Jackson turning to Page 782 of his Motivational Ploy Playbook. Kobe quietly grumbling to himself, "Am I ever gonna be The Guy on this team?" A hungry, talented Kings squad knowing they could have prevailed the previous season, benefiting from that "Getting a taste of true NBA pressure" experience, feeling that twang of urgency that pushes good teams to the next level. And everything colliding in a seven-game series.
When you have it, you don't want to give it up.
How will the Lakers respond? How will they answer these challenges over the next few years, as their biggest enemy becomes themselves, as they find themselves playing chicken again and again? Once we know the answers to those questions, we can determine whether or not they're a dynasty. And only then.
One last story: When Russell's Celtics team won the last of its 11 championship --winning Game 7 in Los Angeles against a superior Lakers team -- Russell asked assembled media and family to leave the locker room for a few minutes after the game. They wanted to savor the moment with one another for a few minutes, he explained, adding, "We are each other's friends." When the media finally re-entered the locker room, Russell agreed to a quick interview with ABC, the network that covered the game. After hearing the question "How does it feel?", Russell tried to put the feeling into words, searching for the right answer, unable to speak, ultimately breaking down and crying on live TV.
Somehow, I can't see something like that happening with one of these Lakers ... not yet, anyway. There hasn't been enough sweat, enough pain, enough champagne. But there's still time. Let's continue this next spring.Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.