Showtime’s Encore

Adam Underhill


When fans discuss the great centers in Los Angeles Lakers history, Pau Gasol will probably never be mentioned with the same reverence as O’Neal, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, or Mikan. Those men were behemoths, freaks of nature that clogged the lane, scored and rebounded seemingly at will, and gave no quarter on defense. Physically, Gasol is nothing to sneeze at – 7 feet tall, 250 pounds – yet his play, particularly in recent playoff series, made him seem much smaller. Gasol is a skinny, lanky, floppy-haired man whose gruff facial hair betrays a boyish face. On the court he often seems a boy lost in the woods, especially when roaming the redwood forest directly under the basket in an NBA game. He tends to attack the basket with all the ferocity of a gerbil, and can be seen incredulously looking for charity fouls where there is nothing but tough defense.

In Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Gasol came through for the Lakers and their fans in a manner worthy of O’Neal, worthy of Mikan, worthy of, well, Worthy. On a poor shooting night for his teammate Kobe Bryant, the team’s (and the league’s) best player, Gasol scored 19 points and 18 rebounds. He drove hard, posted up defenders, and ripped down rebounds with authority. It didn’t hurt that the Celtics were without starting center Kendrick Perkins for the game, but that’s not Gasol’s fault. He was one of several Lakers, including Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher, who seemed bent on delivering to L.A. its second consecutive championship, and 16th overall – this after falling behind Boston in the series, three games to two. Even Bryant, series MVP, helped his team help him by grabbing 15 rebounds. On a night when the Lakers shot only 32.5% as a team, every rebound and every defensive stand counted.

The Celtics, for their part, were there every step of the way. After laying an egg in Game 6, Boston fought tooth and nail until the finish. The team that stumbled to 50 wins amidst injuries, trade rumors, and simply old age, was but a few seconds from accomplishing the unthinkable. Defeating Bryant and the Lakers would have placed an exclamation point on Boston’s tour de force of a postseason; already they had vanquished Dwayne Wade and Miami, Lebron James and Cleveland, and Dwight Howard and Orlando. Boston has 17 championships as a franchise, each unique. Had they won their 18th on Thursday – Game 7, against the hated Lakers, in Los Angeles – it would have ranked among the top two or three all time in team annals. The Celtics were in front by 13 in the third quarter, and even after relinquishing that lead, they were a threat until the end. When Rajon Rondo’s improbable three-pointer sank with 13 seconds remaining in the game, cutting the L.A. lead to two, the Staples Center gasped in unison. Rondo was the Celtics’ breakout hero in the playoffs, stepping out from under the shadows of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen and taking over games with hustle, grit, and talent. The young guard stands 6’1”, but with his 6’9” wingspan he covers a lot of air and space. Unfortunately for Boston, that three was his last bullet for the season, but his story is just beginning. For now, the Celtics will have to settle for staying one ring ahead of L.A., which won number 16.

That’s 33 titles between two teams in a league that’s only been around since 1946. The NBA is a curious league. It is closer to the NFL than to baseball in terms of parity, and yet it seems to be the destiny of certain big market teams in glitzier locales (L.A., Boston, Miami, Chicago, Phoenix, Orlando) to compete for the title. Upon closer inspection, small market teams are there too – see San Antonio’s four recent Larry O’Brien trophies – as are the less sexy destinations such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Indiana. Any media- and market- driven conspiracy theory goes out the window when one remembers that the New York Knicks have been a rudderless ghost ship for the better part of the last decade. (Yet somehow it’s the Knicks that jump out front in the free agency quest for Lebron James – whether this is media groupthink, money leveraging by James, or a real possibility will be known after July 1. But I digress.) In fact, six of the Lakers’ titles were won when the team played in Minneapolis, prior to 1959; meanwhile Boston nabbed its first eleven by 1969, when the league had just expanded to a mere 14 teams and was still considered bush, at least by viewers’ (and advertisers’) standards.

Nevertheless, David Stern’s NBA loves storylines, and a Celtics-Lakers Finals is always chock full of them. Like Yankees-Red Sox or Duke-North Carolina, it’s a rivalry that can attract the interest of the casual fan, even if the casual fan hates both teams. The teams have met 12 times in Finals history, with Boston winning the first eight, and nine overall. Five times, the series has gone the full seven games. The players involved read right out of anyone’s Top 50 list – Cousy, Russell, West, Baylor, Chamberlain, Bird, Magic, Kareem, McHale, Walton, Worthy, Parish, Bryant, O’Neal, Pierce, Allen, Garnett – and possibly Rondo. Two years ago, the Celtics embarrassed the Lakers by 39 points in series-clinching Game 6. L.A. got some measure of redemption by winning the championship the following year, but that was against upstart Orlando. All well and good – the Lakers don’t care who they play against in the Finals as long as that team has green jerseys with shamrocks on the back.

For these teams, the storyline was series dominance. If Boston won, they’d have two on the Lakers in three seasons, and they’d own Kobe (remember, he won his first three as Shaq’s sidekick). Not to mention they’d be three up on L.A. in ring count, 18-15. L.A.’s victory, on the other hand, means they’re one ring behind, it means revenge on the Celtics, and it means a huge monkey is off Kobe’s back, all due respect to the Orlando Magic.

For Kobe, the championship – his fifth – places him in a pantheon with Magic Johnson (five rings), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), and Michael Jordan (six), though nowhere near the untouchable Bill Russell (eleven). Kobe now has two without Shaq, and having won his fifth at age 31, he has plenty of competitive years remaining. Kobe has often been compared with Jordan, in style and sensibility. In Game 7, Kobe’s Lakers finally looked like Jordan’s great Bulls teams, in that Bryant found he could trust his teammates to rise to the occasion when he could not carry them on his back.

That quality, of course, can be credited to head coach Phil Jackson (speaking of rings, he’s just won his eleventh – most all time). Jackson was the young players’ coach who taught the theretofore-selfish Jordan to motivate and trust his teammates, down to the 12th man on the roster. As Jordan took Jackson’s philosophy to heart, his scoring went down while the championships racked up. We fans all have mental highlight reels of Jordan’s acrobatics in the playoffs, but often it was his “supporting cast” (his words) who came through in big moments – a John Paxson or Steve Kerr three-pointer, an open Bill Wennington under the basket, or a lockdown defensive stop from Scottie Pippen. To be sure, Jordan’s talent made these moments happen even without the ball in his hands, but it took Phil Jackson to teach His Airness to embrace basketball as team sport while still getting his points.

Jackson may have leaned a little more on Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant during their threepeat run of 2000-2002 (who could blame him?), but he never wavered from his larger philosophy during that time. Even then, role players like Fisher and Robert Horry were able to step in for big moments in big games. Jackson’s two Finals losses show where his values slipped. In 2004, he had too many cooks in the kitchen, with Hall of Fame (but washed up) talent like Karl Malone and Gary Payton sharing the floor with Shaq and Kobe, and the Lakers were bounced by Detroit in five. His 2008 squad was more Bulls-like, yet his role players were still timid, particularly Gasol. Games 6 and 7, 2010, however, were trademark Phil Jackson. He’s one of the few NBA coaches with the stones (and the rings) to stand up to the NBA’s top talent, and he can do it without diminishing his best players’ egos, or their place in the game.

(Jackson’s eleven champions may be two more than legendary Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach, but don’t kid yourself: Auerbach’s record of accomplishment still stands as greatest of all coaches. The man won eight NBA titles in a row; no team since has won more than three straight. Although his center, Bill Russell, is considered one of the greatest players of all time, it could hardly have been expected of Russell when he entered the league. Though he was a first round pick and an Olympian, the 6’9” Russell was figured to get schooled by his contemporary, Wilt Chamberlain. What Russell lacked in height, for a center, he made up for in grit and defense. During their shared time in the league, Russell won 10 championships to Wilt’s one. Like Vince Lombardi did with the underrated Bart Starr in football, Auerbach turned Bill Russell into the basketball’s most valuable, and successful, player. That’s coaching you won’t see very often anymore. Today, the tail wags the dog, and though Jackson is the most adaptive coach of his era, he has also had the great fortune to coach Jordan, Shaq, and now Kobe at their peak.)

The decade has now closed on the NBA. Counting from 2000-01, that’s four titles for the Lakers, three for the Spurs, and one apiece for the Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics. The game’s wunderkind, Lebron James, began play in 2003-04; in six seasons he has one Finals appearance and zero championships. Lebron is still just 25, and with his impending free agency, the axis of the NBA will shift dramatically. It’s way too early to rip him for his lack of rings (Jordan won his first in his seventh season), but if he’s going to have a statue carved someday, in which city will it catch pigeon droppings? Some believed that this past season’s Cleveland squad was his best chance to date, having added a diminished Shaquille O’Neal. I begged to differ, as I wrote last summer:

Here is what I see: Something fewer than 66 regular season games won, shaky confidence in the playoffs, a loss in the conference semifinals, Shaq retiring and LeBron heading for New York City. I’ll follow up on this next May.

I was correct on the first two points. We’ll see if Shaq hangs it up (doubt it, actually) and Lebron comes to the Big Apple. Of course, two years ago, I predicted a Lebron/Brooklyn Nets dream scenario; that notion has taken a hit since the Nets’ new stadium (now twice redesigned) in Brooklyn won’t open until at least 2011-12. (I also overplayed the Jay-Z ownership angle; how Tony Kornheiser of me. I might as well have mentioned that Norah Jones lives nearby as a great reason for Lebron to come to Brooklyn.) For now, the Nets—worst team in the league—will play a season in downtown Newark before jumping to a Brooklyn neighborhood that only wants them by half. Good luck selling tickets to that show. Somehow the Nets have reverted to their early days, when they played in shotgun shacks on Long Island and in New Jersey with no real fan base. On the plus side, they can still beat the Knicks if they try hard enough.

The Knicks and Nets have the payroll space to woo Lebron but not much else. Their coaches leave a little to be desired if you’re looking for championships. The Knicks’ Mike D’Antoni and the Nets’ Avery Johnson have each choked significant playoff series with supremely talented rosters (in Phoenix and Dallas, respectively). Neither team offers much in the way of a supporting cast. Currently, it appears the Chicago Bulls have the inside track; they’ve hired a young turk of an assistant coach from Boston, Tom Thibodeau, and have a fine nucleus of playoff-caliber (but not championship-caliber) players in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng. Outside of Lebron returning to Cleveland, this move makes the most sense.

Some talking heads like to play up the idea of Lebron going to the “media capitals” so he can max out his endorsements and fame while at his peak. This means signing with the Knicks (or maybe the Nets), the Los Angeles Clippers (he ain’t joining Kobe and the Lakers), or the Miami Heat. (Chicago is in that column too, to a lesser extent.) This argument is fairly hollow. Lebron has already shown he can be an advertising icon while playing in flyover country; playing for a potentially-hapless Knicks or Clippers team won’t magnify his national presence. (Actually, the Clippers are perennially-hapless.) Where Lebron goes, the media will follow.

Regardless of where he plays next season, Lebron will have to overcome one simple fact. Despite his endorsements, his MVP awards, his regular-season and postseason wins, and his abundant talents, he is at best the second best player in the NBA right now. The throne is Kobe Bryant’s. Maybe we should call King James the Great Pretender.