In addition to their current problems – failing to win a playoff series in three years and needing to calm down disgruntled star player Kobe Bryant – the Lakers have a new headache.
Their legacy has absorbed a major hit.
At least until last week the Lakers could stand on their record of accomplishments in happier days – winning three championships when Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant were together.
But when the San Antonio Spurs completed a four-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 14, 85-84, they became the NBA’s team of the decade.
The Spurs won their fourth championship in nine years that evening, and no other team in any of the four major sports has done that.
In the group with three are the Lakers, New York Yankees, New England Patriots and Detroit Red Wings.
Even the recognition of individuals has become open to debate. Tim Duncan of the Spurs has been a key player on four championship teams. O’Neal won three with Bryant and one with Dwayne Wade in Miami. Bryant has three, and with the Lakers struggling to even qualify for playoffs his chances of winning another one here are slim.
The case can be made that O’Neal is the most dominant big man of his era. A case can also be made that Duncan is the most efficient. Unlike O’Neal and Bryant, he has never lost in the playoff finals. O’Neal and Bryant both lost to Detroit and O’Neal’s team in Orlando was swept by Houston during his rookie year.
So who’s the best? Since O’Neal was traded by the Lakers, Bryant has been a high scorer unable to lead his team to playoff success. As for O’Neal, he followed last year’s championship with a first round loss to Chicago this season. An excuse would be that both O’Neal and Wade missed significant time due to injuries this season.
But Duncan has won with and without David Robinson, his star frontcourt teammate. They teamed on two Spurs championship teams, but Duncan has won two more since Robinson retired.
Duncan had a lot of help from guard Tony Parker this time. The Cavaliers couldn’t deal with Parker’s swift drives to the basket.
But it was Duncan who keyed the defense. His blocked shots and his ability to disrupt the Cavaliers’ interior offense prevented LeBron James from taking over games as he did in the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit.
“I just tried to do things to help us win even when I wasn’t shooting well,” said Duncan. He was taking about his play in this series but could have been talking about his career. For that’s the mentality he brings to every game.
I’ve been to San Antonio many times covering Laker games and our traveling party long since considered it an underrated city. The River Walk is scenic and spectacular, the Alamo historic, the downtown thriving. For folks who also went to Dallas and Houston, often we came to regard San Antonio as the best of the three Texas cities.
Like the city, the team has been underrated. But that’s changing.