The mood around southern California seems to be that of confidence, yet all Lakers fans will tell you, the season will have been a failure with no championship. Kobe Bryant, the ultimate competitor, has stated as much. After last year’s let down in the Finals against Boston, these Lakers seem eager to erase past failures. Phil Jackson is still looking to win his 10th ring as a coach, which would move him ahead of Red Auerbach. He hasn’t seemed to enjoy this season as much, often looking un-interested with the game, and his status after this season is still unclear. His past two trips to the Finals have both been experiences I’m sure he’d just as soon forget. In ’04, with the supposed “greatest starting lineup ever” the Lakers steam rolled thru the West only to get KO’d in the Finals by Detroit Basketball. That drama filled season ultimately lead to Kobe deciding in July to remain with the Lakers, Shaq being dealt to Miami, the Rudy Tomjanovich carousel, a few subpar seasons, and then of course the grand theft of Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies. I am still so bitter about that trade. Not even because this Lakers team was GIVEN a 27 year old former All-Star and Rookie of the Year, in his prime for, Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and Aaron McKie, who was retired at the time!
Reminds me a lot of the Phoenix Suns 3 worst trades in franchise history.
- 1983 - Dennis Johnson sent to Boston for Rick Robey. Who is Rick Robey you ask? Read about his "Life after the DJ Trade."
- 1995 - Dan Majerle sent to Cleveland for John “Hot Rod” Williams, when they could have had Scottie Pippen the year before. Remember at the '95 All-Star game in Phoenix, they interviewed Pip in the locker room and he mentioned how good he looked in purple.
- 2001 - Jason Kidd sent to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury. J Kidd famously found out about being traded from a Taco Bell employee at the drive thru in Paradise Valley. He then responded by leading the Nets to the Finals two consecutive seasons.
I remember reading The Commercial Appeal article the day after the Gasol trade, and it referenced Pau literally sprinting out of FedEx Forum the moment he learned he’d been dealt to L.A. Then I realized what this meant for the Suns, and I quickly sprinted to the trash can to vomit.
After Mitch Kupchak’s looting of Gasol straight off Beale Street, panic set in across the West. Foes now had to combat not only Andrew Bynum but Pau Gasol as well. Speculation and trade talk immediately picked up, but leave it to the Suns brain trust to ruin it for their loyal fan base. With the team in first place in the Western Conference at 34-14, Robert Sarver and Steve Kerr decided to abandon Mike D’Antoni’s fast break philosophy, and go in the complete opposite direction. Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks were dealt to Miami, and Shaquille O’Neal, and his $20 million per year contract, headed for the Valley. I distinctly recall a cell phone call I made from Memphis to my buddy Hoz in Phoenix the day the trade was announced. We both tried to rationalize for the better, while realizing that this was indeed the end. 7 seconds or less was more gonzo than Luis himself! After all, Marion had pleaded to be dealt for a while, but with his hindsight 20/20, I’m sure that he would have rescinded that request. Never one to be outdone, Mark Cuban shockingly dealt 25 year old point guard Devin Harris to New Jersey setting the stage for an aging Jason Kidd to make his return to Dallas. Neither organization has been the same since, and both are contemplating which direction to head in the future.
Although the Lakers have made consecutive Finals appearances, there is very much a sense of urgency to take care of business. The cover story in the L.A. Times this morning has a very interesting piece regarding the mileage on Kobe, with references to how many games he has already amassed at his age. Fans and critics alike have been debating all season of how much longer Kobe can compete at this peak level. He turns 31 this summer, which turns out to be when he will enjoy his first break from basketball in years. Don’t forget that Kobe first entered the NBA when he was 17, straight out of Lower Merion High School. Aside from Mamba, you have free agents to be Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza. Combine that with the improving depth in the West and you have a tough road for years to come.
On the opposite side of the coin you have a team that very much deserves to be here, yet many pundits still don’t know what to make of them. Many, myself included picked the LeBron’s to dispatch of Orlando in 5 games, maybe 6 tops. Having already knocked out the defending champs, and unseating The King, can Orlando bring a championship back to central Florida? An unexpected plot twist may pay dividends. Jameer Nelson reportedly has been practicing with the team all week, though his status remains unclear for Game 1. His mere presence on the bench and in the locker room should undoubtedly provide a lift for Orlando. Factor in Orlando’s unbelievable 3-point shooting these playoffs and we could be in for something special. This sports year has already seen some unbelievable moments. However much like Super Bowl XLIII, where the Cardinals came with in seconds of a miracle upset, the vaunted opponent with all the prestige and aura came and ripped the Cards hearts out. I see much of the same taking place this series. Only instead of Big Ben, Kobe will gladly be the one to pull some heartstrings.