A New Laker Dynasty?
June 24, 2009 by Matt Thomas • Print Story •
Have you heard the news, my fellow basketball fans? It looks like we won't have to trouble ourselves with the 2009-10 NBA season after all. What a relief.
If you have been paying any attention to the sports world lately, you have surely heard that the indomitable Kobe Bryant and his Lakers are poised to begin a dynasty the likes of which we have seldom seen. Likewise, you have certainly been privy to the latest details on the inevitability of LeBron's Cavs doing their part — carried by James's newfound motivation to succeed in the wake of back-to-back disappointing Eastern Conference Championship losses in '08 and '09 — in setting up the dream Finals matchup we were all cheated out of this past season.
Thankfully, such young stars as Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Brandon Roy don't have to risk career-ending injury in trying to succeed next season and can just coast through the regular season. Vets like the Celtics' trio of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce or the Rockets' tandem of Ron Artest and Yao Ming don't have to wear themselves out trying to make another run at a title in 2009-10. All has already been decided in both leagues, so now it is just a matter of sitting back and letting destiny run its course.
The problem I have with this is that Kobe's Lakers are not Shaq's Lakers, Tim Duncan's Spurs, or Michael Jordan's Bulls. Furthermore, there is far too much parity for me to consider with any sort of reasonability the fact that a single win in a single championship series is anything other than a great season worth remembering.
Consider these facts:
1. The Celtics, last season's champs, came into the playoffs as a prohibitive favorite to make it to at least the Conference Finals. But then they lost star Kevin Garnett. Without K.G., the team lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the upstart Orlando Magic, who went on to play in the Finals. It would stand to reason that a Celtics team with a clean bill of health would have likely defeated the Magic and would have beaten the Cavs, as the Magic did. This is the same team that beat the Lakers in the 2008 Finals. Would you bet against them to repeat if they had made it in '09? I know I wouldn't.
2. The champion Lakers team barely snuck by a Houston Rockets team many had left for dead in February. This is the same Rockets team that lost the only player capable of creating his own offense to season-ending injury in late January. This is also the same Rockets team that lost its most dominant player to a season-ending foot injury early in the Lakers series. It again stands to reason that these Lakers may not have made it past the Rockets had Yao Ming and/or Tracy McGrady had been healthy. While it may be a leap of faith, you can't dismiss it offhand. Does this make for a dynastic run? Methinks not.
The reality is that mere days after the Lakers' most recent title was locked up, the question on every media outlets mind became, "Can this team become the next dynasty?" It wasn't long ago — I'd estimate one or two months max — that Kobe was branded as the guy who could never succeed without Shaq. Now, since that proverbial monkey has been lifted off his back, we are to believe that he is the centerpiece to a group in L.A. that may be able to win championship-after-championship for years to come. This just doesn't align with common sense and while it may be human nature and perfectly normal to wonder aloud if a team is a long-term threat or a simple flash in the pan, the depth at which this subject has penetrated the sports world is alarming and unfounded.
Even more disgusting to me is the treatment King James has been afforded in the days and weeks since his unceremonious dismissal from the playoffs. Just after LeBron's surprising playoff dismissal, James made headlines by storming off the court without a congratulatory handshake offered to the victors and, more appalling, without making his required post-game press conference appearance. Some in the national media chastised James (albeit lightly), but the lion's share of pundits dismissed the actions as a case of the ultimate competitor internalizing the pain of failure so he could turn it into results next season. You know, kind of like he did the season before. It seems a simple analysis of recent events make it far more likely that LeBron will fall just short of a title than that he'll be hoisting the trophy next June. In any event, you cannot enshrine he or his team into the Hall of Fame yet, at least not in the case of winning titles.
In a previous article, I spoke to the impact one Michael Jeffrey Jordan has had on today's game, not just as a player but as a marketable entity. Prior to Jordan, the NBA and its leadership were very, very cautious in deliberately marketing teams over players. "The Showtime Lakers", "The Bad Boys," and "The Celtics" were the identifiable powerhouses of the sport in the 1980s and '90s. It wasn't until after the Jordan era that we, as fans, began to relate to those teams as "Magic's Lakers" and "Bird's Celtics." There was a good reason for this: there was little parity. Teams were marketed because teams were the draw. Individualism just didn't bring championships (see Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, et al). At this point in the history of the game and at most any time prior to it, you could predict with near certainty what would transpire each season well before the games actually began.
Once the '90s began in earnest — due almost entirely to the influence Jordan had on the sport, the fans and the universal appeal of his style to fans from all nations, races and social classes — the new generation of basketball players valued athleticism and personal achievement over reserved team play and overall group successes. This forced the NBA and David Stern to market to the individuals, sustaining the profitability and success of the league. The trade-off was the end of the "Team Ball Era," ushering in more parity, which has had significant impact, both positive and negative, on the league's fan base.
Since this new era of individualism, few teams have been able to successfully create a winning formula that would withstand the tests of new challenges from new and emerging stars. The Bulls did it, but they had Jordan. The Spurs did it, but they accomplished this feat by remaining true to the way things "used to be" and building a team around a system. Even these Lakers managed to form a bit of a dynasty, but they had an unstoppable machine named Shaq and a very watered down set of opponents on which to prey. So why are we to assume that winning a title portends a much more glorious run?
The answer is simple, really. We've been conditioned to want to see the best. We want our time to be the "Golden Age" of any given sport. The sooner we realize that this is very rarely the case, the sooner we get to enjoy what we see in front of us, which is real talent and real skill.
The irony is the league and its media machine created this parity, and now that very same media machine is desperate to dispel the reality they brought upon us. None of us know what is going to happen next season. This is not to say that the Cavs and Lakers aren't great teams, they absolutely are and should be for the foreseeable future. The greater truth is that there are many superb teams, many of which we don't even see coming, that will stand in the way of any team's chances of repeating or forming any sort of dynastic reign. In our haste to find the next Jordan, this generation's Bad Boys and the new Celtics-Lakers rivalry, we're missing the evolution of something far more exciting, interesting and revolutionary: true parity.
This age of the unknown should be embraced. Not only will it create excitement over a far greater fanbase (thus increasing NBA market share), but it will help develop a core of young superstars that rival any other era's in terms of raw numbers.
As for this "Next Jordan" business, it is worth noting that in the two seasons preceding the most recent, both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have each done something that Jordan was never able to accomplish. They each lost an NBA Finals series.
Never mind. After further contemplation, I may check out the 2009-10 NBA season after all.