The Los Angeles Lakers are several semesters ahead of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA learning process. They have two stars, veterans who've won previous championships and role players. They have the makeup to be a championship team again this year. If the team is better this year, it's because Kobe and Shaq are better this year than last year.
2000 -- Championship
When Isiah Thomas asked Larry Bird and Kevin McHale their secrets to winning a championship, they responded with some straightforward stuff: You have to understand how to win. You have to know that you need to sacrifice to win. And you have to learn from losing -- perhaps the key element.
That's what I see in these Lakers, that progression to a championship-caliber team. What people might find hard to believe is that both Kobe and Shaq have been on the roster since 1997. But through their losses they improved and learned. And they did it together. They've lived through the pain of being ousted and humiliated, learned from their mistakes and improved. Then came Phil Jackson to sort of reap the benefits, though he obviously had many lessons to share about winning.
The Sacramento Kings have gone through similar growing pains and reached the second round of the playoffs this year. They've got a couple of stars and some role players and seem to have a bright future. What they don't have is a player or coach who's won a title. Now, Chris Webber is set to depart.
When Webber walked off the floor on Sunday, I wondered if he would acknowledge the crowd, and if he did, would it mean goodbye or thank you? He didn't. Instead CWebb gave a 180-degree look around the arena as if taking a snap shot of a place he was looking at for the last time. His fan interaction was limited to a couple of high fives to fans in the tunnel.
These two franchises right now are nice case studies of what it takes to win a championship and what can happen to prevent one. Here is Sacramento's marquee player, who's just going to up and bolt. I don't begrudge Webber for wanting to live somewhere he's comfortable, but there is the opportunity to finish what they have started in Sacramento. It's not easy, but it's what Shaq and Kobe did. When there was talk of Kobe being traded and of Shaq not wanting to play with Kobe, the Lakers persevered and lived through the rumors.
It goes back to Isiah Thomas' theory: How badly do you want it? How much are you willing to sacrifice? Once Thomas realized what it took to win, he won back-to-back titles. It is not a stretch to say there is a lot to build on in Sacramento. What that opportunity means to Webber will be clear soon. And if he leaves, he'll probably have to start this learning process again with a new coach and teammates.
The Kings were in hell for many, many years. Now, having finally achieved some success, they may actually take a giant step backward if they lose Chris Webber.
With or without Webber, Sacramento has some genuine talent. Jason Williams has to improve and stop auditioning -- every time down the floor is not a SportsCenter highlight. I thought Predrag Stojakovic, a legitimate go-to guy who's not afraid to take a big shot, was the most improved player this year. Hidayet Turkoglu is a star in the making who can play three different positions.
Although a rookie, Turkoglu has an "I'm not afraid of or impressed by anybody" attitude. I think the Kings made a mistake in not playing him more late this year. Doug Christie is one of the best defensive players in the league and Vlade Divac is still as dangerous as ever. What the Kings lack is an inside presence, an intimidator, a Charles Oakley-type body inside.
So, two California teams, two entirely different sets of questions. One, the Lakers, went through a bit of hell to get to this point. But the Kings have been in hell for many, many years. Now, having finally achieved some success, they may actually take a giant step backward if they lose Chris Webber. Would they have to change their style if Webber leaves? What will the new rules mean for the Kings? Can Jason Williams make the necessary steps to become a star and a team leader?
This current group of Lakers has already answered many questions. A championship provides a lot of answers. The only question for the Lakers, as it is for all veteran playoff teams, is "Who's next?"