When I first interviewed Shaquille O'Neal at a Santa Monica hotel after he went to the Lakers, I asked him, "How many championships will you have in 10 years?"
Shaq held up 10 fingers.
|With Kobe Bryant, left, and Phil Jackson, the Lakers will be favored to win it all again.|
Considering he's one-fifth of the way there at 29 and Kobe at 22, suddenly 10 titles doesn't sound so preposterous. Obviously a lot of questions still remain here: How long will Phil Jackson be at the helm? What kind of role players will surround these two stars as the team goes forward? For the moment, let's assume Phil stays and that Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher either stick around or are comparably replaced.
Which teams pose the biggest challenge to Laker supremacy?
Even if Chris Webber leaves Sacramento, the Kings are a young, talented team poised to be a nemesis to the Lakers for years. The entire Portland Trail Blazers roster is an enigma, but they may put it together some day and win a playoff series against the Lakers. Remote chance, I know, but it could happen with the right coach.
You can certainly say that San Antonio will be a threat with Tim Duncan, Derek Anderson and Antonio Daniels. But the Spurs also have an aging David Robinson and will probably be without Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson next year. So you wonder about San Antonio a bit. The Spurs will need to draft well and be smart in free agency to avoid falling back.
Utah has Karl Malone and John Stockton, but the older they get the better they were. That's not going to happen.
The Houston Rockets could be on the verge of being dangerous, as well as the Dallas Mavericks. Both are probably a year or two away from posing a serious challenge.
In the East next year, Grant Hill will be back with Orlando. Because of Hill's return, there's talk that Rookie of the Year Mike Miller could be expendable. If the Magic can get some quality in return for him, they'll be a team to watch. In Miami, Alonzo Mourning should be back for a full season, but you wonder if Tim Hardaway and Anthony Mason will be back and how good the Heat will be.
The 76ers certainly have benefited from their playoff experience -- Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and Aaron McKie are a good trio to take into battle. If Larry Brown comes back, he can't continue to look down his bench every couple of months and have to whisper to his assistants, "Who is that guy again?" The Sixers need another solid free-agent addition as well. If you're going to tackle the Lakers' two-headed monster, you're going to need at least three or four.
While the other teams plot L.A.'s demise, the Lakers can take comfort that they've already scaled the highest hurdle put in front of them: jealousy. Jealousy was the one factor I thought could bring them down. But it didn't. Kobe, Phil and Shaq put the team first when it counted, and now each guy has another ring. Down goes jealousy. Other than that, what else do they fear?
The Lakers can take comfort that they've already scaled the highest hurdle put in front of them: jealousy.
Maybe the Lakers don't compare to a great team from one single year, like the '72 Lakers or the '83 Sixers, the '85 Lakers or the '86 Celtics. But they could compare to an era. The Lakers could be compared to the back-to-back-winning Rockets and Pistons or to the Bulls and their run with Michael Jordan -- or they may even be within shouting distance of those great Celtics teams in the 1960s.
For some reason, maybe the midseason slump, we want to deny the Lakers their greatness. We sort of went out of our way to deny them their greatness by saying that the Western teams flopped in the playoffs and the East was watered down this year.
So these Lakers aren't the greatest team of all time; they're merely the latest team to be labeled the greatest team of all time. And that's not the worst thing in the world. Especially when you have a great chance to correct that notion.