The matchup lacks the luster of the good old days, but when the Kobe Bryant farewell tour stops Friday in San Antonio, memories aplenty of the Spurs-Lakers rivalry surely will flood the AT&T Center.
Two years after capturing its first championship, San Antonio suffered an ugly sweep at the hands of the Lakers, prompting the Spurs in 2001 to draft an 18-year-old Tony Parker, who on draft night said he was ready to help the team reclaim the title from Los Angeles.
Two years later, the Spurs broke up Los Angeles' three-year run of Western Conference titles on the way to the first of three NBA championships over the next five seasons. Los Angeles and San Antonio from 1999 to 2010 combined to capture nine of 12 titles, in addition to splitting playoff series on six occasions.
ESPN.com NBA reporters Baxter Holmes and Michael C. Wright break down the latest incarnation of the Spurs-Lakers rivalry (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):
Holmes: Tim Duncan recently grabbed 18 rebounds in a game. How many good seasons does he have left in him?
Wright: I'll tell you this: Duncan signed a two-year deal, but he's still got plenty left in the tank to play well beyond that contract. Given this matchup, I can't help but think of what could have been had Los Angeles taken an approach with Bryant similar to the way the Spurs have dealt with Duncan over the past couple of years. I know, I know, Bryant probably wouldn't have gone for something like that. But San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is a master at managing minutes to keep this aging team fresh, and you've got to give general manager R.C. Buford credit for constructing a squad capable of taking some of the pressure off Duncan so the future Hall of Famer doesn't have to be the bell cow every night.
Duncan isn't the same player he once was, but his numbers over the years have remained fairly steady because the team smartly manages his minutes during the regular season, before letting him loose in the postseason. Duncan was easily the team's most consistent player last year during the series against the Clippers, and that was simply a product of the way Popovich manages his minutes throughout the season.
Wright: How do you think Kobe would handle having an emerging star as a teammate such as Kawhi Leonard?
Holmes: Great question. Kobe has never been one to relinquish much of the spotlight, and when he's had to share it with anyone, some messy divorces have followed, i.e. Shaq, Dwight Howard. That's not to say that Kobe can't play alongside a star; it's just that he's such an alpha -- as Kevin Garnett would say -- and has been the single focus of a team for so long that such a pairing seems, shall we say, difficult.
But the idea of him playing alongside a young emerging star is, to me, even more fascinating, and it's a dynamic that's taking place this season as the Lakers have a trio of young players (D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson) who all have star potential but who all have to defer to Kobe, who hasn't given up the reins to the franchise just yet. Kawhi is certainly a star and could become an MVP candidate as his offensive game develops over the years.
I'd like to believe that if someone of that caliber were alongside Kobe, they'd figure out a way to make it work, but past results haven't been great, so there's concern. I think at this point in his career, Kobe is going to be Kobe and any emerging stars alongside him will just have to wait until he's gone before they can truly shine.
Holmes: How is LaMarcus Aldridge adjusting to the Spurs?
Wright: It's been difficult for Aldridge offensively. But defensively, the transition has been relatively seamless. What's tough for Aldridge on offense, obviously, is learning San Antonio's system in addition to figuring out how and where he'll get his shots. Compounding that is the emergence of Leonard as San Antonio's top offensive threat.
Popovich said early on that Aldridge was doing what most new players do and that's deferring instead of taking his shots. Gradually, Aldridge has made strides, and he's becoming more accustomed to the San Antonio way of ball movement while his teammates are starting to adjust to his tendencies, such as places on the court he likes to shoot the ball.
Wright: By now, you've seen several Kobe sendoffs at visiting arenas. You know he'll get a ton of love in San Antonio, too. Which farewell has been the best so far and why?
Holmes: His homecoming in Philadelphia was pretty cool. So many Kobe jerseys in the crowd. So many signs. So many chants. Then he had a hot start to the game, hitting three of his first four shots, and the arena just came alive, which is something that many people can't say about 76ers games this season. Dr. J and Kobe's high school coach presented him with a framed Lower Merion High School jersey before the game, and his introduction was long and awesome. Of any farewell stop, that one is probably the best. The only other one that I'm excited about is his final game in Boston.
"... The Spurs are still struggling offensively. So San Antonio hasn't yet reached its full potential, and when it does, look out NBA." Michael C. Wright
Holmes: Everybody is focusing on the Warriors, and rightly so, but the Spurs seem to be flying under the radar a bit. Is this team as good as or better than some of the past Spurs' championship squads?
Wright: Baxter, you know the Spurs love flying under the radar, my man. The way San Antonio is playing defense, to me, is reminiscent of the 2003 championship team, which beat the Lakers in the conference semifinals. What's interesting is the fact the Spurs are still struggling offensively. So San Antonio hasn't yet reached its full potential, and when it does, look out NBA.
As San Antonio works out the kinks on offense, it's encouraging to see the team's commitment to playing strong defense to make up for what it lacks on the other end. Everybody likes to light it up on offense. But in San Antonio, you've got a veteran squad that understands it can ring up victories with defense until the Spurs can get it going on offense. You've got the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Leonard, alongside shot-blockers Duncan and Aldridge, and Danny Green, one of the league's top 3-and-D players. So for me, the verdict is out on whether the Spurs are as good as some of the past championship squads because they haven't yet clicked on offense.
Wright: How difficult of a dynamic is Kobe's whole retirement situation for the team to navigate?
Holmes: As we've seen by now, it's incredibly difficult. On one hand, Kobe is playing the way he wants to play, which means taking a ton of shots, even if they're really tough shots. But now, his body is broken down past the point of him being even reasonably productive beyond a few nights here and there where he turns back the clock. An argument can be made that he deserves to play however he wants in his 20th and final season, and nobody is stopping Bryant from doing so. If anything, his head coach Byron Scott is enabling his former teammate by giving him the ultimate green light.
But on the other hand, the Lakers are still trying to develop their young talent. It's a delicate balancing act, as I've written several times this season, and at times it feels downright impossible. If we're being honest here, this season is all about Kobe Bryant and his retirement tour. Everything else is on hold until that's over, and that includes being competitive.