Lakers appear ready to win for long haul
EL SEGUNDO, CALIF.
The common thought surrounding the Lakers' chances of sustained success over the next three to five years: Kobe Bryant's teammates can occasionally be a bunch of enigmatic, California-flaky role players who just might not grow and mature into an NBA dynasty, let alone a multiple champion.
That's easy to sell when Ron Artest shows up late to practice the day after the biggest shot of his career and is fined by Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. (Apparently, Artest was so excited after making that fall-away putback of a Bryant air ball to beat the Suns at the buzzer of Game 5 that he misread the Friday practice time on the locker room chalkboard.)
When Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom goes AWOL in an important game, the Lakers just don't resemble the NBA's next uber-team. Same goes when Sasha Vujacic isn't quite ready to play big minutes and Andrew Bynum can't stay healthy long enough to be an all-star.
Heck, or when Jackson entrusts one inconsistent veteran to look after another loopy one. "I tell Lamar [Odom] he's [Artest's] guardian," Jackson said of the former New York schoolboy legends who played on the same AAU team as teenagers.
"It's not the blind leading the blind," Jackson quipped Friday after the Lakers wrapped up preparation for Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night in Phoenix. "But it's probably the deaf leading the blind."
It's a good ruse they've got going, Artest coming across as the mischievous little brother who has his heart in the right place and sometimes gets it all right and makes the wrongs go away, like Thursday night at Staples Center. And all those inconsistent big men, unable to realize their potential.
But the larger picture emerging from Game 5 paints a harsh truth for the rest of the Western Conference and perhaps the league:
The Lakers aren't just on the cusp of repeating this season; they may have championship mettle until Bryant retires. If they can dispense of Phoenix and the Eastern Conference champion, they might be on the cusp of becoming the Chicago Bulls of their era, the first team to win two and three in a row since the breakup of the Bling Dynasty -- Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, circa 2002.
Of course that involves Jackson, whom owner Jerry Buss wants to take a pay cut and stay after his contract expires this year. He's the biggest pending free agent for the franchise. But if he wants to coach and he feels good -- and both sides can come up with a fee that's not $10 million per year but also not insulting -- Jackson stays.
More than that, Jackson has to feel he has a chance to keep growing with his team. And that's where the seminal game of the Lakers' 2010 postseason might be the best recruiting tool imaginable to keep him around.