The days of swaggering isolationist stars who pull whole NBA franchises out of shape and into ruin with the tractor beams of their egos may finally be over. If San Antonio and Detroit turn this championship series into something viewable, a good taut thriller, then maybe great teams, teams mind you, can become the chief entertainment of the league again, as opposed to the shallow, Paris Hilton-like celebrity of Kobe Bryant.
The NBA is experiencing a market correction. For the last several years, the league has sold itself as a game of one-on-one, on the backs of large or notorious personalities, and it's paying for it. Ever since Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993, it's looked for one-man solutions, and turned itself over to individuals at the expense of the game, to an extent that no other league has. Now it's a hostage to it: The Spurs and the Pistons are superb teams but they don't have "branding," and the league can only blame itself for that, and for falling TV ratings. If you care about seeing the game played the right way, do yourself a favor: Turn on the TV, and rescue it.
The Lakers have already made a correction of sorts, by rehiring Phil Jackson. It's interesting that they've brought back Jackson at the very moment that teamwork, as exemplified by the Spurs and Pistons, is the new competitive chic. Jackson's return is a major repudiation of Bryant, and his too-large role with the Lakers. Who knows what Bryant was playing these last couple of years, but it wasn't basketball.
Let's say that you cussed your boss, threw a basketball at his feet, and tried to get him fired. And it worked: He was pushed out. Only, a year later, he's been rehired and is the boss again. I'm thinking that Bryant has lost his leverage. I'm thinking the Lakers will be doing things Jackson's way from now on. I'm thinking the Lakers aren't paying Jackson a reported $30 million to $35 million over three years to undermine his authority again. I'm thinking that Bryant can get on board with that and lose his haughty and insubordinate ways, or he can get out of town. I'm thinking the Lakers could get a point guard and a big man for Bryant.
That's right. I'm thinking a Bryant trade could be the healthiest thing to happen to the Lakers -- and to the league as a whole, if it cures NBA management of its addiction to one-man solutions.
Two smart businessmen, owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, allowed themselves to be sucked into the riptide of Bryant's egocentrism, to such an extent that they ran off arguably the best coach in history, and traded the best big man in the game, Shaquille O'Neal. Without them, Bryant was revealed for what he is, and what he is not. And what he is not, is the next Jordan and the savior of the league or even his team. So now the Lakers have turned back to Jackson.
The funny thing is, of the central figures in the Lakers' saga, Bryant is the guy who has yet to prove that he can win something without Jackson or O'Neal. Jackson has nine championships. All Shaq did this season -- hurt -- was get his team, the Miami Heat, to the conference finals. Bryant and the Lakers, meanwhile, had some bad luck with injuries and the deteriorating health of Rudy Tomjanovich. Alone, Bryant was a solitary scorer making gloriously difficult shots on a 34-48 lottery team.
Lest we forget, the Pistons are coached by a guy, Larry Brown, who had the guts to walk away from another great but ungovernable young player, Allen Iverson. Brown's reward was the 2004 NBA title at the expense of the Lakers, followed by a repeat appearance in this championship series. His team must be a pleasure to coach, between Ben Wallace's selfless dirty work, and the willingness of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton to share.
And then there are the Spurs, so complete, with seemingly indispensable players at all five positions. And whose reserves include Robert Horry, a player who serves as a reminder that the Lakers at their best were never all about Bryant in the first place.
Think back on those three titles the Lakers won in five years, and the funny thing is, you remember the performances of Horry, as well as Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw and Rick Fox, as much as you do those of Bryant. Of course Bryant had some huge games, made some huge shots. But in 2001-2002, Horry was the hero of the playoffs, when he hit that magnificent three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left, to give the Lakers a 92-91 victory at Portland. And who then knocked down another huge three with 0.6 on the clock to give the Lakers a 100-99 win over the Sacramento Kings in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. And who got a playoff-career-high 20 rebounds against Sacramento, too.
Horry has five championship rings and is seeking a sixth. And on Tuesday night, Horry surpassed Jordan for first place in career three-pointers in the NBA Finals, with 43. Horry trails only Reggie Miller for the most three-pointers in postseason history.
The Lakers need a few more players like that, the Horrys, the Shaws, the Fishers and Foxes. Jackson himself has said that the Lakers' roster, so lopsided and tilted toward Bryant, "is not appealing." They have too many players at some positions and not enough at others. You think Jackson doesn't remember the value of the Horrys and Fishers? You think he doesn't have the guts or sang-froid to shuck Bryant, if he thinks it's in the interests of better collaboration on the floor?
In all the puzzling over Jackson's motive for returning as head coach, what's forgotten is the competitiveness of the man -- he hates losing and he hasn't done much of it and he can't have liked losing his job. There is iron in him, beneath the juju and the guru stuff. The richness of his contract is surely a factor in his decision to return, but surely another factor is gut satisfaction. You have to wonder if Jackson just couldn't live with the way things ended in L.A. a year ago.
Last year, Bryant was good for ratings -- but he was bad for the Lakers and bad for the game. This year, the Spurs and the Pistons are bad for ratings. But they're good for game. So do the game a favor: Turn on the TV, and rescue it from Kobe Bryant.