Are the Lakers Still Relevant?

Lakers Fans

I really wonder if the Lakers are title contenders anymore, and here is why.

#1: The Lakers will miss Phil Jackson more than most people realize.In game 2 of the 1992 NBA Finals, Clyde Drexler‘s Portland Trailblazers put the basketball world on notice by defeating the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls in Chicago. And as game 6 played out in Chicago, it looked like the Blazers were on the brink of handing Chicago another home loss and forcing a game 7.

After all, no team in the history of the NBA had ever come back from a 15 point deficit to win a game in the NBA Finals.

So in the second half of game 6, when Bulls head coach, Phil Jackson pulled Michael Jordan out of the game and replaced him with Bobby Hansen, people wondered if Jackson had given up on game 6 and was saving Jordan for game 7.  Except for Scottie Pippen, Jackson appeared to have emptied his bench, nevertheless Bobby Hansen, B.J. Armstrong, Scott Williams and Stacey King mounted a comeback that will forever live in NBA Finals history. In fact, Bobby Hansen will probably always be best known for being a key part of the improbable comeback he and his teammates pulled off in those 5 minutes of game time.

When Jordan was asked if, at the start of the 4th quarter, he thought that the Bulls could still win, he answered, “In my mind, frankly, no, I didn’t think it was possible.”

But I think Phil Jackson did think winning was possible. Why?

First, Phil still had Scottie Pippen on the floor. If Phil had given up, he wouldn’t have risked a Pippen injury and would have pulled Pippen as well to assure his legs were fresh for game 7.

Second, just look at the minutes the two teams played that game. The Bulls played 10 players, while the Blazers played just 7 players, and the Blazers played 4 of their 5 starters extremely heavy minutes.

Phil JacksonI believe Phil Jackson took a look at the box score, noticed the heavy minutes the Blazers’ starters had played, and decided to insert fresh-legged hustlers whom the crowd loved.

With a 15 point second half lead, the weary Blazers may have relaxed just a bit when they saw Michael leave the game.

And as the the hyper hustling Bulls bench had their small bits of success: a steal here, a 3-pointer there, they excited the crowd which in turn encouraged the bench players all the more. With ferocious energy, the Chicago Bulls’ bench saw increasing success against their more talented — and more fatigued — opponents. With every steal, with every rebound, with ever score, the deafening approval of the Chicago crowd rattled the tired Blazers all the more. Then Phil inserted a fresh Michael Jordan to close out the game.

Keeping in mind that Blazers coach Rick Adelman played his starters pretty much the entire game without rest, you can see the impact of Phil Jackson choosing to send in his high energy players when he did: the Blazers averaged 26.33 points per quarter in quarters 1 through 3, but managed only 14 in the 4th quarter.

This is but one of many reasons I think the Los Angeles Lakers will miss Phil Jackson more than many of us realize. While most coaches focus on doing what others have done better than their opponents, Phil challenges conventional wisdom, and innovates in the process.

Uh, yeah#2: Kobe may be in for his worst season ever.We may never know how much Jackson’s retirement will affect the Lakers because much of the blame for the Lakers’ fall will be placed at the feet of father time catching up to the Lakers. And with the injury to (of all places) the shooting wrist of Kobe Bryant — even though Kobe will play anyway — given his age and the density of games per week this season, it is possible Kobe will play so poorly he might not even be a candidate for starting for the West in the all-star game, much less NBA MVP.

Shaq and PhilIf Lakers would trade Shaq in his waning years, would they consider trading Kobe as well?

#3: The Lakers’ supporting cast isn’t what it used to be.Pau Gasol‘s decline started last playoffs. Pau Gasol is a man of integrity so I’m sure Pau will turn that around if he can, but when you consider the minutes he has logged for both the Lakers and for Spain, the spirit may be willing but the flesh weak.

And if the oft injured Andrew Bynum misses that many games in a normal season, how many will he miss when sitting for 3 weeks will cost him 12 games instead of 6? And has Bynum matured at all this last year? Or has he decided pouting and brooding will just be a permanent part of his adult persona?

In 2010, Ron Artest defended NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant surprisingly well, but if the Lakers meet the Thunder in the playoffs in 2012, Kevin Durant would likely use Metta World Peace like a Kleenex. Age is one reason, but another is Artest simply isn’t hungry for a championship anymore; he’s more focused on a career in boxing than he is basketball.

And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, the departures of Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom are huge — particularly Lamar. One of the most versatile players in the history of the NBA, Odom allowed the Lakers to still win games with Bynum out injured. Lamar’s inconsistency was frustrating, but at least there was always the potential that good Lamar could show up to a given game and do the needed dirty work to help the Lakers win.

You cannot point to any aspect of this season’s Lakers and say they are better than the Lakers of 2010 who won an NBA championship. Yet look at the improvements so many other teams have made.

Even if the Lakers pulled off a player trade miracle, with a new head coach, a new system and new players, they couldn’t possibly gel in this compressed season anyway.

No, just as Michael Jordan’s championship run ended with the departure of Phil Jackson from Chicago, Kobe’s likely ended with Phil’s departure from Los Angeles.

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