Sunday, June 14, 2009

16 and counting

It's been a long 7 years since the last championship, so many things have happened with this team that it seems much longer.

2002 was the year of the epic WCF struggle with the Queens, having to endure them poisoning Kobe and needing the legendary Robert Horry shot to even the series in Game 4 before putting them away in an overtime Game 7. It looked like only a matter of time before Sacramento was able to claim a title of their own, but in reality they never recovered from this series. The Lakers were the 6th team (and 3rd Laker team) to threepeat.

And looked like a good bet to become the 2nd of those to get a fourpeat, it only having been done before when Boston won 8 in a row in an era where it was so much easier, with the 9 team league and no salary cap or full inverse draft to spread the talent. Shaq had been the best player on the planet for half a decade, and was still in prime and maybe getting better as a coming toe surgery would relieve the debilitating pain he had been fighting through. And Kobe was certain to get better, not even in full prime yet.

2002-03 was the year that began with a 3-9 start as Shaq recovered from that toe surgery, and saw them still meandering around the .500 mark as the All Star Game approached. A late run got them to 50 wins, but they would have to win every series on the road, and after 5 of the 6 legitimate rotation players were either out or severely limited with injury by the second round the team's low seeding and lack of depth was just too much to overcome (although they came an in and out Robert Horry 3 from likely winning another title anyway).

2003-04 was the season that saw the signings of Malone and Payton and the sexual assault charges against Kobe all occur in a whirlwind couple of weeks in July, taking us all on a rollercoaster ride that would last all season. This was a great team when all on the court, off to an 18-3 start and 20-5 when Malone tore his knee up, an injury from which he would eventually return but never really get right.

After meandering around for a couple of months with no real replacement for Malone, they rallied after his return and looked set to fulfill their destiny anyway. There was adversity in the playoffs, notably falling behind 2-0 to San Antonio and almost blowing a huge lead in Game 5 before a fluky no-look 22 foot fallaway jumper from Duncan was answered by Fish's glorious "0.4" shot that will live in Laker lore forever.

Alas, Malone reinjured the knee in the WCF against Minnesota and could never really go in the Finals against Detroit, once again exposing a team with no backup to be exploited by a healthy quality (if lesser) opponent for the second straight year.

Then the meltdown of 2004-05, as Kobe essentially forced out Phil and forced a trade of Shaq that everybody who knew the game realized would signal the end of the Lakers as a serious playoff team (along with the reurement of Fox and the departure of Horry and Fish). A bizarre split among some Laker fans into Shaq and Kobe factions developed, which I always found incomprehensible - after all these guys had given us, the dynasty they had forged, choosing one of them was to me like choosing between one's children. Then again, I'm sure there were Laker fans who hated Magic in 1992, it takes all types I guess.

At any rate, it was back to square one, as even the blindest of Kobe sycophants were forced to acknowledge after an injury-plagued 2-19 finish to a very un-Laker 34-48 season that featured new coach Rudy Tomjanovich melting down and leaving midseason. It turned out that Kobe and a couple of minor star types (Odom and Caron Butler had come over int he Shaq trade) was a recipe for mediocrity, as even Laker fans had underestimated Shaq's greatness and how much he would be missed.

2005-06 brought back Phil back to the fold and a trade of Butler for the the prayer that Kwame Brown would tap what people still thought was potential. There was the master stroke of drafting Bynum with the 10th pick, but he was 17 so that would not help for a while.

Even with Phil's deft touch, this was still a team with Lamar as its #2 player and that featured Kwame Brown and Smush Parker playing featured roles as starters, one that was weak enough that Kobe was able to score over 35 a game. Phil got them to overachieve enough to take a 3-1 lead over a vastly superior Phoenix team before losing a great first round series.

2006-07 was the ecstasy and the agony. The ecstasy, as it became clear to (most of, anyway) us that Bynum was good enough to be a franchise player, a guy who could lead us to our next championship as either the top dog later on or part of a core of stars very soon. The agony, as it became clear that while Kobe is like Jerry West as a player, he is like Isiah Thomas as a talent evaluator.

He regressed into an anti-leader, snarling at his teammates and coaches and, after a 5 game first round playoff exit, lashing out at the front office that he was too foolish to realize had him in a position to win again while still in prime. He publicly admonished them for not making what would have been disastrous trdaes of Bynum for Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal, aging stars who would not even have been particularly likely to be better than Drew the coming season, with no chance of being as good going forward. He asked to be traded. Bottom line, he made a complete fool of himself with his idiotic pronouncements on the state of the franchise.

That carried exactly one game into the 2007-08 season. In game 1, Kobe scored 45 on a ridiculous 44 shooting possessions, playing perhaps the most selfish game in a career characterized by selfish play and sabotaging a winnable home game against a quality team.

In game 2 three nights later, he was mostly an observer as Bynum was dominating in a road blowout win over championship contender Phoenix, and it's as if a light went off in his head: this guy can lead me to the promised land.

By January, Bynum was dominating on a nightly basis, the athletic slasher Ariza had been added from Orlando in a steal of a trade for Brian Cook and Mo Evans, and the Laekrs were moving up the standings. Even when Bynum suffered the fluky serious knee injury that would ultimately end his season, Kobe was fully on board.

However, Bynum's injury had derailed the current season, so it looked like things would have to be out on hold for a year even if he came back late as he would surely be out of sync. Enter Mitch Kupchak, who turned Kwame's expiring contract, two young players (Marc Gasol and Javaris Crittenton), two #1 draft picks and more cap relief into arguably the most skilled big man in the game, Pau Gasol.

Suddenly, the Lakers were contenders again, and the team took off on a run that landed them at the top of the Western Conference standings. From there, they rolled to the playoffs without any stress beyond having to win a Game 6 in Utah, a dominating 12-3 run.

In those Finals they met a historically good Boston team, who was underestimated because they had struggled in the playoffs (two 7 game series and a 6) and because people just did not recognize how damned good they were during the season. LA was actually favored, but they were not quite ready for that level of competition. A comically one-sided officiated Game 2 put them in a hole, a blown 24 point lead in Game 4 at home put them on the brink, and giving up after falling down in a humiliating Game 6 ended their dreams, but they were back.

And from the moment they walked off the court after that Game 6, they had a singular obsession with getting back and finishing the job. From the offseason workouts, to the day they reported to camp, to the night the season tipped, through a season when things did not always go as planned, through a playoff run to glory, this was a team that was not, under any circumstances, going to be denied.

That's the context that led to this 16th championship in the franchise's storied history, I'll continue later with some reflection and a look at the season as it unfolded.

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