September 23, 2010
For the next few weeks, I'm going to pick an NBA-related subject, A-through-Z, and tell you why it's worth your time, and why it's one of the reasons I love covering this league.
Because that's why I wanted to become a scribe who's paid to cover this league. Sharing the things I know and love with those of my kind. All that stuff.
Because I'm lucky enough to have your ear for however long, I don't care that this might come off as a bit twee. A little embarrassing. A little too forthright. I'm OK with that. Hopefully you are, as well.
"L" is for the "Los Angeles Lakers."
Mainly because there's potential there. And in basketball, more than any other sport, the lure of something that can thrill you well beyond what is offered on paper will keep you coming back. Time after time.
So the Lakers, despite those consecutive championships, don't look all that scary on paper. Little depth, brittle center, aging superstar. OK, things aren't that bad, but you can see why people might underestimate the Lakers. And, following the freak show that hit Miami this summer, I'm pretty interested in the newest, bluest way of taking in the Los Angeles Lakers.
The league's plucky overachievers.
Yes, that's pretty stupid, but the Lakers are the little team that plugs away beautifully. Sure, they boast four guys making eight figures a year, including the coach, and the team's run is pretty well-documented on national TV. Heck, it was pretty well-documented even when this outfit was shooting for 45 wins a year. But with all these superstars taking their talents to South Beach, a team full of pass-first brains running what 28 other coaches consider an outmoded offense almost seems a bit quaint.
I understand what route I'm going down, here. For years we read breathless columns from sports writers talking up the New York Yankees as if they were the hitless wonders, or some squad with a low-rent payroll that was bunting and squeezing its way to the top. It was ruddy awful, and in a few weeks when Derek Jeter goes opposite field after a 10-pitch at bat late one night on TBS, you'll read it all over again.
The Lakers? They're always on TV. A-list celebrities are often stuck with B-level ducats at their games. Your grandmother knows Kobe. Your co-worker thinks Pau would look better with a shave. Your dad remembers Phil Jackson with a mustache. Your fantasy team died last year because Bynum missed all those games. Everyone knows the Lakers.
But at their greatest, they're still the best thing this league has.
Because the Lakers are greater than the sum of their parts. This is a sport that encourages mathematics along those lines, far more than baseball or football does, and the Lakers are that ideology's acknowledged avatar. They just seem to get it, even when Kobe is forcing all those 20-footers.
Every so often, Kobe will give up the rock just after picking up a pass from Derek Fisher(notes), just inside half court. Someone will come to meet the ball with a foot on the 3-point line. Then the wheels go into motion, spaced 15-to-18 feet apart, and something pretty results. Even if the shot spins out.
It's possible the Heat, considering their roster's innumerable basketball gifts, pull something off that approximates the balance and precision of the Lakers at their best. It's possible the Heat, in a Riley-esque two-man system, bump and chuck and groove their way toward 75 wins (not an exaggeration, because LeBron's dodgy supporting cast in Cleveland allowed him to win 66 games last season) and a championship. Frankly, despite all the enmity that resulted from "The Decision," I'm hoping for something along those lines, because I'm in this for good basketball.
But the Lakers, we know, will bring that flow. Even if they fall short. They fell short in 2008 against the Celtics, and it was still a fantastic watch. We know this team -- as much as I rail against its offense -- is aesthetically the best thing this game offers in 2010. It's also the best team we have right now, and I love the fact that these two things are running hand in hand. For a good chunk of my fandom -- say, George W. Bush's two terms -- this wasn't the case. I don't really blame our former president for that, but I don't particularly mind associating him with that ugly NBA turn. I also blame the pants I was wearing that night for the Bulls losing the lottery in 2002.
It's nice to have an empire that isn't evil. As annoying as the Derek Fisher fawning can be, as frustrating as the "Kobe missed seven of nine shots in the final period, but when the game mattered, the NBA's best clutch player [sic] delivered" nonsense is, this is still a team worth appreciating to no end. Kobe's competitive instincts, his on-court brilliance, his all-around game. Pau Gasol's(notes) unending array of gifts. That one time a week where Lamar Odom(notes) looks like the best player to ever play this game. That three-week stretch where Andrew Bynum(notes) is the best center in basketball. Ron freaking Artest. Phil Jackson and that sideline triangle.
They're just a monster. Basketball at its best. And I wish they were playing tonight.