- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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We said so in this very same chunk of cyberspace, one day after last season ended.
We say so again now, one week before the new season starts.
A summer of unprecedented roster renovation around the league hasn't changed ESPN.com's opinion: Dynasties are not dead in the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers, while not even close to that orbit yet, are still going to wind up dynastic and fantastic in coming years. And they're going to give us a sizzling rivalry as part of the journey -- as long as you don't mind that it's two teams from the same conference.
No offense taken -- the skepticism is understandable. San Antonio, 1999's ring-winners, lost in the first round of the 2000 tournament, thereby becoming the first champions since the 1985-86 Boston Celtics to win the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy only once in a row. The Lakers, as presently constituted, look eminently capable of losing their crown to Portland, to give us a second straight champ that couldn't live up to the league's lengthy drag of repeats and three-peats.
No worries, friends. Fact is, it might be better for the NBA's new-millennium dynasty prospects if the Lakers do cede the 2001 title to the Trail Blazers. Perhaps that would dispel Jerry Buss' fantasy notion that he only has to pay two players. Maybe a failure to repeat launches Buss into a search for ownership partners (or successors) whose pockets, if not quite as bottomless as Paul Allen's, would affix a sturdy third wheel to the best hoops-playing duo on the planet.
Because that's all the Lakers need to dominate much of the next decade. Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA's most dominant life form, is just 28. Kobe Bryant, a top-five force bound for the No. 2 slot, is a mere 22. This tandem, with just some dependable help, will outlast all of Portland's pricy veterans: Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, Dale Davis, Arvydas Sabonis and Steve Smith. Injury or disinterest are the only things that can stop them, now that Orlando didn't land Tim Duncan and Grant Hill.
"We really don't need more big-time guys that want big-time salaries," O'Neal says. "We just need guys that are great at their position."
The Lakers might very well win again come June after just a little tinkering, adding a one-year stopgap (Horace Grant) and a minimum-salary gamble (J.R. Rider). With some bolder moves, there won't be any doubt about a string of rings before Shaq retires. When the day comes that The Big Everything and Kid-No-More Kobe are flanked by a deadly outside shooter and a proven power forward from their own generation, there will be no dynasty debate. No quibbling over errant free throws or selfish shot selection.
Shaq and Kobe, as everyone knows, will only become more uncontainable with time. They will continue to tempt marquee free agents such as Brian Grant and Chris Webber to give up millions for the privilege of inheriting LA's $2-plus million exception and forming a triangle for the ages. They'll keep prompting stars like Chris Webber to hound their agents into hatching sign-and-trade schemes that get them to the Staples Center.
Even Phil Jackson, at first reluctant to endorse the premise, eventually agrees. Winning six titles in eight seasons, as he enjoyed in Chicago with Michael Jordan and Pippen, is not inconceivable to the all-knowing Zen Master.
"If we win two and we have a good strong team and we're searching for a third, I'd talk about it at some level," Jackson said.
Free agency and salary-cap constraints obviously make that more challenging than Red Auerbach's Celtics had it, but, as Jackson adds: "I do think that you can win with less talent than you could a few years ago. ... It was amazing to me that this team won the championship in [our] first year. It says something about the league and the depth of talent. But it also says something about this team's ultimate potential."
We repeat: They're not in the dynasty universe yet, as anyone can see. The Lakers' competition certainly doesn't think so, either, judging by all the shakeups in our league (as Hubie Brown might say) since it last staged a game that meant something.
No longer do teams build for the long haul, learn through their failures and ride continuity to success. That was the late-'80s Pistons, or Jackson's Bulls in the '90s. As witnessed over the summer -- with Jordan and his Nikes safely buried in the Wizards' front office by the anvil-like contracts of Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond -- moves now come in flurries because everyone else thinks they have a chance. All of last spring's conference finalists, including the Lakers, will have at least two new starters.
The first new episode of Dynasty Watch, of course, comes Halloween Night at the Rose Garden, and the Blazers will be deserved home-court favorites. The hungrier team, too, after their Game 7 fright night in the conference finals.
Just remember to look beyond the box score. O'Neal and Bryant, at the end of the day, should evolve into a better combo than Jordan and Pippen. They're big and small, a modern-day Wilt and the closest thing to a Next MJ. And like all great basketball dynasties, pro or college, the Lakers have the patriarch to nurture the difference-makers. Boston had Auerbach. UCLA had John Wooden. The Bulls had what LA now has with Zen Master Phil.
Scary, isn't it?
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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