The reason no one has been willing all season long to acknowledge the Lakers for what they are -- the most overrated team in NBA history -- is the belief that when the postseason arrived, all that playoff experience and pressure-tested talent would magically mesh and march through the opposition.
I'm a big proponent of the value of playoff experience, but I'll take a big wait-and-see on this one.
The important qualifier is collective playoff experience. Putting together a bunch of guys who know what a Game 7 feels like is all well and good, but it doesn't mean as much when we're talking about different Game 7s. Shaq and Kobe and Gary Payton and Karl Malone all have won a do-or-die playoff game, but they've never done it together. Neither have the Timberwolves' leading trio of Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. In both cases, the collective basketball IQ is such that maybe they can figure it out on the fly; it's just never been done before.
The closest anyone has come to finding that championship chemistry in short order were the 2002-2003 Spurs, and even they had seven returning players on their roster, padded by veterans such as Steve Kerr and an electrifying talent such as Manu Ginobili. The Wolves' answer in those departments is Fred Hoiberg and Trent Hassell. The Lakers, similarly, offer Bryon Russell and Luke Walton. The Spurs also had the benefit of honing a specific system from the start of the season and incurred no significant injuries. Neither the Lakers nor the Wolves have that going for them, either. Truth is, I heard all the same lofty expectations of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, despite similar evidence to the contrary.
That's one of several reasons why, if the Lakers or Timberwolves get as far as the Western Conference finals, they will have defied history to do it. Teams that compete for titles can impose their will defensively while on offense, seamlessly shift from Option One through Four on their offensive sets. Every player, sub or starter, knows his role and is committed to it, even if he doesn't agree with it.
That's certainly not the case for the Lakers. They finished the season as an average defensive team in every category, they were still allowing easy baskets in close games last week and their offensive execution has been ragged, camouflaged all too often by singular acts of brilliance by Kobe Bryant. The only way they get anywhere is if the competition lets them stay close enough, night after night, to allow Kobe to wield his inimitable dagger. I'm not sure even that's enough.
That said, the Lakers should have enough to get past the Rockets. Coach Jeff Van Gundy has convinced his team that it can win without going through the usual years of playoff heartache, but that would be historic, too. A lucky squad, I suppose, could get it right the first time and execute flawlessly in the face of pressure it never has felt before, but nothing about the unforced turnover-prone Rockets suggests they're the team to do it.
This, by the way, is not meant as a smack-down of the Lakers as much as a leveling of the hype, since they've been billed as The Team To Beat since the start of the season and that notion seems to have survived. The inescapable truth is there is a whole host of ingredients that make for a championship-caliber team and established stars is certainly one of them, which is why I don't like the Memphis Grizzlies' or Milwaukee Bucks' chances more than, say, the Miami Heat's. You also need a proven scorer off the bench and at least one committed interior defender and the ability to take and make free throws.
But all that isn't enough without the glue formed by collectively tasting success in the playoff crucible before. The glue, say, that Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups have and Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest and Jamaal Tinsley do not.
The Timberwolves are in the same boat as the Lakers because they have guys who have been glued in other places. Sprewell and Cassell know what it's like to make runs all the way to the Finals, and they're sure to have a certain composure under fire in the final minute of a do-or-die game that Garnett and anyone else who hasn't won a series is missing. But the value of playoff experience isn't transferable. There's little Sam I Am or Spree can say to KG, or show him, that is going to suddenly make KG equally fire-tested. And why is it important that KG be able to handle that pressure? One, because there's no bypassing him in what the Wolves do. Two, because he is the one Wolf who can get his shot against anybody and undoubtedly will be forced to do so. Sam is crafty and fearless, but put a smart athletic big guard on him and he can be denied the ball or forced to give it up. Spree has said himself that his days as an unstoppable slasher are behind him. Neither of them is Peja Stojakovic or Kobe or Ginobili.
Hey, but maybe KG comes through. Nobody, based on dedication and desire, deserves it more. But the Wolves will win their first playoff series exactly when KG is ready to win his first playoff series, not because Sam and Spree already have.
The Spurs, conversely, have some new pieces, but their core of Tim Duncan, Ginobili, Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker remain intact from last season's championship run. Coach Gregg Popovich also installed a system and endured the growing pains of letting everyone find their place in it. The payoff is that no one outside of Detroit has played with as much continuity as San Antonio for the last month.
The same principle is why overlooking the Nets is foolish. They don't have the overall talent of the Pacers or Pistons, but they've made two trips to the Finals with the same basic components, none of whom are so old they can't do what they've done previously.
Familiarity, of course, isn't everything, or the Kings' chances would be a lot more promising, but my guess is it's why they're not simply sitting down Chris Webber and taking their chances with Brad Miller. Their hope is that they can survive until C-Webb recovers because C-Webb has been through the playoff wars with Peja, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac that can't be replicated in regular-season action. Same applies to the Mavericks, who still have their Big Three but are too far removed from the rotation and system they used to reach the Western Conference finals last year. Instead, coach Don Nelson has been tinkering all season, looking for a winning combination that includes Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison and two talented rookies, Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels. Teams with that many new moving parts don't suddenly find the solidarity needed to win a title.
Of course, injuries such as Dirk Nowitzki and C-Webb going down last season can always abruptly change the landscape, but as the playoffs open, it would be wise not to sell short teams who have been down this road before. Especially those who have been down it together.