Lakers' wrongs making things right

Updated: June 15, 2004, 3:06 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

    Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
    I come to bury Caesar, not praise him
    The evil that men do lives after them;
    the good is oft interred with their bones.
     Mark Antony in William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
Kobe, left, and Shaq are once again walking to different beats.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Me? I come to praise the Lakers, not bury them. The shortsighted and overblown expectation that they'd win this year's championship has done them a mighty disservice, for it has far too many people believing that this season has been a disappointment.

Point in fact, it's been nothing short of amazing.

Put aside all that tired talk of four Hall of Famers and the sheen that comes from winning three of the previous four championships and look at who the Lakers really were this season:

  • Kobe Bryant, the team's best player, had knee surgery that eliminated his usual offseason regimen and had a recurring problem with a sprained shooting shoulder that forced him to miss a career-high 17 games, all while facing the prospect of a lifetime prison term for rape.

  • Shaquille O'Neal, the team's most dominant force, saw his free-throw shooting plummet below 50 percent and his speed and hops deteriorate from a combination of age, injury and weight to the point that more than a few teams, including the Pistons, no longer considered it necessary to double-team him. A season in which the Lakers needed him to be the consummate leader, he started by shouting at owner Jerry Buss to give him a $100 million extension in the midst of an exhibition game, rekindled his feud with Kobe (questioning Kobe's knee rehab when he wasn't ready to start the season), cursed on live TV to earn a one-game suspension in the midst of a tough road trip in which the Lakers already were missing Kobe and Karl Malone and insulted general manager Mitch Kupchak by suggesting he could do a better job. Even now he's bellowing at the Pistons' crowd during games and telling reporters afterward his teammates aren't giving him the ball enough. It's not as if they're purposely ignoring him; the Pistons' defense has played a big part. In any case, I fail to remember Kareem or Wilt or Michael or Magic or Tim Duncan calling out their teammates like that in public. Maybe they did behind closed doors, but that's a big difference.

  • Malone, the league's second-leading all-time scorer, sustained the first major injury of his 19-year career, missing 40 games to a torn right knee ligament, his right leg being the one he took off on in his unorthodox style. Upon his return, Malone had to focus all his attention on being a defender -- hardly the reason he's a Hall of Famer -- at power forward to compensate for Shaq's shortcomings and the team's lack of an alternative. Then he injured the same knee in Game 2, turning him practically into a statue. A chiseled and defiant one, to be sure, but a statue nonetheless.

  • Gary Payton, a ball-handling and scoring point guard, arrived thinking he could coerce Phil Jackson to junk the triangle offense in favor of an uptempo attack through him. He actually had some success at first, but the loss of Malone short-circuited the fastbreak, which left Payton as a stand-still 3-point jump shooter, even less of a strength for him than defense for Malone.

  • Rick Fox, the team's unofficial enforcer, defensive specialist and starting small forward on those three championships teams, had offseason foot surgery, missed 44 games and had career lows in points (4.8) and field-goal percentage (39.2).

    I'd list the positive developments if there were any beyond rookie Luke Walton showing he could be an effective player in the triangle offense somewhere down the road. That just seems to be a little superfluous after cataloguing the aforementioned negatives.

    And yet this team reached the NBA Finals, going through the Yao Ming-led Rockets, defending-champion Spurs and the No. 1-seeded Timberwolves.

    Anyone who cares about basketball should be thankful it won't go further than that, for the concept of what a championship team is and what it's about would've been forever ruined. (I included the "evil that men do lives after them" part for a reason.)

    Whether it was the hurdles placed before them or the team's overall caliber, the Lakers never carried themselves like champions the entire season. Too much bickering about their roles. Too much talk by those with an option to leave about being elsewhere (Kobe, GP and Karl were all guilty of it and even Shaq, with two years remaining on his contract, alluded to it). Too many games, particularly in the playoffs, where they were outworked or lost focus. Too much arrogance, even now, about how they're not being beaten but are beating themselves.

    They still overcame their own misdirected interests to get to the Finals which, again, ranks as an extraordinary achievement. But what would it say about the most prized accolade the NBA has if a team that behaved as the Lakers have ended up with it?
    That may have the sound of shoveled dirt striking coffin lid, but it's not -- that's simply who and what they were this season. They still overcame their own misdirected interests to get to the Finals which, again, ranks as an extraordinary achievement. But what would it say about the most prized accolade the NBA has if a team that behaved as the Lakers have ended up with it? And what kind of league would it be if the Lakers' attitude and approach this season were perceived and adopted as a winning one?

    The Pistons, conversely, are by no means a perfect bunch, as individuals. But they've all played as if all that matters to them is winning that coveted golden globule. The only fingers they've pointed at each other have been in acknowledgement of a great play. They've made personal sacrifices on the floor, they've been quick to praise their teammates for whatever individual success they've had and they've been willing to do the dirty work of rebounding and help defense and setting picks that are and always will be the foundation of every championship team.

    Name one who made an issue of his points or his minutes or his role. I guarantee you not everybody in a Detroit uniform was happy with how coach Larry Brown used him. But they cared enough about the common goal to keep their personal agenda from getting in the way. They undoubtedly had people in their ear telling them they deserved more or better, as all players do, but they all did something remarkably simple -- they cared more about their teammates than themselves. Not by what they've said, but by what they've done.

    In short, should Detroit finish this off, the Pistons have set the bar for next season where it belongs -- in a place beyond the reach of any group of individuals, no matter how decorated or tenured or talented. Only teams hoist NBA titles. Pray that it stays that way.

    Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Also, click here to send Ric a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Ric Bucher

    NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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