In this galaxy, one star may shine brightest
Funny thing happened this season in this League O' Stars. Some star-starved teams did pretty well.
Memphis. Milwaukee. Denver. Miami. Utah.
There are so many overachievers in today's NBA, flourishing with one certifiable All-Star or less and relying on their collective strength as a unit, the playoffs didn't have room for them all.
Year of the Team, you could call it.
Except now we've advanced to the playoffs, and you know what that means. This, after all, is still a League O' Stars. Stars dominate the playoffs. Stars win championships.
"I think we're a team that has the best chance to win," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think the Spurs have played the best over the last month in our conference, and I think Detroit's played probably the best over in the Eastern Conference, but I think we're the team that has the ability to do all that has to be done in the next six to eight weeks."
Jackson, of course, is basing that belief on the presence of four future Hall of Famers in his starting lineup. Jackson contends, without much opposition around the league, that the Lakers are the most likely group to be dominating and intimidating by the time the NBA Finals arrive, because of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
The Lakers, mind you, aren't the only title contender that has overloaded on star power. Sacramento, if the Kings could ever get healthy, possesses the most formidable seven-man rotation in the league: Chris Webber, Brad Miller and Vlade Divac up front, with Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie doing the rest. Minnesota, after seven straight first-round exits, is bringing its former No. 2 option off the bench now, along with the former No. 1 overall draft pick it signed to free agency. Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi are role players for a club that also added Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in the offseason.
No one mentions Dallas as a legit contender, but the Mavericks have names aplenty. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley form the ever-present Big Three, with an Antoine (Walker) and an Antawn (Jamison) and two fast-maturing rookies (Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard) providing bonus punch.
The best teams in the East ride their stars, too. Indiana became a 60-win team for the first time when Ron Artest joined Jermaine O'Neal at an All-Star level and after adding one of the game's undeniable go-to coaches in Rick Carlisle. New Jersey is thinner than any (real or imagined) title contender but still has a pretty good threesome of its own with Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson. Even blue-collar Detroit has turned somewhat starry on us, having acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trading deadline to partner Ben Wallace and Larry Brown, the Pistons' new big-name coach.
There's really only one team out there that can make this a start-to-finish Year of the Team. Unless you think that an upstart like Memphis or Milwaukee can rise up and make these playoffs a full-blown fairy tale.
It's San Antonio, as always.
The funny thing about the star wars out West is that the Spurs, even after the retirement of David Robinson, remain the team most likely to cause the Lakers problems. Even without Robinson, they still managed to share the league lead in team defense with Detroit (allowing just 84.3 points per game) and lead the league in field-goal defense (.409). San Antonio doesn't have the shooters it had last spring, with Stephen Jackson and Steve Kerr removed, and its free-throwing continues to be abysmal, but coach Gregg Popovich will be trying to win his third championship in the past six seasons with an approach no one copies.
It's Tim Duncan, surrounded by a variety of parts that snap together around him just so.
It's Manu Ginobili, the Spurs' second-best player, operating as a sixth man.
"We've always done it that way," Popovich says. "Every year, we've always taken that approach -- fit pieces in. I like guys that are trying to prove something or maybe haven't been successful elsewhere. For us, it's a challenge."
If the regular season was any guide, perhaps it's also a blessing. Phil Jackson, who believes in such things, would have to say San Antonio has the karma edge as the playoffs commence, after we've just seen Memphis zoom to a stunning 50 wins with only one guy (Pau Gasol) playing more than 30 minutes a game ... and Milwaukee defying off-base prognisticators (like me) to finish .500 after stripping away all the heavy hitters who used to play in front of Michael Redd and Desmond Mason ... and Utah losing Malone and John Stockton -- and then Matt Harpring after 30-some games -- and still barely missing the playoffs while riding the skinny shoulders of Andrei Kirilenko.
If any postseason disproves the theory that stars win championships, this figures to be the one.
That said, even if it happens and San Antonio repeats as champion, you get the sense that all those Teams out there -- yes, even the Spurs -- wouldn't exactly be opposed to loading up on stars if they had the chance.
San Antonio's Plan A, remember, was signing Kidd to play alongside Duncan this season. Memphis admittedly relies on a 10-man rotation because it's hoping to parlay two or three of its promising youngsters into a certifiable All-Star via trade. Denver and Utah were darlings all season for their improvement, but both clubs have stashed away bags of cap room in hopes of landing new franchise players to complement the rising stars they already have -- Carmelo Anthony and Kirilenko, respectively. Miami is another team with star quality that's just starting to sprout in Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom.
"You're talking about teams that are playing to their maximum potential," Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown said. "We run well, we shoot threes and we can score points, but we have to be at the absolute top of our game. We've a very fragile team. We're not a post-up, power team.
"If you're going to advance, the teams you mentioned might surprise and get to the second round. But I've always said this since I've been in the league: You can't get by the second round on heart. Because when you play in the second round, you are playing one of the two best teams in the conference."
One of the two most star-laden teams, usually.
Which is why Brown sounded a bit envious when someone asked him about all the supposed problems Sacramento had during the final six weeks of the season.
"People say it's because they don't have Bobby Jackson," Brown said. "Can you believe that? They only have five other guys who are All-Star type players. It's kind of humorous."
No jokes now, though. The playoffs are here, and they will tell us which kind of team you need to be the best, if only for 2003-04 specifically.