Lakers' whole greater than Celtics' sum

Updated: June 5, 2004, 1:09 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- To get where they are now, somewhere the Detroit Pistons haven't been in nearly 15 years, they needed the unlikely intervention of an old enemy from the Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge had to be willing to take on Chucky Atkins in a three-way trade for Joe Dumars' Pistons to score Rasheed Wallace.

Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Rick Fox
Along with the glitz, the Lakers could add to the glamour with the franchise's 15th title.
Now it's Ainge and his Celts who could use the favor.

Outside of Michigan, Bostonians have to be rooting harder for the Pistons than anyone, tough as that must be to stomach for New Englanders who still remember how Joe D and Ainge's teams felt about each other. Bostonians have to back the Pistons now because it would take something catastrophic -- losing in the NBA Finals to a team from the East -- to keep the Los Angeles Lakers from cementing their status as the most storied franchise in league history.

Check that.

The Lakers have already cemented that standing.

Sorry, Boston. A loss in the Finals, frankly, would only embarrass the basketball team you detest. Even though the Celtics have 16 championships, which would still account for the NBA record -- by one -- should the Lakers dust Detroit as expected, L.A. has already supplanted their former steel-cage foe as the Greatest Franchise Ever.

Says Pat Riley, formerly the Lakers' coach: "I don't think there's any question."

Says Robert Parish, who completed the Celtics' 1980s Holy Trinity alongside Larry Bird and Kevin McHale: "If you want to talk about dominance, you have to talk about the Lakers."

This is not merely about modern-day prestige. You already know the Lakers are the most glamorous -- and despised -- name in today's NBA, maybe in all of American sport. If an ESPN.com poll earlier this week is any indication, the Lakers are America's most hated team, as only 12.5 percent of more than 150,000 respondents deemed them more likeable than the Yankees, Cowboys or Notre Dame.

Hate, of course, often is a sign of respect in sports, and there's a reason the Lakers must be granted serious respect. The Lakers have undeniably amassed substance to supplement the glamour, on the verge of their 15th championship.

So far, they've won 14 in 27 trips to the Finals.

If you're going to talk about how the Russell Celtics dominated the West-and-Baylor Lakers in the 1960s, year after year after year, you have to be willing to talk about the post-Bird Celtics in relation to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. You can't just mention how Boston has only needed 19 trips to the Finals to win its 16 titles and then ignore the last decade and a half.

"You have to give them the nod," Parish said through pursed lips, obviously finding the admission less than pleasant. "Even in the '80s, you have to give them the nod. They won five championships. We won three."

Until the glorious '80s, it was a reflex answer for any basketball fan. Ask someone to identify the one team synonymous with the NBA and the Celtics were an automatic response.

The mystique hasn't faded completely, either. Upon accepting Ainge's offer to be the Celtics' new coach, Doc Rivers called it an opportunity that history almost forced him to accept, without waiting to see what other jobs might open.

"If you like basketball," Rivers said, "I don't know how you could say no to that."

Recent history, however, is pretty harsh on the Celtics. Phil Jackson, with one more title, can surpass Red Auerbach as the coach with the most championship rings in NBA annals. Both have nine.

Yet that's just where it starts. No less amazing is the reality that this is the league's 58th season ... and that the Lakers will have represented the West in the Finals in nearly half of those seasons. To be precise, it's 48.3 percent.

Most NBA Finals appearances
Team Finals Titles
Lakers 28 14
Celtics 19 16
76ers 9 3
Knicks 8 2

And ...

Depending on your ballot, L.A. can now claim five of the 10 greatest players in NBA history. OK, not quite five yet, but three at the very least: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain ... with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant working toward inclusion. Jerry West is another guy who's up there in the conversation, with Elgin Baylor not far off.

And then there's the greatet Laker of all: Chick Hearn.

Parish, meanwhile, is honest about the current state of his team: "It's going to take a long time before they're back [among] the heavyweights of the NBA."

Sadly, when all of the above is factored in, you can argue that the Lakers have lapped the Celtics. It seems as though the Lakers are actually chasing the Yankees, who had a half-century's head start.

"The Celtics dominated the basketball landscape for so long because of their run in the '60s," Riley said Thursday in a phone chat, detailing some of his memories of a decade-long battle with Boston that will be relived in an NBA TV special Monday commemorating the 20th anniversary of the '84 Finals.

"There has been no one able to top that run, and that's where their mystique and legend comes from. But then you got into the '80s, and after that period, with what's going on in Los Angeles now, the Lakers really are the team. While the Celtics will never, ever be forgotten, it's the Lakers."

Highest percentage of championship appearances
(*Super Bowl era)
Team League Pct.
Lakers NBA 48.3
Yankees MLB 39.4
Canadiens NHL 36.8
Cowboys* NFL 21.1
Unless ...

Well, there really is no unless. Not when commissioner David Stern can cause a national firestorm by joking -- yes, he was joking -- when he said the dream Finals matchup in the league office is "Lakers versus Lakers."

"I'd be lying," Stern said later, "if I told you there wasn't a special fascination with the Lakers."

Which means it would take a stunning and shameful exit, when everyone expects them to win another championship, to dent L.A.'s reputation. Even though it's all it would do. Beyond the dent, the fascination isn't going anywhere.

So the best the Celtics Nation can hope for is a dramatic Lakers failure against the Pistons, if only to force the giddy Angelenos to choke on a level of disappointment akin to what Bostonians have come to know over the past 15 years.

If the Pistons can somehow ring up four victories in this series? It would throw an unforeseen variable into the question everyone's asking: What will this team look like next season, when Kobe and Phil and Karl Malone and Gary Payton are all free agents?

It would also give the Lakers lots to explain, just like Ainge a few months back.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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