- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Has a six-game NBA Finals ever felt more noncompetitive?
That's a rhetorical question, actually.
We totally agree with The Boston Globe's venerable Bob Ryan, who has pretty much seen them all and promptly described Celtics 4, Lakers 2 as "the NBA's first six-game sweep."
So let's proceed with six burning questions that have to be asked and answered in the wake of the Celtics bossing this six-game series throughout and finally winning their 17th championship.
Q: Will Boston repeat?
A: You have to like the Celtics' chances better than any team since the three-peating Lakers of 2000, 2001 and 2002.
For a couple of reasons.
You likewise have to figure that Celtics front-office chief Danny Ainge won't have trouble refreshing his bench with recruiters like KG, Pierce and Allen helping out. The vets, remember, helped seal the late-season signings of P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell. I suspect those three will start their summer sales pitches by persuading the rugged swingman who suddenly ranks as the most coveted role player in the league -- James Posey -- to stay in Boston.
2. Don't forget, furthermore, that the Celtics' mere residence in the East makes them overwhelming favorites to get back to the Finals in 2009.
The primary obstacle to San Antonio's past three repeat bids -- in 2004, 2006 and this season -- was getting out of the West, which is like winning a mini-championship. The Celtics surely aren't going to have it that tough in their conference in 2008-09.
I know, I know. Boston didn't exactly stroll to the title round this time. But I'd be stunned if the Celtics struggle like that in next spring's playoffs. They're more likely to start the '09 postseason with an intimidating swagger like the one that didn't begin to manifest itself this year until Boston's two road wins over Detroit in the conference finals. The Celts were supposed to obliterate Atlanta in four games, didn't deal with the pressure well when it didn't happen that quickly -- or when the first real crowd factor for ages kicked in at Hawks games -- and needed a couple of rounds in their first playoff run together to start looking like the team that started 29-3 and finished 66-16.
But now? There's a fear factor the Celts should be able to tap into after what they did to the Lakers. Pierce, Garnett and Allen are bound to be an even more dangerous trio now that they know they finished off the Finals like no team we've ever seen.
As long as Pierce's knee didn't sustain any lasting damage from his Game 1 twist, I submit that Boston has to like what it sees when it scans the East barring some sort of megatrade like the two Ainge swung a year ago.
No one knows exactly what to expect from Detroit with team president Joe Dumars vowing change after a half-decade of roster certainty, but it seems safe to presume that a step back is just as feasible as a step up in Year 1 of the Pistons' new look under rookie coach Michael Curry. Cleveland, Orlando, Washington, Toronto, Philadelphia and the upstarts from Atlanta who so stunningly dragged the Celtics to seven games in Round 1 all still have to make telling upgrades to threaten Boston's position as the East's clear-cut beast. And Chicago simply fell too far this season for anyone to suggest that the mere arrival of Derrick Rose instantly restores the Bulls to the elite.
Q: Wait a minute, Stein. Doesn't a third champion from the East in the past five seasons mean you have to quit it with your incessant East bashing?
I said it all season, and I'm sticking by it: Boston's regular-season dominance and wire-to-wire run to the championship don't change the fact that two-thirds of its conference is mediocre. Or worse.
The fact remains that only three teams in the East this season (Boston, Detroit and Orlando) had a higher win total than ninth-place Golden State in the West. The Warriors missed the playoffs despite going 48-34, as each of the West's top eight teams won at least 50 games, exceeding the previous league record of seven 50-win teams from one conference in 2000-01. The East's four lowest seeds, meanwhile, won no more than 43 games, with Atlanta needing only a 37-45 record to halt the league's longest playoff drought at eight seasons.
Do the research and you'll find that the West's status as a stronger top-to-bottom conference has been an NBA reality for much of the past two decades. Yes: Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won six championships in an eight-season span. Yes: Detroit and Miami won championships in 2004 and 2006, respectively. But the West has been deeper -- and thus more challenging to win -- for years. And it shall remain so unless a clutch of East teams makes progress.
What I will concede, after a lecture from Cassell, is that Cleveland was a tougher out than expected -- in spite of the lack of consistent support that continues to plague LeBron James -- because the Cavs play better defense than just about anyone in the West aside from San Antonio.
"You have been killin' us," Cassell said of the East as a whole. "But we're the No. 1 defensive team, Detroit is No. 2 and Cleveland is No. 3. So when people said we struggled against them teams, we're all great defensive ballclubs. You're not going to score a lot of points against the good Eastern Conference teams. You're not."
Adds Celtics guard Eddie House: "The media always beats us up, but if an East team wins two out of the last three years, it can't be that bad."
To repeat: My quarrel remains the ongoing top-to-bottom suckitude in the East that allows a 45-win team (Cleveland) to be seeded fourth and a 37-win team (Atlanta) to win a "race" for the eighth spot that kept four more bad teams (Indiana, New Jersey, Chicago and Charlotte) afloat into April.
The Celtics might actually benefit from a slightly harder regular-season push, since you could argue that Boston's lack of sharpness early in the playoffs was a product of not playing a meaningful game for weeks before the Atlanta series.
There's just no way, in short, that I'm going to say one, two or even three teams can make up for the shortcomings of an entire conference at a time when 48 wins can't snag even a No. 8 seed out West.
Q: How can the Celtics' three stars possibly be as hungry next season as they were this season?
A: This is another reason Boston's repeat chances are better than you think. The Celts have seven feet of perpetual hunger anchoring their defense.
Garnett can't relax even if he wanted to. Those who know him best say it's simply not in his makeup. Unlike Kobe Bryant, KG really only needed this title to cement his legacy after all those first-round exits in his 'Sota past. Yet he's the last guy who would let these Celtics become the 2006 Heat.
Content to cash their checks?
We asked Cassell, one of his closest pals, whether a championship would finally convince KG to dial down his legendary intensity.
"For a minute," Sam said.
Countless coaches and scouts I've talked to about Boston's D say the same thing: Garnett's constant communication and determination to hold teammates accountable at that end are forces that can, for example, help turn Allen into a defender capable of staying with Bryant after he so often struggled to do so in Seattle. I highly doubt that will change because Garnett is getting a ring on Opening Night. The frenzy he works himself into before every game is too ingrained by now to change.
One more reason to like the Celtics' chances: Tom Thibodeau probably is sticking around.
Boston's defensive guru was supposed to be a hot coaching candidate after the defensive system he gave Garnett & Co. this season. But every open job in the league was filled by the time Thibodeau was free to go on interviews. You wonder whether there's a team or two that will come to regret that, given how many times Kobe said during the Finals that Thibodeau's schemes have always bothered him.
Doc Rivers had the self-confidence to let Thibodeau run his defense in their very first season together, and it helped Rivers become just the fourth active coach in the league (along with Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown) to win a championship. You wonder, if the Celtics had to choose between the two, whom they'd rather keep: Thibodeau or Posey.
It probably would be Thibodeau, given how Garnett describes the Celtics' identity.
"We see ourselves as a defensive team that can score," KG says.
Q: Has the Zen Master suddenly lost his coaching mojo?
A: I don't buy it.
I realize that Phil bashing has never been louder, with Jackson getting shredded for (A) failing to give his young team the tactical or spiritual lift it needed in this series, (B) ultimately losing the coaching matchup to a guy who, before this season, had never won a single playoff series and (C) falling to 3-8 in his past two trips to the Finals after winning it all in each of his first nine visits to the game's grandest stage.
But I just can't write off Jackson's season no matter how ugly these Finals were.
The Lakers had a lot of good fortune this season. It started last summer when Derek Fisher returned to L.A. after the Utah Jazz agreed to release him from his contract for family reasons. You're surely sick of hearing about the Feb. 1 trade that stole, er, brought in Pau Gasol from Memphis shortly after Andrew Bynum was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Playing San Antonio in a Western Conference finals series that never gave the defending champs more than one day of rest between games -- and with Manu Ginobili clearly hampered by an ankle injury that's even worse now than the Spurs thought at the time -- was another huge gift. With Manu's left foot in a new plastic boot and his Olympic participation in real doubt, Ginobili looks like the NBA's answer to Tiger Woods except that he played miserably against L.A. after downplaying/hiding the severity of his injury whenever his Spurs bosses asked him about it. There's no way the Lakers hold Ginobili under 10 points in four of five games unless something is really wrong with him.
Yet none of the above -- nor the wretched softness of the Lakers' play in their final six games -- can prevent this season from being registered as one of Jackson's best overall coaching jobs. Maybe it wasn't as wire-to-wire impressive as what Doc did in pulling the retooled Celtics together in Year 1, but winning the wildest conference race of all time and getting out of the West are notable achievements no matter how much fortune Phil's Lakers had. The work Jackson did early in the season to keep Kobe engaged and Kobe's teammates supportive -- when everyone in the locker room knew Bryant hadn't yet budged from his Trade Me position -- was especially good.
Phil has to be first in line to get the blame when things go wrong because that's how it works for guys on the bench. So he's hearing it now like he's never heard it before. But a bad series for the coach with nine rings doesn't explain how meekly so many Lakers played for much of the series. Even after taking down San Antonio, which many saw as a breakthrough, L.A. was bullied throughout. One good run from Boston late in the second quarter was all it took for several Lakers to quit in the Game 6 decider.
The Zen Master thus has some serious scars to heal next season after the Lakers recorded the biggest blown lead in Finals history (24 points in Game 4 at home) and suffered the most lopsided defeat in a clinching game (39 points) in Finals history. Jackson does have to rebound strongly next season, too, because it might take more than just welcoming back a healthy Bynum for L.A. to recover from those humiliations.
Q: So are the Lakers really going to pursue Ron Artest as part of that rebound?
A: I believe so.
Let's face it. The Lakers are suddenly answering to a "soft" label and have undeniable defensive and toughness issues on the perimeter that Pierce repeatedly exploited. Factor in Jackson's proven ability to handle personalities like Artest, Artest's friendship with Bryant and the Lakers' known interest in acquiring him before Gasol's arrival and the Sacramento swingman becomes a natural target.
But there are basketball issues involved -- does Artest fit in offensively in Jackson's triangle? -- and bigger obstacles than the X's and O's to making that move. Artest told ESPN.com earlier this week that he's "99 percent sure" he won't be opting out of the final year of his contract by the June 30 deadline. Assuming he doesn't change his mind, Artest would thus be available to the Lakers only via trade, which would then require two old rivals to come together on a deal with Sacramento likely to insist on holding out for Odom's expiring contract in exchange for Artest and Kenny Thomas.
Artest followed up our Tuesday interview with an e-mail Thursday in which he said: "Even if I was to opt out, which probably won't happen, I will never accept a mid-level exception. So people trying to figure out possibilities should get that out of their heads."
Translation: Artest is strongly against opting out largely because he knows that the Lakers (and any other interested party) likely would offer him a free-agent contract starting at no higher than the mid-level, which was $5.4 million this season. He'd rather play next season at $7.4 million for Sacramento or whomever -- knowing that the Kings are virtually certain to get various trade offers if he elects to play out the final year of his contract -- then see what kind of deal he can command on the 2009 free-agent market.
"Next summer can be a bigger [free-agent] summer for me if the Kings win big," Artest said, "which is anything else is a failure."
Q: Whose legacy took the bigger hit in these Finals Kobe's or Phil's?
Both of them surely absorbed some haymakers and lost some luster. Kobe's MVP season was undeniably nuked by the outcome -- and overshadowed by Pierce's breakthrough -- and Phil will be reading all summer (if he deigns to read anything hoops-related) about how he was outcoached by Rivers.
But this was hardly their last opportunity to win the rings that will get us media types slobbering anew: Kobe's first without Shaquille O'Neal and Phil's 10th to break his coaching tie with Red Auerbach. If Kobe wins, say, two or three more rings, some of what happened in this series will be forgotten.
For all L.A.'s blown leads and Game 6 embarrassment, no one lost more in the 2008 NBA Finals than David Stern. The Commish is the one whose championship series kept getting interrupted by uncomfortable questions and fallout from a game that was played in 2002.
As stated in this cyberspace last week: It doesn't matter if you stack evidence all the way to the rim and beyond to disprove every conspiracy allegation this league has ever faced. Too many people out there want to believe that the league manipulates outcomes, no matter how many times they are reminded that the small-market Spurs have won four championships and two draft lotteries in the past two decades and that the megamarket New York Knicks have replaced the Los Angeles Clippers as the NBA franchise most likely to be ridiculed by the likes of David Letterman and Jay Leno and that the Kings-Lakers 2002 playoff game Tim Donaghy alleges was fixed -- as my longtime colleague Scott Howard-Cooper points out in the Sacramento Bee -- was part of a series that offers plenty of evidence to contradict any conspiracy notions.
None of that matters because so many reasonable people out there look past all that, convinced that Stern is orchestrating everything. That's the NBA's problem. What will it take to start chipping away at a perception that mysteriously seems to come up only in this league? The NFL generates far more professional and casual gambling than the NBA ever will, but when was the last time an officiating controversy in American football was met with cries of fix?
Congressional hearings? Investigation by an independent committee? If the NBA opts for either, would that really be a meaningful first step in regaining the trust of thousands of fans? I field a zillion complaints each season about the referees but so few suggestions on how to win back the skeptics. Or to simply find better refs or train the current crop smarter.
Phil's other dream besides that 10th ring?
"We hope that the summer brings some things around that will just cool this off," Jackson said before Game 5, "[so] we can have some confidence again with the public about our refereeing situation."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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