Don’t dare claim you knew the Detroit Pistons were going to kick the stuffing out of the Los Angeles Lakers, not unless you’ve got it in writing and notarized by at least three solemn souls. You couldn’t have known a seven to one underdog was going to pound Hollywood’s favorite team, and pride of NBA brass, in five games, and would have swept in four without a last second shot by Kobe Bryant in game two. You damn well didn’t foresee a team with the game’s most dominant player, Shaquille O’Neal, the game’s most compelling athlete, Bryant, and two other distinguished future members of the hall of fame – Karl Malone and Gary Payton – being outrun, out-rebounded, out-defended, out-hustled, and outscored so decisively. You couldn’t have imagined the undefeated guru of finals basketball, Phil Jackson, not being able to motivate, berate, and cajole his players into his tenth championship. You were either picking the Lakers in five or six, or you knew more than most of us and said the Pistons might be able to stretch it to seven.
In fairness, one must emphasize that Malone, who had so recently used muscle and guile to limit Tim Duncan’s scoring and manifestly contribute to the Lakers’ victory over San Antonio, was on the bench in street clothes during the final-game debacle, and perhaps should have been resting his injured knee a game or two earlier. So these were not quite the Lakers that had been rebuilt to win a championship this year. Payton, the legendary “Glove” who had long smothered shooters, was also not present in the form anticipated. While his role as a mere supporting actor for the Lakers limited his offensive opportunities, one cannot explain his defensive ineffectiveness without positing age – he’s in his mid-thirties – as a factor.
But what the Lakers failed to do is not nearly as significant as what the Pistons succeeded in doing, and doing with startling efficiency. Ben Wallace continued his muscular assertion as the league’s best defender and rebounder, and was a supreme force in the second half of game five, capturing seventeen rebounds. In a series that was supposed to feature Shaq and Kobe, the oft-rejected and much-traveled Chauncey Billups earned the Most Valuable Player trophy as he averaged twenty-one points and five rebounds. Billups’ interviews after games one and three should have told us where things were going. He made it clear. He was going to continue to be aggressive, to take it to the Lakers, and if he happened to be off it wouldn’t matter because Rip Hamilton or Rasheed Wallace or someone else would be on. Sharp-shooting Rip, undeterred by defenders and the extraterrestrial mask protecting his twice-broken nose, nailed many important jumpers and, like Billups, put the ball on the floor and got some layups. Rasheed Wallace, more often criticized for verbal outbursts than praised for fine scoring and rebounding throughout his career, was a steady and talented contributor since joining the Pistons in mid-season. He’d also been a key player on the Portland Trailblazers that in 2000 led the Lakers by 15 points in the fourth quarter of game seven of the Western Conference finals. His team couldn’t hold off Shaq and Kobe then. Now, the two Wallaces and Billups and Hamilton and others, guided by the intense and heretofore title-less Larry Brown, sustained a clinic on fundamentally sound and tough basketball, prompting Shaq to say, “All the credit to those guys. They really outplayed us.”
Laker owner Jerry Buss, who proudly and publicly collects photos in scrap books of almost all his young female friends, was within days forced to return to the scientific thinking of his earlier career and conclude that Kobe, at age twenty-five, is the man to build the team around rather than thirty-two year old and frequently-injured Shaq. Shaq, not coincidentally, is a Phil Jackson guy and Kobe is not. So Phil Jackson, as his agent said, “was not invited to return.” After meeting with Jackson, Buss proclaimed him the greatest coach in history and thanked him for three NBA titles in five seasons but didn’t say what he’d told Jackson while shoving him out the door. The Lakers also announced they would try to accommodate Shaq’s request to be traded. He’d bring a lot right now and would lighten the Lakers’ payroll by thirty million bucks a season. It’s likely Buss envisions bringing in a couple of players who, with Kobe, could form the foundation of a quick, young, aggressive team like the, well, the Detroit Pistons, of course.
That might work. But unless trading Shaq would promptly put the Lakers in position to compete for another championship, the team should keep him for another season or two. Despite his age and tender feet and frequent problems with Kobe, Shaq is not the Lakers’ problem. The big guy can still dominate some games, still shoots well over fifty percent from the field – far better than Kobe – and during the Detroit series certainly contributed more to his team than anyone. What the Lakers need is to get some guys who can compete with the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth best players of other contenders. Of course, if free agent Kobe went to Buss and stated – as he’s publicly alluded to all season – that he wouldn’t re-sign unless Shaq and Phil departed, then the scientist made the logical long-term choice to retain youth and vigor in La La Land.