Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Laker Perspective Part I:

Part I: Historical Implications

Before this article gets started, let’s get one thing straight: Kobe Bryant is not better than Michael Jordan, and never will be. Even if Kobe goes on to win two more rings giving him seven, one more than MJ, he still falls short in comparison. There will never be another Michael Jordan. The legacy he left will never be matched and it may be taboo to even compare with another player’s. Winning was not enough, he had to bury his competition. Do not let Kobe’s glare/under bite growl fool you, it is a front, and an attempt by Kobe to patent a facial expression like MJ’s tongue wag. Let us please squash this debate before some people begin to take it seriously. Kobe is not better than MJ, however, his Lakers may just be better than Jordan’s Bulls.

Blasphemy! Erroneous! Right? Maybe I am being sacrilegious, but drop the dogmatic defense down for a moment and hear me out. On several lists the 95-96 Chicago Bulls have been rated the best NBA Championship team in the history of the world. Jordan’s 91-92 Bulls are close in comparison, but let us work with the 95-96 Bulls for the remainder of this piece. The stage is set, 2009-2010 Lakers v 95-96 Bulls.

Let’s break down the rosters:

09-10 Lakers                                                  95-96 Bulls

(57-25)                                                           (72-10)

PG: Derrick Fisher                                         PG: Ron Harper
Age: 34                                                         Age: 32
Height: 6-1                                                    Height: 6-6
PPG: 7.5                                                       PPG: 7.4
APG: 2.5                                                      APG: 2.6
SPG: 1.1                                                      SPG: 1.3
RPG: 2.1                                                      RPG: 2.7
3P%: .348                                                    3P%: .269

Edge: Lakers, barley. It is remarkable how similar the numbers are, the biggest difference being Harper’s height and Fisher’s 3P%. Although 5 inches taller, Harper did not rebound much better. Fisher is more of a true point guard even though his assist numbers are not impressive. When we think of Fisher it is hard to not remember him knocking down clutch trey-balls, he also is a good defender. His intangibles outweigh Harper’s, he is just a consummate basketball player.

SG: Kobe Bryant                                         SG: Michal Jordan
Age: 31                                                       Age: 33
Height: 6-6                                                  Height: 6-6
PPG: 27.0                                                   PPG: 30.4
APG: 5.0                                                    APG: 4.3
SPG: 1.55                                                  SPG: 2.2
RPG: 5.4                                                    RPG: 6.6
3P%: .329                                                  3P%: .427

Edge: Bulls, Bulls, Bulls. Kobe is a great player, easily in the Top 10 All-Time Greats discussion, but this is Michael Jordan. The man Kobe fell asleep as a child hoping that he could one day be as great as him. I was shocked to see that MJ shot 43% from beyond the arc that puts him into a clearer perspective in this whole Kobe/MJ debate. Jordan was a better defender and shooter. MJ had a killer instinct that will never be matched; he had a sadistic competitive nature. Kobe has a similar trait, but it does not approach His Airness’s. Think about the defining moments MJ had; The Shrug, The Flu Game, Byron Russell. MJ absolutely owned the Finals. Kobe’s moments have not been near as bright on the biggest stages. Exhibit A: In his playoff career Kobe has averaged 25.5 per game, while Jordan averaged 33.4. However, the two shooting guards do tie in one category; they were both probably equally hated by their teammates, (well documented). Michael Jordan changed basketball, and his greatness will continue to transcend through generations for the duration of history.

SF: Ron Artest                                         SF: Scottie Pippen
Age: 30                                                    Age: 31
Height: 6-7                                               Height: 6-8
PPG: 11.0                                                PPG: 19.4
APG: 3.0                                                 APG: 5.9
SPG: 1.38                                               SPG: 1.7
RPG: 4.3                                                 RPG: 6.4
3P%: .355                                               3P%: .374

Edge: Bulls. There is no consensus on where Pippen ranks all time, he maybe 73 on one list and 29 on another. One thing that can be agreed to, is that Scottie Pippen would not have the reputation he has without Michael Jordan. Either way, Pippen was a great NBA player. Artest is bigger, stronger, and a better defender, but not by that much. Pippen was a very complete player, he did everything exceptionally well. Artest is no slouch however; he can get to the rack and shoot from the perimeter. Yet, his biggest addition to the 2010 Lakers, was his toughness. He added an element of gutter, grit, and grind to that team, this cannot be ignored. But Phil Jackson would tell you that he’s taking Scottie over Ronnie A every day of the week.

PF: Pau Gasol                                        PF: Dennis Rodman
Age: 30                                                 Age: 35
Height: 7-0                                            Height: 6-7
APG: 3.4                                              APG: 2.5
PPG: 18.3                                             PPG: 5.5
BPG: 1.74                                            BPG: .04
RPG: 11.3                                            RPG: 14.9

Edge: Lakers, by a lot. We knew Rodman could rebound, but we presumed that his block total would be a little more impressive. He is also below average in size and would be totally overmatched by Pau. There would be times when he may frustrate the Spaniard, but more times than not, he would get dominated. Gasol brings an impressive arsenal to the table, he can shoot from the perimeter, turn his back to the basket, pass, handle the ball, and has touch around the rim. He does not get enough credit for his rebounding ability and it appears he began to receive credit for blocking shots in the 2010 playoffs. Gasol is a match up nightmare for the Bulls. They could replace Rodman with Bill Wettington, (who probably would not be in the NBA today) who did not score (2.4) or rebound (2.5). Back then each NBA teams seemed to have to fill a quota of two big worthless white dudes on the roster. Maybe Toni Kukoc could do the job, but he seldom started (20 games) and he was considered to be offensive fire-power off the bench. It would be a revolving door to defend Gasol. Which may in turn, be beneficial for the Bulls, considering they could put three relatively fresh bodies on him for the game. That point may be mooted by the fact that Pau shoots 80% from the line. Is Rodman really going to stay out of foul trouble for 48 minutes every game?

Let's be real folks, I remember Rodman having 4 fouls at the half just a clearly as I do him snatching 18 rebounds a game. Look at the stats from the Bull's playoff run; they had complications in the frontcourt. Shaq had a pretty good series as the only constant Orlando brought.  Ewing was below his par, but still was good for about 20 a game, while the Bull's did not hamper Charles Oakley from getting his standard 13-16 a game. The Heat's Alonzo Mourning was just OK, but he never had been considered an exceptional offensive force. Please do yourself a favor and check out what Shawn Kemp did in the '96 finals. He was an animal, regardless of who was guarding him. Rodman could bang away in the paint, but a game like Gasol's poses a serious problem for Rodman and the Bulls.

C: Andrew Bynum                                 C: Luc Longley
Age: 22                                                 Age: 27
Height: 7-0                                            Height: 7-2
BPG: 1.45                                             BPG: 1.4
 PPG: 15.0                                            PPG: 9.1
RPG: 8.3                                               RPG: 5.1

Edge: Lakers. Neither is terribly athletic, but Bynum shows more dexterity. With Rodman averaging 5.5 PPG and Longley averaging 9.1, the Bulls have considerably less of a low post presence compared to the 2010 Lakers. Longley did not rebound well, (probably has something to do with The Worm being a ball hawk) he just was a big body to have in the paint. Wettington was there for back up, but we’ve already covered his applicability. Bynum had a developing post game that would been light years ahead of a Longley’s who was already 5 years older than him. This one is pretty easy. Nothing in the realm of possibility can explain a favorable frontcourt match-up for the Bulls. Every night Bynum or Gasol are going to get their's, and it is hard to say it would never happen in unison either.

Laker Bench:                                          Bulls Bench:

SF/PF: Lamar Odom:                             SF/PF: Toni Kukoc
Height: 6-10                                           Height: 6-10
Age: 29                                                  Age: 28
PPG: 10.8                                              PPG: 13.1
RPG: 9.8                                                RPG: 4.0
APG: 3.3                                               APG: 3.5
3P%: .319                                             3P%: .403

PG/SG: Shannon Brown                        PG/SG: Steve Kerr
Height: 6-4                                            Height: 6-3
Age: 24                                                 Age: 31
PPG: 8.1                                               PPG: 8.4
APG: 1.7                                              APG: 2.3
3P%: .328                                            3P%: .515

PG: Jordan Farmar                               C: Bill Wettington
Height: 6-2                                           Height: 7-0
Age: 23                                                Age: 33
PPG: 7.2                                              PPG: 5.3
APG: 1.5                                             RPG: 2.5
3P%: .376                                           BPG: .02

Edge: Push. Kukuc and Kerr are a slightly better combination of Odom/Brown. But where things even out is the relevant play of Farmar, where Wettington isn’t much more than a wet noodle on the floor. He is big, yes, but he doesn’t rebound or play defense, so he is big for nothing. Kukuc and Kerr are absolutely lights out from the three point line. When Kerr, Pippen, and Jordan were on the floor together Kerr feasted on open shots. But that was his role, Brown is obviously not the same threat from distance, but probably a more complete player. Kukoc and Odom share a remarkably similar role. They were guys that played enough to be starters, but found more comfortable roles as the 6th man. Their games also paralleled each other, Shooter/Slasher, with Kukoc being a better shooter and Odom being the better slasher. Kukoc was essentially a ghost defensively, and only had a minimal say so in the rebound department. Kukoc averaged more points that being the case because those buckets had to come from somewhere considering Rodman simply did not score. Odom plays better D and is the better rebounder. Lamar Odom is a very underrated NBA player. However, he seems to be satisfied with keeping a mediocre career. He is a guy that can play 3, maybe 4 positions on the floor. He has above average size and handles the ball exceptionally well. I really believe, that if on any other team, Lamar Odom is a perennial All-Star. The dichotomy between the benches here is extremely small, if there even is one. If you like offense then the Bull’s Bench is your choice. If defense is your thing, then your choice is the Laker’s Bench.

Paths to Championship:

Lakers:                                                                        Bulls:

Thunder (4-2) Durant, Westbrook, Green.            Heat (3-0) Mourning, T. Hardaway, Gatling.
Jazz (4-0) Williams, Boozer, Millsap.                    Knicks (4-1) Ewing, Mason, Starks.
Suns (4-2) Nash, Stoudimire, Hill, Richardson.      Magic (4-0) O'Neal, A. Hardaway, Scott, Anderson
Celtics (4-3) Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Garnett.    Sonics (4-2) Kemp, Payton, Schremph, Hawkins.

A very slight edge here goes to the Lakers, in terms of better competition. The '10 Thunder were powered by a phenom in the name of Kevin Durrant, a scorer who wasn't present on the '96 Heat. However the presence of Mourning in his prime, leads to a draw. The '95 Knicks were far better than the '10 Jazz. That Jazz team was incredibly shallow and lacked enough talent to really compete in the playoffs. The '10 Suns and the '96 Magic is where the most intriguing comparison is found. Essentially they are the same team; A upper echelon big man surrounded by shooters. Remember, Shaq was not in his prime here, at this time he still had yet to develope touch in his baby hook. My gut says the Suns were a better team, considering how freakishly good Nash is. However, I cannot find enough conclusive evidence to be able to stand by that opinion, and thus, a draw. There is no doubt in my mind that the '10 Celtics were better than the '96 Sonics. Kemp and Payton are a great start, but their talent drops off after that pair. The Celtics did everything they could to beat the Lakers. They forced a game 7 (on the road, but they were a great road team) and actually jumped out into a 13 point second half lead. The '10 Celtics are by far, the best team of the eight above defeated clubs. They pushed the Lakers like no other team, and may go down as one of the top rosters to ever lose an NBA Final.

Conclusion: Automatically, people may write off any comparison to the '96 Bulls. They had MJ, went 72-10, and breezed through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Very impressive, I must concede. How can a team that only won 57 games even be in the same discussion? Well, if you look into a handful essential factors, then the debate becomes not only legitimate, but threatening.  Kobe played only a handful of games when he was healthy, including the playoffs. Bynum missed the last 1/3 of the season, and probably played in the playoffs when he shouldn't have. Not to mention the fact that 2010 was a stronger league than in 1996. The talent now is definitely more evenly distributed, where as in '96 the league was more condensed.

So what team is better? Who wins in a series? Chew on this; would the '96 Bulls beat the 2010 Celtics if Jordan were to play like Kobe did (6-24) in Game 7? The fact that the Lakers won that game with the way Kobe played  is a testament to how talented that team actually was. Jordan is better than Kobe, but they are equally important to their team as far as production and intangibles go, so I think they would cancel each other out. Now the question is whether a Kobe-less Lakers are better than a Jordan-less Bulls. The Kobe-less Lakers are the better team. The size dilemma they present to the Bulls cannot be overstated. Although the Bulls are considerably better from beyond the arc, the definitive line is drawn in the front court.The dichotomy between talent and production is glaring. Odom, Bynum, Gasol v Longley, Rodman, Wettington or even Kukoc, is a match up that the Lakers would win every day. Jordan and Kobe go blow for blow, Ronnie A hampers  Pippen, Gasol or Bynum would have a feast every game pending on who was double-teamed, and Lamar comes off the bench and gives you 15 and 10. Lakers in 6. The two wins for the Bulls come from classic MJ games, but in the end, the Laker's bigs are too much for the Bulls.

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