tclakin

Lakers Win, Kobe Gets #4, Phil Passes Red

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2009 at 2:37 pm
Kobe Accepts the Finals MVP Trophy from Bill Russell (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kobe Accepts the Finals MVP Trophy from Bill Russell (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Lakers claimed the Larry O’Brien Trophy last night, defeating the Orlando Magic 99-86 in Game 5 (Game 6 is right again!) of the NBA Finals to become the 2009 NBA Champions.

And, as much as it pains me to say it, the Lakers deserved it.

In 2009, they were the best team, hands down. There wasn’t another team that could touch them. The hugely overrated Cavs were far too much of a one-man show to do any damage, and their fans better hope the Shaq trade goes through or, come summer 2010, Cleveland shelves are going to be full of half-price LeBron Cavs jerseys. Even the Magic were barely a match for the Lakers, with Dwight Howard furthering his soft reputation and Stan Van Gundy coaching himself out of a championship. And the Celtics – well, they were one Kevin Garnett away from another shot at the title. Without the inside presence and leadership of KG, the ’09 Celtics just didn’t have a chance. They battled valiantly while they still could and Lord knows Garnett did everything but fire 3’s from the bench, but it just wasn’t enough. 2009 was the Lakers year.

2009 was Kobe Bryant’s year.

Kobe gets his Shaq-less ring (and copies MJ's celebration)

Kobe gets his Shaq-less ring (and copies MJ's celebration)

You can debate all day long about whether the Finals MVP should have gone to Fisher for his two gigantic, series-saving three’s, but the 2009 Finals left us with one indisputable fact: Kobe Bryant has now won an NBA championship without Shaquille O’Neal. The asterisk has been removed, folks, and we’re now left with the issue of Bryant’s historical legacy to discuss. Does this ring give him top-15 all-time status? In the eyes of many, probably not. Should it though? I say yes. There aren’t many players in the history of the league that have played the game at Kobe Bryant’s level. Larry Bird. Oscar Robertson. Jerry West.

Michael Jordan comes to mind.

(I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention Kobe’s carbon copy imitation of MJ’s leaping fist pump title celebration from ’98 as the buzzer sounded in last night’s game. I mean, did you see that?? How about a little originality, Kobe? He blatantly stole another one of MJ’s moves! How long do you think he was planning that for? And I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. Last night right after the game, Stephen A. Smith had this to say on his Twitter account: “@stephenasmith: Before any of you bring it up…YES!!! I noticed Kobe jumping up in the air and pumping his fist just like JORDAN did in 1998.” So, is there any way we can get a media-wide agreement never to put Kobe’s stolen theatrics in any highlight video or black-and-white NBA commercial with the piano music? Please? Thanks. Okay, deep breath….moving on…)

Anyway, regardless of what you or I might think of the man – and, to be honest, I go back and forth on my opinion of Kobe – last night’s win puts him in the pantheon of NBA greats. He’s there, whether you like it or not, and he’s there to stay.

Phil sported a celebratory "10" hat for the occasion

Phil sported a celebratory "10" hat for the occasion

Speaking of pantheons, how about Phil Jackson? His win last night – the 10th championship of his storied career – pushes him past Red Auerbach into first on the all-time NBA title wins list. PJ’s naysayers have always pointed to the phenomenal talent his teams have featured. Jordan, Pippen, O’Neal, Bryant. Anyone could win with those guys, his critics say. But here’s the thing – no one is going to win without talent. That’s just a fact. Even Red, ultra-competitive as he was, knew that: “Any coach needs talent. You start with talent. Without talent, we’re all in the soup. You know what I mean? If you get the talent you gotta use it and you better not lose it.” (Quote courtesy of Ken Shouler and espn.com.) Red had many of the league’s best players when he won his titles, too. He had Russell, he had Havlicek, he had Cousy – there are three of the NBA’s 50 greatest ever right there. But Red also had swagger and panache. Between his celebratory cigars, his tinkering with the Boston Garden facilities, and his brash manner, Auerbach had become a mythic figure by the time he retired. He also had the benefit of forty-odd years during which his legend was cultivated and grown.

It’s hard to recognize greatness while it’s happening – it’s much easier to label something “great” in hindsight. As it stands, Jackson is currently burdened with the disadvantage of still actively coaching. He hasn’t receded into the background yet, content to let history shape and contort his legacy. He’s still very much present and, until he retires, that fact won’t help his cause. Perhaps in the future his wacky “Zen Master” reputation will add a touch of the mystic to his legend, but for now, he’s just Phil. The guy who lucked into 10 titles. But those who have been paying attention all these years know better than that. They realize the significance of last night’s win. They understand that Jackson, though blessed with great players, had the werewithall, the presence, and the basketball knowledge to forge great teams out of superstar foundations. And in a sport most susceptible to the selfish whims of one great talent, that is a tremendous accomplishment. We all saw what happened before Jordan learned to trust his teammates. We know how contentious the relationship between Shaq and Kobe was. Phil Jackson and his oddball, pseudo-Buddhist techniques were able to transcend what very easily could have been one-man (or two-man, in the case of the Lakers) shows. One-man-bands don’t win Grammys, and teams with ball-hog superstars don’t win NBA championships. Jackson knows this, and it’s a credit to his coaching brilliance that he was able to do anything about it anyway, considering the personalities he was up against.

But again, I don’t need to explain this to anyone who’s been watching. Phil is the best there’s ever been, and that’s that. So, congratulations to Phil, Kobe and the rest of the 2009 Lakers. Soak it in and enjoy the moment. Hats off to ya. You’re the champs.

Until next year.

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