Whether the Lakers eventually achieve and fulfill their ambition of a historic 17th Championship ring, is still under speculation. However, the Lakers are definitely the team to look out for, and the hatred, scorn, despise and rants directed towards them are sure to reach Brobdingnagian levels.
The starting five of Nash, Bryant, World-Peace, Gasol and Howard does look intimidating, but such an insuperable congregation isn’t something new for the distinguished franchise. In the past the Lakers have had teams that boasted of several all-stars and marquee hoopsters coming together, the most notable ones being the Lakers in the 1986-87 season, who played under the tag of Showtime Lakers, and the Lakers in the 2003-04 season.
The hype surrounding the two teams was very different. The 1986-87 Lakers were on their path to redemption, desperate to exonerate the disappointments of the last campaign. The Lakers had lost to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals in the last campaign, falling to a fortuitous game-winning shot by Ralph Sampson in the dying seconds. The team boasting of legends and future Hall-of-Famers in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Bryan Scott were still smarting from the loss and were highly motivated to atone the shortcomings of last season.
The 2003-04 team on the other hand was more of a celebrated and glamour-driven enterprise. The Lakers had just won their third consecutive Championship, and were led by the dynamic duo of Bryant and O’Neal with the enigmatic Phil Jackson pulling the strings from the sidelines. The team chemistry might have been dicey, but the combined talents of Bryant and O’Neal saw no match in the NBA and the Lakers were primed for another successful campaign.
At this juncture, the signings of Payton and Malone was seen as a charitable initiative on the part of the Lakers. A last ditch effort by the two greats of the game to earn their rightful share of basketball immortality; a ring to commemorate their glorified careers. They decided to jump onto the Lakers bandwagon, hoping that their fading talent would find the crowning spangle to coronate the twilight of their careers.
The reasons and the drive for both teams were very different, and so were the very diverse mentalities that made up the two teams. As it would turn out the two teams had very different fortunes too. The resurgent 1986-87 Lakers were crowned NBA champions, while the 2003-04 Lakers were subdued by the irrepressible Detroit Pistons in the NBA finals.
As the quantitative and hierarchy-driven basketball fraternity demands a rigid compartmentalization of sporting results, the legacy of the two teams was graded in two very different categories. The 1986-87 team was branded amongst the greatest basketball teams of all time. A team that introduced a brand of razzle-dazzle basketball that went on to revolutionize the sport. The 2003-04 Lakers, on the other hand, were impelled to live under the shadows of obscurity with most people remembering the squad for what it could have been and lamenting the unfortunate turn of events. One team drew ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ while the other team had to do with silent sighs and sympathetic ‘aaaws’.
The Lakers of 2012-13 would be up against these two contrasting legacies. So, before the season unfolds, here is a brief comparison between the three squads of 1986-87, 2003-04 and the squad forming the Lakers roster in the next season. The first iteration of this article is directed towards assessing and comparing the players who made the Lakers backcourt in these teams.
Point Guard: Magic Ervin Johnson v/s Gary Payton v/s Steve Nash
MAGIC ERVIN JOHNSON
Stats for 1986-87: – PPG – 23.9, SPG -1.7, APG -12.2, FG %- 52.2%
(PPG-Points per Game, SPG-Steals per Game, APG-Assists per Game, FG- Field Goal, RPG-Rebounds per Game, BPG-Blocks per Game, 3PT-Three point)
Magic is without doubt the most creative and dominant point guard to have played the game. In the 1986-87 season Magic was at his prime, playing his best basketball and carrying the entire team on his back. Driven by his vision and ability to pick a pass, the whole team flourished with all players in the squad posting career-highs and the Lakers brand of “ShowTime” basketball dominated the highlight reel.
The season saw Magic evolve as a scorer after injuries maligned Kareem’s productivity and scoring abilities, hitting many a clutch shots, driving and finishing strong at the ring, while still having the vision and ability to pick out an open teammate.
In short, he was unguardable. Magic’s crowning moment came in game-5 of the NBA Finals against the Celtics when he signed off an imperious performance at the Garden, by hitting a game-winning baby hook over the outstretched hand of Parish to win the game in overtime. Magic was crowned the League MVP and in the true sense stamped his way into basketball immortality.
Stats for 2003-04: – PPG – 14.6, SPG-1.5, APG -5.5, FG – 47.1%
Gary “the glove” Payton is surely among the best defensive guards to ever play the game. Payton playing with an incessant energy level and an unconquerable spirit single-handedly changed the face of the Sonics franchise. However, the Guard famous for his hard-nosed mentality was well-beyond his glory days when he signed for the Lakers in the year 2003.
At the age of 35, he didn’t have the knees to keep up with the young and athletic guards in the league, and struggled to come to terms with the triangle offense. He ended up hogging the ball for too long, trying to impose himself on the low-post; use his size and strength to back down the opposing PG and encouraging teammates to play off him. A very good idea when he had shooters and cutters like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in the ranks.
But with the Lakers boasting of adept post players like Malone and O’Neal, he only succeeded in stifling the paint and congesting the lane. He would have been much better off trying to create from the perimeter and spreading the floor with his distribution and shooting ability. However, he struggled on all fronts and is widely believed to be the major reason why the team never was able to reach its true potential.
Steve Nash’s perhaps makes the most inspiring basketball story of the last decade. Diminutive in size, but magnanimous in spirit; a “Snape” lookalike, he exhibits wizardry albeit without a wand. His vision and ability to find players in scoring positions re-introduced the brand of “drive and dish play” that Bob Cousy and Jerry West made much popular in the 1960’s.
He doesn’t dunk the ball, he doesn’t posterize players, but the utter simplicity and uncanny ability to find the open man and to create in a pick-and-roll game, weaving his way through the herculean figures around has established him as the greatest PG of the last decade. A two-time league MVP and a future Hall-of-Famer, his time with the Lakers is sure to redeem the veteran Lakers.
Shooting Guard: Byron Scott v/s Kobe Bryant v/s Kobe Bryant
Stats for 1986-87:- PPG- 17.0, SPG-1.5, APG-3.4, FG %- 48.9%, 3PT %- 43.6 %
Bryan Scott was a potent scorer, and an adept defender who came into the team trying to fill the shoes of Norm Nixon. The Lakers had very proficient low-post players in Worthy and Kareem and thus it was vital to spread the floor with some veracious perimeter shooting. And Scott wouldn’t disappoint shooting a staggering 43.6 % from beyond the arc. Scott also could run on the break and with Magic orchestrating the Lakers freeway brand of basketball, he become a vital cog of the ShowTime Lakers. A peerless defensive player, he was one of the finest defensive guards in the league averaging 1.5 steals per game. Scott was never in the spotlight, but his importance can hardly be discounted.
Stats for 2003-04:- PPG – 24.0, SPG-1.7, APG-5.1, FG%-43.8%, 3PT%-32.3%
Kobe Bryant then was a 25 year old guard who had three rings to his name and boasted of an arsenal of moves that drew comparisons to Jordan himself. However, deep within he still was the kid who tried to do it all by himself, someone who believed in his abilities and wasn’t afraid of trying the outrageous. His desire to be the alpha dog saw him getting into many controversies with Shaquille O’Neal and shook the delicate Lakers chemistry. Kobe and O’Neal were the best one-two in the league but neither of them were ready to take the role of side-kick in the partnership. The addition of Payton and Malone meant that Bryant had to share the spotlight with two more stars. He didn’t get the ball enough and when he wanted to. When he did get the ball he was reckless with his shot selection and the season saw a steep drop in his field-goal and 3-point percentage.
With Payton, O’Neal and Malone operating in the paint, Bryant never found a clear lane to the cup. He would have been much better off trying to spread the floor with his outside shooting, but the defiant guard wasn’t ready to change his game and continued to drive into the congested painted area. He averaged only three 3-point attempts a game, and with almost no outside shooting to bank on, the Lakers attack seemed one-dimensional and toothless.
Kobe Bryant (2012-13) – Number 24
The Kobe Bryant of today is 34 years old, seasoned, experienced and smarter. The maturity and perspicacity has helped him transform into a true leader. Bryant knows that he doesn’t have much time left in his career. He has achieved almost everything that any player in the league can look to achieve. However, he still does aspire to win the elusive 6th ring; to prove to the world that he is in the same league as Jordan, if not an equal. He is still going to be the Lakers no-1 offensive option but he wouldn’t get his time on the ball with Nash dictating the play. How he adapts to the changed scenario will very much dictate the turn of events for the Lakers.
The ShowTime Lakers major strength lied in the way their two guards complemented each other. Magic was the creator and Scott was the finisher. Scott also covered up for Magic on the defensive end, taking up the responsibility to subdue the opposition’s best guards and cover up for Magic’s defensive inconsistency. Magic was herculean for a PG, standing at a towering 6’8 inches.
Thus when faced up against the more allegro guards, Magic struggled in keeping up with their slash and dash style,and in most cases was a mismatch that rival guards looked to exploit. Scott covered Magics’s weakness, fighting his way through screens and wearing the opposition guard down with his relentless on-your-face defense. This allowed Magic to conserve his energy and be a greater force on the offensive end. The Magic- Scott partnership was a perfect example of how two players can combine their talents and back up each other’s weakness for the better of the team.
The Lakers of 2003-04 was hyped to have the best defensive backcourt in the business. Payton was expected to be the defensive leader and fend off the more prolific opposition guard. Payton though being a former defensive player of the year winner and a 9-time all-defensive first team selection, was 35 years old and his defense didn’t match up to his earlier set standards.
Malone and O’Neal were not exactly being the best defenders on the pick-and-roll or off the rotation, and with minimal cover from his teammates Payton was chastised and stood helpless against many guards in the NBA. Phil Jackson was reluctant to allow Bryant to shoulder the greater defensive role and with almost no cover on the perimeter, the opposition guards had a hay-day against the Lakers, a paucity that hurt them heavily against the Pistons in the NBA finals.
The duo of Bryant and Nash would be well-advised to learn their lessons from the 2003-04 Lakers and understand the immense possibilities that their combined talents can actualize. Nash is a great floor general, who can intelligently dictate the pace and rhythm of the team’s offense. His ability to judge and pick the perfect pass, to find the hot hand on the court and to push the ball, shall hold the Lakers in pretty good stead.
However for Nash to be productive, he has to have the ball in his hands, and the other players need to play off him. Bryant has always reveled on his ability to create off the dribble and in isolation plays, but with Nash on the court the dynamics of the Lakers offense is expected to see a definite vicissitude, and Bryant needs to adapt to the same.
The Lakers have decided to deploy the Princeton mode of offense which makes Gasol and Howard as the pivot of their offensive strategies. Thus he won’t get his isolation or post-up fade-away’s anymore, and would have to work off Nash or the Lakers big men to get easier buckets. He would still have his 25pts, albeit he wouldn’t need to take 25 shots for the same. He is going to get easier looks, and combined with his high basketball IQ and smart positioning sense, the logic behind bringing Nash to LA looks a masterstroke.