The Forwards and the Center are the most vital cogs in a team’s defense. They protect the basket, duel with the strongest and biggest men on the floor, put their body on the line to grasp the elusive rebound, set screens and take the beating so that the other players in the team get an easier way to the basket. As the famous saying goes, “the guard can win you matches, your bigs will win you the ring”.
It may not be pretty and there may not be any mesmerizing or bamboozling trickery involved in their play, but the dirty work that they do under the ring, fighting for possession defines the very essence of the sport and forms the team’s identity. If one still bears any doubts about their significance, ask Kobe Bryant what it means to have adept big men. He spent two seasons trying to make a team out of the horrendous trio of Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Bryan Cook. The apathy of the three seasons before the arrival of Gasol and the emergence of Bynum still haunts many a Laker fan.
Here is a look at how the three teams stack up on the frontcourt:-
Small Forward: James Worthy v/s Devean George v/s Metta World-Peace
“Big Game” James Ager Worthy
Stats for 1986-87- PPG-19.4, APG-2.8, SPG-1.3, FG%-53.9%, BPG-1.0
James Worthy was an uncompromising player known for his ceaseless energy and persistence, and feared for his dominant low-post game. The former no-1 draft pick was at his prime during the campaign and his peerless skills and his unremitting activity off the boards catapulted him among the best Forwards in the league. He rarely took a 3-point shot choosing to battle his way to the cup and shoot his hugely effective elbow jump-shot from 15-18 feet. Worthy could also run the floor and was on the end of many a fast break opening for the Lakers. The signature memories of his campaign is his 39 points game against Seattle in the Western Conference Finals. Worthy went on to provide many such big plays both on the defensive and offensive end, vindicating his tag of being a big money player. In the NBA finals he made his mark again, successfully subduing the irrepressible Larry Bird with his stifling defensive intensity. The clutch player was among the silkiest telegenic players on the team and clearly embodied the adjective “ShowTime”.
Devean George/Rick Fox
Stats for 2003-04:-
George- PPG-7.4, APG-1.4, SPG-1.0, FG%-40.8, 3PT%-34.9
Fox- PPG-4.8, APG-0.8, SPG-0.8, FG %-39.2, 3PT%-24.6 %
The responsibility of the Small Forward was shared between Rick Fox and George. The two players were equally disastrous with their performance and their productivity was minimal. The two players struggled both on the defensive and the offensive floor and were more of a liability. It is acrimonious to compare either of them or their combined talents to Worthy, and they were one of the major weak links in the team.
The temperamental forward in his time with the Lakers has seen his share of controversies and glory. The defensive stalwart is expected to render some much needed solidity to the Lakers. The news is that World-Peace has been working hard on his game and fitness in the summer and claims to be in the best shape of his career. The lack of productivity from the SF position was the Achilles Heel for the Lakers in the last campaign and World-Peace’s performance on both ends of the floor could easily turn out to be the deciding factor in the next campaign.
Power Forward: AC Green v/s Karl Malone v/s Pau Gasol
Stats for 1986-87:- PPG-10.8, RPG-7.8, FG%-53.8%, BPG-1.0, APG-1.1
AC Green’s promotion to the starting PF position over Kurt Rambis lent a much needed energy to the Laker frontcourt. Playing alongside Kareem, Green more than held his own, coming up with key defensive plays and pounding the glass on both the offensive and defensive end. Green never put up imposing numbers but his tireless activity off the boards was an indispensable force for the Lakers.
Stats for 2003-04:- PPG-13.2, RPG-8.8, BPG-0.5, FG%-48.3%, APG-3.9
Karl Malone’s legacy as one of the best PF’s to play the game can hardly be disputed. But, at 39 years “The Mailman” was no longer the offensive force that he used to be; struggling with his jump-shot and also failing to impose himself on the defensive end. Nonetheless, playing alongside Shaq had its benefits and he was able to build a very good rapport with Shaq, the understanding proving instrumental in the Lakers winning spree at the start of the season. However, all hell broke loose when Malone’s dream run was maligned with a knee injury in the regular season game against Phoenix. Malone returned in the play-offs but his minutes were largely diminished, as however spirited an effort he conjured, it wasn’t enough. The injury caused the Lakers to play Medvedenko for long stretches of the post-season. Medvedenko was never a match to the supreme talents of Malone, and with almost no productivity from either forward, the Lakers offense didn’t carry much of a threat.
Gasol is coming back from another stupendous performance for Spain at the Olympics. He is widely believed to be the most skilled big-man in the league and the dexterous Spaniard should revel in the company of Nash and Howard. He can run the pick and roll effectively, and with his ability to pass and create from the post can become the pivotal part of the new Princeton mode-offense that the Lakers envisage to use next season. Gasol might be seen by many quarters as the no-4 option on this Lakers team, but on his day he has the ability to change the game on its head. Gasol was much criticized for his performance in the loss against the Thunder, but with Bryant extending his support and confidence he will look forward to vanquish the doubts.
Center: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar v/s Shaquille O’Neal v/s v/s Dwight Howard
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Stats for 1986-87:- PPG-17.5, RPG-11.5, BPG-1.2, FG%-56.3 %
Legend, the greatest ever, the man who invented the sky hook, the ultimate scorer and champion. Even at the age of 40, he was posting numbers that belied his age. However, even the greatest scorer of all time had his doubters who believed that Kareem was far beyond his glory days and was just the namesake captain of the team. The great man proved his doubters wrong in the most emphatic fashion on the grandest stage. In the NBA Finals against the Celtics, Kareem put up an imperious performance averaging 30 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists en route to being named the Finals MVP.
Stats for 2003-04:-PPG- 21.5, RPG-11.5, BPG-2.5, FG%-58.4%
“Superman” was at his dominant best during the 2003-04 season. Having led the franchise to three consecutive NBA championships, O’Neal was primed to complete an unprecedented fourth year on the top of the basketball universe. However, even though he was at his unsurpassable best, still the Lakers found themselves short-handed without much productivity from the rest of the team barring Bryant. To add to their woes the season witnessed the high-point of the O’Neal and Bryant ego-clash. The dispute eroded the fragile Lakers’ chemistry and despite the best efforts of Phil Jackson and the Lakers management, the two stars refused to co-exist and it showed on the floor.
Howard has established himself as the most dominant big man in the game. His move to the Lakers promises to be the missing piece in the jigsaw and playing alongside Bryant, Nash and Gasol, Howard is widely expected to have a stellar season. One only hopes that the transition from being the heart and soul of Orlando to accepting a secondary role in the Lakers uniform is seamless for Howard, and the Lakers faithful don’t have to go through any more antagonizing ego battles.
The comparisons between the starting five players can only go so far in giving us an idea about how the teams faced up against each other. A holistic comparison between the three squads can never be complete without taking into note the bench players. The ShowTime Lakers boasted of the finest bench in the league. The players identified as the “Blue Team” had players of the caliber of Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, Mychal Thompson and Billy Thompson.
The Lakers of 2003-04 and the current Lakers squad are certainly understaffed on the bench, with neither team having the luxury to call up proficient role players like Cooper and Rambis off the bench. The 2003-04 Lakers faced the ramifications of lacking an effective roster when Malone’s injury forced them to play Medvedenko for major parts of the season. The Lakers team of today can only hope that such a disaster doesn’t befall them. And if such an unfortunate injury were to occur, the Lakers can easily bid goodbye to their Championship dream.
The Lakers of 1986-87 were definitely the superior of the three sides. The newly formed Lakers have a tall order to fill if they aspire to match the efforts of the Magic led Showtime Lakers. However, the best part of the game is that such comparisons are just mere figments to satisfy the quantifying and speculative fan inside us. The game isn’t played on paper, and the very spirit that epitomizes the league is that it gives an opportunity to the underdogs to outgrow or replicate the legacies of the greats.
The Lakers know that the whole World would be following them, prying on them, ready to pounce on any loose end as well as bestow the kindest of superlatives at every salutary performance; ever eager to christen and admonish. But when the Lakers step on the court they shouldn’t think of any such factors. The only thing that should matter is finding a way to win. Be it through a Kobe Bryant fade-away jumper, a Steve Nash assist, a Pau Gasol left-hand hook or a Dwight Howard throw-down.
Mike Brown needs to ensure that the Lakers renounce any fear of failure or embarrassment. The Lakers should play like there is no tomorrow, because in reality this galactic assemblage of stars has only this year to do it all. The next year might see Howard moving onto a different team, Nash and Bryant getting a year older and Pau Gasol being traded. The time is now, the opportunity is there. Now it is upto the players to realize the same and make the maximum of their shot at basketball immortality.