. . .Debatable

Greatest team ever?

Not even close.

Not yet anyway, and not for a while, in any case. There may, indeed, be greatness in these Lakers, but they'll have to demonstrate it over the long haul, meaning they'll have to win many more titles.

As far as greatness goes, two in a row is no big deal. The Houston Rockets (in 1994 and '95) and Detroit Pistons (1989 and '90) both did that. Both teams are fondly remembered in their hometowns, but no one else ranks them among the greats.

Winning a third consecutive title next season would, at least, separate the Lakers from the pack of mere champions and nominate them for something higher.

Since the Minneapolis Lakers won three in a row from 1952-54, in what amounts to the NBA's Jurassic Period, only two teams have done it.

The Bill Russell Celtics won three in a row from 1959-61 . . . then tacked on five more in a row, making it an eight-year run. Oh, and they also won in 1957, 1968 and 1969, for a total of 11 titles in 13 seasons.

This should have settled the greatness question forever, because no other team has done anything like that since. But the NBA was still small potatoes in those days so, outside Boston, this is pre-history too. Everybody knows the story, but only in Boston, which is now an NBA ruin, like the Colosseum in Rome, do they continue to genuflect before the old Celtic icons.

Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won three in a row from 1991-93, then Jordan quit to try baseball. When he returned, 17 games before the '95 playoffs, they wound up getting dumped in the second round, but then won three more titles from 1996-98, giving Jordan a total of six in seven years . . . or six in his final six full seasons . . . which stands as the modern benchmark.

This "greatest team" thing is eye-of-the-beholder stuff. It's impossible to test any argument comparing teams or players across eras, so it's argument for its own sake.

Of course, many people say the best thing about sports is arguing about it, so I'll just suggest a couple of guiding principles:

* The teams before the '90s were much deeper, which makes them look much stronger.

Between 1980 and 1996, the NBA adopted a salary cap and expanded by more than 33%, from 22 teams to 29, beginning a process that distributed talent more evenly among teams.

In the old, big-ones-eat-the-little-ones days, great powers used their prestige and profits to load up their rosters, not only with all-stars, but with all-time greats.

In 1961-62, the Celtics suited up six future Hall of Famers: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones and John Havlicek.

A seventh, Bill Sharman, had retired the year before. An eighth, Andy Phillip, had retired three years before. A ninth, Clyde Lovelette, would join up the next season and a 10th, Bailey Howell, for the last two titles of their '60s run.

As late as 1986, the Celtics still would be fielding a Hall of Fame front line (Larry Bird and Kevin McHale are in already and Robert Parish, who played until 1997, is still in his five-year waiting period), with a fourth Hall of Famer, Bill Walton, as backup center.

Meanwhile, the Showtime Lakers had four players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Mychal Thompson), who had been No. 1 overall picks in the draft.

By those standards, the '90s Bulls and the current Lakers look pitiably thin.

In six title runs, the Bulls never brought a single double-figure scorer off their bench.

The 2000 Lakers had only three players in double figures. This season's team had two.

"I think the last teams we saw with tremendous depth were the Detroit Pistons, that were really solid through 10 and 11 players," says Phil Jackson, coach of the '90s Bulls and the current Lakers. "That's basically what we're seeing right now in the game, is how much depth can you have?

"I think the Lakers had four No. 1 overall draft choices, didn't they? That just says something that's absolutely incredible at this point.

"I mean, the Spurs have two [David Robinson, Tim Duncan]. That tells you the difference between the 2000s and the '80s."

* On the other hand, players keep getting bigger and stronger and refining their craft.

When Shaquille O'Neal came along in 1992, no one had seen a 300-pounder who wasn't fat.

Shaq is now about 330, which means a mere 275-pounder such as Wilt Chamberlain, who had skinny legs and a narrow waist, would have been at a severe physical disadvantage for the first time in his life.

Not that Wilt couldn't have competed. At the end of his career, after undergoing major knee surgery, Chamberlain still could hold his own against Abdul-Jabbar, who was almost 11 years younger. Wilt was taller than Shaq by about an inch, had longer arms and was immensely strong.

One can only imagine how the 6-foot-9 1/2, 220-pound Russell would have fared against O'Neal.

Russell's contemporaries, such as then-Baltimore Bullet guard Kevin Loughery, now a CNN commentator, admire him to such a degree, they insist he would have found a way to get it done, first of all by lifting weights, unknown in those days, and bulking up. Russell was at a disadvantage against Chamberlain too (and, indeed, Chamberlain usually amassed big numbers, although Russell's superior supporting cast generally prevailed).

Nevertheless, after watching O'Neal power over the 7-1, 275-pound Dikembe Mutombo, it's hard to see how anyone 6-9 1/2 would make much of an impression on Shaq.

Then there's the state of the art, itself.

You can go to a high school game now and see better ball handling than in the NBA in the '60s . . . or '70s . . . or even '80s.

Reverse pivots (remember Shaq doing one in Game 1 against Philadelphia?) . . . killer crossovers . . . crossovers between legs. . . .

How about those sneaker ads in which Kobe Bryant reaches over his shoulder, throws the ball over his back, between his legs and gets it back in front of them again?

Says Bryant: "That's easy."

Modern players beat defenders off the dribble without thinking twice. The referees make it possible by allowing palming, but it didn't happen all at once. They were put to sleep over the years as such players as Magic Johnson began turning the ball over more and more.

As late as the '70s, players as great as Jerry West and Billy Cunningham could have one strong hand on the dribble and one that was almost nonexistent. (Ironically, the NBA logo is West's silhouette, driving left, which he rarely did.)

After seeing film of Cousy, the league's ball handling wizard, Bird once remarked, "Bob must have lost his left arm in a farming accident."

My own preference is to remember the greats as being special in their own time. Even if you compare, you don't have to declare a winner and if you do, it's only in your mind. In Boston, I promise you, they're going to draw different conclusions from the same data.

There's no such thing as a "best-ever" team. If you think there is, you'd have to tell me who it is that everyone agreed on up to this point.

In the end, there's only a pantheon, not a throne. The current Lakers aren't in it yet, although they are applying.

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The Right Stuff

TEAMS THAT HAVE WON AT LEAST TWO CONSECUTIVE NBA TITLES:

8 Boston Celtics (1959-66)

3 Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54)

3 Chicago Bulls (1991-93)

3 Chicago Bulls (1996-98)

2 Minneapolis Lakers (1949-50)

2 Boston Celtics (1968-69)

2 Lakers (1987-88)

2 Detroit Pistons (1989-90)

2 Houston Rockets (1994-95)

2 Lakers (2000-01)

MOST NBA TITLES

16 Boston Celtics

13 Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers

6 Chicago Bulls

3 Philadelphia/G.S. Warriors

3 Syracuse Nat./Phila. 76ers

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