Lakers begin another title quest with no excuses
For their nine seasons together, Kobe Bryant has been joined to Phil Jackson’s ailing hip.
As the NBA playoff marathon begins Sunday for the Lakers, the big question is if they can satisfy the lofty expectations of their fans and win another title.
For the Lakers’ superstar Bryant, it’s a chance to prove he can win an NBA championship without Shaquille O’Neal. And for Lakers Coach Jackson, 63, it’s another opportunity to surpass the late Boston legend Red Auerbach for most championships won by an NBA coach (nine).
The Lakers have turned to face the next two months, and the reality that anything less than a championship is a failure.
“With our standards, it is,” Jackson said. “For the Lakers, having won a number of times, and probably the Celtics, success is measured in championships.”
The Lakers have won 14 NBA titles since making their debut in Minneapolis in 1948, including nine after moving to Los Angeles in 1960. They average a championship every 4.3 years, so forgive them for their impatience. Since the Lakers overwhelmed the New Jersey Nets to win the championship in 2002, there have been few successes for a franchise that refuses to acknowledge anything not ending with a victory parade through the heart of downtown.
This championship drought is the longest in the career of Bryant, now in his 13th season with the Lakers, and the longest for Jackson, in his 18th season as an NBA coach. They have been unimaginably successful in their careers, but they’re feeling the seven-year itch.
“One year is too long for me,” Bryant said icily when asked if seven years seems like forever.
The pressure is considerable, partly because Bryant can sign with another team in July if he decides to opt out of his Lakers’ contract with two more years (and $47.8 million) on it.
Oddsmakers say the Lakers are one of the favorites to win the NBA championship, but the team was in this position last June before suffering an embarrassing loss in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, their hated historical rival. With every new playoff season, however, comes a chance at redemption.
Bryant, 30, is driven like few others to be the best basketball player ever, but his three titles lag behind modern-era luminaries Michael Jordan (with six NBA championships) and Magic Johnson (five championships).
As for Jackson, when his teams begin the playoffs, he always pulls out his most recent championship ring and wears it. It’s a tradition for him; it’s also become annoying.
“I’ve been wearing one now from 2002 through two other championship runs that failed and two other playoff attempts that didn’t go anywhere,” Jackson said. “I was thinking the other day, ‘I’ve got to get rid of that ring.’
“It really has been a challenging situation for us. It’s always great to be able to go to the playoffs and get to the Finals, but the biggest thing is to lose in the Finals because there’s so much drama there.
“It’s a huge disappointment. It’s a disappointment that takes a couple weeks to a month to get over because of the hype that goes along with it, because of the adulation that goes to the winner.”
The Lakers start the playoffs against the underdog Utah Jazz, whose own coach, Jerry Sloan, even admitted that “it looks pretty bleak” for his team.
The Lakers need four victories in each round, or a total of 16 wins to win the title. And, according to oddsmakers, they will meet the Cleveland Cavaliers and mega-star LeBron James in the Finals.
Last season the Lakers won 14 playoffs games, which led to a summer of self-doubt after they lost Game 6 of the Finals to Boston by a whopping 39 points. This season, with the efforts of Bryant and 7-foot towers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers had a better regular season record than every team in the league, with the exception of Cleveland, who edged them by one game.
Lakers fans, too, are feeling the itch to win it all now.
“I’m excited and looking forward to Laker celebrations, Laker flags, Laker jerseys and Lakers parties,” said Mike Dennis, 50, a Lakers fan since the Magic Johnson days during the 1980s. “It’s Showtime again. I’m looking for a victory,” Dennis said. “I’m not looking the other way.”
The Lakers appeared to be on their way to a championship in 2004. They were the team of destiny, winning a game against the San Antonio Spurs via the “Fisher Fling,” a turnaround jump shot by Derek Fisher with 0.4 seconds left that sucked the life out of the battle-tested Spurs.
They also had O’Neal and Bryant, who were considered the best one-two punch in the game. Instead, the Lakers were punched out in the Finals by Detroit in a stunning end to the O’Neal era in Los Angeles, losing four of five games.
It still burns Jackson, almost five years later.
“Every opening tap, Shaq was called for a violation, just things that you just knew that the whole series was kind of like, ‘This thing’s rigged against us. It’s not going to go right,’ ” Jackson said. “Shaq was getting offensive foul after offensive foul. The Detroit team was like the fair-haired boys, the upstarts that were coming in. That was really a tough loss.”
O’Neal was traded to Miami, three other starters left the Lakers, and Jackson was abruptly dismissed by team owner Jerry Buss. “I felt like a leper the day I cleared out of my office,” Jackson wrote later.
Lakers’ reserve forward Luke Walton, a rookie on that 2004 team who is now in his sixth season with the Lakers, didn’t know how lucky he had it. “When we got there, it hurt to lose, but I thought, ‘We’ll get it next year.’ That’s when everything went to hell and people started leaving and then I knew it might be pretty tough to get back there again.”
The Lakers spiraled downward, failing to make the 2005 playoffs. Jackson was practically begged to come back and rescue them. He agreed to return a year after leaving.
In Jackson’s first two years back, the Lakers were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but then something changed dramatically last season. Bynum, the young, brutish center, began to come of age, and the skilled Gasol was acquired in a decidedly one-sided trade with the cash-strapped Memphis Grizzlies.
A year ago, in the fourth game of the NBA Finals, the Lakers blew a 24-point lead against the Celtics. In the sixth and final game, they suffered the second-worst loss in Finals history as the Celtics celebrated in a blizzard of green-and-white confetti.
“Last year, I thought we got there a little bit before our time, perhaps,” Jackson said. “We had succeeded and had this great momentum, yet we weren’t as seasoned or schooled as we needed to be to get to that level.”
This year, the Lakers have no such excuses. They won both regular-season games against the Celtics, who have been hurt by injuries that threaten their chances at a repeat performance. The Lakers also won both games against Cleveland, the team other than the Lakers with the best shot of lifting the trophy in June.
If the Lakers lose, it could be tantamount to the turmoil that gripped them after the failed 2004 championship run.
In addition to the possibility of Bryant’s departure this summer, two other key Lakers players -- Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom -- are also free to sign with other teams in July when their contracts expire.
What if the Lakers don’t have what it takes? What if they don’t win it all?
“There’s no ‘don’ts,’ ” Bryant said. “We’re going to get it done. We want to try and get the title back to L.A. That’s where it belongs anyway.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.