Nothing could make me happier, as a Lakers fan, than watching Andrew Bynum blossom; the Lakers had the best record in the Western Conference when he was healthy. Bynum's the one the Lakers are going to build around for the next decade plus, and if Bynum never ends up as one of the great centers in NBA history, there's little doubt he'll be a good one -- and the post and point guard are the two hardest spots to fill in the NBA.Barring injuries, the Lakers are set in the post for 15 years to come....
Nothing could make me happier than that, this season (short of a championship) ... but the Gasol trade came close. The Lakers with Bynum were a contending team. The Lakers with Kobe, Bynum, Gasol, Odom, and Derek Fisher, are the best starting five in the NBA. You can argue with me, but you'll be wrong. And the second team may be the best second team in the league -- Jordan Farmar, Vladimir Radmanovich, Sasha Vujicic, Trevor Ariza, Rony Turiaf, and Luke Walton -- Farmar, Ariza, and Turiaf are future starters in this league. Sasha and Rad might be. (Walton has been in the past and might also be again, though he shouldn't be -- he's not a starter on a good team.)
Gasol takes the Lakers from probably-not-a-championship-this-year to possibly-a-championship-this-year ... the only real question is whether the Lakers can mesh in the time remaining. In any event I don't have any big hesitation naming them the favorite for next year -- put a year of seasoning behind this group, and assuming everyone's healthy, which has lately been a crapshoot with the Lakes suspect medical staff, and I don't see a team in the NBA I like better. (And yeah, I'm prejudiced, but, and you non-Lakers fans must forgive me for saying this - Lakers fans have seen a lot of championship squads close up. The Lakers have appeared in nearly half of all NBA Finals, since the league's inception -- that's a lot of good teams to watch. And these guys should be in the mix ...)
And now, in a stretch when my happiness is already at a very high level ... the Phoenix Suns traded for Shaquille O'Neal, giving away in Shawn Marion possibly the best rebounding small forward in the history of the game to do it.
I dislike Shaq. I always disliked Shaq, even when he was bringing rings to the Lakers. He's charming and jokey and dishonest and never loved the game nearly as much as Kobe -- or Magic or Kareen or Worthy or Logo -- yeah, we've been spoiled. If Shaq'd had half the work ethic of a Bryant or Jordan or Magic, he'd have been the best player the game had ever seen. He was a big, Big, BIG man with the moves of a guard. In the post he was fluid, smooth, quicker than any behemoth of that size had any right to be. Sometimes he'd get goofy, put the ball on the ground and dribble it the length of the court, usually finishing with a monster stuff at the other end. No big man does that....
But he dogged it. He was lazy and sullen and insecure and masked it with the outgoing personality. For all the trillion words written about the "Kobe And Shaq Feud" ... Shaq started that feud. Shaq kept it going. In his career Shaq's feuded with Penny Hardaway, with Kobe, with Phil Jackson, and with Pat Riley. Hey, but at least Shaq didn't have problems with the third of the three All-Star shooting guards he's been fortunate enough to be paired with ....
Of couse there's this: "Probably this year more so than any year I have been more vocal with Shaq, talking to him and trying to motivate him. But the main thing is Shaq has got to be self-motivated. He has got to be willing and ready to do it. Even though he is not getting the ball as much as he wants, we need him to help lead this team in other ways, whether it's rebounding the ball or passing the ball the way he knows how to pass."
Who said that? Sounds like Kobe, circa 2004, no? It's not; it was Wade, about two months ago. Apparently Wade didn't think they were getting the effort Shaquille was capable of.
And now the Suns have him. And his 20 million a year, for the rest of this year and all of the two to follow, with Shaq vowing to play out those two years and take his 40 million.
So I'm making my prediction right now: the Suns will be worse because of this trade. They'll miss Marion, who was their best on the ball defender, and Shaq won't bring them a thing when it comes time for the playoffs. And man, I'm going to enjoy it. It's been a great stretch for the Lakers: Bynum, Gasol, and Shaq to the Suns. Couldn't have asked for more, when this season began, so unpromisingly, just a few short months ago.
I've really never seen anything like this, in all my years watching basketball: the best teams in the NBA is probably the Celtics, much as it pains me to say so, in the Eastern Conference. And the Pistons are pretty good -- and that's it, in the East.
The Eastern Conference has been deteriorating for a solid decade. One of the reasons the 72-10 Bulls went 72-10 was because they got to feast on rotten Eastern Conference teams. Since the Bulls broke up, the East has won only two championships, versus seven by the West. (And both the victories were considered upsets, and were.) The overall records in those finals were West 31 games, to East 17.
This year the disparity's even greater than it's been previously. There are 10 teams with winning records in the West; there are 5 in the East. (Obversely, since there are 15 teams in each conference, there are 5 teams with losing records in the West, and 10 in the East.) The Houston Rockets are 30-20 right now; ten games above .500. And if the playoffs started today, both they and the Portland Trailblazers would miss them, while Washington, Atlanta, and New Jersey, three teams with losing records, would all make it in, in the East.
There's not a single team in the West guaranteed of a playoff spot. The Suns, with the fewest losses ... 15 ... are only five losses ahead of the Houston Rockets, who have 20. One injury, one losing streak, and the Suns could easily miss the playoffs. (So could the Lakers or Spurs or whomever.)
The East has two good teams, and they're both old. We've been through a decade of rotten Easern Conference basketball -- and we may be in for another.