The NBA Playoffs start in less than a month, and it looks like the Los Angeles Lakers will enter as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the third consecutive year.
Although teams from the loaded Western Conference will challenge them, the consensus is that the Lakers will reach the NBA Finals. If Los Angeles wins another title, how will the legacies of Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and the Lakers franchise be affected?
When Bryant was traded to the Lakers from the Charlotte Hornets after the 1996 NBA Draft, he joined a team filled with established players such as Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and Elden Campbell. Though he did not see full playing time in his first two seasons, Bryant became entrenched as a starter and star during his third season in the NBA.
In Bryant’s fourth season, he and O’Neal headlined the first NBA dynasty of the 21st century. The Lakers captured three titles from 2000-2002 as Bryant transformed himself into one of the league’s premier players. During that three-title run, he never averaged less than 20 points per game — in either the regular season or the playoffs — and became the youngest player to garner three NBA Championships at age 23.
After Los Angeles lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, O’Neal demanded a trade, as he felt the franchise preferred Bryant to him. Immediately after O’Neal was sent to the Miami Heat, Bryant, who was a free agent at the time, opted to re-sign with the Lakers.
With O’Neal in Florida, Bryant became the main attraction in Los Angeles, giving him the spotlight he always craved. The Lakers became a one-man show and a weak supporting cast resulted in disappointing seasons from 2004-2007. Over the three-year span, Bryant became frustrated, as the Lakers never got past the first round of the playoffs.
The Los Angeles front office responded by pulling off a tremendously one-sided trade for productive big man Pau Gasol. After losing to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in 2009 for their fourth title in the last 10 years. Bryant savored this championship, as it proved he could win a title without O’Neal controlling the paint.
So, where does a possible fifth title rank Bryant? In terms of personal statistics, Bryant ranks 16th in total points scored. Depending on how long he plays, he has a chance to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record. Bryant knows this, and everyone knows he wants this record.
The thing to remember with Bryant is that he is 31 years old and could play at least six more years barring injury. With four championships in six Finals appearances, Bryant has the ability to have six titles, the same number as Michael Jordan’s. Bryant needs to take advantage of every opportunity to win a championship because every title continues his ascension up the list of all-time greats.
Roaming the sidelines during most of Bryant’s career has been Jackson. When Jackson won his 10th championship as head coach of the Lakers last season, he became the only coach in NBA history with 10. But is Jackson solely the beneficiary of great players?
To put it simply, no. Jackson has taken three different teams to the NBA Finals and won with all three of them. First, it was the Jordan and Scottie Pippen led Bulls teams of the 1990s. Then, it was the Lakers team of the early 2000s that featured Bryant and O’Neal. Now, it is a Los Angeles team headlined by Bryant and filled with an exceptional supporting cast.
Jackson is judged differently than someone like Red Auerbach because he managed possibly the best player in history and two of the best players of the 2000s. That said, a potential 11th championship is a special achievement in sports and cements his inclusion in the discussion of the best professional coaches of all-time.
When discussing who has been the NBA’s most successful franchise in league history, it’s a toss-up between the Celtics and Lakers. The Celtics did the most damage early in their history, as they have taken only one title since 1986. Meanwhile, the Lakers have four titles since 1988 with a possible fifth this summer. A Los Angeles championship this summer would make the scoreboard as follows: Boston: 17 Minneapolis/Los Angeles: 16. The rivalry between the two teams is intense and one more title brings the Lakers that much closer to being called the most successful franchise in league history.
Bryant, Jackson and the Lakers franchise have a chance to continue adding to their sparkling resumes this summer. Of course, everyone in the NBA — including a certain king in Cleveland — will try to stop them. Regardless if they win it all or win nothing at all, it is hard to look at the Lakers and not see one of the greatest franchises of the modern era.