In a short span in early July, Karl Malone and Gary Payton were introduced as new members of the team, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault, and just like that the Los Angeles Lakers had commandeered the NBA season. No matter how desperately we might have wanted to escape them, we couldn't. They might as well have just tied us to the TV and thrown away the remote.
Episode after episode, they've fascinated us, from Shaq and Kobe throwing verbal haymakers at each other before the season even began, to Kobe saying he wouldn't want to have lunch with Phil Jackson, to Shaq cursing twice on network TV, to Payton saying he didn't come to Los Angeles for less money for melodrama, to Kobe flying in from Colorado court proceedings to join the team at tip-off, to Payton nearly getting into a fight with 100-year-old Hubie Brown in a parking lot, to Malone suffering his first real injury in 19 years, to Kobe not shooting to Kobe making impossible shots.
The Lakers essentially gangstered the NBA season, whether they played brilliantly or badly. And for as long as they're alive, they're going to consume us in the postseason, too.
That's not saying the Lakers are the best team, because I don't think they are.
The champions, the San Antonio Spurs, appear to have the best team going in to the playoffs. The Spurs never have drama, they rarely make headlines. They don't cuss each other or their coach and they don't take nights off, either. The Spurs simply play basketball, splendidly when healthy, which they appear to be.
The Eastern Conference will be worth watching for a couple of hours three or four times when the Knicks play the Nets, but not again until Indiana and Detroit meet in the conference finals for what should be a low-scoring, brutally physical, hard-to-watch series that only basketball purists will love. The only thing separating the Pacers and Pistons at this point is Indiana having home-court advantage. Hey, that might not mean as much in baseball, hockey or even the NFL. But in the NBA, 76 percent of the time the team with home-court advantage wins in the playoffs. That's the extent of our Eastern Conference analysis, folks.
For most people watching the playoffs, it's the Lakers vs. the league. They get Houston in the first round, then probably San Antonio and Minnesota beyond that, without the home-court advantage in the last two rounds.
And part of the fun is that we have no idea which Lakers team will show up for the Houston series. As Phil Jackson said to Tony Kornheiser and me on "Pardon The Interruption" the other day, "This team has played schizophrenic for the last three weeks. They've been great, they've been so-so, they've been okay and they've been bad. So, I don't know what we're going to get."
True, other Western Conference teams coming into the postseason are playing better.
Kevin Garnett will finally win a playoff series when Minnesota beats Denver, but it won't come easy, not with Carmelo Anthony playing with no pressure whatsoever.
The Lakers will beat Yao and the Rockets, but it may take six games, in part because Malone, Devean George and Derek Fisher might be hobbled the first few games of the series, and because Shaq doesn't just beat down Yao like he does so many others. "Shaq knows this kid is his size," Jackson said, "can score, does have a game that he's got to respect, and he has to pay attention to him the whole game and cannot just roam around as a defensive stopper."
Memphis has a very, very nice team and could press the Spurs, perhaps to six games.
The most entertaining series of the first round should be Dallas vs. Sacramento. And considering the Kings have lost four of five, 11 of 18, and are just 12-13 with a noticeably hurting Chris Webber in the lineup, look for Dallas to win in six. It's not just what the Kings aren't doing, it's that the Mavericks decided three weeks ago, brilliantly, to play to their strength -- offense. Dallas is averaging 114 points a game the last three weeks and isn't going to pretend it can play defense. The Mavs are going pedal to the metal from the opening tip and Sacramento, while the Kings have a more talented roster, don't play enough defense to do anything about it.
That leaves Dallas vs. Minnesota and Lakers vs. Spurs in the second round. The Timberwolves are too complete a team now that Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell are aboard to help Kevin Garnett get past defenseless Dallas. Meanwhile, it would seem to me that it's a little too much to ask that the Lakers go through Houston, which will be tiring, then the Spurs.
The tendency for most of us is to give the Lakers the benefit of the doubt because of the Big Four -- Kobe, Shaq, Malone and Payton. Maybe we should make that the Big Five because of Jackson, in what will very possibly be his last postseason as coach of the Lakers. The coach has figured out this team can't really play the way he wants it to play. "I'm a damn stubborn person and I've made them conform to it," he said of his preferred free-flowing style. "They like to have 'my turn' or 'his turn' or 'is it going to Shaq?' or 'is it screen-and-roll for Gary?' Things like that. We're going to change some things, have some specific sets . . . I like a team to function on its own. This team has shown a propensity not to do that."
Even with those adjustments, the Lakers still have to go through San Antonio, where the Spurs have won 11 straight and have an emerging player in Manu Ginobili to help Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Malik Rose, et all. The Lakers' melodramatic season is going to end in Texas. One day we're going to look back collectively and wonder, "How did San Antonio win all these championships and get so little attention?" The pick here is Spurs in seven over the Lakers, in five over the Timberwolves.
For the first time since 1998, when the Chicago Bulls won their sixth championship, the Eastern Conference has multiple representatives -- the Pacers and Pistons -- who could win the Finals. And what a conference championship that would be, pitting Ben and Rasheed Wallace against Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington and Ron Artest.
Not having to play three tough rounds in the East will help the Pacers or Pistons in the Finals . . . but not enough. The Spurs will beat Indiana in six to win the NBA Finals.