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Lakers' dilemma: To be, or not to be great

WashPost: It's past time for Los Angeles to cement its place among the NBA's all-time great teams.
Lakers forward Karl Malone argues with the referee during a loss to the Spurs. If Los Angeles loses Game 3 on Sunday, it'll be down 3-0 in its Western Conference semifinal.Jeff Mitchell / REUTERS

It's quite a productive five years the Lakers could be wrapping up now, what with three championships already won in that stretch. It's three times more than the Clippers have in their history and three more than the Knicks have won in the last 30 years. Undoubtedly because the lead characters — Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant — are so outsized, folks are going to refer to this period as a Lakers dynasty and compare them favorably with the best teams of the past 25 years.

But the truth is, beyond the glamour these Lakers don't measure up to Magic Johnson's Lakers, not to Larry Bird's Celtics, certainly not to Michael Jordan's Bulls, and probably not to the Bad Boy Pistons. There is one way the Lakers can dramatically alter the legacy of the current team: Get off the mat and beat San Antonio. The truly great teams have all done something improbable during the playoffs, like the Lakers exorcising years of demons by winning big at Boston Garden, like the Bulls coming back from down 2-0 to beat the Knicks. If the Lakers do that in this series, come back to defeat the defending champs, then fine, maybe history will have to reconsider them.

Absent that, however, there are a lot of conflicting results and circumstances. The phrase most often uttered by players and coaches after winning a championship in any sport is, "They can't take this away from me." What they mean is that championships, especially in pro sports, are entirely merit based, beyond critique. The value of a single title is undeniable. But historical ranking is a much more demanding exercise. Impressions, while subjective, still matter.

Magic, Bird and Jordan "brought it" — to use the players' favorite phrase to describe effort — every night. There was never the perception any of the three took a night off here and there. After a dark period left the NBA's reputation in question, it was Magic and Bird who restored the value of a ticket to watch an NBA game. Even more than their passing skills, they appeared to play every single game like it was the playoffs. And as their careers went into decline, Jordan took the notion of consistent brilliance to an absurd level.

The most important thing Jordan did was be Michael Jordan every single night. You never had to watch an understudy because he hardly ever got sick or missed a game because of injury after his second season. If you bought a ticket in November to take your kid to watch Jordan in February, you could not only count on him playing, you could count on seeing his full genius, no matter the opponent or that it might be his fourth game in five nights. It was like going to the theater, except Jordan's performance was more fully guaranteed.

The Lakers have never really provided basketball fans with that feeling. If they were all together, and if they weren't bickering, and if they were healthy, then you might see the Lakers at their best. They've treated the last three regular seasons as a nuisance, something to slog through in order to reach the playoffs when their interest would finally be piqued. When the Bulls put together an overwhelmingly talented roster for the 1995-96 season, they won 72 games. There was talk around the Lakers team that with the addition of Karl Malone and Gary Payton they might win 70 games this season, that they might threaten the Bulls' record. But they didn't threaten the record, didn't come close. The Lakers wouldn't even have won the Pacific Division on the final night of the season if it weren't for Sacramento's collapse the final two weeks.

The Lakers of the last three years have never played the regular season with the passion and purpose the Bulls, Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics did, so how could they possibly be rated as high?

It would be easier to forgive that if the Lakers had just powered their way through the playoffs in each of those three championship seasons, but they didn't. The Lakers probably shouldn't have even reached the 2000 NBA Finals, and it took one of the great choke jobs in NBA history to get them there. Remember, Portland blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center. In 2002, the Lakers were virtually awarded victory by the referees in a seven-game struggle with Sacramento.

Yes, just about every championship team gets the benefit of the doubt from the refs, from the Auerbach Celtics to Magic to Bird to Jordan. They all enjoyed a certain edge from the whistle blowers in the playoffs, but nothing like the Lakers got against Sacramento, most notably in Game 6 in Los Angeles. Only in the middle season, 2001, did the Lakers play the way many of us thought they should have for this entire run. They swept Portland, swept Sacramento and swept San Antonio, winning the last two games by 39 and 29 points. Only the overtime loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals to Philly prevented the Lakers from having a perfect playoffs.

But one dominating season doesn't equal maxing out, not for a team with Shaq and Kobe in their prime, with smart role players like Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, and early in the run Ron Harper, Horace Grant and John Salley.

This season will become, officially, a clunker if the Lakers cannot win Game 3 here Sunday afternoon. Even with Karl Malone's knee injury and Bryant's legal problems, you don't figure a team with this kind of talent to be down 2-0 and looking so vulnerable. The Lakers have been very good at applying so much pressure that other teams buckle. But now, it's the Lakers under all of the pressure. They gave up their crown a year ago on their home court to San Antonio, and face elimination at the hands of the same less-hyped team this season. What happens Sunday, with their season on the line and everybody's personal future in limbo, will go a long way toward determining whether the Lakers go out with a whimper or like the champs they claim they once more can be.