It's been a long ride, but the Lakers finally notched up their 15th NBA Title, thanks to a somewhat anticlimactic win over the Orlando Magic in Game 5.
This title is really all about one person, and that's Kobe Bryant. The win officially places Bryant in the pantheon of NBA greats, and he probably qualifies as one of the 10 greatest of all time. I have been utterly stunned by some of the criticism that Bryant has been receiving, even as recently as this week. Not only did he average over 30 points a game in these finals, but he averaged over 7 assists.
Last year, Kobe finally learned how to involve his teammates and how to elevate an entire team's game. The team had the No. 1 seed in the West last year, even before the Pau Gasol trade, but adding Gasol gave the Lakers the major piece they needed to become a championship team. Gasol deserves a ton of credit for this title thanks to his consistent play, and he really is an unheralded superstar. But also Trevor Ariza should get plenty of praise for often serving as the crucial No. 3 option on nights that Lamar Odom wasn't playing well, and of course Derek Fisher for his big shots in Game 4 and his steady veteran leadership.
But overall, it was Bryant who finally proved he could win a title a without Shaq, who will be most associated with this title. And that is well deserved. He can do things on the floor that no one else can in the game today. He creates offense, both with shots and passing that are seemingly impossible. He's one of the five best one-on-one defenders in the NBA. And he plays with a level of passion, tenacity, and heart that one can't help but admire. (BTW... please check out this Twitter post from Shaq.)
Also, Phil Jackson now has 10 NBA Titles, the most ever. In my opinion he is the best coach in NBA history. I can see the argument for saying Red Auerbach is better, but Phil Jackson has coached in an era with obscene player egos, impatient management, a probing media, a salary cap, and 30 NBA teams. Some critics claim that Phil only won because he had some of the best players of all-time. But no coach, including Red Auerbach, can win a title without truly great players. While Red Auerbach had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, and others, Phil Jackson installed his system and coached up Michael Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe. Jordan and Kobe never won without Phil, and Shaq never played better under any other coach. Phil Jackson brings the best out of his stars, and he manages a team and the psyche of a team over the course of an NBA season better than anyone in the sport. He may infuriate fans when it looks like he's just sitting, but coaching goes far beyond what you just see on TV. It extends into practice and includes the institution of a philosophy that all of your players can buy into.
Credit should also go to Mitch Kupchak, a GM who has received his fair share of criticism over the years. He drafted Andre Bynum who's tough physical presence helped the Lakers at times in these playoffs. He also brought in Gasol and Ariza via trade, and effectively built this entire championship roster. But most importantly, when Kobe Bryant was publicly asking for a trade 2 years ago, Kupchak held firm, refusing to accept anything less than equal value for his superstar (which didn't exist), and it wound up being the right move.
And let's also praise Jerry Buss, who is without question, the best owner in the history of Los Angeles sports.
Whenever a team wins the title, people always like to look ahead a year. So we'll do that ever so a bit here. Both Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza are free agents, and the Lakers need to do all they can to bring both back. The reason for bringing back Ariza are obvious. I don't know how much Odom will demand, and how much less he'll accept to stay, but he still has superstar talent, and he shows it off just enough to make the Lakers a special team.
If Ariza and Odom come back next year, and if Andrew Bynum can stay healthy, then I really believe the Lakers should be the odds-on favorites to repeat as champions. The teams around them in the West are by and large getting worse or holding steady. I don't see Denver improving, as Chauncey Billups ages, as JR Smith is a free agent, and I don't believe Nene can stay healthy for two consecutive seasons. Houston will always be pesky, but they lack the scoring threat to keep pace with a team like the Lakers. Utah and New Orleans both took inexplicable steps back this year, while San Antonio's age is really showing.
In the East, Orlando should get better if Dwight Howard can develop more offensive moves in the post. And if Jameer Nelson plays a whole season at 100%, they can be dangerous. But until I see someone on their team who can create offense beyond spot-up jump shots, then I'm not sure if they can sustain their style of play against elite teams. If Boston has a healthy Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, then they should have as good of a chance of any East team to go to the Finals. But they are also an aging team, one that is slowing down and is more susceptible to injuries. Cleveland showed in the playoffs in that they do not have a strong enough team around Lebron James to win a title. I'm not sure if bringing in Shaq is the answer, but that would sure be fun. It wouldn't surprise me if Cleveland gets to the Finals, but they don't have the depth to beat the Lakers unless they add some significant pieces.
In the meantime, the Lakers are the 2009 NBA Champions, and clearly the Team of the Decade. And it's a win that we all should celebrate and savor.