HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The more we watch the Los Angeles Lakers this season the more we’re warming to the idea that they are no longer just Kobe Bryant‘s team.
The best closer in the game is consciously and willingly sharing the load for the first time in his career and we couldn’t be more impressed with Bryant and surely he couldn’t be more impressed with the man he called the “Spaniard” after the Lakers won their second straight NBA title in June.
Pau Gasol‘s time to shine for the Lakers is now. (And no, we’re not just saying that because the Lakers throttled the Warriors behind a huge night from Gasol — everything seems to look much better after facing the Warriors’ defense doesn’t it?) It seems Bryant and everyone else in Los Angeles is warming to that idea.
Now before anyone assumes we’re talking about some passing of the baton from Bryant to Gasol, we need to be clear. This is and always will be Kobe’s team first. He just has help now, the same sort of help he provided earlier in his career when he sometimes-reluctantly shared the load with Shaquille O’Neal, who was the alpha dog on those three-peat Lakers teams from early in the decade.
Bryant and Gasol seem to have found that cosmic middle ground that didn’t exist seven or eight seasons ago between a still rising Kobe and a firmly entrenched Shaq. They’ve found that special place that a championship-level team interested in prolonged success has to locate if they want to live up to their own hype.
You’ve seen it before, this sharing of duties among multiple superstars, a generation ago with:
— Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen shared the load as well as any two superstars in the history of the game. No sane person would argue that Pippen ever challenged Jordan as the Bulls’ most important and best player. Yet we all know that Pippen was a completely indispensable piece of the Bulls’ championship puzzle. Their dynamic was unique in that both Jordan and Pippen were essentially at the height of their powers simultaneously (during the second three-peat), which presented even more potential for disaster than usual. That they were able to manage that dynamic makes their six championship runs even more impressive.
More recently with:
— Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have shared duties as well any group in recent memory. Duncan has always been the heart of the Spurs’ dynasty, even when he was the youngster playing alongside a Hall of Famer like David Robinson. But Ginobili (in 2005, even though Duncan took home the Finals MVP trophy) and Parker (in 2007) have each been the bus driver during title runs for the Gregg Popovich‘s crew with Duncan easing into a different role without hesitation. Had any of the three of them decided they didn’t want to share the load or the spotlight, they might have been one-and-done champs.
And most recently with:
— Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen made it look easy during the 2007-08 season, when they joined forces a couple of months before training camp and steamrolled their way through the regular season and playoffs to the 2008 title. Garnett was the engine of that title team, it’s heart and soul. Still, Allen’s role was crucial and then in the playoffs, Pierce took over and matched greatness for greatness against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference semifinals and later Bryant in the NBA Finals. If any one of the three of them fails to comprehend the nuances of sharing the ultimate responsibility for a title-caliber team, it doesn’t work out.
Bryant and Gasol sharing duties now is what has led the Lakers to three straight trips to the Finals. Initially, Bryant did all the directing. It was his show first and last, as it was every single day after the Shaq divorce. Gasol had to find a way to fit in. Things changed slowly but surely and then suddenly after that loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals, when it became clear to Bryant that he simply could not do it alone.
They are working into their fourth season together now and you can see the synergy every night. They both know when to lead and when to fall back.
Seeing Bryant defer to Gasol the way he does at times is still a bit startling, especially when you are used to Bryant constantly taking over. As startling as it is, though, you have to realize how brilliant a move it is for Bryant. He has mastered the art of winning, something James and his Heat teammate Dwyane Wade are still trying to master now.
He also keeps his team in contention another three or four years by understanding what we like to call The Power of Pau!