HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — History will decide whose era (and empire) reigned supreme over the NBA and ultimately which franchise — between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs — gets to stamp this generation in the league as “theirs.”
The case for each franchise is strong. There are Hall of Fame players, all-time great coaches, championship banners and lasting memories on both sides of the divide. It’s up to each observer to make their own determination as to whose body of work is stronger.
At a legends brunch during All-Star Weekend years from now, you’d love to be at the table with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as the conversation cranks up (with Duncan no doubt choosing to opt out of the conversation and Bryant no doubt proclaiming the dominance of his Lakers).
But there is no doubt that one outfit is handling the final years, months and, perhaps days, of their dominant era much better than the other. The Spurs remain mighty, among the Western Conference and NBA’s best while the Lakers are in the midst of one of the biggest meltdowns we’ve seen of a proposed championship team.
The two teams we’ll see on the floor tonight in San Antonio (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. The Spurs are going about their business as always, oblivious to the outside world that loves to ignore them this time of year, all while plotting another deep playoff run in the twilight of the Duncan-Manu Ginobili–Tony Parker–Gregg Popovich era.
Bryant and his crew, two-time MVP Steve Nash and injured bigs Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, are limping through the meat of their season and staring at the very real possibility that this superstar experiment could end up with a burned down laboratory and a trip to the lottery. That’s a fate no one expected when the Lakers’ front office put this group together.
Yet that potential outcome has to be acknowledged at this stage of the season by the most experienced members of the Lakers’ contingent, as Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com details here:
The 38-year-old Nash also admitted he has seriously considered the possibility that the Lakers, despite all their preseason hype and championship aspirations, might not even make the playoffs this season.
“That motivates me every day,” Nash said. “There’s no guarantee [that the Lakers make the playoffs]. I think three or four weeks ago, people would have said, ‘Ah, it will get better.’ Now I definitely don’t think there’s a guarantee it will, so the only remedy is continue to work hard and give yourself a chance for it to get better.
“I obviously think with time, and that might mean through the summer, we can get better. But for this season, it’s definitely going to be a challenge to turn this around. … We got a number of things we got to try to improve on to get better, but one thing that we can’t accept is to take our foot off the gas and accept things. We got to continue to fight.”
Kobe Bryant, who entered the NBA in the same 1996 draft class as Nash, can commiserate.
“We were walking around at shootaround, and we just kind of looked at each other, and I said to him, ‘We thought it was going to be easier this year for once,'” Bryant said with a laugh.
Bryant refused to succumb to the circumstances, however.
“[Nash] is a little more reasonable than I am,” Bryant said. “That’s how we kind of bounce off of each other. I’m as stubborn as a mule. I’m going to keep driving this thing forward and so is he, but he tends to have more perspective than I do.”
It’s fair to say that Kobe’s stubborn streak might have cost the Lakers several more titles than the five they’ve accumulated during his time with the franchise. Had the Lakers kept their hoops trinity of Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant and Phil Jackson together as long as the Spurs have maintained their championship nucleus, there wouldn’t be an argument as to whose era it was.
The Spurs stuck to their beliefs — that you keep the core intact, exchange the periphery pieces when needed and always keep an eye out for young and emerging talent. The Lakers, meanwhile, have never been afraid to gamble big on the quick fix, cashing in at times (with the acquisition of Gasol, which led to back-to-back titles) and eating it at others (like now).
History will document both sides, their moves and each and every respective success and failure.
But right here, right now the verdict seems simple.