Weekly Countdown: Legacies on the line in this year's Finals
Kobe Bryant will always have regrets if he loses twice to the Celtics
Paul Pierce is fighting to be known as one of the greatest Celtics in history
Other topics: Kobe vs. LeBron debate, draft prospects, refereeing scandal
The NBA Finals has greater meaning whenever the Celtics and Lakers meet. Here are five potential outcomes we'll be discussing in a couple of weeks.
Kobe Bryant's place among Lakers. He has four titles and needs a fifth to equal the achievement of franchise leader Magic Johnson. But this is no normal series for Bryant: This is his opportunity to make right all that went wrong two years ago, when Boston beat his Lakers for the ninth time in their 11 Finals together.
Johnson faced a more traumatic atonement when his favored Lakers lost to Larry Bird's Celtics in 1984. That upset was blamed almost entirely upon Magic, and he avenged himself by beating the Celtics twice in the Finals over the next three years.
The Celtics' 2008 victory wasn't Bryant's fault -- he was beaten because his younger teammates were unprepared to win a championship. They matured to win last year's Finals while holding home court to finish Orlando in five games. Yet, Bryant is taking personal responsibility for beating Boston this time. Since he first joined the Lakers 14 years ago, he has been keeping score with the goal of matching or surpassing the most accomplished players of his franchise, and the league overall.
The first time SI featured Bryant on the cover in 1998 -- one of my first stories for the magazine -- he was pictured with Magic. His father, 6-foot-9 Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, had the same skill-set as Magic, and after Joe retired from the NBA to extend his playing career in Italy, he and young Kobe would sit in front of the TV watching videotapes of Magic's Lakers that had been shipped overseas by Joe's parents. Bryant grew up viewing Magic's triumphant career through the prism of his rivalry with the Celtics.
Now the ball is in Bryant's court. This is not the main reason he needs to win this Finals, but it is important nonetheless: He does not want to look back on his career knowing he went 0-2 against Boston. In terms of titles won overall, he may yet surpass Magic, but a second loss against the Celtics would leave Bryant in second place behind his hero and friend in terms of this crucial rivalry.
This mission to beat Boston was behind the quiet in their locker room last weekend as the Lakers received their trophy for winning the Western conference in Phoenix. The mood was so sober and introspective that you might have thought they were the losers. Which, in a sense, they were: Bryant establishes the tone and approach for his teammates, and he continues to view the '08 loss as a result that must be overturned. Bryant has since won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, as well as an MVP award and Olympic gold medal. But my feeling is that nothing will be more important to him than recovering the championship against the ultimate rival.
For most of his career Bryant has been identified as a potential successor to Michael Jordan, but before he can incite that debate he must first equal the achievements of Magic. How can Bryant be compared favorably with the greatest player when he hasn't outdone the greatest Laker?
The mighty 11. Since Magic and Bird entered the NBA in 1979-80, a total of 11 players have won all but one of the 30 championships:
6: Michael Jordan
5: Magic Johnson
4: Kobe Bryant
4: Tim Duncan
4: Shaquille O'Neal
3: Larry Bird
2: Hakeem Olajuwon
2: Isiah Thomas
1: Kevin Garnett
1: Dwyane Wade
1: Moses Malone
Some of the championships were shared, which is why the numbers don't add up. I'm sure that some of you will write to remind me that Julius Erving played a big role in Malone's championship, as did Joe Dumars for Thomas', and Paul Pierce/Ray Allen for Garnett's, and so on. But this list resonates because the NBA championship tends to be won by one or two special players. Each of the stars on this list was an MVP-level talent, including Wade, who surprised by leading Miami through the 2006 Finals but has since demonstrated that his breakout championship performance was merely a reflection of his talent and not some flukey hot streak.
Consider what is at stake in this Finals. If Bryant wins, he'll stand one title short of Jordan with reason to hope that Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum can help him to equal or surpass Jordan. Jordan is viewed by many as the greatest player of all time, but if he eventually falls to second place on this list then what will be said of the player who has moved ahead of him? Bryant's ultimate goal is to leverage that question.
Garnett is on this list because his presence on the Celtics two years ago -- when he was an MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year -- enabled them to win that championship. He is no longer playing to that high level, but then again, neither was Shaq when he won his fourth ring alongside Wade in Miami. The fact remains that the Celtics can't go anywhere without Garnett, as proved by their second-round elimination in last year's playoffs while he was injured, and he too will move up on this list by winning another title.
Pierce's legacy. This is what Pierce is up against as he fights to become one of the greatest Celtics.
11: Bill Russell
10: Sam Jones
8: John Havlicek
8: Satch Sanders
8: K.C. Jones
8: Tom Heinsohn
7: Frank Ramsey
7: James Loscutoff
6: Bob Cousy
5: Don Nelson
5: Larry Siegfied
If they hold a small party to celebrate the Celtics with the most rings, then Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- three apiece -- aren't walking through that door, because even they don't rate among the winningest players for their franchise.
Pierce ranks No. 3 all time among Celtics scorers with 19,899 points, and he should move ahead of Bird (21,791) sometime after next season -- though he likely will never catch franchise leader Havlicek (26,395). To understand how important Pierce rates his place in the history of the Boston franchise, remember how he reacted as the 17th banner was raised before last season and he was greeted by Havlicek, Cousy and Heinsohn. As he lifted the trophy, Pierce sobbed, understanding that he was now part of their club.
Pierce won't retire with as many titles as the others, but he will be credited for his perseverance and loyalty over the nine years he spent waiting in Boston for the arrival of talent to contend for championships. Just as the outcome of this Finals means everything to Bryant, so too will it carry the same impact for Pierce if he is able to help Boston win twice in a row.
The Pistons' example. The one championship team of the last 30 years that didn't contribute a player to the "Mighty 11" was the 2003-04 Pistons -- the only titlist without an elite scorer. They triumphed as a team, and if the Celtics prevail then they will be likely to follow a similar dynamic by winning with a well-balanced roster.
Is Garnett the most valuable Celtic, or is it Rajon Rondo? They need the driving of Pierce, the three-point bombing of Allen and the interior defense of Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.
The Celtics' current method is the most difficult way to win a championship because it depends on teamwork and balance. When the Lakers are in trouble, they depend on Bryant to pull them along. The Celtics' answer to hard times is to move the ball and create the best shot regardless of the identity of its shooter.
The coaches. Phil Jackson is all set at the top of his list, though an 11th championship would surely mean something special to him after he watched with embarrassment as his team lost Game 6 by 39 points at Boston two years ago. This may be his farewell (though don't count on that).
A win in this Finals would help Doc Rivers, who is among the 28 coaches to have won an NBA championship. Should he win this Finals he'll join the 11 peers who have won two or more titles. He'll also join Red Auerbach (9), K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell (2 each) on the short list of Celtics coaches with multiple rings.
If the Lakers succeed in utilizing their home-court advantage, they'll win their 16th franchise championship to leave them one behind the Celtics. And Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss will have won his 10th championship since buying the team before Magic's arrival in 1979-80.