Look past the stars
Role players will be a key factor in Spurs-Lakers series
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor will answer your NBA questions every week during the season. Click here to send him a question
Lots of topics in the 'bag this week, but relatively few of you asked the only question that really matters at the moment: Lakers or Spurs? Maybe that's because you're all aware of my history of pathetic predictions.
But my motto is "Often in error, but never in doubt," so here's my take on the Western Conference finals.
It's obviously a shame that San Antonio won't have Derek Anderson to match up against Kobe Bryant on the perimeter (If the Lakers win the championship, will they give the Mavericks' Juwan Howard, who delivered the blow that led to Anderson's separated shoulder, a full playoff share?), but that doesn't necessarily mean that Kobe will have a field day against the Spurs. Neither Antonio Daniels nor Terry Porter can handle him for very long one-on-one, but the Spurs play great team defense, funneling everything to the middle, where Tim Duncan and David Robinson are posted. When Bryant goes to the basket, he's going to have a harder time finishing or drawing fouls against the Spurs than he did against Sacramento.
Clearly, the Spurs are the club best equipped to at least slow down the Shaq freight train. It's not just that Duncan and Robinson have the height and defensive skills to make for a formidable tag-team against O'Neal, it's that they have the star power. Let's face it, referees notice the name on the back of the uniform. San Antonio's Twin Towers are likely to get more calls against Shaq on both ends of the floor than Vlade Divac and Scott Pollard did. And if O'Neal gets into foul trouble, the Spurs will do to the Lakers what they've done to everyone else -- absolutely murder them on the perimeter.
But Robinson and Duncan are going to be asked to carry an even heavier burden than usual against the Lakers. They must stand up to Shaq's superior strength in the low post, and recover in time to help out when Kobe and his teammates penetrate. If the Twin Towers are anything less than sensational at both tasks, or if either one of them should get into foul trouble -- a distinct possibility -- the Lakers will start to smell blood.
This isn't just a battle between each team's pair of stars. My guess is that one of the role players, whether it's Daniels or Derek Fisher or Danny Ferry or Robert Horry, is going to get hot and make the difference in at least one game, and that, in turn, could make the difference in the series. One often overlooked advantage the Lakers have is how well their secondary players work together. That won't be the case in this series, however. Even without Anderson, the Spurs have a supporting cast that can equal the Lakers'.
Veterans like Porter and Ferry are just as shrewd and experienced as Rick Fox and Ron Harper. Daniels gives the Spurs the same kind of athleticism that the Lakers get from Horry.
Ultimately, the Spurs are one of the few teams in the league that aren't the least bit affected by the Laker mystique, and it helps that San Antonio has home court advantage. Also, I think the Lakers have played so well for so long now that they're due to come up with a clunker sometime in this series, and, against the Spurs, Los Angeles doesn't have much margin for error. In a memorable, hard-fought series, I'm picking the Spurs in seven. Aren't you glad you asked?
I was happy to see you defend Shaq in
last week's mailbag. My
question: How much better is Shaq than Tim Duncan? Do you think it's a
no-brainer or is the gap pretty
The cop-out answer would be to say they're such different players that it's like comparing apples and oranges. That's true, but I'm here to spout my opinions, so here's one: I'll take Shaq over Duncan. I'm not saying that Shaq is necessarily a more skilled basketball player, but he is the most dominant force in the game today. Duncan is smoother and more technically proficient in the low post, but he's not as likely as O'Neal to put up a 40-20 performance. I'm sure most coaches would tell you that as great as Duncan is, they'd rather try to devise ways to contain him than try to stop Shaq. But is it close? Definitely. (Check out CNNSI's Tale of the Tape) I know I picked the Spurs to beat the Lakers, but that doesn't change the fact that if I were starting a team today and had to pick one player without regard to age, I would take O'Neal first and Duncan second.
I have to disagree with you about Jordan's Bulls being able to beat the
Lakers of the '80s. There's no way the Bulls could have handled the front court
of James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and A.C. Green. Green was every bit as
aggressive as Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman. Scottie Pippen could not have
defended Magic Johnson any better than Byron Scott guarded Jordan. Furthermore,
and maybe most important, the Lakers' bench was way better than the Bulls'.
Lastly, the Bulls beat nobodies for their six championships. The Lakers beat
Philly, Boston and
There's no right and wrong on this subject, so I won't argue with you. The only thing I'll say is that one of the reasons you think of those teams the Bulls beat as "nobodies" is that the Bulls didn't let them become somebodies. For instance, the Jazz might have won two championships if not for Jordan, and they'd at least have been thought of as equals of the Pistons.
Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Charles Barkley's Suns might very well have won titles if the Bulls hadn't been virtually unbeatable. What I'm saying is that the Bulls shouldn't be downgraded because their competition didn't have the same credentials as the Sixers, Celtics and Pistons teams of the '80s. One reason those three teams have such impressive credentials is that they came along before the best player in history hit his prime.
What do you think the missing pieces are for the Mavericks? Do you think it
will be possible for them to get a player like Antonio Davis? I believe he would
be the perfect fit, giving them the physical presence down low that they are
missing. And if the Mavs should happen to be a player in the Chris Webber
sweepstakes, who would they be willing to give
The Mavs would have to create some cap room for Davis, which won't be easy. Anyway, I'm hearing Orlando has the inside track on Davis because he makes his offseason home there. He's definitely the kind of player the Mavs need to complete the puzzle, but the problem is that about 20 other teams in the league are looking for the same kind of player. If Dallas was to get into the Webber competition, I'm sure the Kings would want Dirk Nowitzki, and that would probably be the deal-breaker. If I'm Sacramento and I can't get the Mavs to even discuss putting Nowitzki or Michael Finley on the table, I might ask Dallas for Howard, Shawn Bradley and Steve Nash, and I'd insist they take Jason Williams off my hands in addition to getting Webber. I'm not sure that would be enough to satisfy the Kings, but if the Mavs said yes to that they would at least be in the running.
Could you comment on the Hack-a-Shaq tactics? I think fouling somebody just
to send him to the free-throw line should be a flagrant at any point in the
game, not just the last minutes. I admire Shaq's coolness in such a situation. I
believe if you intentionally foul a player you should be called for flagrant or
a technical. It is very bad for the game and for the NBA in general. Some
coaches (Don Nelson) should be
I'm a big believer that players should be capable of performing all of their sport's necessary skills. That's why I don't like the DH in baseball or the third-down pass rusher in football. If they can't perform an essential skill, their opponents should be free to make them pay for it. So I don't have any problem with Hack-a-Shaq. You shouldn't change the rules to compensate for a player's weakness, and if they outlawed that kind of intentional foul that's exactly what the league would be doing. You'll notice that teams aren't using that strategy much anymore against Shaq. Why? Because he's become a better free-throw shooter. That's how it's supposed to work.
Do you expect the New York Knicks and Miami Heat to unload some of their
veteran players in the offseason? During the playoffs, these teams looked
terrible against the younger and faster Raptors and Hornets,
Both teams would love to get rid of some of their aging players. In New York's case, the Knicks wouldn't be heartbroken if Larry Johnson finally gave in to his bad back and retired (he's considering it), and they'd love to find someone as foolish as they were last summer to take the very overpaid (three more years at $9 million per) Glen Rice off their hands. Charlie Ward, the noted religious expert, may have worn out his welcome in New York as well.
In Miami, it's time for the Heat to cut loose Tim Hardaway . He's given them years of noble service, but he's done as an impact player. They may let Anthony Mason walk as a free agent as well. At this stage of his career, Dan Majerle is just a sometime player who really can't keep up if the opposition has an athletic backcourt. The problem for both teams in unloading those players is that they wouldn't get very much in return. The bottom line is that their chances of improving are dependent more on who they bring in than who they get rid of. For the Knicks, it's Webber or bust, and it would probably take a three-team deal including New York's Marcus Camby to make that happen.
In the Heat's case, Gary Payton is the guy who could rejuvenate them. It would probably take Brian Grant, for starters, to get the Sonics interested, and Miami would probably have to take Vin Baker off Seattle's hands as well.
Phil, do you think Allen Iverson could co-exist with another superstar
player? Most folks think he scares away free agents because of his reputation as
It would take someone whose stardom isn't dependent on his scoring ability to fit in with Iverson, someone like Jason Kidd, for example, and there aren't many of those types around. In fact, I can't think of another. That's why Philly coach Larry Brown deserves so much credit for finding a successful system for the Sixers that lets Iverson be Iverson. Despite all the talk of how he's matured, the Answer's game really hasn't changed that much. The Sixers just adapted to his style by moving him from the point to shooting guard, letting him fire away at will, and surrounding him with teammates who don't need shots to be effective. Every player in the league respects Iverson, but most other stars wouldn't be eager to be his teammate anywhere but the All-Star game.
Is Magic Johnson really serious about coaching again? He didn't do a good job
the first time around, so what kind of changes can he make this time? Also, does
he still own a small percentage of the
Magic would have to sell his ownership stake in the Lakers, a formality that would take about as long as it takes you to read this mailbag. He'd also have to realize that his job is not to re-create the '80s. When he coached the Lakers, he was frustrated by the modern-day players with their cell phones and meddlesome agents and inflated egos. Magic would have to find ways to work around those sorts of things rather than try to eliminate them. The other consideration is that with the rules changes, the game on the floor next year is going to be different from the one Magic played and coached. He's a tremendously intelligent basketball man, but if he thinks he could just take over a team tomorrow and be up to speed on the Xs and Os, he's wrong. His greatest asset is the respect he still commands from players, but if Magic can't prove that he's not still dreaming of Showtime, that respect won't be enough.
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