(Kobe Bryant photo by Chris Sembrot; Allen Iverson photo by Gary Land)
As the NBA’s standing versions of the ’86 Patriots and Peter McNeeley, the 2001 Sixers and 2007 Cavaliers are generally considered the worst Finals teams of all-time. After last night’s epic Game 4 collapse, allow me to stick the ’08 Lakers in that group.
Really, the parallels between the ’08 Lakers and the ’01 Sixers are too plentiful to ignore. Most L.A. fans I’ve proposed this to tend to bust a forehead vein arguing against it, but consider the evidence:
The Sixers were led by a Hall of Fame coach with a disposition of superiority (Larry Brown) and a sometimes-controversial Hall of Fame scoring guard having an MVP season (Allen Iverson). They had an All-Star caliber center who vacillated between “dominant” and “below-average” (Dikembe Mutombo) and was a mid-season acquisition brought in to replace an injured starter (Theo Ratliff). Philly’s role players occasionally had great games, but generally just did their respective jobs in the system, holding down the fort throughout the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs while their superstar did the heaviest lifting (Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, Eric Snow).
This year’s Lakers have the Hall of Fame coach that oozes “I’m better than you” (Phil Jackson), and the Hall of Fame guard having an MVP season (Kobe Bryant) who can be problematic. They have the up-and-down All-Star center (Pau Gasol) who’s replacing the injured starter (Andrew Bynum). They have the role players who did their jobs at a high level for 100-plus games, supported their superstar, but have had all of their flaws exposed in the Finals (Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Vlad Radmanovic, Luke Walton).
Now here’s where you have to talk the Lakers’ fans off the ledge, because the biggest misconception about the ’01 Sixers is that they were somehow a bad team. Not true at all. The ’01 Sixers won 56 games in the regular season and earned the #1 seed in the East. On their way to the Finals they knocked off the defending conference champs (Indiana) and took out three teams featuring elite scorers who were playing at, approaching, or not far removed from their respective primes: Reggie Miller (Pacers), Vince Carter (Raptors) and Ray Allen (Bucks).
The Lakers won 57 games this regular season and earned the #1 seed in the West. They knocked off the defending champs (Spurs) in the playoffs, took out the League’s deadliest scoring combo in Carmelo Anthony and A.I. (Nuggets), and eliminated one of the NBA’s toughest home-court teams with one of the League’s most efficient offenses (Jazz). Possible future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Robert Horry, Deron Williams, Iverson and ‘Melo all lay in Kobe’s wake.
The ’08 Lakers are a good team, as were the ’01 Sixers led by Iverson, and I originally picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics in this series. But these first four games have shown that Kobe’s crew just isn’t anywhere near the dominant squad so many people made them out to be going into the Finals. (Other than style of play, that is actually the biggest difference; no one gave the Sixers a chance in the ’01 Finals.) What this year’s Lakers are is a quality team being carried by a peaking superstar, a group who got hot at the right time. Just like Philly.
But in the end, they just ran into a better team when the championship was on the line. And there’s no shame in that. But there are no rings, either.