At the moment, with the charge against Kobe Bryant just officially made, it's a little hard to think about just basketball. But sorting that out will take time. Though it casts a shadow on the upcoming season, and may be felt on the court, there is a great deal that's utterly amazing in almost the opposite way about what's happened with the Lakers in the past month.
The three-time NBA champs (2000, 2001, 2002) entered the free agent market with needs and aspirations and not a lot of money to spend. Not certainly as much as the reigning champs (2003) San Antonio Spurs. Point guard Gary Payton seemed beyond possibility. Nobody much thought it was worth even trying to tempt Karl Malone, since it would take all the money they had, they probably wouldn't get him and if they did, he alone wouldn't be enough.
So what happened? They got them both: Payton and Malone. Malone, a former MVP, is a certain Hall of Fame player. Gary Payton is a fairly likely one. They signed on partly because they wanted to play together, and because they wanted to play on a championship team, with a great coach. They gave up a lot of money (yes-NBA players gave up money!) to play for the Lakers, which of course, was totally unpredictable.
And so far, the Spurs got nada. The team they built last year may jell more firmly next year, but it might just as easily fall apart. Ditto the Sacramento Kings.
The Lakers could start four future Hall of Famers, plus young Deavon George who showed a lot of potential in 2002, had a so-so season last year, but conceivably could have a Hall of Fame caliber career ahead of him. PLUS they still have two more of their key players in those three championships: Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. PLUS they signed two potentially valuable draft picks,who could bring some young energy. And there are still some players out there they might get.
Their only real loss is Robert Horry, who was an indispensable asset in their playoffs runs: smart and skillful on defense and offense. His subpar season last year may mean his knees have finally been played out, so it's hard to say how valuable he would be next year. It's also not clear that either of the two star veterans will quite fulfill the role played by Brian Shaw and Ron Harper; the veteran leader who can come in and settle the team down, get them back in their groove and make a few crucial plays.
It's also not clear whether this group will constitute a team. Some foresee chaos and dissension. Lots of teams complain about Shaq's physical play, but the Lakers never display the kind of on-court thugishness that Malone and Payton have in the past. Of course I'll have to defer to Shaq's friendship with Payton, and Magic Johnson's embrace of Malone, whose comments on Magic and HIV shortened Magic Johnson's comeback as a player. But getting them to all play together and play like a Lakers team will be Phil Jackson's most formidable challenge. If he succeeds, the results could be awesome. The style of the Lakers game will undoubtedly change. With Payton handling the ball, Bryant can fly down the court. With Malone boxing out for rebounds, Shaq can get out on the break, or vice versa: Lakers "showtime" could be back.
But the truly scary thing about this team (for other teams) is its depth. All four of the H of Famers don't have to be on the court at the same time for the Lakers to wreak havoc. They can now sustain an injury or other absense without fatal consequences (their lack of depth last year was obvious in the playoffs.) And Jackson has all year to finetune the particular combination of players he can use for specific situations, match-ups and defenses. Wow.
The NBA brass must be ecstatic. A lackluster season and a barely watched finals are gone. Now the most watched team promises to bring a lot of excitement---and if it all works out, they're gonna score a lot of points.