Kurt’s post about Riles really got me thinking. It had me reminiscing about past Lakers glory, our current team, and taking the next step. Riley was part of one of the most famous teams in Lakers lore…33 straight wins and a world championship. They exemplified teamwork and player sacrifice for the greater good. After thinking of that team, my mind drifted to the golden era of the 80′s….Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Cooper, McAdoo, Wilkes, Rambis, AC, Scott…I could literally go on forever. I grew up on the execution and flare of those teams. To me, that was how basketball was supposed to be played. Fast breaks, excitement, the sky hook, high fives, the opposition laying collapsed in the wake of another Lakers tidal wave. 8 Finals appearances and 5 titles in a decade. For any Lakers fan, the combination of the titles and the style of play made the 80′s the peak of our basketball fandom. We were in heaven. Then I think about the Shaq/Kobe teams. Power and grace. Execution and turmoil. (Two of) the best players in the league flanked by the types of veterans that championship trophies are crafted for. We had the juggernaut at Center, the 2nd coming at Shooting Guard and players like Horry, Foxie, Fisher, Harper, and Shaw that made those teams the perfect blend of high profile talent and anonymous, yet deadly role players that would do anything to win. But looking back on that specific team (and to some extent, the team that Riley was on too) made me realize that it wasn’t always so. We weren’t always the unstoppable bully. We weren’t always the favorite. There were doubters, and their voices were loud and piercing.
Think back to the seasons right before the Shaq/Kobe teams broke through for their first title. Do you remember what they were saying about the Lakers? We were soft. Not soft physically, but soft mentally. In 1998, the great Michael Jordan would say:
“I still put Utah ahead of them because of their mental toughness. I’m talking about from the first round of the playoffs to the Finals round. The Lakers still haven’t done that. I’m not saying they can’t, but in the playoffs, mental toughness means a lot. It’s not always the physically gifted team (that wins).”
Even Dennis Rodman would chime in after a nationally televised game between the Lakers and the Bulls:
“Everybody’s expecting us and the Lakers in the Finals. But the Lakers have to get there. I think it will be Utah or Seattle. The Lakers need to grow up a little bit.”
And that was the sentiment around the league. All the talent in the world, but soft mentally. We couldn’t get over the hump because our guys didn’t have the mental fortitude to do it. Fast forward one more season and the same perception prevailed. From the 1997 season to the end of the 1999 (lockout shortened) season, the Lakers had been swept out of the playoffs twice (once in the 2nd round and once in the Conference Finals) and had also lost 4-1 in another second round series. Losing in that manner, in those series, left us with a tough reputation to shake. The Lakers were the type of team that didn’t have the mental toughness to win it all. But were we really mentally soft, or did we just lack the experience needed to compete at the highest level?
Now, look at today’s current team. What is almost every critic and fan saying about us? That we’re soft. Only now, they do mean physically. To many, our loss to the Celtics just confirmed that we didn’t have the physical toughness to win. Gasol, Odom, Sasha, RadMan, and even Walton…do any of these players scream tough guy? Even hard nosed players like Kobe and Fisher can’t distort the perception that we don’t have the toughness to win. The resonating images, for critics and fans alike, are missed layups and half hearted jump hooks. They see gold jerseys being bullied in the paint and on the glass and the evidence is plain as day. This off-season, fans have been calling for the Lakers to sign any player that even resembles an enforcer or tough guy. Right here on these boards (and everywhere else, really) there were calls for Kurt Thomas or Craig Smith or James Posey…any player that would just hit someone, put a body on someone, knock the opponent down. But is that what we really need?
I would say no. What we need, like those Lakers teams that won three consecutive titles earlier this decade, is experience. We need growth and knowledge; an understanding of what it takes to win that develops from trying and failing. Championship caliber basketball is where talent and experience meet (and we definitely have the talent). People can talk about mental toughness, physical toughness, hunger, and dozens of other adjectives that ultimately just describe the team that wins. The guys that fall short are always the players/teams that are “soft” or some other negative connotation that is the tidy bow that wraps comfortably around the loser. But the truth is, the teams that lose just weren’t good enough…yet. Like the Lakers of 1998 (and 1999) that had all that talent but couldn’t get over the hump, what this team needs is experience. They need to grow, together, to get to the point where winning becomes the byproduct of shared knowledge; the culmination from the groups collective experience. And really, I don’t think there’s that much more growth that’s needed. This Lakers team has gone from losing to Phoenix in consecutive seasons in two hard fought playoff sereis, to earning a Finals birth. And sure, we lost. But we lost to a team with some battle tested veterans and some truly great players. What people always fail to mention is that every step of the way, this team has gotten better and achieved more than anyone could have predicted they would have when their journey started.
I know, losing the way that we did last season definitely leaves a bitter taste. Failure, especially on the biggest stage, always leads to second guessing and the search for the easy answer. Perkins is bullying Gasol? We’re soft. KG outmuscles Odom? We’re soft. Pierce bodies up RadMan and Walton to force his way to the basket? We’re soft. But sometimes the easy answer is wrong. Or at least, incomplete. Last season the Lakers were one of the youngest teams in the league and most of our players had never even seen the second round of the playoffs. To me, that spells a lack of experience, and not neccessarily some lack of physical toughness. Right now, I could go on some rant about Bynum and Ariza and how those guys, if healthy, would have won us the title. How their physical presence on the wing and in the paint would have put us over the top. But I’m not going to do that. And not because it’s unwarranted, but because those guys also lack experience and to put the burden on them as the ultimate difference makers isn’t really fair. Those guys have some growing to do as well. In the end just understand this: we’ll be back and will be competing for titles for years to come. And in the future we’ll have the experiences of our past failures to serve as guidance (and motivation) to get us over the hump. So, are we tough enough? Honestly, I could care less. Because with the experience this team has gained, I see us being something more than the toughest team, I see us being champions.