Heroes vs. Villains: Lakers Edition

Jeff Skibiski —  August 2, 2010

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“I just got one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank…You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”

Fighting words from Kobe Bryant, shortly after being crowned an NBA champion for the fifth time in his career. The Finals Most Valuable Player was mostly being facetious, but Kobe’s candor in that moment was also one of the more honest statements in his illustrious career.

Regardless of what any athlete tells you—no matter how good a player they are or what sport they play in—some teams, some players and some rivalries simply mean more. Players are humans and when people get burned, they remember how it feels. The past decade has been filled with several renditions of Heroes vs. Villains for the Lakers. From cow towns, dirty diapers, Raja who’s, errant Ginobili elbows, wheel chairs, “Kobe Stoppers” and more, the Lake Show have racked up a long list of quality rivals in the last 10 years en route to five NBA titles. Forum Blue and Gold dissects these local enemies to try and understand why they still inspire bad blood to this very day.

How Could You Leave Me?

If there is one name that divides Lakers fans quicker than the San Andreas Fault, it is Shaquille O’Neal. The future Hall-of-Famer’s less than gracious departure from Los Angeles still leaves a dirty taste in many Lakers fans’ mouths more than five years later. That Diesel won a title with the Miami Heat and publicly anointed Dwayne Wade the best player he had ever played with merely added fuel to the growing fire. A potential signing with the hated Celtics would keep the embers burning for years. Love him or hate him, the center’s unfulfilled destiny with the team and off-the-court bravado will likely forever split fans of the Lake Show.

You Messed with the Wrong Guy

Ruben Patterson was one of the Lakers’ early rivals after declaring himself, “The Kobe Stopper.” Like other players who have made similar claims, the former Laker quickly—and emphatically— learned that there is no such thing.

Doug Christie epitomized the upstart Sacramento Kings at the beginning of the decade with his feisty play and outspoken nature. His numerous verbal and physical altercations with the Lakers set the tone for one the league’s great, albeit short-lived rivalries.

Lakers fans will always remember Brad Miller for his near death experience when the Lakers played the Bulls in a heated game in Chicago. After jostling with Shaq, Miller barely escaped the center’s outstretched arm and giant hands as the pair careened toward the sidelines. O’Neal was still suspended and Miller will always be remembered as a villain.

As if there wasn’t enough existing animosity toward former Phoenix Sun Raja Bell, he proved himself a villain once and for all this past offseason by shunning Kobe’s personal invitation to join the team, instead opting to sign for more money with the less competitive Utah Jazz. Decisions like that—along with his memorable close line on Bryant—have solidified Bell’s place as a great Lakers rival.
Newly signed Matt Barnes engaged Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant in public sparring match last season following a contentious game in Orlando. Things quickly escalated via Twitter when Barnes posted a comment that alluded to shoving his child’s dirty diaper in Odom’s mouth. The Lakers will look for the UCLA alum to provide the same kind of spark next season, only this time directed toward a common opponent.

Ron Artest also makes this list, but I would place him in a different class of rival than Barnes or Bell as his stature elevated him to a player that was still respected by Kobe and the Lakers brass even as he viciously battled them on the court. His play in Game 7 of last season’s Finals forever changed his image in Lakerdom, though.

If Only You Hadn’t Been There

Based on sheer NBA titles alone, the San Antonio Spurs represented the Lakers chief rival during the past 10 years. While the Tim Duncan-led squads didn’t have the flash of Hollywood, they certainly had the elbows of Manu Ginobili—many of which frequently found the faces of Lakers players. Coupled with Bruce Bowen’s questionable defensive tactics, countless playoff battles and you have all the makings of a great rivalry.

After three consecutive championships from 2000-2002, the Detroit Pistons manhandling of the 2003-04 Lakers sent shock waves throughout the nation. Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Co. never threw fists, but their thorough and convincing five-game beat down of that injury-worn L.A. team ended one of the greatest runs in league history. Short of reverse inception, it will probably always be hard for Lakers fans to ever really remove that from the memory bank when so much was on the line, both from a historical standpoint and in that franchise-changing offseason.

The run-and-gun Suns from the middle of the decade offered the Lakers several nemeses, beginning with the pesty Steve Nash and his often over-dramatic on-court antics. Tim Thomas’ series-saving three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2005-06 playoffs almost single-handedly helped the Suns stave off what would have been a monumental upset. At the time, that shot not only propelled the Suns to take the series in Game 7, but also put an end to the misguided hope that Kobe and a ragtag team could actually compete for the NBA crown.

My Blood is Still Boiling

While Doug Christie helped set the tone, the entire unit of Kings players from 2000-2004 provided some of the Lakers’ most memorable and lasting rivals of the past decade. From Chris Webber’s smirk, Phil Jackson’s “cow town” comment, Arco Arena’s fervor, Vlade Divac’s “lucky shot” remark after Horry’s legendary game-winner to Mike Bibby’s sense of entitlement, Sacramento took the Lakers to their limits and the league was better for it.

The Celtics would make this list based on history alone, but the new generation of Lakers vs. Celtics officially came into its own during the 2010 NBA Finals. The storied rivalry of Magic vs. Bird will forever live in NBA lore, but Kobe, Gasol and the rest of the back-to-back champion Lakers against Boston’s “Big Three” have added a spicy new chapter to the history books. After the past three seasons and one crushing defeat in the 2008 Finals, it is hard to remember that Lakers fans once cheered for local star Paul Pierce and begged for a Kevin Garnett trade in the post-Shaq years. Like many of the Kings, the current Celtics are players who still make the blood boil and probably always will.

The Tension is Beginning to Rise…

LeBron James is public enemy number one in Cleveland and a rival for every other NBA team, including the Lakers. “The King’s” unwavering confidence and continued threat to Kobe’s title quest easily makes him the most prominent villain moving forward.

Jeff Skibiski