It’s sometimes nice to take a break from the Lakers’ current woes and remember better times. Today is one of those days with the news that Shaquille O’Neal will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
While Shaq played for 7 teams, he will be most remembered for his time with the Magic (who drafted him), the Heat (where he won a championship in 2006), and the Lakers where he spent more years than any other franchise and had his most success both as an individual and with a team.
But if you ask any Lakers’ fan, they will always think of Shaq as a Laker first and foremost.
Over at SB Nation, Tom Ziller did his yearly rankings of the top 100 pending free agents. It’s a must read for anyone interested in what player movement might be coming this summer and how teams’ dollars will be allocated in the search for outside roster help (non-trade variety). I’d suggest giving the entire entry a read, especially since the Lakers are primed to be major players in the FA market with, potentially, $60 million to spend on reinforcements.
But my focus isn’t on who the Lakers might target from outside their roster, but instead on one of their own core players who enters free agency: Jordan Clarkson. The 2nd year guard ranks 21st on Ziller’s list and has the following entry attached:
Following Kobe Bryant’s final season has been a bit surreal. After he announced this season would be his last, he has been showered with cheers, treated to tribute videos from NBA legends, and been as well received as he ever has been. Considering this is a guy who has received “MVP” chants in opposing stadiums over the course of his career, this is saying something.
But time is getting shorter. We are now past the halfway point, the Lakers playing their 44th game on Wednesday and their 45th tonight against the Spurs. There will only be 38 more of these regular season contests (starting tonight) and a few other moments to celebrate it all before it’s over. The finality of that hasn’t yet fully sunk in, but it will. This week, for me at least, that process took another step forward.
With this being Kobe Bryant’s 20th and final season with the Lakers, the organization has been running a pretty cool feature all season called “This Day in Kobe History” (#TDIKH) where they chronicle great games or key events throughout Kobe’s career. Today, December 20th, just so happens to be one of my favorite Kobe games ever:
This game is often overshadowed by Kobe’s 81 point performance against the Raptors which came a month later (January 22, 2006). But, for my money, Kobe’s outburst 10 years ago was actually more impressive.
Over on NBA TV, all week, the channel has been celebrating Shaquille O’Neal in what they’ve dubbed Shaq Week. The programming has included a ton of fantastic programming, including games from his time with the Magic and Heat, his off-court exploits, and, of course, highlights from his 8 years with the Lakers.
Understandably, it’s the latter which has interested us most. I am too young to have seen Wilt Chamberlain play live, but I would argue prime Shaq was the closest approximation you’ll find to the man they called the Big Dipper. Shaq — a man of many nicknames himself — was simply a juggernaut on the court, man handling opponents with his strength while simultaneously baffling them with his agility and quickness.
Recalling Shaq’s physical gifts, however, doesn’t do him justice as a player. While he was bigger and, often, athletically superior to his peers, his skill level was also off the charts. Over the course of his career, he consistently added primary and counter moves to his arsenal to keep opponents on their heels. He was also a much better passer than given credit for, mastering the cuts and movements of the Triangle to the point where he always knew where his teammates would be with an ability to deliver them passes when the defense tried to send extra attention his way.
I often think about the Kobe, Pau, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard Lakers’ team within the context of “what if’s”. What if Nash doesn’t break his leg? What if Dwight doesn’t come back so early from back surgery? What if Mike Brown never decides to implement the Princeton Offense? What if Kobe never blows out his achilles? What if, what if, what if.
But, while that team is the most recent example of this, it’s not the one which weighs heaviest on my memory. No, that would be the Shaq/Kobe Lakers and the “what if Shaq and Kobe could have buried the hatchet and just gotten along?”
Sadly, we’ll never know the answer to this question. And while both players ended up doing just fine in the years following — Shaq got a 4th championship with the Heat 2006 and Kobe won back to back championships in 2009 and 2010 — the question still nags at me every once in a while.
When your nicknames are “Mr. Clutch” and “The Logo” it’s pretty difficult to argue you might ever be considered underrated. Jerry West certainly is not that, but as time passes and the game evolves it is sometimes easy to forget just how good some of the players from previous generations were, West included.
Luckily, youtube exists and we are able to look back and see the ride range of skill and ability some of these players had. Special hat-tip to the Wilt Chamberlain Archive channel on youtube for always bringing the heat, including this career tribute to the long time Laker:
Comparing players from the 60’s and 70’s to players today will always be tricky simply due to how the skills from that era stand up aesthetically to how the players play today. How the guys back then handled the ball, the sophistication of some of their moves, and what can seem like less fluidity in their movement can lead to some people question how good some of these guys really were.
But when you watch the clip above, while some of that might apply to West, what really stands out to me was the complete game he had and how so much of what he was doing back then is found in today’s game.
The one dribble left/right and pull up jumper is a staple of today’s best shooters. The way he rubs off picks or uses a tight handle to get into the creases and finish with a variety of shot types are all things you find from similarly sized players today. The way he jumps into passing lanes, causes deflections, and makes secondary reads to get steals and blocks are all staples of the game’s best defenders.
In other words, let this be your reminder that Jerry West, for any era, was a monster on the court.
The Lakers, with Kobe Bryant’s disastrous extension wiped away that summer, could sniff three max cap slots. The Lakers’ cap flexibility yielded nothing of note last summer, but a Lakers team with the ability to offer a package deal to multiple stars is the ultimate NBA bogeyman.
In the coming summers, this upcoming one included, the Lakers should have immense spending power. They purposely built their roster to “maintain flexibility” and be able to be a major competitor on the open market for the league’s best free agents.
This upcoming summer, for example, should the team not exercise their team option on Jordan Hill and get two first round picks (their own — which is still in question — and the Rockets, which is not) the Lakers would have between $20-23 million in cap space come July 1st. This number would include cap holds for Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, and Jabari Brown. Jump to the Summer of 2016 when, as Zach Lowe notes above, Kobe’s contract comes off the books, and the Lakers could be in a position to spend boatloads of money on free agents to rebuild their roster with an influx of amazing talent.
When viewing the team’s trajectory through this prism, visions of what the Miami Heat did in the Summer of 2010 becomes a model many fans hope to follow. Keep the cap clean — maybe even losing a lot next season to get another high pick — and then spend like crazy in the summer of ’16 when there will be a batch of free agents worth spending the cash on. There’s a seductive logic to this that is easy to be roped into. I get it.