No playbooks, no advanced metrics, no salary cap. Just pure, unadulterated, Lakers fandom.
Lakers fans everywhere have been without a horse in the playoff picture since the first round. The Show met its end with a quiet, anonymous sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, but even the team's foremost nemese have been vanquished for weeks. Their STAPLES Center hallmate Clippers were manhandled by the Memphis Grizzlies in the last four games of a six game series. Their eternal foes from Boston had a prideful 4-2 exit against the New York Knicks. Even recent Lakers killers like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder had their championship hopes effectively killed in the first round, with Russ going down with a torn meniscus. With the exception of everyone's most despised enemy in the Miami Heat, Lakers fans haven't had much to cheer for--or against--lately.
However, as painful and disgusting as it may sound, Lakers Nation has to be rooting for LeBron in Game 7 tonight.
The primary reason? Legacy.
In the NBA, it's all about heritage and rings, career achievements and leadership. Every player is responsible for defense and offense, staying healthy and trying to contribute on the court whenever possible. Unlike the NFL, where it's extremely difficult to compare offensive and defensive players, or MLB in regards to pitchers versus hitters, comparing centers to guards isn't as much of a stretch. Every NBA player has the same responsibility, no matter who we're talking about: score points and prevent your opponents from doing the same.
With the San Antonio Spurs earning their first NBA Finals berth in six years last week after a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies, Tim Duncan's profile has been raised once more. The former two-time MVP has been called the unquestioned best power forward ever, and one of the best 10 to 15 players ever to lace them up. More germane to the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans, Duncan has been anointed by many as the greatest player of his generation. Over Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and of course, Kobe Bean Bryant.
Whether or not you agree that Duncan has surpassed Kobe as the best players drafted in the 90s, there's no question that it's at the very least a tight debate. Timmy's credentials are very impressive: 4 championships (in 4 Finals appearances), 2 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, 10 First Team All-NBA, 3 Second Team All-NBA, 8 First Team All-Defense, 6 Second Team All-Defense, 14 All-Star games and every single season playing for a team with at least a .610 winning percentage (including 50-win seasons every year of his career except for the lockout shortened 1998-1999 season, but including last year's 66-game slate). Kobe's resume reads very similarly: 5 championships (in 7 appearances), 1 MVP, 2 Finals MVPs, 11 First Team All-NBA, 2 Second Team All-NBA, 9 First Team All-Defense, 3 Second Team All-Defense and 15 All-Star games.
No matter which way you cut it, there's arguments to be made for both players. Is five championships where the discussion starts and ends? Does Duncan's 3 Finals MVPs put him in front? Does Duncan's impeccable record of team success count more than Kobe's superior All-NBA standings? Without even getting down to the statistics, the argument isn't clear cut. It's murky, it's malleable and most of all, there's no right answer right now.
But with another title, it's not even a question. If the Spurs are to prevail, Tim Duncan is the unquestioned best player of his generation. Better than KG, AI, Pierce, Nash, Shaq and of course, Kobe Bryant. Five titles as the most important player on three of them, with all his accolades lining his mantle and his reputation as one of the best teammates of his time put him on a level of his own.The debate will rage far and wide, but with Kobe coming back from such a grave injury, there's no telling whether or not he'll be able to build on his list of achievements.
This is all to say, if you're a Lakers fan looking for a dog in the fights remaining, there's no choice but to root for LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Tonight, the Heat face a dog fight of their own with the defense-minded Indiana Pacers breathing down their necks in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals. Either team would be a handful for the San Antonio Spurs, but the Heat look like a much more lethal threat to the Western Conference champions. While the Pacers are a formidable team (as Miami will tell you), many of their strengths and weaknesses resemble the exact same critics touted about the recently swept Memphis Grizz: a gigantic, seemingly indomitable front line, versatile defensive wings, a penetrating, scoring point guard, no defined go-to crunch time scorer and unreliable three-point shooting. Miami hasn't played up to their potential, but a running and gunning Spurs team means a running and gunning Heat team ... which is as dangerous a squad as there's ever existed in the NBA. Out of the two, the reigning champs resemble the most unpredictable foe San Antonio will face, especially when taking into account the greatness of LeBron and his penchant for carrying his team atop his shoulders. Meanwhile, the Pacers resemble a team the Spurs just dominated. If Indiana is to win the Eastern Conference, it will be because they've proved a terrible matchup for the once dominant Heat. They won't stand a chance against San Antonio.
The other issue is, of course, what about James' threat to Kobe's legacy? Let's refer to the rule of "clear and present danger". The Spurs are the clearest and most present of dangers to Bryant and by extension, the LA Lakers. Right now, LeBron is leagues away from Kobe's historical standings--four MVPs are great, but 2 Finals MVPs and five titles are even better. Let's focus on one threat at a time, kids.
It's no secret that Lakers fans are extremely protective of Kobe Bryant. As a semi-unbiased semi-journalist, I find it difficult to separate my hero worship of the Mamba from what his very real shortcomings as a basketball player. But with the Lakers season over, it's my duty to root for whatever it is that keeps the Lakers and one of the franchise's greatest players in as high standing as possible. As sordid as it looks to root for the Heat, the choice here is easy: either pull for James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and their second title, or watch the Spurs and Tim Duncan hoist their fifth title. You might feel dirty doing it--hell, you might even throw up in your mouth just a little bit--but Lakers fans everywhere must pick the lesser of two evils. Strangely, that's LeBron James.
Excuse me. I'm going to shower now.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino