Wednesday December 10th, 2008

Most of those I've polled around the NBA are picking the Lakers to depose the champion Celtics in June, based on the return of center Andrew Bynum and L.A.'s intimidating depth around league MVP Kobe Bryant. When Luke Walton is unable to make the nine-man rotation, you know you've got a deep team.

But depth is a secondary issue when your starters are overwhelmed, as the Lakers were by the Celtics' three stars last June. Ever since their 131-92 walloping in Game 6 of the Finals, the transcendent issue has been whether the Lakers have enough star power to overcome the Boston threesome of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. When I asked last week whether the Lakers can win without developing Pau Gasol as a No. 2 star, the question was answered with a roll of the eyes by Phil Jackson.

"Anybody who doesn't see the value in this player as a No. 2 scorer and a No. 2 player on this team really doesn't understand the value he has as a player,'' Jackson said in reference to Gasol. "It's easy to underestimate, [but] he's shooting a high percentage, his free-throw shooting is great. He passes the basketball, he does a lot of great things for us. And until we move up to that championship bracket and win it, then people will appreciate exactly what he does.''

In other words, only when he has a ring on his finger will Gasol be recognized as a star capable of winning at the highest level. That's how it worked for Scottie Pippen.

This is not meant to be a referendum on Gasol. The point can be made (see below) that he is just now exploring his first opportunity to show his talent in the NBA. In the meantime, however, Bryant understands where I'm coming from. When I put the same question to him -- does he need the support of another star, or can he win with a committee of very good players -- he was quick to answer.

"It can be by committee,'' he said. "It's just a matter of having players who make the defense do something. If you have a [secondary] player who makes the defense adjust, then you have a team that can win the championship. That's really the key: You have another guy on the floor that teams have to focus on and pay attention to, and that gives you pretty good balance.''

Bryant understands the recent history of the league as well as anyone. Since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird recast the NBA in 1979-80, only two of the 29 championships have been won by a team with fewer than two stars (including at least one top 10 player). The 1993-94 Rockets won with Hakeem Olajuwon surrounded by rookie Sam Cassell, second-year forward Robert Horry and other very good players. The exceptional 2003-04 Pistons won without one traditional superstar -- the only such champion since the Magic/Bird era began -- though they had Ben Wallace dominating at the defensive end and the all-around talents of Rasheed Wallace to go with the emerging Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton.

In 2002-03, the Spurs won with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, who averaged 8.5 points and 7.9 rebounds in his retirement year. They were accompanied by the 21-year-old Tony Parker and 25-year-old rookie Manu Ginobili, who did not put up All-Star numbers that year yet made big plays in the Finals reflective of the future Hall of Famers they have become (at least I view them as likely to make the HOF, though many readers accuse me of giving Parker and/or Ginobili too much credit). I view those '03 Spurs, in hindsight, as a three-star outfit of Duncan-Parker-Ginobili, similar to the makeup of the current Celtics.

How does all of this relate to the Lakers? Throughout last season's Finals, the Celtics were able to triangulate their defense on Bryant because no other Laker scared them. Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher weren't able to consistently punish the Celtics for their concentrated efforts to hold Bryant to 25.7 points on 40.5 percent shooting (down from 51.4 percent for 31.9 points over the opening three playoff rounds). That series confirmed that Bryant must lead the Lakers in an untraditional way.

"In a lot of ways, I've got to do a little bit of what Michael and Scottie had to do, you know what I mean?'' he said.

For all six of his championships, Jordan had a complementary star in Pippen who could make plays on his own.

"Right,'' Bryant said. "Scottie was the quarterback. Michael was more of the scorer. I've got to do a little bit of both. It's not necessarily like a point guard role; it's like a quarterback. You've got to go through a series of options with your team to make sure you set this guy up or that guy up.''

Bryant is dedicating this season to raising the confidence of Gasol and others.

"That's a big part of what we do around here,'' he said. "You see me step back a lot and develop Pau and Drew [Bynum] and Lamar and some of these guys to where they become serious threats. With Boston, you've got to focus on Garnett, you've got to focus on Paul Pierce, you've got to focus on Ray Allen coming off the screens, so when you're focusing on one or two, it gives the third one a chance to bust you up.''

The mistake -- as identified by Jackson -- will be to underestimate Gasol's star potential. This is the first time in eight NBA seasons that he has been paired with a true center, with Bynum relieving him of the heavy work in the paint.

"I've been always trying to fight guys physically who are bigger and mostly stronger than me,'' Gasol said of his previous roles with the Grizzlies and last season with the Lakers in Bynum's absence. "I now have a chance to move out and pick up my old habits and my old skills, so it should be fun.''

Gasol has been one of the world's dominant players in the summer FIBA tournaments, with the freedom to exploit seams and mismatches on the perimeter and near the basket while leading Spain to the 2006 World Championship gold medal and the Olympic silver last summer. Now he can be liberated in between the bookends of Bynum on the post and Bryant on the perimeter. Gasol ranks second on the Lakers with 17.5 points and 3.4 assists while leading the team with 9.4 rebounds and 34.4 minutes. At 28, expect him to grow into this expansive role as the season progresses.

If the playoffs turn into a three-man game, then the Lakers aren't going to beat the Spurs or the Celtics. Their goal is to develop Gasol, Bynum and Odom (leading the second unit) as playmakers who can create for themselves or others when Bryant is swamped. This remains a young team -- only Fisher, 34, is older than the 30-year old Bryant -- but Kobe has given them four months to figure it out.

"Our mind-set is let's go get it and let's go get it now,'' said Bryant. "We don't know about next year. All we care about is right now.''

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