The Los Angeles Lakers

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 1 2001 8:30 PM

The Los Angeles Lakers

Why the NBA's unbeatable team will collapse (but not this month).

109000_109287_powell_lalakers

The Sherman's March that the Lakers have made through the NBA playoffs—a great inspiration to bullies everywhere—terrifies league officials, rival players, and every basketball fan outside Los Angeles. Shaq is 29, Kobe is 22. Must we really endure seven more years of this tag-team thumping?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Advertisement

The Lakers are bad news on several fronts. They confirm every fan's suspicion that the NBA regular season doesn't matter. The Lakers coasted for six months, diverted by Kobe-Shaq squabbling and minor injuries, then started trying hard just in time to torch through the playoffs. The Lakers have accomplished a neat trick. They made the regular season pointless and the postseason dull. The Bucks and 76ers are playing for the right to be swept by L.A. (So, what's left to watch, the preseason?)

A long Laker reign would desiccate pro hoops not just because the Lakers would always win, but because they would do it so tediously. The Lakers are crushing opponents with a style of play that is awesome, but monotonous—80 percent tedium, 20 percent Kobe. When the Lakers let Shaq dominate—which they try to do in most circumstances—the game has all the ballet of a monster-truck rally. Dump. Pump. Thump. Jump. Dunk! Why does Shaq-ball hurt the NBA?'s a theory.

It's obvious why the Lakers should dominate the NBA through the '00s. Shaq will own the paint for at least six more years. Kobe is growing more and more Jordanlike in his ability to get to the basket, take clutch jumpers, and control a game in the final minutes. Coach Phil Jackson has won seven championships because he knows how to treat his players like men, not boys. And a very competent, self-effacing supporting cast buttresses the Shaq-Kobe-Phil iron triangle.

But it won't last, hallelujah. They will be unmade, not before their second title this month, maybe not even before a third next year, but soon enough. They won't collapse for any on-court reason. They're too talented for that. And two obvious theories for Laker decline are misguided. Click for why.

What will kill the Lakers is ego. It is a rule: NBA dynasties are dictatorships. The wondrous teams of recent years have featured a single unquestioned ruler: The Chicago Bulls had Jordan, and Scottie Pippen obeyed him. The Boston Celtics were Larry Bird's; Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish supported him. Magic Johnson jockeyed with an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for control of the '80s Lakers. Once Magic emerged as the master of Showtime, with Kareem and James Worthy second-billed, the Lakers started collecting titles. Two-headed teams—the Julius Erving-Moses Malone 76ers or the Wes Unseld-Elvin Hayes Bullets—can shine brightly for a year or two, but they always, always collapse. Kobe and Shaq will not break this rule of one.

Why? The salary cap makes it difficult for a team to afford two superstars and still stock the roster with competent players. Kobe is due a titanic new contract, and the Lakers will have to suffer to pay him.

The more important reason is that the culture of the NBA rejects self-abnegation. Huge egos are a job requirement. Players are worshipped and coddled as they are in no other American sport.

Both Kobe and Shaq have the arrogance to match their talent. Shaq constantly gives himself self-aggrandizing nicknames—"Superman," "The Big (insert macho noun here)." Kobe, beneath a veneer of charm, is cocky and hyperaggressive. They both revel in the media attention, the celebrity, the 24-seven adulation: That is why they enjoy L.A. so much. Shaq has made movies, released six rap albums, published a best-selling book. Shaq has had the halogen, and Kobe desperately wants it. 

Nothing in either man's character suggests he will be satisfied playing second banana. The two sparred from '96 through '99. Jackson's arrival suppressed their fighting during last year's championship run, but it again preoccupied the team for most of this regular season. Shaq—the more experienced and until now more dominant player—has only grudgingly acknowledged Kobe's emerging greatness. Kobe was forced to bide his time because Shaq was clearly more important to the team. But this is no longer true. Their new equality will shatter the Lakers. Jackson managed to persuade Kobe to support Shaq this year to improve the Lakers' chances. But Kobe's underbilling won't suit him for much longer. These playoffs, in fact, may be the final fracture: Kobe has now proved that he drives the Lakers as much as the big fella does. He will not be the little brother anymore.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.