The NBA regular season is a hideous grind. It takes up half the year. Each team is forced to play 82 games, more than even the most obsessed basketball junkies can tolerate, to say nothing of the players. Is it any wonder that a playoff team wouldn't bring its A game to a Tuesday night showdown against Memphis in February? Who in the world could? When the tedious marathon finally, mercifully, winds down in April, only the truly inept clubs are eliminated while everyone else staggers off toward another finish line, miles off in the distance. This is why, for example, less than 6,000 souls showed up at the Meadowlands the other night to watch the New Jersey Nets, who are playing better basketball right now than they ever have and probably ever will again. Fans recognize the regular season for what it is—a fund-raising drive to pay off exorbitant player salaries. Meaningful action doesn't begin until the playoffs.
This year, however, the regular season may be the only meaningful action we see, and there are two reasons why: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The only thing that stands in the way of the Lakers hoisting yet another trophy is the NBA's insanely long season and all the nightmarish possibilities it holds. Every game is a fresh opportunity for a twisted ankle or a flare-up in the huddle over an entry pass that didn't get made. Every practice is a chance for a sideways glance or a flip remark that suddenly terminates Phil Jackson's Malibu honeymoon and forces him to break a sweat.
Are the odds of a freak injury any better than in previous seasons? The vulnerable one, as usual, is Shaq. His surgically repaired toe was bothering him in the preseason, and it will not respond well to a season-long pounding. Especially not when you consider that Shaq ditched his plan to shed 30 pounds, deciding that his overwhelming size is a crucial element of his game. Probably true, but how long will his tender appendages take under the strain?
Then there is the matter of Shaq's mood. Phil Jackson skillfully navigated his team through a little Shaq-Kobe contretemps last year, and many people believe that both players learned important lessons from overcoming the problems and then being rewarded with another title. But there are good reasons to believe that Shaq isn't his usual big happy self. This fall, he fired his longtime agent Leonard Armato because he had grown weary of the "gentle giant" image that Armato had crafted for him. Shaq wants to be cooler, hipper, meaner. He wants to use cuss words in his autobiography. He wants to show the world he's not a 330-pound wimp. He may want to start by showing Kobe first.
If that happens, the Lakers are toast. Without both superstars performing at the high level they have set for themselves, they are a thoroughly mediocre club that possibly even the Knicks could take. For the third straight year, the Lakers imported a disgruntled veteran scorer to take the pressure off Kobe and Shaq—first, there was Glen Rice, then Isaiah Rider, now Mitch Richmond. The Lakers also picked up point guard Lindsey Hunter from Milwaukee. New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey praised these acquisitions, describing both players as "exquisite long-range marksmen." Never mind that Richmond shot 40.7 percent from the field last year and, at the age of 36, isn't likely to discover fresh legs. As for Hunter, well, he saw a lot of pine last season in Milwaukee, and though he has shown flashes of brilliance in his career, he's also been streaky, unreliable, and not much of a prime-time player. In last year's playoffs, he shot just 24.2 percent. Exquisite, indeed.
It doesn't get much better from there. The Lakers' starting five includes journeyman Samaki Walker and aspiring actor Rick Fox, who plays with grit, hustle, and occasionally talent. Top reserve Robert Horry, among the least powerful power forwards in the league, loves to launch 25-footers. Now and then, they go in. The other subs are a true scrap-heap assemblage who between them would be hard-pressed to make up the 30 points per game that would be lost if either Shaq or Kobe went down.
As it stands now, there is no team in the NBA that is going to take the title from the Lakers. The next best club in the West, the Spurs, took a colossal step backward when they were forced to swap discontented Derek Anderson for creaky Steve Smith. It would be a miracle if the Blazers were able to recover from their various meltdowns. The Rockets and Mavericks are exciting and talented but lack the full repertoire, especially at center. And the East is totally out of sorts, with way too many injuries and question marks. Orlando is thought to be the best, but let's see if Grant Hill can really pull it together. If all they've really got is Tracy McGrady, great as he is, the Magic aren't ready to play for all the marbles.
Once the postseason starts, the Lakers will just cruise. The scent of an imminent third title will distract Shaq and Kobe from their petty rivalries. Shaq will shake off his injuries, as he always does at crunch time, and Phil Jackson will demonstrate his uncanny knack of coaxing postseason heroics out of otherwise ordinary players. Had anyone ever seen Tyronn Lue play defense like he did last year against Allen Iverson? How can Robert Horry be so invisible for so long and then let loose with a barrage of threes?
So, the Lakers won't go down in the playoffs. Something will have to happen before then. It's not likely, of course, especially considering how sharp and cohesive they look in the early going. But they've still got 76 games to go, and each one of them is a test. It could just be a Tuesday night game against Memphis in February that brings their dynasty crashing down.