Jordan shouldn't get in way of Lakers' title run

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

In case anybody forgot amid all the Michael Jordan hoopla, the Los Angeles Lakers rolled through the postseason unlike any NBA team ever before.

Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and their supporting cast snatched away their opponents' confidence and left teams shaking their heads. The Lakers swept the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs before beating Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the NBA Finals.

They finished an astonishing 15-1 in the postseason for their second straight NBA championship.

This season, the Lakers try to become only the fifth team in NBA history to win three consecutive titles, and it's hard to find a convincing reason why they can't.

''We had a very competitive year last year. I know it didn't look like it in the playoffs, obviously, because we hit a stride,'' coach Phil Jackson said. ''I've set a goal of 60 wins. It's something I expect this team to do, it's something they fell short of last year, and we'll go from there and hopefully find that momentum to get a couple of winning streaks which we never did last year until the very end.''

The Lakers haven't gotten a lot of attention during the preseason, with the basketball world turning its eyes toward the return of Jordan from a three-year retirement.

At 38, he has stepped down from his role as Washington's president of basketball operations and will be wearing his familiar No. 23 -- in the unfamiliar Wizards colors of blue, black and gold.

At box offices around the country, tickets for Wizards games have been scooped up as quickly as tickets for Lakers games. Lots of folks want to see O'Neal and Bryant in person, but just as many people want to get another look at Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game.

Just as eager are many of the league's younger players, including Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Michael Finley, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce, who emerged as stars during the three years Jordan was away.

''Nobody is going to have mercy on him. I don't care if he's 38 or 58,'' Detroit guard Jon Barry said. ''He had his feast on us. Maybe if things don't work out we can feast on him a little bit.''

The first player to match up with Jordan face-to-face will be Latrell Sprewell of the New York Knicks, who play the Wizards on Oct. 30 at Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised game.

The Wizards are scheduled to appear on NBC twice, although the network could choose to show them as many as 11 times. Turner Sports is scheduled to broadcast six Wizards games on cable, with the right to add an additional nine.

The return of Jordan comes at a good time for the league, which is in the process of negotiating a new TV deal to replace the four-year $1.75 billion agreement with NBC and the $890 million deal with Turner.

Ratings have declined for three years, although the public had begun to warm up to players like Iverson, Carter and Bryant while developing a curiosity about improved teams such as the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers.

Now, the focus will be on Jordan, although it could fade if he can't turn the Wizards into a contender. They won only 19 games last season.

''We just can't ask Michael to carry us at age 38. He's just not capable of doing that anymore for stretches like he did when I was in Chicago and he was 23,'' new Wizards coach Doug Collins said.

''We would love to make the playoffs, but that's quite a burden to ask Michael to bear, for him to be the guy who just carries us to the playoffs.''

A year ago, many people thought the Western Conference was much better than the Eastern Conference, and the competitiveness of the West would ensure that the team that emerged from that conference would be exhausted by the finals.

Instead, the opposite happened.

While the Lakers were cruising through the West, the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors were playing several competitive and compelling playoff series.

The 76ers-Raptors and Bucks-Hornets conference semifinals series each went seven games, and the Philadelphia-Milwaukee conference finals went the distance, too.

The 76ers shocked the Lakers in Game 1 of the finals behind a scintillating performance from Iverson, the reigning MVP and scoring champion. But for the rest of the series, they were overwhelmed by O'Neal, Bryant, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher.

One of the final snapshots from that series was Iverson angrily storming out of the First Union Center in Philadelphia, when Bryant paraded to the postgame interview holding the championship trophy.

Iverson, coming off elbow surgery and dealing with the death of a close friend, hasn't played in the preseason. Philadelphia already has been beset by injuries to Eric Snow, Aaron McKie, George Lynch and Dikembe Mutombo, and it will have a hard time repeating the success of last season.

Toronto added Hakeem Olajuwon at center, Charlotte improved its defense and 3-point shooting, Atlanta acquired Shareef Abdur-Rahim to play alongside Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc, and New Jersey traded Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd.

Miami shed $20 million in payroll but will have Alonzo Mourning available after he sat out most of last season with a kidney ailment. Orlando will have Grant Hill, who played in just four games last season, playing alongside McGrady and new acquisitions Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant.

In the West, Maurice Cheeks has taken over the coaching duties in Portland, while the Sacramento Kings re-signed Chris Webber and dealt Jason Williams to the Grizzlies for Mike Bibby. The Blazers and Kings, along with San Antonio, will be a threat to the Lakers only if they can erase their memories of what happened last April, May and June.

''If it has any effect at all, it serves as fuel because that was an embarrassing experience,'' San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. ''The way we finished that series in Games 3 and 4 was definitely embarrassing, and there's no excuse for it. The only way to deal with it is to face it, realize it and move on, hoping you can take care of it.''

The Dallas Mavericks, who added veterans Tim Hardaway and Danny Manning, are among the second-tier teams in the West that are trying to take that next big step.

The Houston Rockets added Glen Rice and the Los Angeles Clippers added Elton Brand, strengthening a conference with 10 teams that finished at least six games over .500.

''I look around the league and there are no easy games,'' 76ers coach Larry Brown said. ''Naturally there's tremendous depth and strength in the West. I really think a lot of teams in the East have improved themselves.''

There are two other changes in the NBA this season: new defensive rules and a new home for the Grizzlies, who moved from Vancouver to Memphis, Tenn.

All of the old illegal defense rules have been thrown out, replaced by a rule permitting zones but forbidding defenders from standing in the lane for more than three seconds if they are not within an arm's length of an opponent.

The league hopes the changes will encourage teams to run the fast break more and adopt diverse offensive strategies.

''Shots may come a lot earlier than they did years ago,'' Dallas coach Don Nelson said. ''I don't think just because the defensive guidelines have changed that it's going to be easier to score. It's going to be harder to score. But we'll play basketball again.''

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