Five, and counting.
Kobe Bryant claims this year's 2012-2013 Lakers squad is the best talent he's played with in his career. Considering that Bryant has been a part of five championship squads, this is a lofty claim. But could it actually be true?
At first, one may take the stance that it is a "carpe diem" attitude on Bryant's part. Surely, he is trying to live in today rather than reminisce about rings of the past, but even keeping that in mind—does Kobe truly feel this is the best Lakers team? Even better than the teams that won three straight with Shaq back in the early part of last decade? Here's what Kobe had to say about the squad:
On its face, it's the best talent I've been around. Whether that translates into winning a championship remains to be seen. But just on paper, you're talking about Defensive Player of the Years, MVPs, All-Stars. You're talking about a myriad of things. Guys who are at the top of their position at one point or another. It's pretty dope.
Dope it is, Kobe. It's dope. And Kobe's right. At this point, the potential of the team exists only on paper. The thing is, it's hard to imagine this team not gelling; it's hard to fathom this team not being one of the best Laker teams of all time.
To determine whether or not this is the most talented squad Kobe has played with first requires determining which of his five championship teams should be the gold standard. Is it the 2000-2001 Lakers who rolled through the playoffs 15-1 en route to a title? Is it the 2008-2009 Lakers squad that finished 65-17 and defeated Dwight Howard in his first and only Finals appearance so far? For the sake of simplicity, we're going to compare the '00-'01 Lakers due to their impressive and unprecedented playoff record.
Let's take a positional approach to analyzing the teams.
'00-'01: Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw, Kobe Bryant, Ron Harper, Mike Penberthy, Tyronn Lue
'12-'13: Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon
Of course, the common denominator here is Kobe Bryant. But it's not so common a denominator in terms of the fact that Kobe has himself changed since '00-'01. That Kobe, donning a short afro and a No. 8 jersey, was far more athletic, yet not as refined. He was only 23 at the time and was years away from reaching his prime.
The question is whether he was better then—before his prime—or now, just after it. It's actually pretty negligible. You sacrifice explosiveness with the Kobe-of-now, but you gain it back in experience and wiser shot selection. Whether he was better before his prime or after it is an entirely different topic in and of itself. So, for simplicity's sake, we're going to remove Kobe from the equation and simply compare the rest of the backcourt.
Steve Nash is light years better than Derek Fisher.
Nash is now 38 and closing in on retirement, but he is still very effective and far better than any guard other than Kobe on the '00-'01 team. Nash is capable of averaging 10 assists per game and distributing the ball to his talented squad of teammates. Derek Fisher has always been a clutch shooter, but he's not Nash. He's not a two-time MVP and in the discussion of the greatest point guards ever.
Ron Harper is a superior defender and player to Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon, but the edge is pretty inconsequential.
Truly, if one is attempting to discern which backcourt is better, it really just comes down to who is better between Steve Nash and Derek Fisher. I don't even think that is a question worth exposing.
So, if it can be reasonably said that Kobe is roughly the same level of player as he was 11 years ago, the edge goes to this year's Laker squad. Even if one does prefer 23 year old Kobe to 34 year old Kobe, the differential can't be great enough to give the '00-'01 squad the edge with someone as mediocre as Fisher alongside him in the backcourt.
Advantage: 2012-13 Lakers
'00-'01: Rick Fox, Isaiah Rider, Devean George
'12-'13: Metta World Peace, Devin Ebanks
This is the weakest spot for both squads. Rick Fox was a superior shooter and offensive player to World Peace—but Metta is a better defender.
Isaiah Rider was not included on the playoff roster and Devean George saw 27 minutes the entire time in the playoffs.
Devin Ebanks hasn't done much in game play yet. Essentially there is a comparison here between Rick Fox and Metta World Peace. It's pretty negligible, and I'm not sure the edge here matters much in discussing the rest of the talent on the team.
'00-'01: Horace Grant & Robert Horry
'12-'13: Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark
Horace Grant by '00-'01 was not the same player he was in his heyday with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, or even what he was in the years after with Shaq and the Magic. But he was still very good, and Robert Horry is the most decorated role player of all-time, to the point that some consider him a legend.
Neither are as good as Pau Gasol.
Gasol is still a 20-10 talent and he is backed up by a guy that used to be. Even if Gasol is starting to taper towards the end of his career, he offers a far greater skill set and superior level of talent to two role players.
Gasol was at one point a superstar (merely on a horrible Grizzlies team) and still is a legitimate second option type of talent. The fact that he is now a third or fourth option on this squad only proves how scary this year's Laker squad is.
Antawn Jamison may see some time at small forward since Dwight Howard's defense will cover any deficiencies Jamison has with his perimeter defense. Earl Clark was a trade throw in, but he could throw down a nice jam in garbage time.
Though a lot of '90s Bulls fans will hang Horace up high with some NBA legends, it's hard to give him a nod over the 7-foot Spaniard. And even as legendary as Big Shot Rob was, he wasn't far enough ahead of Jamison to tip the scales in the 00-01 squad's favor.
Advantage: '12-'13 Lakers
'00-'01: Shaquille O'Neal, Travis Knight, John Salley
'12-'13: Dwight Howard & Jordan Hill
Superman version 1.0 or Superman version 2.0? The parallels between these guys' careers run pretty close. They both began with the Orlando Magic as thinner versions of the Lakers models they later became. They both use the nickname Superman, and are both elite centers in their era.
But who is better—Shaq or Howard? And does this determine which squad gets the edge?
It shouldn't be the determining factor, not with how much better the '12-'13 backcourt and power forward spots are.
But Shaq was a more dominant offensive player than Howard is. Shaq was nearly unstoppable; Dwight can be stopped. Howard doesn't pass out of double teams as proficiently, and lacks the arsenal of moves and footwork Shaq had.
That offensive superiority still doesn't necessarily make Shaquille a better option.
Defensively, Howard is quicker and rotates better to weak-side defenders. He's a far better rebounder. Overall, Howard is just a game changing player on the defensive end. O'Neal was a force, but not on that level.
Shaq didn't win Defensive Player of the Year once, never mind three times consecutively. O'Neal was still a very good defender, but Howard made the Orlando Magic an elite defensive team with sub-par defenders all over the court outside of Howard.
On a team that already has an offensive alpha like Kobe, Howard's role as a defender and rebounder could be of even greater importance than O'Neal's as a co-alpha offensively in '00-'01.
Since Steve Nash has defensive shortcomings, and Jamison may be playing some small forward, Howard's ability to make weak-side rotations and block shots will be even more important, and that is a role that O'Neal couldn't have played. For as good as Shaq was, Howard is a superior defender. Maybe that isn't even debatable.
Shaq has ended up in the discussion of the top 10 best players of all time. Howard likely never will be. But there's something to be said for how players complement one another, and Howard is the perfect fit for this Lakers' squad. More to the point, he's the perfect fit for Steve Nash. Nash has a history of making big men (and all players) great, and Howard is going to reap the benefits just as Amar'e Stoudemire did with Nash in Phoenix.
All those beautiful details aside, on a player by player basis, Shaq must be said to be superior. And let's not pretend that Jordan Hill, Travis Knight and John Salley have anything to do with this.
It's Shaq vs. Howard.
Advantage: '00-'01 Lakers, by a hair
Reviewing our positional breakdown yields that the '12-'13 team has an advantage everywhere except center. But even that advantage may be overstated. It all leads to the overwhelming conclusion: Kobe is right. This is the best Lakers squad he has played on, and though it is just on paper at this point—it may be the best NBA squad assembled yet.
This '12-'13 Lakers squad doesn't boast superior depth, but the quartet of Nash, Gasol, Kobe and Dwight is as good as any foursome in recent times. It may even be as good as the best Laker quartet ever of Byron Scott, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It is all on paper at this point, and it's all hypothetical. Basketball games aren't won on paper, but it's always fun to make these comparisons and pit teams from different eras against one another. Kobe's done it and drawn his conclusion.