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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Wilt Chamberlain traded for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff

Oops, wrong year, wrong team trading the big guy.

Yes, there are comparisons. It's not totally fair to paste the Lakers for trading Shaq for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick. That is a far better haul than Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrell Imhoff for Wilt. And the 76ers that traded Wilt didn't have a Kobe Bryant on the bench after the trade was done. And these Lakers probably won't turn into a 9-73 pumpkin the way the 76ers did a few years after losing Wilt. That's unlikely.

But somehow a team doesn't get equal value when you trade one of the top 50 players of all-time. And, okay, so he's an irrepressible egomaniac, he played out of shape, and he may be on the downside of his career. Still, not many can guard Shaq, and when you ask NBA insiders about the one player you can't stop on a given night, they'll answer his name (even if Kobe and Jerry Buss have turned him into the Lakers' version of "he who must not be named" a la Harry Potter). It's that simple.

And while Mark Cuban can blog all he wants that the Pistons changed the paradigm of what the model team is in order to win a title, remember this: there is an absolute famine in the NBA when it comes to big men. Which makes them, like beautiful women in "Casablanca", so valuable, is that they are so scarce (and therefore shouldn't be dispensed with so easily). Which also makes the good ones hard to defend. And Shaq is the hardest offensive player in the NBA to defend.

So, the Heat now have Shaq, and Dwayne Wade, and Eddie Jones, and those players alone could well make them one of the top four teams in the East (which isn't necessarily saying a lot, given how weak the Eastern Conference has been over the past few years and given that after those 3 players, the Heat have very little to brag about on their roster). Still, anytime you get one of the 50 best players of all-time in your league, your fans get a rush. Miami is buzzing.

And the Lakers? Well, they have three players who are stars or stars in the making who are either two guards or small forwards or both -- Kobe (assuming he re-signs), Odom and Caron Butler. The last time SportsProf checked, a team with that type of talent made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs after an 0-7 start and then fizzled out. The team: the '03-'04 Miami Heat. It's hard to expect the Lakers, even with Kobe, faring all that much better in the talent-laden Western Conference, because the obstacles in the West are more formidable than in the East.

NBA scouts can talk all they want about the talent that the Lakers got, but then the question becomes who's tall enough to play 96 minutes a night at the 4 and 5 spot? Slava Medvedenko? While SportsProf loves the way Young SP tries to pronounce his name (it's much cuter than the way Stephen A. Smith of ESPN says it), a combination of Medvedenko, Brian Cook, Luke Walton and an aged Karl Malone won't cut it at those key positions. You saw what happened when Shaq went out of the game in the NBA Finals. It wasn't pretty.

Caron Butler is a real talent. As is Lamar Odom. And, of course, so is Kobe Bryant. But who will rebound? Who will block shots? Who will defend Kevin Garnett? Tim Duncan? Chris Webber? Dirk Nowitzki? Who will help the Lakers hold their own on the boards? Because of those unanswered questions, the Lakers can hope to fare not a whole lot better than the Heat did last year (and, remember, the Lakers are in the (much) tougher conference).

So now the Van Gundy brothers coach two of the most feared big men in the game, Shaq of the Heat and Yao of the Rockets. Shaq and Dwayne Wade versus Yao and Tracy McGrady. Could be quite an excellent show. Stan Van Gundy versus Jeff Van Gundy. And yet, given that the Pistons probably improved their roster (signing Antonio McDyess)and the Spurs and Kings are still hanging around, even that "dream" matchup might not happen for a while, if ever.

And what about the NBA? A league whose product is suffering now has a weakened flagship franchise in Los Angeles, a woeful once-upon-a-dynasty in Boston, a tortured onetime pillar in New York, a going nowhere onetime pillar in Philadelphia and a lost-at-sea once-upon-a-time impossible team to beat in Chicago. Not great news for this mighty league, whose popularity internationally may be stronger than it is at home. Which goes to show you, that where they're starved for hoops entertainment and don't know the game all that well, they'll watching anything.

But these aren't your older brother's Lakers, your father's (or grandfather's) Celtics, your uncle's 76ers. And that faded glory for those franchises, and those in Chicago and New York, isn't likely to return any time soon.

A great post-season so far for the Van Gundy family. And a pretty darn good one for Carlos Boozer's pocketbook if not his reputation.

But a lousy one so far for the NBA.


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