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The NBA Finals — and beyond
Thursday, June 13, 2002
It wasn’t always easy, but the Los Angeles Lakers pushed through the playoffs and walked away with their third straight NBA title after sweeping the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals. The 2001-02 Lakers faced a lot of challenges along the away, but in the end, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were just too potent for teams to handle. In the Eastern Conference, the Nets outlasted the Boston Celtics to advance to the Finals, and although they weren’t able to win a game against Los Angeles, their turnaround still was one of the best stories of the postseason.
Basketball News asked senior editor Mark Rich and associate editor Ken Bikoff about their thoughts about the NBA Finals and what the future holds for the league.

Q: So the Lakers won again. How much longer will the Shaq and Co. dominate the postseason?

Rich: I don’t know that they’re exactly dominating right now. Barely getting past the Kings shows that the Lakers are a bit vulnerable, and I think the Nets would give the Lakers a better run for their money a year from now after they’ve gained the experience of being there once. That being said, am I betting against the Lakers to win the title again in 2002-03? No. I really think Bryant and O’Neal are two special players who aren’t going to let their team lose. I think an injury to one of those two obviously derails the Lakers’ express, but I think this year’s tough series against Sacramento might just wake up the Lakers a little bit more to the importance of winning in the regular season. Over the past two years, Los Angeles has treated the 82 games of the regular season as a warmup to the postseason, but not having homecourt advantage against Sacramento almost cost them, and I think the challenge of winning four straight titles — surpassing the Bulls of the 1990s — is going to be a motivating factor for the Lakers.

Bikoff: I really think it’s only going to get more difficult from here on out. Winning three straight titles is a great accomplishment for the Lakers, but there is a feeling that the team is going to see a little turnover in the upcoming months. Los Angeles has been successful by putting the right role players around Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but some of the key cogs — namely Rick Fox and Robert Horry — aren’t getting any younger, and even Shaq seems to be having a rough time recovering from some aches and pains. O’Neal, Fox and Horry all are over 30 years old, and while that’s not exactly ancient, the age of those starters is going to start catching up to the Lakers. With the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and the rest of the NBA putting together teams with the specific purpose of beating the Lakers, it really is going to be much more difficult in the future for the Lakers.

Q: The Nets didn’t even put up much of a fight in the Finals. What can be done to make the Eastern Conference more competitive in the future?

Bikoff: There really isn’t much that can be done. There is an obvious difference in the level of talent in the two conferences, but these things tend to be cyclical and the East eventually will bounce back. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the power was in the Eastern Conference, where the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons ran. Now it is the West’s turn. There isn’t a whole lot the league can do to change the balance of power, and it would be really shortsighted to think that something should be done.

Rich: Just give time a chance. Only five years ago, we were looking at the Bulls continually dominating the Western Conference, and people wondered what could be done about the West’s lack of a title. Now things have turned around, and more than likely, things will turn back towards the East yet again sooner or later. We’re going to see the Eastern teams getting better because they know they have to keep up with the West, and young teams out East are only getting better with a little more playoff experience.

Q: Do you see any teams mounting a challenge to the Lakers’ supremacy next season?

Rich: Sacramento has to be considered the No. 1 contender to knock off the champs. The Kings will have everyone back from this year’s squad, assuming they have no trouble re-signing Mike Bibby. Dallas could be better next year with another playoff experience behind it, and Portland is extremely talented and could possibly make a run if it can become more consistent. In the East, like I said, I think New Jersey will be better after having a year of postseason, and the Hornets and Raptors just need to avoid injuries to improve their chances in the playoffs.

Bikoff: Again, the Kings and Mavericks are very good candidates because they both picked up valuable experience this season and will be more hungry than ever next year. Sacramento came so close to knocking off the Lakers this season that the team will be intensely focused all year next season to have another shot at L.A. in the playoffs. If the Portland Trail Blazers ever learn how to play together — and it doesn’t seem likely — they certainly have the talent on paper to mount a challenge. But if I had to pick one team to actually knock off the Lakers in the postseason, the Kings would be the ballclub.

Q: New Jersey, Detroit and Boston all were able to turn their fortunes around and be competitive this season. Are any teams on the verge of turning things around for next season?

Bikoff: As odd as it sounds, the Los Angeles Clippers could make a serious move next season. The Clips suffered from a lack of experience this year, but with the right guidance and some more games under their belt, the Clippers could be a playoff contender next season. The interesting thing about the Eastern Conference is that a lot of the teams aren’t that far away from being conference title contenders right now. Toronto, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Indiana all have the horses to make a run at the Finals next season, but as for teams that could turn around quickly and surprise some opponents, I look at the Chicago Bulls as the one down-on-its-luck team that could start to see some progress next year. Some other teams in the East, such as New York, Miami, Cleveland, Washington and Atlanta, all have a lot of work to do to become competitive in the conference, but they don’t have the upside that the young Bulls have. Chicago isn’t going to be a title contender next season and likely won’t even make the playoffs, but with some shrewd moves, the team will be much improved. I like what they are doing in Memphis as well, and Houston could rebound very quickly, although playing in the Western Conference will make turning things around much more difficult for that duo.

Rich: Indiana struggled to make the playoffs, but I like the pieces the Pacers added in the midseason deal with Chicago, and they should get back valuable reserve Al Harrington, who missed much of the last half of the season with a knee injury. Indiana is a deep team and features an experienced leader in Reggie Miller. We may see the Pacers make the jump from the eighth seed in the East to the first or second seed. Also, Orlando could become even better if it can get a strong performance out of Grant Hill — a major "if" considering Hill’s history in Orlando — and find a little inside strength. Turning things around takes a lot of different factors, from experience to health to a major trade or two. I think we’ll have a better feeling what teams might be able to make a major improvement after the free agency period begins in mid July.

Q: The ratings were the lowest in two decades for the Finals this season. Is the league experiencing a drop-off in interest due to the Lakers’ dominance?

Rich: Compare New Jersey to Philadelphia. The Nets have Jason Kidd as their top star while the Sixers have Allen Iverson. As good as Kidd is, Iverson is definitely a bigger draw for fans. Also, last year’s Finals had a surprise in Game 1 with the Sixers upsetting the Lakers and stealing homecourt advantage. That brought a lot of interest to the series. This year, the first couple of games showed us no signs that New Jersey was going to be able to hang with the Lakers for more than four or five games. That definitely turned people off.

Bikoff: I don’t think it is so much a drop-off in interest as it is that people weren’t all that excited about the Finals. Just about everyone felt that the Western Conference finals was the "real" championship series, and that’s why the ratings were down for the Lakers-Nets series. Is the league suffering from a bit of an image problem? Sure. Attendance has been down and there isn’t the buzz surrounding the league that there used to be, but that isn’t the Lakers’ fault. I’ve heard of some fans being sick of the Lakers’ success, but the playoffs saw some great action, and the league could rebound with the increased coverage that the next television contract will provide.

Q: The season may have just wrapped up yesterday and the draft hasn’t even happened yet, but what teams do you sense will be the favorites next season?

Rich: No doubt, the Lakers have to be considered the favorite. But Sacramento is an obvious very close second choice, with San Antonio, Portland and Dallas all getting some consideration depending on what moves they might make over the next couple months. In the East, I still like New Jersey, although Detroit will be improved with a strong interior game and the experience of winning this year. Boston is also dangerous, with its outstanding duo of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce. And I’d give Toronto and Indiana a nod as possible Eastern champs.

Bikoff: As long as they have Shaq, you have to start with the Lakers, but I honestly think the Kings are going to pull it off next season. They came so close this year and felt that they got jobbed by the officials in the West finals, but losing that series could be the best thing to ever happen to the team. Sacramento had the best record in the NBA this season and nearly got to the Finals anyway, and the Kings will be itching to get after another title run next year. The Eastern Conference again will be wide open, but I think the Hornets, the Pacers, the Nets and the Celtics all will battle for the top spots in the East. And again, they will be battling for the right to lose to whichever team comes out of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Hey, not everything can change.
 

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Good Stuff!!

Excellent article - Should be interesting to see what the Pacers do in the off season - the upcoming draft etc.
Rumors still swirling about a possible trade with Cleveland for Andre Miller - Everyone, keep your eyes open!
 
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