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 Monday, June 19
Are these Lakers great?
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Ron Harper, Luc Longley
Ron Harper lived through the Bulls' great years, but doesn't liken them to this Lakers team.
LOS ANGELES -- Until the Finals, I was ready to write this off as one of the worst, most desultory seasons in recent memory. In fact, until the Finals, I thought these were the worst playoffs in recent memory. Think about it: an unending first round, all of the silliness between Butch Carter and Marcus Camby, the Hack-a-Shaq in extremis by the Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Finals. But Lakers-Pacers has provided a much-needed bromide.

Glory, glory, shotmaking is back in the pro game. Watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and Reggie Miller duke it out in Game 4 -- an instant classic -- brought back memories of Magic and Bird and Worthy and McHale and Parish and Kareem. Great players topping one another time and again. The drama of Sam Perkins' big three. The controversy of Larry Bird leaving Travis Best in the game at the end of regulation instead of going with Mark Jackson. And Bryant, otherworldly in the extra session. A great game.

About bleeping time.

The Lakers' coronation has been delayed a couple of days by the pesky Pacers. But even when L.A. adds title No. 6 to its resume, what will it mean?

I am not being argumentative here. I really don't know if the Lakers, these Lakers, are a great team. They have two great players and a great coach in Phil Jackson. They won 67 games in the regular season. But in each round of the playoffs, they've been made to look ordinary. And, being frank, they wouldn't even be here in the Finals if Portland hadn't delivered the biggest gaaack of all-time.

Does a great team lose a game in the Finals by 33 points? (The Pacers are just as flawed, too; they were life and death with the Bucks in the first round.)

When the history of the game is written, where will this team reside? It isn't as good as the two best Bulls teams, the 72-win squad of 1997 or the 1992 championship squad. It isn't as good as Boston's best, in 1986, or the Lakers' most dominant versions, in 1985 and 1987. Going way back, does it rate with Philadelphia's 1967 group, or any of the Celtics' better vintages?

To make big judgments, you need old eyes. Old eyes that aren't fooled by flash and fireworks. Old eyes that have seen them all come and go.

My eyes are aging, but they're not yet vintage. So when I wanted to know how Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant compare to some of the great NBA duos of the last 20 years, I went to old eyes. Contemporaries. Where do Superman and Batman rate, for example, up against Magic and Worthy? Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars? Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen?

Everyone wants to compare Bryant to Jordan. But I saw 20-year-old Magic on the floor in Game 4 of these Finals. Like Magic's performance in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals in Philadelphia, I saw in Bryant the other night someone who would figure out some way to win the game. Need a strip? Done. An offensive board? You got it. Breaking Miller's ankle? Consider them broken.

My feeling on Shaq and Kobe has been that the rest of the league better get its championships now. Because once they win one title, they're good for four or five. And these playoffs have proven that the learning curve is a quick one for this duo. And they're real close to being unbeatable.

The point at the top of the Invincibility Triangle is when a team's arrogance peaks at the same level as the other teams' fear. Once Jordan knew he could control the will of other players, officials and everyone else, he was unstoppable. Conversely, most teams were so psyched out before the ball was even tossed against the Bulls. Jordan and Pippen won a lot of games sitting in their locker room.

Every champion also needs a rival, and the Lakers have theirs. Pencil in Portland-L.A. for the next several years, unless one team gets raked by injuries or infighting. "Our hump was getting over Boston," John Salley, Piston Alumnus, said. "They said we shouldn't be there. And once we won, our whole attitude changed ... you get arrogant after the second one. I didn't believe in driving anywhere. 'Pump my own gas? Are you kidding me? This is just filet mignon.'"

But Bryant and O'Neal are just starting.

"You can't just skip on that," A.C. Green said. "You have to sort of focus on that. Because they haven't won anything yet. This is the worst thing to do, asking guys about rings, because we've had a hard enough time closing out series. I know that both of these guys have a real hunger to win a championship. But James and Earvin, they were winners. These guys, they want to be winners."

"Them two can play basketball," 36-year-old Ron Harper said of his current teammates. "They are two guys who can do what they can do. They are awesome. If they keep doing what they can do, they're two guys who are going to be around for a long time." But how do they rate against Harper's old running mates, Jordan and Pippen?

A roll of the eyes.

"They ain't there."

But they're coming. And it's great to watch.


Complete coverage of NBA Finals

California dreaming: Pacers win Game 5 in a rout

Frozen moment: Miller's sparks cool the Lakers

X factor: The"other" dynamic duo saves Indy

Hughes: No killer instinct, no dynasty

Lawrence: More Shaq and Finals are over

Aldridge: Butch's antics getting old