1.    LeBron Pumps It Up: LeBron James 48-point outburst on Thursday was truly amazing to watch and included his scoring 29 of the teams last 30 points.  Throw in some ridiculous dunks and a couple of off-balance three-pointers and you get one of those legendary playoff performances and let’s us all wax poetic about how LeBron has truly arrived.  While I’m certainly on the LeBron bandwagon, it is hard to truly put this accomplishment into context because this series is not over yet.  So let’s see what’s left on the table…

The Pistons did not run their offense very well in the fourth quarter and the overtimes.  In almost every critical situation, Flip Saunders asked Chauncey Billups to create off-the-dribble, which is not his (or any Pistons player’s) forte.  The motion offense is really a Saunders special and some motion might’ve made the difference, especially on Billups’ last shot in the lane where the Cavs were able to sag in the middle and throw off his shot.  Defensively, the Pistons did try to get the ball out of LeBron’s hands by double-teaming him at the top of the key but that open court double proved to be too easy for LeBron to split.  Even with the understanding that LeBron was basically impossible to stop, harder double teams were in order.  The only other Cav in double figures, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, had fouled out.  In fact, the only time that James actually gave up the ball late in the game Anderson Varejao was blocked on a lay up.

Optimists might note that the Pistons have had these types of let down losses before.  They lost a huge double-overtime Game 5 at home in 2003-04 against the Nets.  The Pistons promptly went out and won Game 6 in New Jersey and, ultimately, the title.  More recently, the Pistons lost Game 5 against the Cavs last year and also came back and won the series.  Two caveats should be noted.  In 2003-04, Jason Kidd hurt his knee and couldn’t really play after Game 5 (he went scoreless in Game 7 and had knee surgery that summer).  The Pistons did beat the Cavs at full strength last year but LeBron is a year older (and better) and the Pistons are just a year older.  Clearly, the Cavs are in the driver’s seat and they will milk LeBron as long as they can.  For the Pistons, cause and effect are clear.  In the Pistons two wins, LeBron shot 12-34 (35%) and score 15 ppg since then James is scoring 35 ppg and is shooting 38-73 (52%).  It might not be easy but Detroit has to make those Cav guards shoot, even if the shots are easy.

2.    Kobe Alert: What to do with Kobe Bryant…he correctly realizes that the Lakers are stuck in a rut of mediocrity and now is demanding a trade.  Kobe is apparently peeved that the team is not improving and, secondarily, that the Lakers have implied that he was the reason the team dumped Shaquille O’Neal.  Let’s take these issues individually, starting with the Shaq issue:

Did Kobe Get Shaq Traded?

I don’t have any definitive information but it was clear that Jerry Buss wanted no part of giving an older, heavier Shaq the three year $90 million contract that he wanted and that was before Kobe and Shaq started feuding openly.  That being said, Kobe was a free agent that summer and had the leverage to tell Buss to do whatever he wanted and probably could’ve brokered a deal to keep Shaq if he was so inclined.  So what exactly happened?  Here is Phil Jackson’s version from his biography “The Last Season.”

First, here is Jackson’s version of his exit interview with Kobe after the 2003-04 season:  “The next subject was Shaquille.  ‘Will Shaq’s presence on this team color your decision to come back or not?’  I asked [Kobe].  ‘Yes, it does,’ he said.  ‘I meant what I said the other night after the fame, that the two of you could coexist and play well together,’ I went on.  ‘There’s no doubt about that, ‘ he said.  ‘I’ve done that for eight years with [Shaq], but I’m tired of being a sidekick.'”

Jackson also described management’s thought process in a conversation he had with Buss turning down an executive role with the Lakers:

“Your positions are different than my positions,’ I told [Buss].  ‘If you want me to be an executive, I don’t see how I can endorse them.’  I certainly could not endorse the decision to trade Shaquille.  I acknowledge that the skills and athleticism are declining, and that his market value will never be better, but this is still Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant big man in the game today, maybe ever.  Nobody can replace him.  Dr. Buss brought up the issue of Shaq’s character, criticizing him for delaying his toe surgery in 2002.  I felt a need to respond, to suggest that on the issue of character, Kobe’s certainly no saint, either.  ‘It’s not that I’m enamored with Kobe’s character,’ he said.  ‘But he’s twenty-six in August,  The seven years ahead are the prime years of his career…..Besides,’ Dr. Buss added, ‘aren’t all superstars like that?’  ‘No,’ I told him, ‘not all of them.’  He said choosing Kobe over Shaq was also to satisfy his constituents, the fans.  ‘I have to serve the people who are loyal to me,’ he said.  ‘My mail runs about 5-1 on Kobe to Shaq.'”

It’s hard to know if Jackson’s recount are 100% accurate and, even if it is, whether Buss was telling the truth about his motivation.  Indeed, I don’t remember Kobe being more popular than Shaq during the 2003-04 season (or since).  Still, it is pretty clear that Kobe, at the very least, blessed Buss’ decision to trade Shaq–if not actively demanded it.  So, for Kobe to claim that he wasn’t part of the Shaq trade is not quite accurate.

Should the Lakers Be Better?

Probably not.  In Shaq’s last season in Los Angeles, the team was built around Kobe, Shaq, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone.   Shaq was traded for Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, which was a serious downgrade.  Still, the market for Shaq was weak based upon his demand that he go to only a few teams and it was certain that the return would be a fraction of Shaq’s value as a player.  Payton was traded for Chris Mihm and Malone retired.  So, it was pretty predictable that the team was going to lag because they were losing an All-Star center and two above-average starters and replacing them with a couple of good perimeter players in Odom and Butler and Chucky Atkins and Mihm.

Mitch Kupchak did make an awful move trading Butler for Kwame Brown and overpaying for Vlad Radmanovic when they already had Brian Cook (essentially the same player but cheaper).  But undoing these moves wouldn’t make the Lakers that much better.  So what could the Lakers have done?  Kobe implied that Carlos Boozer, Baron Davis, Jason Kidd were available and deals weren’t made.  Boozer was only available for Odom.  Boozer would’ve helped but he missed most of 2004-05 and 2005-06 with injuries.  Davis might also help but he, also, had injuries issues–not to mention a problem chucking threes and a potentially onerous contract.  Lastly, trading Andrew Bynum for Kidd would also improve the team but net gain would not have been huge considering Kidd’s age and the fact that Laker’s offense doesn’t put a premium on point guards.

Now What?

So what do we learn from all this?  It seems then that losing Shaq was sure to knock the Lakers to the 40-win plateau and that Kobe was on board with the move.  Bryant has a right to complain that management hasn’t been great but Kobe partially created this mess and the mess was inevitable.  Going forward, I expect the Lakers to trade Bynum for a bigger, older name like Kidd or Jermaine O’Neal.  I’m not sure either move gives the Lakers much but a two-year gamble to make second round of the playoffs unless they get really lucky in the draft and we’ll be back listening to Kobe complain again next summer.

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