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Vince Thomas

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Which team stood out more in the 2000s: Kobe and the Lakers or Duncan and the Spurs?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Spurs, Lakers can each stake claim as decade's best team


Posted Dec 21 2009 8:14AM

The 1970s were a weird decade for the NBA. Elite talent like Julius Erving, George "Iceman" Gervin, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Moses Malone and others spent time in the ABA, the NBA's rogue, rival league. The last half of the decade was forgettable as the league battled an image and drug problem and iconic greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Dr. J and "Pistol" Pete Maravich wasted virtuoso years on teams that ranged from middling to poor.

The league rolled into the 1980s without one player or team that truly defined the previous decade. The '70s are the only decade thus far that didn't feature a clear cut Team Of The Decade. The three-peat Minneapolis Lakers defined the '50s; Boston ruled the '60s; the L.A. Lakers pulled away from the Celtics and emerged as the team of the '80s and Chicago dominated the '90s. But the '70s? Who knows. New York began the decade with a title, lost in the Finals in 1972 and won it again in 1973, but tanked the rest of the decade. Boston won it all in 1974 and '76, but also missed the playoffs four times. Including Golden State in 1975, five different teams (Celtics, Blazers, Bullets, Sonics) won the title to close the decade.

Why spend two paragraphs yapping about the '70s? We're a couple weeks away from closing out the first decade of this millennium and have the same issue at hand. Who's the team of this decade? The Lakers or Spurs -- the only teams in the discussion. The reason for this debate, however, is significantly different. It's not that neither team submitted a fitting resume, it's that both organizations are each deserving. The Spurs were more consistent.. But the Lakers were more dynamic and transcendent. It's a tough one, so I had to get on my Dr. Jack/Bill Simmons/Nick Bakay game and break it all down. Seven categories, worth a cumulative, completely subjective 60 points.

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HEAD-TO-HEAD: Season-by-season, the Lakers-Spurs series went like this: 2001 - Lakers 4-0; 2002 - Lakers 4-1; 2003 - Spurs 4-2; 2004 - Lakers 4-2; 2008 - Lakers 4-1.
Lakers: 9. Spurs: 1.

MARQUEE PLAYERS: The three-peat Lakers sported two of the three best players of the decade in Kobe and Shaq. In fact, both are arguably among the ten greatest ever. If it were Tim Duncan versus just one of those guys, there's a debate. He can't, however, compete with both -- especially when considering that not only are Kobe and Shaq all-time greats, they were/are mega stars who sold tickets, magazines and hovered around one million All-Star votes each season.
Lakers: 10. Spurs: 8

COACH: Greg Popovich is my dude. I love his sarcasm. Love the way he interacts with his players -- more like an uncle than a father. I love the way he clowns Craig Sager during in-game interviews (he once took Sage's pocket square and used it to wipe sweat off his brow). I love how his teams always maximize their talent. He's just an all around cool customer. The Spurs' three championships and constant contender status is as much, maybe even more, of a testament to his stewardship than Duncan's excellence.

On the other hand, I think the Zen Master doesn't get enough credit. Yeah, he's always been blessed with MJs and Pippens and Kobes and Shaqs of the world, but if you look at the past ten seasons, he's been more resourceful and enterprising. He led the Lakers to three titles in a row. The 1999-2000 team featured a young Kobe not yet among the league's top five players. There was some Shaq-Kobe bickering to begin the 2000-01 season. By the 2001-02 season, a good portion of the supporting cast was either aging or just not very good. Despite the colossal distraction of Kobe's rape case, the 2003-04 squad was a Karl Malone injury away from a fourth championship. Meanwhile, Jackson guided two tremendously untalented and inexperienced squads to the 2006 and 2007 playoffs -- two seasons that, in retrospect, featured some of his best coaching. Even if Gasol fell in Jackson's lap via a 2008 trade, the fact that the Lakers reached back-to-back Finals (winning the whole thing last season, despite injuries and a young, shaky bench) is remarkable in many ways. Is it enough to give Phil a slight edge? Yes. Plus, Phil won four rings, Pop has three. But not so fast. Phil left L.A. in a huff for a season and wrote a damning book ("The Last Season: A Team In Search Of Its Soul") while he was out. Pop hasn't gone anywhere since taking over the Spurs in 1996.
Lakers: 9. Spurs: 9.

• AMBASSADORSHIP: The Celtics and Lakers of the '80s and the Bulls of the '90s were great ambassadors on almost every level. They were star-studded, exciting to watch and mostly stayed away from controversy. As the two best teams of the decade, L.A. and San Antonio didn't always get it right in this area. L.A. was a constant soap opera. Shaq vs. Kobe. Kobe vs. Shaq. Kobe vs. Phil. Shaq vs. Jerry Buss. Eagle, Colo. The summer of 2007. All of these things hurt the league. During the first half of the decade, when the NBA was dealing with image issues and the post-MJ blues, the Kobe-Shaq championship teams had the potential to make everything right if not for those "Mean Girls" antics. Instead, the NBA's marquee team was a flash point for criticism. The closest San Antonio came to a controversy was when they courted Jason Kidd as a free agent in the summer of 2003, right after having won the '03 title with a young (and now ticked off) Tony Parker. Pop squashed that quickly and nothing before or after sniffs of controversy. Although they had a squad of model-citizens, the Spurs were wooden and boring.
Lakers: -6. Spurs: -2.

FASCINATION FACTOR: The truth about the controversy that seemed to follow the Lakers all decade is that it was bittersweet. Yeah, it broke up a dynasty, but it also stoked fan interest. There was never an NBA season when L.A. was not a compelling story. Even in the 2004-'05 season when Kobe played in only 66 games, coach Rudy Tomjanovich resigned and the Lakers missed the playoffs, L.A. was still a story -- a former dynasty, toppled by jealousy and in-fighting, now struggling with a somewhat fallen star. The next season, while the Spurs (as always) were contending for a championship, I'd bet that Kobe's scoring rampage (including the famous 81-point masterpiece) and the Lakers were more compelling to most fans than the Spurs. The 2003-'04 season -- with the four Hall of Famers and Kobe's trial -- was a circus, but we were all watching. Meanwhile, San Antonio went 57-25 and captured few imaginations. The Grizzlies barely got 12,000 folks in the stands when the Spurs came to town this past January. They sold out for the Lakers. The Lakers sellout everywhere they go. In most arenas, the cheers for the Lakers are almost as audible as they are for the home team. Raise your hand if you kind of hated to see the Spurs in the Finals. Thought so. There has never been anything overtly fascinating or compelling about the Spurs, other than the next category.
Lakers: 10. Spurs: 2.

CONSISTENCY: This decade, the Spurs averaged 58 wins, dipping below 56 only twice (53 in 1999-2000 and 54 in 2008-09). They made the playoffs every season, reaching the conference finals and beyond five times, the semifinals another three times. Every season you knew the Spurs were among the league's elite. They were the definition of consistent. Meanwhile, although L.A. reached the Finals six times, they weren't even in the contender conversation from 2005-07. And really, the Lakers should have a five-peat instead of a three-peat. Lakers: 4. Spurs: 10.

BEST TEAM: If you put the 2001 Lakers -- the squad that swept the Spurs out the conference finals and lost one game all postseason -- against the Spurs' championship teams of 2005 or 2007, guess what you'd see? Another massacre. No team this decade can get with that Lakers squad. Not the 2008 Celtics or last season's Lakers. Not the Shaq-Wade Heat (2001 Kobe and 2006 D-Wade are probably a draw, but 2001 Shaq would abuse 2006 Shaq). Definitely not the 2004 Pistons that caught the Lakers sleeping. The 2001 Lakers were an all-time great outfit. Lakers: 10. Spurs: 7.

FINAL TALLY: Lakers 46. Spurs 35.

Numbers don't lie. The Lakers bullied the Spurs head-to-head, won more championships, had the brighter stars and captured and held fans' attention for 10 years. Ladies and gents, your Team Of The 2000s -- the Los Angeles Lakers.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here or follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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