EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., June 13 -- It may be safe to say at this point that the early-2000s era Los Angeles Lakers occupy a tier all their own in the context of NBA Finals history: Better than the very-goods, not quite among the greats. Yet.
With their series sweep of the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday, the Lakers completed the fifth-ever run of three straight championships, joining the Chicago Bulls (1996-98, 1991-93), Boston Celtics (1959-66) and Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54). And while the Lakers have demonstrated the will to win and killer instinct that is the mark of the great teams, they have yet to attain the type of longevity and sustained excellence that can be called a dynasty.
"We have a lot of respect for the history of this game," said guard Derek Fisher. "Every guy on this team respects guys who came before us. So we donít want to try to step over anyone.
"But obviously, winning three championships in a row puts us closer to the top of the list."
Will the Lakers join Bill Russell's Celtics and Michael Jordan's Bulls as one of the great dynasties of all-time?|
For the current Lakers, their consecutive titles speak for themselves: This team has been the NBA's best, three years running. For those other squads, three straight Finals wins were just part of a larger supremacy. The Bulls of the 1990s twice took three in a row -- six of eight overall -- behind Michael Jordan
, Scottie Pippen
and coach Phil Jackson. The immortal Boston Celtics of the 1960s won eight straight -- 11 out of 13 in total from 1957-69 -- all featuring Bill Russell. And the Minneapolis Lakers' trifecta was the crown on a reign of five championships in six seasons.
Of course, all this doesn't even take into account two other teams that formed basketball's best rivalry, the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird/Kevin McHale Boston Celtics of the 1980s. Neither squad ever won three in a row, mostly because of one another, but they combined for eight NBA titles and 13 Finals appearances from 1980-89.
"I don't know about ranking among the great teams ever," said Kobe Bryant. "We really have to stand the test of time. I think it's a little too early right now."
Nets coach Byron Scott, who played on those Laker teams in the 80s, believes Shaq, Kobe and company are getting there.
"They're right up there," he said. "I mean, they have two of the greatest players in the game today, and they have a great, great coach in Phil Jackson. They have a terrific system. If you're trying to compare them to the teams we had in the '80s, I still think we had a better team, but this team is a great basketball team."
Certainly, though, these Lakers, with their seemingly limitless potential, are on their way to becoming one of history's elite. Consider what they accomplished during their most recent run: Coach Jackson, already in a league of his own in terms of playoff winning percentage, passed Pat Riley for most playoff wins (155) and tied Red Auerbach for most championships (9). Shaquille O'Neal won his third straight Finals MVP award, averaging 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and setting four-game Finals records for total points (145), free throws made (45) and attempted (68) and blocks (11). Bryant, all of 23 years old, brought a daunting all-around game with 26.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while turning in a couple of clutch fourth-quarter performances.
Perhaps more importantly, the team showed resilience, overcoming a 3-2 deficit in the conference finals to win that series in seven games, in overtime, on the road in the league's toughest arena. Looking all the better for it, they swept through the Finals with nary a worry.
"[The third title] says that we're a great team," said O'Neal. "Everybody stuck to their role, everybody stuck to the script, everybody believed. Nobody ever got down even when times were so-called hard."
The players agree, they have the talent, youth, experience -- and certainly size -- to win more championships and ascend to the level of all-time NBA nobility. Remaining together, hungry and injury-free will be key.
"If we can stay healthy and set some goals for ourselves next year, then you talk about getting into the upper echelon that nobody else can touch," said Fisher.
Bryant, the youngest ever to win three titles, concurred.
"Hopefully, we can stay healthy, and at the end of our careers we'll be mentioned as one of the greatest of all time."