- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2004

A champion is destined to emerge in the NBA in June, undoubtedly from one of the leading teams in the Western Conference, just not sure which of the two, the Lakers or the Spurs.

The Pacers finished with the best record in the NBA, both an achievement and an indictment of what passes as competition in the Eastern Conference.

The junior varsity wing of the NBA is hoping not to put America to sleep, a modest goal that could go either way, not unlike the Heat-Hornets series. The rest of the first round in the East hardly stirs the sporting passion: Pacers vs. Celtics, Nets vs. Knicks and Pistons vs. Bucks.

All the fun is in the West. Most of the players, too.

The Lakers are a psychological mess, beyond the help of the incense-burning Zen Master.

They are one ego implosion away from being eliminated in the playoffs. Most bets have been placed on Kobe Bryant’s ego.

His has been the loneliest season, what with the legal issue in Colorado, tension within the team and the urge to be a free agent.

In a way, Bryant almost has been a player without a team, mostly because his actions have failed to impress his teammates. He is liable to shoot his team out of the playoffs or, in a new twist of petulance, not shoot at all. His head is the one body part that threatens the Lakers. The Zen Master probably finds it more worrisome than the opposition.

The Lakers are being encouraged to develop a renewed sense of interest in defense.

The omission has been especially conspicuous because of the cast. One of the players is nicknamed the Glove, another the Mailman, and Shaquille O’Neal is merely the most imposing object in the game. Bryant, the one most like Michael Jordan, cut his championship teeth on navel-to-navel, in-your-face ferocity.

The ferocity is gone, along with the psychological advantage the Lakers once held on opponents. A championship that was all but awarded to the Lakers at the start of the season has been put back on the shelf until further notice. No team has more public dislikes than the Lakers. Shaq does not like Kobe, and Kobe does not like Shaq. Gary Payton does not like the triangle offense, and Karl Malone does not like all the nonsense that goes with the team. And that is just the beginning of it.

The Lakers have been in this tenuous position the last few seasons, only then it was limited to O’Neal and Bryant. The additional egos of Payton and Malone increase the fragility of the team.

The Lakers are not likely to be this way again, with four superstars and a Zen-reeking coach in place, and only O’Neal certain to return next season. The one-time-only element should be cause enough to put all grievances aside. If the Lakers manage to broker an uneasy peace, the championship will be theirs. That is no small qualifier, however, as the Lakers have shown this season.

The Spurs, as sturdy as Tim Duncan, are looking to be up to the challenge following the retirement of David Robinson and a re-made roster. Robinson was a significant element of the playoffs last season with the day’s rest between playoff games. His absence, perhaps negligible in the regular season, will be felt in the playoffs.

The Timberwolves have the top seed in the West and their best opportunity yet to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Their postseason futility is the only blemish on Kevin Garnett’s otherwise impeccable credentials.

The Kings-Mavericks series is the best of the first-round lot. Both teams like to push the ball. Both teams like to score. Both teams have one playoff-killing flaw: no real measure to counter O’Neal or Duncan, excluding the flopping habits of Vlade Divac that referees sometimes reward.

The Kings come into the playoffs with glum looks, while the Mavericks have decided to embrace their small-ball propensity.

The Mavericks eliminated the Kings in the playoffs last season after Chris Webber was sidelined with a knee injury. His departure altered the dynamics of the Kings, just as his return two months ago did likewise again.

Let the real NBA season begin.

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