Tuesday, May 25, 2004

If the Los Angeles Lakers go on to win the NBA championship, the addition of Karl Malone and Gary Payton will be regarded as wise, prudent and useful. If the Lakers lose, the presence of the two former All-Stars and future Hall of Famers will go down as a seemingly good idea gone awry.

History tells us such maneuvers don’t always work out, that adding once-great players on the downward slopes of their careers guarantees little. There are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong. The missing piece might not fit. Or sometimes it’s simply that not everyone gets to play with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

“Nobody’s stupid,” former NBA star turned broadcaster Charles Barkley said. “It’s Kobe’s and Shaq’s team. They’re very fortunate to play with Kobe and Shaq.”

The Houston Rockets believed they were fortunate when they got Barkley in a trade with the Phoenix Suns in 1996 to play alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Drexler is in the Hall of Fame, and the other two will get there. Houston, which won 48 games the year before, improved to 57 victories and advanced to the Western finals, where they lost in six games to Utah.

“But we were all past our prime,” Barkley said. “It’s a slam dunk getting to play with Kobe and Shaq, but we were past our prime.We had one decent year, and after that it was all downhill.”

Houston slumped to 41 wins the following year. Drexler retired and the Rockets tried to fill the void with another future Hall of Fame player, Scottie Pippen. The Rockets went 31-19 in the lockout-shortened season. Then Olajuwon hung it up. Pippen went to Portland. Barkley, the last man standing, played 20 games in 1999-2000 before getting hurt. He, too, was through.

Meanwhile, Pippen had little impact in Portland, a dysfunctional organization that seems bent on an endless quest to find that one player who will make a positive difference.

Someone like, say, Oscar Robertson. Considered by many the best all-around player in NBA history, the Big O was 31 in 1970, just past his peak and on the outs with his coach with the Cincinnati Royals, Bob Cousy. In a stunning move, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had a budding superstar big man, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a strong supporting cast that included Bob Dandridge, Greg Smith and Jon McGlocklin.

Milwaukee won 56 games the year before without Robertson. But now, with Roberston skillfully directing the show, the Bucks went to a whole new level in 1971, winning a league-best 66 games and the franchise’s only NBA championship.

“Oscar was on the downside of his career, but if you look at his numbers and saw how he played, he was very much on his game,” said McGlocklin, a former sharpshooting guard.

Robertson averaged 19.4 points and eight assists while playing in 81 of 82 regular-season games.

“He was great,” McGlocklin said. “He was the final piece that brought it all together. In some regard, it was easier than what [Lakers coach] Phil Jackson is facing with more than one guy. We had less of an ego issue. We had less of a superstar issue. Oscar and Kareem were on everyone’s top 10 list, and there was never a problem. Never any of this, ‘I’m not getting the ball enough,’ and the other stuff the Lakers are dealing with.”

During the 1977-78 season, the Houston Rockets struggled to a 28-54 record despite a talented roster. One reason was the aftershock of the horrific injuries suffered by Rudy Tomjanovich when he was punched by Kermit Washington during a game. To help turn things around, Houston signed free agent superstar Rick Barry, who was squabbling with Golden State over $10,000.

At 34, Barry was coming off a season in which he led the Warriors in minutes, scoring (21.8), assists and steals. The only problem was that back then, when a team signed a free agent, it had to offer compensation. And the compensation in this case was John Lucas, the former Maryland All-American. Barry was stunned. “If I knew Lucas wasn’t going to be there, no way would I have gone.”

Without Lucas, Barry, a forward who was one of the great scorers in league history (and yes, another future Hall of Famer), became a playmaker. He led the team in assists while his scoring average dipped to a career-low 13.5 points a game. The Rockets won 47 games, but Barry said the team grossly underachieved. In fact, he said, “It was the biggest waste of talent ever assembled in the history of pro basketball.”

The next year, Barry’s points, assists and minutes declined, and the Rockets slumped to 41 wins. The 1979-80 season was Barry’s last, and he blames that on his experience in Houston.

“I think I did what I had to do to help the team win,” he said. “And it shortened my career. People said I couldn’t play anymore. I was being a team guy and everything, and everyone was thinking that I’m too old.”

Barry, whose sons Brent, Jon and Drew all played in the NBA, said of playing in Houston, “You can’t even believe what happened in those two seasons.”

He said he would love to give examples but is saving up in case he decides to write a book.

Chemistry is crucial and not just in the NBA. In 2000, after the Redskins made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and then drafted Chris Samuels and LaVar Arrington, owner Dan Snyder tried to make the team even better by extending the hospitality of his checkbook to future Hall of Famers Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders, as well other big names like Jeff George and Mark Carrier.

Some so-called experts predicted the Redskins would go to the Super Bowl. Instead, with Smith and Sanders mere shadows of what they used to be and George proving to be the disaster he pretty much always was, Washington went 8-8 and coach Norv Turner got fired.

A few miles away, the Baltimore Orioles had gone through the same sort of thing. After making the playoffs in 1997, the O’s binged on aging veterans over the next two years to try to get better. Harold Baines, Joe Carter, Doug Drabek, Juan Guzman and Albert Belle — some, such as Belle, with obscenely huge contracts — came and went. By 1999, the organization was in shambles.

The Washington Capitals believed they were a superstar away from cracking the big time. But Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang are already gone, along with most of the other veterans of consequence who were already there.

George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees have made an annual habit of acquiring the big name veteran, mostly with good results. Every year the Yankees win something. On the other hand, they haven’t won a World Series since 2000 and might not get there this year.

Still, the New York Rangers wouldn’t mind enjoying comparable success. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994, the Rangers perpetually have looked for that one player to keep it going. Instead, the franchise has become the NHL’s biggest joke with the biggest payroll, winding up and fanning on stars like Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Alexei Kovalev and Jagr.

“There is a fine balance when you bring people in,” Memphis Grizzlies president of basketball operations Jerry West said. “And you’re rolling the dice. Whenever a player gets to be a certain age, everyone assumes he’ll be healthy and he’ll play a certain amount of minutes. It doesn’t always happen.”

It happened with West and the Lakers when the team acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. If Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar are in everybody’s top 10, West, Elgin Baylor and Chamberlain reside there, too. And here they were, playing in the same lineup.

Chamberlain, the NBA scoring leader at that point and one of the most dominant big men ever, was 32. His best days were clearly behind him. The same could be said of West and Baylor. But the Lakers went to the finals the next three years, losing in seven, six and seven games.

After losing to Milwaukee in the conference finals in 1971, the Lakers set a record for victories (69) and consecutive wins (33) in 1972 and won the championship. They made it back to the finals one more time the next year before time finally ran out.

It was quite a run, one that is hard to imagine happening without Wilt.

“It was a pretty dominating team,” said West, who last week was named NBA executive of the year. “I always wanted to play with somebody big who could protect the basket. I was an aggressive defender, and that would allow me to go for steals. If I got beat, somebody would be back there.

“For me, [Chamberlain] was a godsend. He was an older player when he got here. He was playing closer to the basket, and the things he did best at that point in his career were rebound and block shots. I found out he was very unselfish, a good guy to be around. He could pass and rebound. He filled a specific need.”

Chamberlain was the difference, just as today’s Lakers hope O’Neal and Bryant will be.

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