Sunday, May 23, 2004

Credit, where credit is due

Magic was a great, clutch player, but I still think he should have named his children/pets Kareem, Abdul, Jabbar, Lew or Alcindor. He should also provide scholarships to students from Power Memorial High School in NY. Why? He would have had a much different career without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

    Remember Kareem? Remember his spectacular penetration moves? His furious dunks? His crossover dribble? You don't? Good, because his game didn't have those facets. Kareem had a Money Shot that fed a magical 7-10 assists a game to whoever was passing him the ball- the Sky Hook. The single most effective shot in the history of the game. Indefensible. Almost effortless. And, goody for Magic, no dribble before it- passing the ball to Kareem anywhere within 15 feet of the basket was a guaranteed assist.

    This changed the whole defensive scheme the Lakers faced. Any team playing the Lakers had to deal with not only Magic and Kareem, but Worthy, Wilkes, Nixon, Scott, and a score of other worker bees. Very difficult to cover all 5, especially when the PG would already be doubling Kareem. This led to a lot of easy baskets- especially when the team did any fast-breaking. Notice that anytime the team wasn't fast breaking, they'd set up for the skyhook(once Kareem made it downcourt). The Lakers were a superb team, greater than the sum of their parts. I was shocked when the Celtics beat them.

    The Skyhook also covered up the Achilles Heel in Magic's game- he was a so-so shooter. Magic's regular season 3 point shot totals were 7, 3, 6, 0, 6, 7, 10, 8, and 11 in the years he played with an effective Kareem. Magic did improve his outside shooting as time went by and the line was moved in- a trend also seen in the championship season resumes of Jordan and Dr. J- but teams always sagged off him to double Kareem. That the greater part of Magic's game was team oriented- passing, leading the fast break, rebounding, firing up the fellow Lakes- shouldn't detract from his amazing individual accomplishments, but it also means that his success was dependent upon the team...and based off Kareem's offensive ability.

    Kareem was also a treemendous shot-blocker. This allows one's point guard to press wildly, and get extra steals. It also allows a 6'9" guy to play a quick point guard on defense- I do seem to recall a steady stream of Isiahs, KJs, Lucases, Cheeks(how does one pluralize Cheeks?) and the like getting right by Mr Johnson, before running into a 7'3" Muslim roadblock. The last time people were screaming for help to a Muslim that much,  Saladin was chasing Crusaders in the Holy Land.

    Now don't get me wrong. Magic rocked. He ran Showtime. He posed problems that at least 5 championship-caliber teams were unable to answer. He hit the shot that won the 1985 title, and was a one man gang in the last game of 1980. Still, Magic was less of the Laker's "main player" than he was the Laker's "media darling". People loved the flashy and gregarious Magic- they despised the sullen Muslim giant who was really carrying the team. This- and the Bird/Magic rivalry that was television gold- led to the media focusing on Magic, and it led to people thinking he was the main reason for the Laker success.

    The Lakers also played out West. For those of you that don't remember, no other Western team won a title from the time Seattle won it to the time the Rockets rode Olajuwon to the title. In fact, the only teams to get by the Lakers in that stretch were the Moses Malone and the Olajuwon/Sampson Rockets(though I think Portland may have gotten in there at one point). These were 2 teams that found ways to neutralize or at least answer Kareem, and 2 teams which forced Magic to beat them.

    The Western Conference of the 1980s was very much like the Eastern Conference of  today- a weak sister. If Magic had to go through Pat Ewing, Bernard King, Ruland/Mahorn, Isiah, Dr J, Moses, Barkley and company, how many times do you think they would have been eliminated earlier? How do you think Magic's stats would have differed?

    While debating quality of opponents, keep in mind that a certain rookie named Jordan arrived in the Eastern Conference during Larry's tenure...and he didn't make it to the Finals for quite some time. It wasn't like he needed seasoning- he put in 63 on the Celtics in one playoff game in a losing effort. The Eastern Conference was just so good, it took Jordan a few years to earn his stripes. Had the Lakers played out here, or had that talent been in the West- we might be talking 1-2 rings, at best.

    Finally, remember that Magic won nothing after Kareem left, despite replacing him with Mychal Thompson, and Vlade Divac- who, whatever you may think about him, rarely has been a center on a team that didn't have a pretty good shot at winning it all. Those guys are good...but they're no Kareem. Kareem won a title with an aging(before my time, but he must have been older) Oscar Robertson, and he adapted his game and won 5 more later...something Mr Johnson sadly never had a chance to do.

    Magic revitalized the Lakers, and especially Kareem. Magic's center play vs Daryl Dawkins in the 1980s finals- for the one game 1980 NBA MVP Kareem didn't play- was astounding. He waxed the Celtics like a bikini line with his own hook shot in the 1985 finals. I'd put him in the top five players of all time- just ahead of Larry and the historically-unappreciated Julius/Oscar/West troika.

    But if Kareem/Worthy played in Boston and McHale/Parish played in LA, Magic would have stood a very good chance of being the Ray Bourque of basketball- an all-time great who couldn't get the brass ring with the team he played his whole career for. Or he might have 6 rings- who knows? Meanwhile, we'd have about 18 championship banners hanging in the Boston Gard..., ummm, Fleet Center before the wheels started falling off Bird and especially Kareem in 1987 or so....but I digress.

    I apologize for the long post, and I respect the opinions of those who differ with me. I have had very few people agree when I state this opinion of mine. I just think that Kareem gets the shaft when credit is handed out for the success of the great 1980s Laker teams. I think Kareem should be involved in the best-ever discussions with Russell, Jordan(imagine a Jordan/Abdul-Jabbar pairing?) and Wilt, rather than this debate.

    Vive la Kareem!


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