THATâ€™S NUMBER FOUR!: Derek Fisher, left and Kobe Bryant share a laugh as they ended this season with their fourth NBA championship since entering the league as rookies in 1996.
Photo by Jeff Lewis for Sentinel
The champagne has dried off. The confetti from yesterday’s parade is still fresh on Figueroa Ave. And the smile on Kobe Bryant’s face is still as big as it was after the 99-86 Game 5 victory on Sunday that brought the Lakers their first NBA title since 2002.
For the 15th time and fourth this decade, the Lakers end the season as NBA champions and Bryant finally has the MVP trophy that he’s long coveted – the Bill Russell Trophy as the NBA Finals MVP.
This title may be the sweetest of them of all because it’s a return to the mountaintop without Shaquille O’Neal and an end to what he called “that idiotic criticism” that he couldn’t do it without him.
Bryant, who averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists in the series, now has four rings to go along with O’Neal and Tim Duncan and now the discussion can begin where he ranks among the greatest players of all time.
For Phil Jackson, the discussion isn’t about if he’s the greatest NBA coach ever – but where he ranks among the greatest coaches in any sport.
His 10th title moves him above Red Auerbach on the all-time list and this ranks as his finest coaching job considering the talent level of this team compared to his other championship squads.
Derek Fisher also won title No. 4 and for a player who was often criticized during this postseason, this one was about reminding fans of his value.
Those clutch three-pointers in Game 4 will rank up there with his 0.4 shot against San Antonio in 2004 and his in-game speeches kept the team focused and motivated. There’s a reason why fans love him and this NBA Finals showed why.
Nobody will forget Trevor Ariza’s Game 4 third quarter and Game 5 second quarter that keyed rallies. And for Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol – two players who took the most heat after last year’s NBA Finals for their lack of toughness – nobody will forget how they showed the mental fortitude necessary to carry the weight in the postseason.
It’s a long time coming for Laker fans who waited through seven years of disappointment, heartbreak, Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and of course, the Boston Celtics’ beatdown last year.
And now, where does this team go from here?
Bryant has stated that he will not opt of his contract and become a free agent. That should eliminate the pink elephant in the Lakers front office’s decision making, leaving them room to focus on the two major concerns – Odom and Ariza.
Ariza proved his worth all season (8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals, a career-high 31.9% on three-pointers) and he upped that during the postseason (11.1 pts., 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 48.1% on threes).
In the eyes of this writer, the 23-year-old out of Westchester High School drew comparisons to another great complimentary player during this postseason – future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.
He’s not in Pippen’s league by any means but as far as his defense, his ability to hit the open three and drive to the rack, fearlessness in the clutch and the fact that Bryant trusts him – he can be that Pippen-type player to his MJ.
The 6-foot-8 swingman should be the team’s first priority this offseason and has done everything to earn that fat contract. Let’s face it, if Luke Walton earned a $30 million deal for six years, Ariza is worth at least $40-50 million.
As for Odom, this was the first season in years that the 10-year vet felt comfortable in the role he played off the bench. True he struggled with bouts of disappearing in games, but in the second half of the season, he also played some of the best ball of his career.
Starting in February, he averaged 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds the rest of the regular season. In these playoffs, he averaged 12.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, including six double-doubles.
If the team had to choose between him and Ariza, there’s no doubt that Ariza should be the No. 1 priority. But if Odom hold to his word that he will take a lesser pay cut to remain, the team should honor that and bring him back.
Andrew Bynum will come back a year older with the hopes of playing a full season and bench players Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown will look for greater roles next year as to ease the burden on Fisher.
But all of those decisions will have to wait as a city finally rejoices another title, another parade and another pair of legends (Bryant and Jackson) adding the most impressive stats to their Hall of Fame resumes.