Before LeBron James, there were two heirs to the throne of Michael Jordan, two whose time seems about to go, two responsible for the evolution of the NBA and hoop itself. These two former Air Apparents happen to be the only hopes the Lakers and Timberwolves have in their NBA Western Conference semifinals. Both their teams have been thrown under the train.
For the Lakers, their hope is just to make their series competitive, run it out to seven, see if anything Spur sputters or smokes, desperately searching for a matchup or combo the Spurs can't counter. A long shot, but it's better than no shot at all.
The T'wolves have basically been written off for dead. They did well to finally win a playoff series. They should be satisfied.
Standing at this crossroads are Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.
Kobe Bryant is The Bad Jordan.
Kevin Garnett is The Good Jordan.
The real Game is on now. Let's see what they've got.
Good, bad or indifferent (which also happens to be the way a third of the league, respectively, approaches the game), unless those two players become more completely Jordanesque, and then go beyond their teasing and complete their trip to the Next Level, to the next stage in the evolution of Hoop, then their teams have no chance (and neither do we) of seeing someone truly special, a fitting heir to Jordan, until King James gets a few more hairs on his chest.
Kobe Bryant is the Bad Jordan, Jordan without the college training at North Carolina, Jordan without a Conscience, or a Concept, an embittered and confused Luke Skywalker playing interstellar Jedi pilot without the instruction of an Obi-wan Kenobe or Yoda. It's as if Kobe is an Alternate Universe Luke Skywalker, who, after his guardians were killed by Imperial Storm Troopers, was then raised instead by Jabba the Hutt or Boba Fett. He's about to go on trial for rape even as we speak, as close to becoming Kobe "Bad News" Bryant as to becoming Kobe "Next Jordan" Bryant.
Kobe is possibly the most incredible offensive soloist we've ever seen, but there is no real context, let alone team concept, in which his skills are firmly set. It's fine when the Lakers can overwhelm the bottom half of the league with sheer firepower. Yes, he can hit stupid sick 3-pointers at the end of games against the limited teams which don't how to double him at just the right moment, coming off just the proper offensive non-option to do so, at just the right angle. Kobe can even claim early or limited playoff victims, as he did the Rockets. But sooner or later you are going to run up against defenses with enough personnel and tactics.
The beauty of the playoffs are the game-to-game adjustments and the simplicity of the game at this level. A good team knows to double the incredible offensive soloist; if that soloist doesn't know how to play, how to beat the disguised rotation and start a swing ending with the last man down getting the basket, then it can get ugly, as the Lakers' fourth quarters have looked -- not just against the Spurs, but also the Rockets. Without team consciousness, Kobe Bryant is the Bad Jordan, the imperious Jordan, that overly arrogant and dismissive part of the original that allowed him not to think but to know he not only could but would hit the winning shot if that was the play.
But you have to keep the game in order for the last shot to mean anything. The good part about Jordan, arrogant as he was; he understood that. He had been made to understand it by Dean Smith, by the Boston Celtics (he once dropped 63 on the C's in a playoff game -- and lost), and by the Detroit Pistons, who showed him in that end that Hoop is no one-man game, no matter how highly skilled and so-called "great" that one man is. Part of his greatness, the essence of it, was lifting all ships in his armada.
It's no news that the Lakers have two chances left, Slim and None, and Slim just left Deadwood. Dogman noted last month they were the most overrated team not just in the NBA but maybe in history.
People are forever complaining about Dogman, but nobody knows the league and the essentials of the playoff run better. He feels what's out there, and I for one admire how instinctive and intuitive he is about it, how impressively and deceptively intricate his hoop thought processes are, where they take me. That's one reason I roll with the Dogman, in spite of his occasional lack of coherence, and why at times I let him compose sections of this column, especially when the subject is hoop. It's worth it, because sometimes he gets us to the essence, into the very Eye of the game. The other reason I roll with him is it can get kinda dicey in sections of New York, in Brooklyn, Hell's Kitchen, in the Boogie-Down Bronx, and nobody I know, especially none of the people who lift their noses and sniff up air about Dogman's vernacular, could ever beat him in a fight.
So. Here. I'll let him tell you.
* * * * *
"The Lakers got no way, really," Dogman says. "One chance in five. When I tell you what the one chance is, you won't much like it, Dub-ini. But see, like ain't got nothing to do with it. What I'm about to tell you is their only way. At least there is a way.
"When people start talking about having four Hall of Famers on one team, like my boy Stephen A's been doing all year long, you gotta stop and tell 'em to look at a calendar first. It's when you have four Hall of Famers that matters. Hell man, you can put Oscar and Russell and Frazier and Bird out there with LeBron James, but it won't hardly do you no good now,'cause Oscar and Russell and Frazier and Bird are a combined 300 years old. Yeah, sure, it's Karl Malone, but that ain't Mailman. That's Gary Payton, but that ain't The Glove. That's The Hand Warmer.
"What the Lakers have to do, since Kobe be so Bad, be believing he can bust anybody's ass at any time, is make it Bustin' Time in the key of D. Dr. Phil Jackson has to bite down on the bullet and put Kobe on Parker. I know, Parker's too quick for him, blah-blah-blah, but think about it -- who's Kobe guarding right now? Bruce Bowen? A total waste of personnel. Kobe Bryant can be first-team All-Defense when he wants to play that way.
"But Kobe is the Bad Jordan in part because he don't play until he feels like the team is pressed, until he feels like the team is at the edge of the abyss and only he, Kobe, the Next Jordan in his mind, the Bad Jordan in reality, can bring 'em back; or unless it's his birthday or something, or unless somebody like T-Mac busts him on national TV and he feels like he has to get some get-back. But he can't get so superior about it. He can't, and you can't in judging him. It's no different than if you and some of your boys were up at the Y and holding down the court against inferior opposition, in your case against the guys in the wheelchairs, and they pop a few wheelies and take a little lead, and you yawn, and they score a few more buckets, then you look at each other and say, "You ready to play?" Some of it's human nature, but some of it's Bad Jordan.
"We can see GP's got no chance defensively against Parker. Don't say Fisher, don't even let that come out of your mouth; Fish on Parker would be even worse. What the Lakers should do is burn Parker's wick a little by running more stuff through GP on offense, posting him up. Means Kobe must give up some looks, concentrate on holding down Parker on D. That puts GP on Bowen or Manu, and you might be surprised how well he could do there. The Spurs would find Manu then, but even so, Manu's better facing, beating guys off the bounce, not posting up. Ginobili is not really a post-up guy, so he can't take GP down there and do any real business.
"The way they've matched it up right now, the Lakers have no answer for Parker and Duncan. The beauty of the high screen-and-roll is that you have to have a couple of defensive answers for it, one being two guys defending it who can switch and cover and make it stick -- basically mini-zone the high screen-and-roll, "sandwich" it, take whoever comes to their side.
"Now Kobe took it on himself in the Houston series to clamp down on Stevie Fast Food Franchise in the last few possessions of that big Game 4 in Houston, when the Lakers pulled out a win on the road because Kobe went out there and picked Stevie's dribble and then coasted it and dunked on the other end. Gotta get some cheapies like that against the Spurs, too. The Lakers have only that chance -- Kobe has to take it upon himself to clamp Parker. If he's so Bad, then it's no problem. Sometimes the challenge of the game doesn't come on offense. Sometimes it comes on defense. The great all-around player understands this on instinct, without being told.
"The Lakers have only got one wagon to circle. Look down that bench. Kareem Rush? Don't know what planet he's on this deep in the playoffs, just knows he can't breathe, air up there's too thin.
"Luke Walton? Too inexperienced. No shot to speak of.
"Brian Cook. Please.
"Horace Grant? GP & Mailman? See "Mesozoic Age."
"Fisher? Please. A sidekick in search of a photo op. Never get over him and those tears after the Spurs ran the Lakers out of last year's playoffs. They were either fake or totally misplaced. You -- well, not you, but your team, including Shaq and Kobe -- just won three straight, and you cry because you lost a fourth? Get da flock out. Fisher you can keep. Devean George? Should play better than he does. Got him a contract and seemed to have stopped growing.
"Shaq's still the Bully Boy of the Low Block, but Nesterovic and Tim, who Be Dunkin' and Hookin' and Boardin' and Pickin' and Rockin' and Rollin', they don't seem to care one way or another. Manu's gonna get his. Sweet. Bowen's a nice guy and a cheap shot artist; no, really, he is, but if that takes you out of your game, fine, you need a guy to do the little things, to make what Dub's boy Simmons the Sports Guy calls them "Najera Plays." Bowen makes more like Bow-Ups -- sliding under guys in the air on their J, like he did to Vinsanity, who came down on his foot, jimmied an ankle, or slamming Finley to keep him from going downcourt on a break. Bowen's the kind you hate -- unless he plays on your team. Parker is me-meep! ... gone. Like a shot. Even Big Shot Rob's around just to pick up here and there as ever. This guy -- how many rings does he have, five? How many months of the year does he play? Two?
"Must be nice.
"Comes down to Kobe, solitary figure, save us, Kobe Bryant, Mr. Chain-Blue Lightning himself, the way he's supposed to like it.
"Well, let's see it now, Mr. Bad Jordan. Michael Jordan, with his perfect prehen-sile size, could guard anybody on the floor when it came down to it. Could switch off his and get on top of anybody's shot, and I mean anybody from Mark Price to Patrick Ewing;
"I once saw the Phoenix Suns and Sir Charles miss out on playing a seventh game of the NBA Finals because Thunder Dan double-clutched on a simple baseline J, because instead of looking at it, looking at the rim, he was looking out the corner of his eye for the shadow of the ultimate bird of prey, MJ. Majerle was looking around wondering, 'Where he at?' Well, maybe that's more like what I would've been wondering; maybe Thunder Dan was wondering more like, 'Where is he?' You get my drift.
"So it's simple; if Phil Jackson don't put Kobe Bryant on Parker school's out -- you can't really double Parker, he'd just cut you to ribbons with his speed and passing, you have to keep the defensive integrity and guard him with a man, one man, and the only man on the Laker roster prehen-sile enough, and talented enough, to do that is Kobe. The Bad Jordan. The Loner. The Impenetrable One.
"Well, he better be impen-e-trable, or else ..."
* * * * *
Curtains. Dogman slowly drew his index finger across his throat. Not the old quick throat slash move that Paul Tagliabue loves to fine guys over, but a slow imaginary cut, like he was enjoying it. There's an O.J. line in there somewhere, but I'm not touching it.
"So what about Garnett?" I asked. "You always tell me that Garnett's the best player in the league. He's voted the MVP. So how is it, Dog, on the same day he's awarded the trophy, he lets the Sacto Kings come into Target Center and steal Game 1?"
"Because," said Dogman. "He's the Good Jordan."
"Spread out and gimme room, and I will."
* * * * *
"Now, it's true the T'wolves had the best record in the West, and the West was still the best. At first it seemed like my man Stephen A was all over it when he called out Michael Olowokandi-puke. Kandi-puke is a fraud. You can tell by the way he keeps himself. I mean, some guys wear their hair different and in wild ways, but you can tell that Kandi just don't care. He just crawls out of bed. Man, put a comb in that s*** or something. This to me smacks of some lack of personal discipline. Guess McHale couldn't afford to overpay Nesterovic, but he could afford to overpay Kandi-puke.
"Maybe they had their eyes on Juwan Howard, like they say, and if Juwan had been smarter, he'd have gone there. Stephen A put it all on Nestromo for the Spurs; for the Wolves he put it all on Kandi-puke. There's a rhythm to this logic, too. Normally, I love Stephen A. He played for Bighouse down at Winston-Salem State. That's referral enough for me. Now, if you say, 'He played for who?' my question to you is, why read this? This is for the baptized.
"Anyway, the key to the Wolves' doing what they're supposed to do, which is beating the Kings in seven games, is KG, not Kan-dee. Yeah, I know, Spree hit only 2 for 13 in first game and Kandi-puke was worse than garbage, he was unproductive garbage. But that's cancelled out by Sam I Am dropping 40 and by Hassell neutralizing Peja. If those last two things happen, and Garnett is Full Jordan instead of Half-Jordan, lights out. But just like Kobe is a Half-Jordan, the Bad half, and that's not quite enough, Garnett is also a Half-Jordan, the Good half. That ain't the answer either.
"In many ways Garnett makes you want to get out the cookie cutter. He's the Good Jordan. He knows the game is about the team over the self. When people say the young players have no sense of history, then he makes it a point to talk about Spencer Haywood in his MVP press conference. When people start to grumble, whinny and whine about high schoolers being drafted into the league and never spending any time in a minor league, collegiate or not, and never really learning how to play the game beyond a SportsCenter highlight reel, Garnett tries to be like the voice of calm reason.
"That's a problem? KG is good. He's too good.
"Big Ticket's got to get mad. He's got to go straight Howard Beale and Great Ahmed Khan from "Network." He's got to get mad and convince his teammates to follow him over that hill, follow him to their windows and throw them open and say, 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!' KG is Next Level, the next level of ball after Jordan, only he's too good, too nice, too sweet. He's Jordan after a Valium, Jordan on Prozac, a kinder, gentler Jordan, which plays well in the lobby; so does Mag Dog Madsen, for that matter, and even he's got more of an edge than KG.
"There is no way in the eight walls of hell the Kings have an answer for KG. Flopmeister Vlade? Please. Brad Miller? Can do some things, but one of them isn't keeping KG from shooting over the top of him. Chris Webber is half-dragging a leg, and if you turn up the heat on him he looks for an escape hatch anyway. By sheer force of will and talent KG can force the Kings' defense to congeal around him, and double him, and then he should be able to pick them apart with passes to open T'wolves. If they don't hit these open shots, KG should scream at them and then look daggers at Flip Saunders and his old college teammate Kevin McHale until they get somebody in there who can hit those open shots.
"KG has to add some Bad to his Good to go Next Level.
"In a way, he has to stop caring.
"In a way, he has to turn off the spigot to his big heart.
"Only then can KG strike fear as well as admiration in the domes of the opponent. He has to get in their heads, mess with minds, have 'em looking for him even when he's not there. Make 'em, how you say, in the words of Tony Montana, 'paranoy.'
"KG should dominate from the tap. Yeah, we all know Mike Bibby is nice as far as it goes. Bibby is also barely six foot. Unlike Tony Parker, he ain't got Duncan behind him. What is Sam I Am, cake? It's proven, put Dream behind Sam I Am, you're talking two NBA titles. Sam I Am can tell KG, 'I'm the eggs, but you're the ham; together they won't like us,' says Sam I Am. The Wolves should serve up KG like hot and cold running water, outside facing, inside posting up; flashing high for a J, rolling off a screen or a fronting defender for a lob. It ain't like Sam I Am won't have it there.
"I don't wanna hear 'bout no Wally World being out, or 'bout no poor Troy Hudson. KG, Sam I Am, and four guys from the PAL should crown the Kings. KG's Next Level and it's about time he acted like it, got some curl in his lip, some sneer in his stride, some steam coming out of his ears, adjustment in his attitude, some cold, methodical killer instinct that up until now he's been lacking, I don't care how many times he gets into somebody's face and starts jaw-jacking. When that fraud from the Nuggets started talking about how KG was feeling up his gens, KG should've dropped fifty with no negotiation. Period, end of story.
"He should've found Nugget Homey before the tap and said, 'Unless you suddenly become a different species, I'm about to drop fifty on your lame ignorant ass and everybody you brought with you and the horse you rode in on. Oh, that's not a horse, that's your mama? Excuuuuuuse me. These first two are for her.' That's not my monologue. That's some Larry Bird, slightly paraphrased.
"Bird told a hapless Sixer something like that once. Bob Ryan would remember who. I forget -- like I'd forget the Kings if KG had more 'tude going, like Larry Bird, like Big O, like Spencer Haywood. I knew Spence's game. He wasn't just some noble and lovable plaintiff scratching himself and looking hangdog for a jury, like Jayson Williams trying to beat a manslaughter beef. Spence didn't care what people thought of him. He just ... played on. Only 6-8, he snatched the Olympic gold for U.S. in 1968 damn near by himself. Definitely by himself on the boards. Spence had a bunch of edges to him all right. Which also got him with Iman. Word.
"So don't sleep on Spence, not just as free agent, but as baller.
"KG is aware of Spence but he's sleeping on himself.
"If only he wasn't The Good Jordan.
"But there's still time, Dub-zilla ..."
* * * * *
You may want to argue with Dogman about some of this.
Myself, personally, I didn't. Too busy taking notes.
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.