In another time's forgotten space -- like way back when the current NBA season began -- most everyone expected the Los Angeles Lakers to mow all comers down. With the addition of Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a squad already featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant -- giving L.A. four franchise-level players on the same team -- the Lakers were merely required to show up as they cruised through the interminable season on their way to the predictable conclusion of yet another NBA title.
But things have changed ...
Oh, the season started out well enough, even though the chance at that undefeated season fell by the wayside early. After the Lakers ran out to an 18-3 start, the season that was supposed to be so perfect has turned into an absolute nightmare -- primarily because of injuries to Malone and Bryant, but also because of the circus atmosphere that the Lakers cultivate, to say nothing of Bryant's ongoing legal morass.
Along the way, this newest incarnation of the supposed-to-be "greatest team ever" has lost a lot, including (maybe most importantly) that sense of invincibility that makes their opponents feel as if they have no chance to win. In a perfect world, though, with a complete and healthy roster, you would indeed be foolish to not pick the Lakers as the team to beat in the upcoming playoffs.
But how useful is theory when what you really need is a time machine and the freshness of yesterday's accomplishments. What if the Lakers aren't healthy? Of their four top-tier players, who is most expendable in their pursuit of a championship? Or flip it around: Who can the Lakers least afford to lose?
Before this issue can be addressed, it's important to remember that the hierarchy of a basketball team is like championships, concerts and your children. You can't really rank or rate them.
While some players on a team are ultimately more important than others, who's to say which player's absence will make it all crumble? It's the same quandary that concerned environmentalists face constantly. Why save a gnat-catcher or a spotted owl? Nobody really knows the ultimate building block that holds an entire ecosystem -- or a basketball squad -- together.
Despite this caveat, any conversation about the Lakers' resurrection must always start and end with Shaq. Because without him, the Lakers are not a championship team. L.A. can win the title without any of the other three. It would certainly be harder without one or more of them, but clearly it would be more than possible -- if not likely -- simply because of Shaq.
Shaq is the force, the power and the king -- he changes everything for his team and for every opponent (both on and off the court). There is no one else even remotely like him -- in any way.
While the other three icons are essentially on a lesser but equal plane, Malone appears to be the next most valuable Laker. Payton has been solid all season, and he tends to be taken for granted, but the Lakers have won three titles with Derek Fisher at point guard and they still have him. And while it's true that Kobe has been instrumental to those title teams, L.A.'s entire scheme is unquestionably geared toward Shaq dominating.
The presence of Malone extends Shaq's sphere of influence exponentially. A healthy Malone brings to the Lakers a level of newfound toughness, a fierce physical presence, rebounding and precision passing.
Karl is a lot like Shaq. He is so good that his teammates only have to do their job, as limited as that might be. Side by side with Shaq, who is going to beat them? Plus, Malone won't tolerate any of the silly baggage the other guys bring to the table. He doesn't suffer fools or nonsense well.
The problem for L.A. is that Malone's health is not a given. He's been out since before Christmas with a right knee injury (a torn MCL). He's doing everything he possibly can to rehab the knee, but if that ligament isn't right, it won't make any difference how much iron he can pump or how many hours he can put in on the StairMaster.
Basketball is a rough, running and -- at times -- violent game. To be played well, it requires perfect health. How many players have been able to recover from a torn knee ligament without surgery and many agonizing, frustrating months of rest and rehabilitation? There is no certainty that Malone will be able to return and play to the special level that has made him the second-leading scorer in NBA history.
With all the distractions, self-inflicted wounds and craziness surrounding the Lakers this season, Phil Jackson's considerable coaching skills have been taken to the limit, begging the question: Would any of the Lakers' success in the new millennium have happened without Jackson?
No one knows how far another coach could have taken these Lakers. But we do know what Jackson has done (three titles with the Lakers, six with the Bulls). We also know that before Jackson arrived, Shaq and Kobe had a grand total of zero titles. Jackson inherited virtually the same roster that former coaches Del Harris and Kurt Rambis had. Those Laker squads were only known for their underachieving self-destruction.
But Jackson came in and immediately shaped L.A. into one of the greatest and most popular teams in NBA history. After establishing a solid team base, Jackson then took Shaq and Kobe to unprecedented individual levels, into the realm of being discussed among the shortest list of all-time greats.
This season has been a different story, though, as the Lakers now try to find their way out of the darkness. The messy convergence of injuries, jealousy, selfishness and the law has made the Lakers apparently vulnerable to the point where other teams now seem to have a chance -- or at least they think they do. And that's as good a starting point as there is. In the West, that dream grows more vivid on a daily basis in San Antonio, Sacramento and Minnesota. In the East, hope springs eternal for New Jersey, Indiana and Detroit.