The 1996 Chicago Bulls Vs. The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers: Who Wins a 7 Game Series? By @ProfessorCorria

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What happens when an immovable object clashes with an unstoppable force? When two opposing factions chuck full of immortal combatants square off after they have left a path of decimated antagonists in their wake. On one side you have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen walking into the arena with the heads of conquered feudal kings in their stead. Swaggering in from the opposite direction would be marginally younger monarchs Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal chasing apparitions that exist in the far reaches of every fan’s memory, ghosts that can never be exercised because of the past accomplishments of opponents that can never be vanquished because they only exist in everyone’s mind. The 1996 Chicago Bulls and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were the two most dominant teams of the past 20 years, vastly superior to any other teams because of the combination of talent, coaching, intelligence, leadership, hunger and the competitive blood lust of their best players. It is beyond difficult to determine who would win in a best of 7 series between these two teams. A lot would depend on the home court advantage. Who would come out on top? Would it be the Jordan, the supreme basketball Apex Predator? Or Kobe and Shaq, both of whom possessed competitive mean streaks, when not directed at each other, that would devastate opponents.

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The 1996 Chicago Bulls were the definition of dominance, 72-10 regular season record, which they followed with a 15-3 run in the playoffs. Oh and they just happened to go 69-13 the very next season. The 1996 NBA season should have just been known as “Michael Jordan Revenge Tour” after the Bulls were ushered out of the 1995 playoffs in the 2nd round by the Orlando Magic. But, with the addition of Dennis Rodman, a rebounding machine and defensive stalwart, the Bulls now had a triad of stars with varying skillsets that Phil Jackson could fit a solid group of role players around. Michael Jordan was still awesome, but this wasn’t Michael Jordan at his zenith, but Scottie Pippen had come into his prime when Jordan had his brief retirement, and was truly like water, a formless force that was capable at filling in any holes that the 1996 might have had.

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The 1996 Chicago Bulls averaged 105.2 PPG, while only surrendering 92.9 PPG, frightening. They averaged 115.2 points per 100 possessions and only gave up 101.8 per 100 possessions, both tops in the league, which gives even a better snap shot for how dominant they truly were. Granted, the NBA was slightly watered down and top heavy in terms of the dispersion of talent and total talent in the league in general. In the Playoffs they crushed the Miami Heat 3-0, which featured Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning and not much else. In the Semi-Finals they locked horns with a New York Knicks unit featuring the usual suspects like Ewing, Starks, Oakley, and Anthony Mason. The Knicks, 2 years removed from an NBA Finals appearance, were in decline but still presented a tough physical and mental challenge. However the Bulls dispatched them in 4-1. The Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic were supposed to be a “clash of titans”, a true test of the OG’s versus a group of young challengers. However, in game one a 38 point thrashing of Shaq and Penny made it clear that the Bulls were going to crush the young Magic until they tapped out. They did throw in the towel, suffering a 4 game demolition at the hands of the hungry Bulls, losing each game by an average of 13.4 points. The 1996 NBA Finals versus the Seattle Supersonics were interesting because the Bulls ran out to a 3-0 lead, but then dropped two in a row as the Sonics stormed back, before eventually suffocating them in game 6, 87-75. The Sonics coach George Karl made a serious error in judgment by not letting Gary Payton, the best defensive Point Guard in NBA history, guard Michael Jordan until game 4. Jordan abused Seattle in games 1-3, but Payton chased, harassed and agitated Jordan into 3 subpar games, but by then it was too little, too late. Payton and Seattle’s overall speed bothered Jordan “2.0” a bit, but Pippen’s constant traps and defense coupled with Rodman’s rebounding helped carry the Bulls to a 4-2 series victory.

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The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were a frustrating team during the regular season due to their two stars complete apathy towards one another and the lethargic nature in which the slogged through their 82 games, registering a 56-26 record. The defending champs were sitting at 48-26 before coach Phil Jackson was able to reign in young superstar Kobe Bryant and bring him back on the reservation after a season long feud with Shaq and the coaching staff. They were able to secure the number two seed in the western conference on the last day of the season, riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs, which is when all the fun began. The Lakers were the 23rd ranked team on defense in the NBA during the regular season turned into a defensive killing machine in the playoffs, only surrendering 100 plus points 3 times in 16 playoff games ,frustrating opponents by running them off the 3 point line, funneling them into O’Neal, and using their big perimeter players like Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Kobe Bryant to trap other team’s big men. It was also a huge luxury to have the two best players in the NBA on the same team mixed in with skilled role players such as Robert Horry, Horace Grant, Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw who were just focused on winning and helped assuage the tension between Bryant and O’Neal. Sound familiar?

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The 2001 Lakers opened the NBA Playoffs on a tear and kept on rolling, sweeping the Portland Trailblazer team that took them 7 games in Western Conference Finals the year before, winning by margins of 13, 18 and 13 again. The Blazers were a very solid team that went 50-32 during the regular season, and featured Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire and Steve Smith.  The Lakers then turned their attention to their “pseudo rivals” the Sacramento “Queens”, as Shaq fashioned them, and promptly swept them out of the playoffs. It’s easy to see that the Lakers were in a “zone” because the year before Sacramento pushed them to 5 games in the first round, the maximum amount of games at the time, and then pushed them to 7 games in 2002. The most eye popping thing about the Lakers 2001 playoff run was the absolute destruction of the number 1 seed San Antonio Spurs, spearheaded by a red hot Kobe Bryant. It’s so interesting to watch Kobe dominate Western Conference powers and then to see Shaq destroy whatever JV squad came out of the East. The Lakers crushed the Spurs, including 39 and 29 point slaughters of the spurs in games 3 and 4. The Lakers dropped their only game of the playoffs to Allen Iverson, and the Philadelphia 76ers in game 1 of the NBA Finals, with Iverson dropping 48 points. The Lakers took the next 4 games from the Sixers, including 3 straight in Philly, on their way to their 2nd straight NBA Championship.

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A matchup between the 1996 Chicago Bulls and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers would be a VERY competitive, well played and hotly contested series, but the real question is who would win? I think the Bulls would have their hands full with a “in his prime” Shaq, who was a destructive force, and “afro” Kobe, but I still think that they would find a way to claw their way to a victory. Jordan would struggle a bit with Kobe’s quickness and length, Robert Horry’s constant trapping and Shaq patrolling the middle. The difference for the Bulls would be Scottie Pippen’s defense and ability to play Point-Forward, which in turn would create huge match-up problems for the Lakers. The Lakers could keep throwing the ball to Shaq in the middle until the Bulls cried uncle, but I think all the missed free-throws would sink them in the end. Watching all the games that have been on NBATV the past few months has got me hyped!!! I got the bulls in 7, who do you have?

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Dwight Howard, The Los Angeles Lakers and the 94 Games From Hell by @ProfessorCorria

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“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”- Saint Benard of Clairvaux. An alternative form of the proverb is “hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works”.

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        The 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers season reached critical mass at approximately 1:15 AM, Eastern Standard Time, on April 13th, 2013. That is when the news broke that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had torn his Achilles tendon, and was done for the season. As bad as things had been going for the Lakers all year, if you were a Lakers fan, this was truly the backbreaker. The final nail in the coffin. Like Kano ripping your heart out in Mortal Kombat, this was the final blow, a true fatality. When I was scrolling down my twitter feed and I saw the official statement from the Los Angeles Lakers that “Guard Kobe Bryant has a torn Achilles tendon and is out for the season”, my heart dropped and a cold chill ran down my spine. Even though the Lakers season had failed to deliver on the promise that had been borne during the off-season, the Kobe Bryant injury was a bridge too far. Nothing went according to plan for a myriad of reasons, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Kobe Bryant killed himself to get the star-studded Lakers into the playoffs and in the 80th game of the season, his body finally gave out, succumbing to the physical strain and mental burden that comes with a 34 year old shooting guard in his 17th season, trying to will his grossly underachieving team into the playoffs.

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            Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash. Dwight Howard. Pau Gasol. Wow, that’s a stellar collection of talent, a great haul for Lakers management, but “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Those four superstars are great players for a reason, they’re driven, intelligent, gifted and most importantly perfectionists. Studies show of the effect of intention upon task completion by professors Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran and Sheina Orbell indicate that there is some truth in the proverb. Perfectionists are especially prone to have their intentions backfire in this way. Because, when judging intentions, people are more likely to interpret good intentions as their own actions, rather than they are for those of others.(Justin Kruger) Meaning, no one was willing to sacrifice, especially the two principals, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. When things got tough for the Lakers it seemed that everyone retreated to their own corners and wanted to do what had worked best for them over the course of their careers, instead of coming together as a unit. Howard felt he knew the right path to success, even though he had never won a championship. Bryant felt he knew what it was going to take for the 2013 Lakers to win a title because he had charted the course to a championship 5 times in the past, even though at his advanced age he no longer possessed the ability to be the Alpha-dog on a championship team. Steve Nash seemed lost all year playing next to Kobe, and breaking his leg in the 2nd game of the season didn’t allow him to assimilate to playing with his new team. Pau Gasol, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, was mistreated and disrespected all season long by everyone from pundits, to fans, and all the way down to his head coach Mike D’Antoni. It was as if everyone forgot where the Lakers were as a franchise before Gasol arrived from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008? Or didn’t remember how he dominated Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics in game 7 of the 2010 NBA finals to the tune of 19 points and 18 rebounds. The Lakers were a collection of talent, never a team.

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It never felt right. Dwight Howard never really wanted to be a Laker and Kobe Bryant never really wanted him there. Then there was the 0-8 pre-season, followed by an opening night loss to an undermanned Dallas Mavericks skeleton crew that raised a lot of red flags. Then there was the Princeton offense, which was accompanied by a 1-4 start, which led to the “death stare”, which in turn led to coach Mike Brown receiving the pink slip. There was the flirtation with Phil Jackson, the 11-time world champion coach, which somehow led to Jim Buss hiring Mike D’Antoni? Because anytime you can hire a coach that flamed out with Knicks instead of the coach that brought your organization 5 championships you have to pull the trigger right? Then there was rock bottom, or so we thought, at 17 and 25. There was Kobe the facilitator, that didn’t last long. Then there was Dwight’s constant bellyaching about his surgically repaired back and then he tore his Labrum. Then there was progress, then Gasol got hurt, so did Steve Blake, which meant that Chris Duhon was playing actual NBA minutes instead of in the 30 and over Rec. League he belonged in. There was “offensive genius” Mike D’Antoni playing his 34 year old shooting guard 48 minutes a game, which led to some offensive explosions, before Kobe’s Achilles eventually exploded. Then there was nothing. Oh wait there was something else. The “future of the franchise” getting ejected in the 3rd quarter of Game 4 of a 1st round series that the Lakers were getting obliterated in. What a sendoff. With Kobe on crutches, Nash in a suit, Gasol hobbled, Dwight Howard showed his true colors by getting thrown out of a game where he was his team’s only hope of being somewhat competitive. The biggest, strongest, and most talented player on the court showed the greatest amount of cowardice. “Everything you need to know about someone’s mental toughness comes out when the pressure is on, there’s nowhere else to turn and the focus is solely on them.”- Tim Grover

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Where do the Lakers go from here? Resign Dwight to a $117 million dollar contract? Let him walk in free agency to Houston or Dallas? Trade Gasol and his bloated $19 million dollar and expiring contract for younger pieces? Amnesty the ball stopping and aging Metta World Peace? Fire Coach Mike D’Antoni and bring back Uncle Phil? Amnesty the great Kobe Bryant and his $30 million dollar salary, which would save the team $85 million dollars once the luxury and repeater taxes are factored in? These questions hang over this proud franchise like an anvil. History shows that the Los Angeles Lakers will bounce back and relatively quickly. The Lakers have always had and attracted top talent. From Mikan, Baylor, West, Wilt, Goodrich, Wilkes, Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Shaq and Kobe the history is there. The only question that looms for the Lakers is who’s next?

Kyrie Irving’s Got Next

Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. Outside of being first ballot Hall of Famers, what do these men have in common? They make up an elite group of ballers that were selected to their first All-Star game prior to turning 21. A group, that on Thursday grew by one. Kyrie Irving, the 2nd year point guard of the Cleveland Cavaliers was selected to the 2013 NBA All-Star game, joining one of the most prestigious groups in NBA history. Irving has taken the NBA by storm the past year and a half, racking up accolades at a record pace, and he’s put the NBA on notice that he’s got next.

Now I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “wise beyond his years”, Kyrie Irving is accomplished beyond his years. This young man has won an 18 and under FIBA gold medal, became a McDonald’s All-American, USA Today All-American, ranked as the #1 PG in the country, signed with Duke University, became the #1 overall pick, won the MVP award at the Rising Stars Challenge, was selected to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, was crowned the NBA Rookie of the Year, and now, 2013 NBA All-Star. As previously stated, Irving is still two months away from turning 21. Yes, one of the leagues best point guards, still needs the help of a teammate to buy a drink on road trips.

I’ve followed Irving since his junior year at St. Patrick’s high school in New Jersey (pretty much the time he became a possibility to sign with Duke) At that point Irving was a solid PG, with very good upside at the next level, and possibly beyond. Irving dominated his senior year at St. Pat’s, including dropping 30 on current Spurs reserve PG Corey Joesph in a nationally televised game. Eventually becoming the nation’s top PG prior to heading off to Durham. Irving arrived at Duke with a big reputation, and even bigger expectations. Coach K even let the heralded guard wear #1, something that had never been done at Duke, even after former Duke great point guard Jason “Jay” Williams requested the number many years prior. Irving was handed the keys to the Duke squad, averaging 17.4 ppg on 53.2% shooting from the field, 5.1 apg, 3.8 rpg, and 1.5 spg through the team’s first 8 games, well on his way towards becoming the NCAA’s Freshman of the Year. Irving then suffered ligament damage in his right big toe, and was out until the NCAA tournament. He scored 28 in a sweet sixteen loss to Arizona and his short lived career at Duke had come to an abrupt end.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were still reeling from the departure of King James, decided to make Irving the new face of the franchise, taking him with the #1 overall pick. The 19 year old, who had only played a handful of games at the collegiate level was now in charge of filling the void of the leagues best player, and the city’s first son. Kyrie didn’t bat an eyelash and hit the ground running. He had ten 20+ point games in his first twenty three, with his breakout game coming against the Nets where he scored 32, with 21 of those coming in the 4th quarter. Irving finished the lockout shortened season averaging 18.5 ppg 5.4 apg and 3.4 rpg, shooting 47% from the field and 40% from long range. Irving nearly had a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio and shot 88% from the charity stripe.

In the summer of 2012, coming off of a stellar rookie season Irving was invited to Vegas to try out for the U.S. National Team as the 2012 Olympic Games approached. While Irving was a long-shot to make the squad, he elected to tryout for the U.S., instead of leading the Australian national team (Irving has dual citizenship). He dazzled coaches with his play on the court, often getting the best of former Olympians, and NBA vets. This was truly Irving’s coming out party, but a broken hand ended any chance he had at making the team. I expect that will not be the case in 2016.

Kyrie picked up where he left off at the end of his rookie campaign, scoring 29 points, grabbing 6 boards and dishing out 3 assists against the Wizards in this year’s opener. He injured his left index finger against the Mavs November 17th, and returned 12 games later against the Lakers, dropping 28 points, 11 dimes, and 6 rebounds in a rare Cavs victory.  Just 3 days later he suffered a fractured jaw in the 1st quarter in a game against Milwaukee, Irving finished the game, scoring 26. The very next day he took to the Madison Square Garden court with his Zoro like protective mask, and dropped 41 in a loss to the Knicks, a season and career high. Last Tuesday, Irving and his Cavs took on the man voted by the fans as the starting point guard for the east in next month’s All-Star Game, Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics. Irving scored 40, and quite frankly had Rondo on skates all night, in the Cavs 95-90 victory. Two days later Irving was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. (Unfortunately, Rondo just suffered an ACL tear, and is out indefinitely. I wish him a speedy recovery.) Irving will likely now start at point guard for the east. Funny thing is, I initially finished writing this story this past Friday afternoon. Friday evening Kyrie scored 35 in a win against the Bucks, and followed that up with 32 and a game winning 3 with 0.7 seconds remaining on the clock, Saturday in Toronto. Irving has now recorded seven 30+ point games in the month of January. In his first 34 games this season, Irving is averaging 24.0 ppg 5.7 apg 3.6 rpg and 1.8 spg. He is shooting 47% from the field and 40% from 3 point range, with a slightly below 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.

Irving leads all NBA PG’s in scoring, he is 10th in field goal percentage, and 10th in 3 point field goal percentage. Since Irving isn’t on pace to play 70 games this season, he doesn’t qualify to be ranked in other major statistical categories pertaining to point guards, but here is where he would rank for the purpose of this piece. 23rd in apg, 12th in rpg, 10th in steals, 45th in assist to turnover ratio, 19th in free throw percentage, and 9th in minutes per game. As you can see he’s near the top in every scoring category, and a little behind in others that point guards need to excel in.

Irving averages nearly 24 points a game not because he wants to, but because he has to. Dion Waiters, the Cavs second leading scorer averages 14 a game, ten points less than Irving. Kyrie is the only Cav that can consistently win one on one match-ups and create his own shot. Whether it’s getting to the lane, and the line or pulling up for a mid range jumper, Irving can score at will. He has always been the type of player to crash the defensive boards and get out on the break leading to easy baskets for himself or a teammate. This coupled with his ability to break down a defender on an iso and get to the bucket have made the game come easy for Kyrie. He’s made tremendous strides with his medium and long range game in the past few years. The one time streaky shooter is now in the top ten percentage wise amongst point guards, and that average has been steady dating back to last season.

Kyrie is at his best when he is able to create on the fly, specifically for his teammates. He has great vision, whether is on a break or in a half court set. He is often able to see one or two moves ahead of the defense, but the lack of skill amongst his teammates doesn’t allow many of his reads to come to fruition. Irving has tremendous footwork, and often can split two defenders on a screen with ease. It’s pick your poison for opposing guards, go above the screen and the big is at Irving’s mercy, go under and he can pull up for the jumper. He also has a knack for attacking bigger defenders in the lane, either using a spin move or hesitations to get to the hoop. There isn’t many holes in this young man’s game and the scary thing is he continues to get better and better on a nightly basis.

It seems as if the few holes in Irving’s game are dictated by his durability. He’s had numerous injuries dating back to his freshman season at Duke that have sidelined him for a substantial amount of time. After bouncing back from a major toe injury nicely, he broke a hand, and then a finger, and most recently his jaw. While these injuries haven’t seemed to slow him down on the court you have to wonder, is it bad luck? Or is he indeed injury prone? If these injuries linger, and continue it could unfortunately end an illustrious career before it even begins.

When I think about Irving’s future, I wonder where it will take him. Not on the court but in geographic terms. His rookie deal will be up before you know it and I’d expect Cleveland to offer him the farm, but would that even have him stick around? The Cavs are 11-32 and are nowhere near playoff contenders. They have a very young, and promising nucleus led by Irving, power forwards Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller, and lottery pick SG Dion Waiters. This team could gel nicely and contend, I’m not sure of it, but one thing I do know is that Irving is a lifelong winner and he’ll surely go where he can compete for a ring, or two. Maybe that’s in Cleveland, possibly with LeBron back home in a couple years (boy would that be fun), maybe as a Laker (they’ll need a PG soon), possibly as a Knick (he loves the bright lights), only time will tell, and we’ll all surely be watching.

The NBA is a guard driven league, and the crop is plentiful. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, these guys are considered elite and any given night can be the NBA’s best point guard. While it may be premature to add Irving to that group, his play suggests that he’s not far away, and the gap is closing rapidly. In my eyes, Kyrie is on the cusp of being amongst the elite point guards in the NBA. He may not have the resume to be in the same sentence as them quite yet, but with his feel for the game, athleticism, scoring prowess, creativity, decision making and work ethic he will soon be mentioned in the same breath as the leagues best. His charisma and personalty can’t hurt either. His Pepsi commercials, where he plays seasoned street baller “Uncle Drew” are a major hit and were a huge boost to his off the court marketability. Irving has took the league by storm in just over a full season’s worth of games with his silky smooth play, and boyish charm. He stepped into a situation that not many 19 year old young men would’ve been able to handle. Not only has he flourished, but he’s put a franchise on his back, and we’ve yet to see him flinch. Kyrie Irving looks destined to be the NBA’s next big thing.