Beat L.a.

Challengers fortify themselves with the Lakers in mind, but keeping Shaq, Kobe & Co. from their fourth straight title looks like a long shot -- beyond the three-point line.

Nba Preview

October 29, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

In the mid-1980s, when Boston and Detroit crowds used to send their heroes off to battle in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, their chants of "Beat L.A." took on the nature of a declarative sentence, because the Celtics and Pistons could, in fact, beat the Lakers.

Nowadays, from points East and West, when the same cheer goes up in NBA arenas, it's much more a desperate plea.

That's because the Lakers, with three straight titles in the hopper and a fourth seemingly on the way, have reduced the rest of the league to playing catch-up.

"What teams do is that you set your team up not to go out and try to win games or win a playoff series, but you figure out what you are going to have to do to beat the Lakers," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said.

"Because, ultimately, when you start the season, the goal is to win the championship if you're a playoff-type team. You prepare to play against them knowing that if you are in the playoffs, you're going to have to play them early, middle or late. And in order to win, you're going to have to beat them."

That has been far easier said than done, particularly in the Finals, where the Lakers have progressively been more dominant, defeating Indiana in the 1999-2000 season in six games, then Philadelphia the next year in five, before sweeping New Jersey last June in four.

And though Portland and Sacramento have each extended Los Angeles to seven games in Western Conference finals, the Lakers have largely made it through their title runs unscathed.

So, as a new NBA season dawns tonight, the talk around the league centers on what teams have done during their summer vacation to their rosters toward a goal of beating L.A.

The Lakers, not surprisingly, tinkered little with the formula that has put them on the verge of becoming the first team to win four straight titles since the Celtics dynasty of the '50s and '60s reeled off eight championships in a row.

That formula is: Surround all-world center Shaquille O'Neal and shooting guard Kobe Bryant with a cast of complementary players who fill their limited roles when called upon.

"We're a team that stayed pretty pat with the unit that we played with last year," said Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson. "Obviously, we tried to improve ourselves in an area where we could make ourselves more responsible with our salary cap and also to help our situation."

Meanwhile, each of the Lakers' chief competitors, from East to West, has made at least one significant roster move in the offseason to attempt a real run at Los Angeles.

"I don't think you can pinpoint the Lakers. That's six months away," said Sacramento coach Rick Adelman, whose Kings suffered a heartbreaking Game 7 loss at Arco Arena to the Lakers in June. "There are going to be teams in our conference that are going to have a lot to say about that. They've all improved. We definitely think we're going to have to improve if we're going to beat the Lakers and the other teams in our conference."

In the West, where the Lakers are supposed to receive their most stern challenge, the last three teams left standing in the conference playoffs - Sacramento, Dallas and San Antonio - all made changes.

The Kings added former Toronto forward Keon Clark, a scrawny, but fast 6-foot-11 player with a lot of energy who, theoretically, will back up Chris Webber up front.

The Spurs, who lost to the Lakers in the Western semifinals, picked up depth up front and in the backcourt to make a final run before center David Robinson retires after the season. And the Mavericks, who already had the most potent offense, added former Maryland star Walt Williams and former Wizards forward Popeye Jones for bench strength.

In the East, New Jersey, Detroit and Boston, the three surprise teams that topped the conference last season, shook up their lineups, with something of an eye toward a meeting with the Lakers in June.

The Nets traded forward Keith Van Horn and center Todd MacCulloch to Philadelphia for Dikembe Mutombo, one of the few centers to have some limited success guarding O'Neal.

The Pistons dealt guard Jerry Stackhouse to Washington for a package of players, headed by guard Richard Hamilton, and the Celtics moved center Vitaly Potapenko and guard Kenny Anderson to Seattle for forward Vin Baker and guard Shammond Williams.

The moves are all well and good, but the consensus around the league is so long as O'Neal and Bryant are reasonably functioning come Finals time, the crowds in Boston, Detroit and Sacramento - or Timbuktu, for that matter - can yell "Beat L.A." all they want. It won't matter.

"As of right now, as long as Shaq is healthy, I really can't see anybody challenging them," said Paul Silas, coach of the newly transplanted New Orleans Hornets. "They'll just find a way to beat you. Kobe, of course, is the second part of that. Barring injuries, I really can't see anybody dethroning them to get to the championship."

Nets

Acquired center Dikembe Mutombo from the Sixers to guard Shaq.

Kings

Added former Toronto forward Keon Clark to back up Chris Webber.

Spurs

Picked up depth up front and in the backcourt for one more title run before David Robinson retires after this season.

Celtics

Acquired forward Vin Baker and guard Shammond Williams from Seattle.

Mavs

Added former Maryland star Walt Williams and former Wizards forward Popeye Jones for bench strength.

Pistons

Acquired guard Richard Hamilton from the Wizards.

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