If you watch a lot of basketball on television, you get a wildly exaggerated view of a coach’s influence over the game. It’s my theory that the TV networks have magnified the coach’s role in order to sell a black sport to a largely white mass market: Create the illusion that the overwrought white guys wearing the neckties are the ones who push all the buttons and pull all the strings. Coaches even make the highlight reels, gesticulating madly on the sidelines, pedantically scrawling the X’s and O’s during timeouts, conveying extreme anguish at all the critical moments.
However, if there was one thing we learned from last year’s playoffs—including the thoroughly dispiriting spectacle of “Hack-a-Shaq”—it is that no coach stops Shaquille O’Neal. To beat the Lakers, you need bodies—three kinds: a really wide one, a really tall one, and a really quick one.
Here’s a way to conceivably pull it off. You put your strongest guy, not necessarily your tallest, on Shaq to push him and shove him and bait him and body-slam him as far away from the paint as possible. Then you take your tallest guy and position him somewhere in the greater O’Neal metropolitan area, ready to swoop in and block a shot or otherwise obstruct Shaq’s path to the basket. If that means leaving Horace Grant wide open for 10-footers, you’ll survive. But with two guys minding Shaq, you won’t be able to spare another defender to double Kobe Bryant—you can’t leave everybody open. So you need your quick guy to stick Kobe one-on-one.
What teams have three players who can really accomplish all this? None. But naturally some clubs stack up better than others, and in a sense, this is the only benchmark that matters. You want to win the championship; you need to be able to beat Shaq. That means you can essentially eliminate a number of pretty good teams from contention—the Knicks, for example. I take the minority view that they might actually do well in the regular season, especially if Van Gundy has the guts to keep Larry Johnson on the bench for extended periods of time. The Knicks have better shooters than almost anyone. But they have absolutely no anti-Shaq capabilities—little muscle, not much height, and quick guys who aren’t quick enough. So write them off, as well as the free-agent-infused Magic, who also have nothing to counter Shaq. The supremely skinny Pacers are toast; ditto the Milwaukee Bucks, who, should you need further proof, start Sam Cassell at the point.
In their place, here are the top 10 teams closest to matching up with Shaq and thereby to winning an NBA championship. The Eastern Conference teams have the advantage of not meeting the Lakers until the finals; they have the disadvantage of not being nearly as good as the teams in the West. If anyone gets past Shaq—even if it’s in the Western Conference playoffs—they’ll win.
10. Utah: This is one tired old club, but they have veteran talents and just enough muscle in the middle to keep it interesting against the Lakers, although not very interesting.
9. Charlotte: A team with plenty of well-traveled head cases, serial underachievers, and unproven kids, but also a ton of size and quickness. A credible, albeit minor, threat to Shaq. They could surprise. Or self-destruct—you never know.
8. Philadelphia: Theo Ratliff is one of the great unsung defenders in the game, and Tyrone Hill has always played mean. Allen Iverson is one of five guys in the league who can win a game all by himself. Too bad two of the others play for the Lakers.
7. Toronto: Charles Oakley, Corliss Williamson, and Antonio Davis give them a surplus of bulk. Vince Carter scores the points these guys can’t. Problem is, no shot-blockers, and outside of Vince, they’ll get lapped up and down the court by teams that can run.
6. Sacramento: They gave the Lakers a jolt in the playoffs, but with Divac in the middle, they’re soft as pudding. Chris Webber is a great scorer and rebounder but plays much weaker than he looks (and talks). Backup center Scott Pollard covered Shaq in an admirable, charge-up-the-beach-against-the machine-guns kind of way, which was entertaining while it lasted.
5. Seattle: Freshly acquired Patrick Ewing may still be one of the top five centers in the NBA, as the Sonics’ GM keeps repeating like a condemned man desperate to show his faith, but he is useless defensively against Shaq. His knees are shot, and his footwork has always been crap. But Rashard Lewis and Ruben Patterson are young, energetic front-courters, and Gary Payton can smother Kobe if he puts his mind to it.
4. Phoenix: Who knows, maybe 7-foot-2-inch import Iakovos Tsakilidis emerges as a dominator? If so, he’ll be the first European big man to play up to his size. If not, there’s Chris Dudley, who they say plays good post-up defense, but that’s only relative to the rest of his skills, which are nonexistent. Except for rebounding, the rest of the team is excellent. Kidd and Anfernee Hardaway might just be able to make the game too fast for Shaq.
3. Miami: If Alonzo Mourning were healthy, this team would have the goods to beat the Lakers. Pat Riley clearly had Shaq in mind when he acquired Anthony Mason, who, in addition to being a hoodlum, is the greatest low-post brutalizer in the game. Nevermind that he gives up nearly a foot to Shaq, it’s an almost even-money matchup (provided there’s someone to help double, of course). Brian Grant is another bruiser, and Eddie Jones is the best one-on-one cover guy in the league. If Tim Hardaway’s knees hold up, this is still the best team coming out of the East.
2. Portland: A genius move acquiring muscle-bound good citizen Dale Davis from the Pacers for string-beany malcontent Jermaine O’Neal. If Rasheed Wallace can channel his court rage into defense, their interior looks solid. Scottie Pippen could possibly have enough left in the tank to stay with Kobe, but he and Steve Smith make the Blazers awfully creaky at the wings. That’s their big problem.
1. San Antonio: The Lakers’ toughest challenger, solely because of Tim Duncan, the one guy in the league who can play Shaq straight up. If only they had anybody else. David Robinson is fading, the backcourt is merely adequate, and the bench is nothing special. Crazy as it sounds, signing John Starks could have been the move that put them over the top. They’re a very safe team. They’ll need to make unpredictable things happen to beat L.A.