The Los Angeles Lakers

Why the NBA’s unbeatable team will collapse (but not this month).

The Sherman’s March that the Lakers have made through the NBA playoffs—a great inspiration to bullies everywhere—terrifies league officials, rival players, and every basketball fan outside Los Angeles. Shaq is 29, Kobe is 22. Must we really endure seven more years of this tag-team thumping?

The Lakers are bad news on several fronts. They confirm every fan’s suspicion that the NBA regular season doesn’t matter. The Lakers coasted for six months, diverted by Kobe-Shaq squabbling and minor injuries, then started trying hard just in time to torch through the playoffs. The Lakers have accomplished a neat trick. They made the regular season pointless and the postseason dull. The Bucks and 76ers are playing for the right to be swept by L.A. (So, what’s left to watch, the preseason?)

A long Laker reign would desiccate pro hoops not just because the Lakers would always win, but because they would do it so tediously. The Lakers are crushing opponents with a style of play that is awesome, but monotonous—80 percent tedium, 20 percent Kobe. When the Lakers let Shaq dominate—which they try to do in most circumstances—the game has all the ballet of a monster-truck rally. Dump. Pump. Thump. Jump. Dunk! Why does Shaq-ball hurt the NBA?’s a theory.

It’s obvious why the Lakers should dominate the NBA through the ‘00s. Shaq will own the paint for at least six more years. Kobe is growing more and more Jordanlike in his ability to get to the basket, take clutch jumpers, and control a game in the final minutes. Coach Phil Jackson has won seven championships because he knows how to treat his players like men, not boys. And a very competent, self-effacing supporting cast buttresses the Shaq-Kobe-Phil iron triangle.

But it won’t last, hallelujah. They will be unmade, not before their second title this month, maybe not even before a third next year, but soon enough. They won’t collapse for any on-court reason. They’re too talented for that. And two obvious theories for Laker decline are misguided. Click for why.

What will kill the Lakers is ego. It is a rule: NBA dynasties are dictatorships. The wondrous teams of recent years have featured a single unquestioned ruler: The Chicago Bulls had Jordan, and Scottie Pippen obeyed him. The Boston Celtics were Larry Bird’s; Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish supported him. Magic Johnson jockeyed with an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for control of the ‘80s Lakers. Once Magic emerged as the master of Showtime, with Kareem and James Worthy second-billed, the Lakers started collecting titles. Two-headed teams—the Julius Erving-Moses Malone 76ers or the Wes Unseld-Elvin Hayes Bullets—can shine brightly for a year or two, but they always, always collapse. Kobe and Shaq will not break this rule of one.

Why? The salary cap makes it difficult for a team to afford two superstars and still stock the roster with competent players. Kobe is due a titanic new contract, and the Lakers will have to suffer to pay him.

The more important reason is that the culture of the NBA rejects self-abnegation. Huge egos are a job requirement. Players are worshipped and coddled as they are in no other American sport.

Both Kobe and Shaq have the arrogance to match their talent. Shaq constantly gives himself self-aggrandizing nicknames—”Superman,” “The Big (insert macho noun here).” Kobe, beneath a veneer of charm, is cocky and hyperaggressive. They both revel in the media attention, the celebrity, the 24-seven adulation: That is why they enjoy L.A. so much. Shaq has made movies, released six rap albums, published a best-selling book. Shaq has had the halogen, and Kobe desperately wants it. 

Nothing in either man’s character suggests he will be satisfied playing second banana. The two sparred from ‘96 through ‘99. Jackson’s arrival suppressed their fighting during last year’s championship run, but it again preoccupied the team for most of this regular season. Shaq—the more experienced and until now more dominant player—has only grudgingly acknowledged Kobe’s emerging greatness. Kobe was forced to bide his time because Shaq was clearly more important to the team. But this is no longer true. Their new equality will shatter the Lakers. Jackson managed to persuade Kobe to support Shaq this year to improve the Lakers’ chances. But Kobe’s underbilling won’t suit him for much longer. These playoffs, in fact, may be the final fracture: Kobe has now proved that he drives the Lakers as much as the big fella does. He will not be the little brother anymore.

Jackson glued Kobe and Shaq together this season thanks to masterful ego-manipulation and the right offense. (Jackson’s vaunted “triangle” ensures that both Kobe and Shaq handle the ball a lot and that neither can ball-hog.) But Jackson won’t stay in L.A. He will soon own eight championship rings—enough for every finger (unless he wears thumb rings). He has proven what he needed to prove: that he wasn’t Jordan’s puppet in Chicago. He doesn’t need the hassle anymore. He burned out in Chicago, and he certainly won’t tolerate much more bickering in L.A. Jackson is finishing the second year of a five-year contract. He probably won’t complete the deal.

If Jackson leaves, Kobe and Shaq will be instantly at each other’s throats. And even if Jackson stays, the two can’t play together much longer. As Shaq likes to say, there can be only one big dog. If Jackson hands the team to Kobe and relegates Shaq to a lesser role, Shaq will seethe. I’m the NBA’s unstoppable man: Why am I picking upKobe’s sloppy seconds? If—as is more likely—the Lakers continue to rely first on Shaq’s mighty inside play, Kobe will pout. I’m the best player in the league: Why am I twiddling my thumbs at the three-point line waiting for the occasional pass? Neither is sustainable.

Scottie Pippen, a wondrous talent, played behind Jordan because he lacked a killer instinct. Kobe does not. Kobe would rather take the chance of winning as the star than the certainty of winning as Shaq’s shadow. Here’s a bet that, in the next two years, he will hop to whatever major media market team will pay: New York; Miami; in a pinch, New Jersey; Chicago; Atlanta—wherever he can be the center of the world. This is the NBA. There is an “I” in “team.”