Basketball Culture 101: The Last Season that wasn’t and The Revolution that never came

[Editor’s note: John Krolik owns and operates the excellent Cavaliers-themed TrueHoop Network site Cavs: The Blog. Here, Krolik takes a smart look at Phil Jackson’s book about the 2003-4 Lakers titled The Last Season. The title and tone of Jackson’s work suggest finality, but seven years later, time has undone elements of the book’s intended impact. As Krolik explains, instead of a future dominated by players and ideas on the rise in 2004, in the intervening years Jackson’s ideology, and team, have invalidated the “last season” historical paradigm.—Beckley]

Phil Jackson’s The Last Season, a published form of the diary Jackson supposedly writes each season he coaches, is an exceptionally odd read seven years later. The book was written after the 2003-04 season, which was allegedly the last season of the Laker dynasty.

The 2003-04 Lakers had four future Hall-of-Famers — Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and new additions Gary Payton and Karl Malone. The team had fallen to San Antonio in the conference finals the year before, but were unquestionably the most buzzed-about team in the league coming into the season.

It didn’t take long for the Lakers to start running into problems both on and off the court. On July 2nd, 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. While the case was ultimately dismissed in September of 2004, controversy hovered around the team all season, Bryant was forced to fly back and forth between trial hearings and games, and he “only” managed to score 24.0 points per game that season, his lowest scoring average since the 1999-2000 season. Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone’s age finally began to catch up to them, and both of them missed time with injuries and saw their scoring averages drop precipitously. A clearly past-his-prime Payton never understood his role in the Triangle Offense.

Kobe and Shaq split, but the star rejoined with Jackson

The Lakers managed to snag the #2 seed in the Western Conference and get into the NBA Finals despite playing inconsistently all season, but fell in five games to the Detroit Pistons, who were the 1st team since the 1989-90 Pistons to have won an NBA Championship without a reigning, former, or (barring a miracle) future league MVP on its roster. After the season, O’Neal was traded to the Heat, Jackson and Malone announced their retirements, and Payton ended up going to the Celtics. The Lakers’ run atop the NBA seemed to be at an end.

Jackson’s book reads like a calm, sober evisceration of the problems with modern NBA superstars. Shaq comes across like an arrogant, slightly lazy behemoth who was so talented that he could be great doing things his way, but could have been so much better. Jackson lamented Shaq’s refusal to try and shoot free-throws underhanded because Shaq was afraid of looking silly. He disagreed with Shaq’s tendency to rest throughout halftime rather than go on the court and take warmup shots. He recounts the tale of when Shaq refused to learn post footwork, calling it “kid stuff.” Jackson wrote that he believed a center’s primary responsibilities are to defend and rebound, and that he believed Shaq lost sight of that from time to time. And of course, there was the issue of Shaq attempting to defend pick-and-rolls.

None of Jackson’s comments about Shaq are particularly shocking — anyone who has followed Shaq’s career at all has made similar observations and laments, and it is clear throughout the book that Jackson respects how dominant of a player Shaq was.

Jackson’s most controversial statements in the book are about Kobe Bryant. Jackson didn’t say that he thought Kobe was guilty of sexual assault, but he wrote that he could see how Kobe could have been capable of it; he stated that Bryant can be “consumed with surprising anger.” He criticized Bryant’s effort at the defensive end. He told GM Mitch Kupchack that Bryant was “uncoachable.” He clearly states that Bryant forced the team to trade Shaq away before he would re-sign with the team, and quotes Kobe as saying he was “tired of being a sidekick.” While the party line is now that Shaq was traded away because of his own demands for a contract extension, the fact that Bryant re-signed the day after O’Neal was traded does make Jackson’s version of events credible.

“The Last Season” seemed to refer to more than Jackson’s last season with the team. The 2003-04 season was also the rookie season of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and the rest of the 2003 draft class, who were supposed to be a new generation of stars. The star-studded Lakers fell to the Pistons, who represented a more democratic form of dominance. Kevin Garnett was named the league’s MVP in 2004, and had seemingly finally claimed the title of the league’s best all-around player.

After the 2003-04 season, the hand-check rules were enforced differently, shifting the balance of power from big men to slashing guards and paving the way for a fast-break renaissance. The year after “The Last Season,” Steve Nash won his first of two consecutive MVP awards. The next season, when Jackson did return, the Lakers fell to Nash’s Suns, and Kobe’s season of historic gunning ended with one of the worst halves of basketball he has ever played. Those playoffs ended with Dwayne Wade, with Shaq in tow, slashing to the basket with impunity to defeat a Mavericks team defined by offensive balance and led by Dirk Nowitzki, a superstar as unique as they come.

The irony, of course, is that nothing really changed. Jackson came back, the Lakers turned Caron Butler into Kwame Brown, turned that contract into Pau Gasol, and the Laker dynasty returned. Kobe Bryant won a regular-season MVP award and two finals MVP awards, and is now universally regarded as perhaps the best player of his generation and is the most respected athlete in basketball. Shaq’s age caught up with him, and the decision to trade him looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight.

The Suns were the league’s darlings, but could never get past the Spurs. The only teams to have won a championship since “The Last Season” have employed either Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, or Shaquille O’Neal. Wade has not won a playoff series since he won the title in 2006. The Pistons never won another title. LeBron James, who was supposed to take the league from Kobe, never won a finals game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and eventually left for the Heat. The Hawks’ dream of fielding a title contender comprised entirely of athletic 6-9 players never came to fruition. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh failed to take their teams to the promised land before they left for better climates and/or a more impressive urban sprawl. Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting cost the Magic the best chance they had to beat the Lakers and prove that championship teams can live by the three.

The Last Season was not the last season. The revolution never came. Kobe’s fall, which seemed inevitable in Jackson’s book, was just an intermission between the first and second acts of a legendary career. Good defense and great big men are still the best way to win a championship. A few teams still control the NBA, and they are still driven by superstars.

This season is supposed to be Jackson’s actual last season, and change may be on the horizon this time. Chicago and Miami appear ready to rise as potential new superpowers, although they were built in diametrically opposite ways. The new-look Nuggets and Thunder may be ready to challenge the Spurs and Lakers in the west. The Spurs are finally beginning to transform into a team that may be able to thrive without relying on Duncan. Maybe this playoffs will be the dawn of a new era in the NBA. But if there’s one thing the post Last-Season NBA has taught us, it’s that the constant search for The Next Big Thing can cause us to overlook players and teams that don’t deserve to be overlooked.

Twitter: @johnkrolik

Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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