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We're finally a week away from the NBA Finals, and if things go according to plan, both the Lakers and the Pistons will wrap up their berths in the Finals on Monday and Tuesday. Both conference finals have been close enough that it's impossible to completely rule out a Wolves or Pacers comeback, but given their relative playoff inexperience, I think you can start banking on a Lakers-Pistons Finals.
It's 1989 all over again. The new school showtime (courtesy of Celebrity Justice) versus the new school bad boys (led by Big Ben, a guy who would've scared the hell out of Bill Lambeer and Dennis Rodman back in the day).
I won't bother reminding Insider readers that I picked the two teams to meet each other in the Finals at the start of the season and did again just a week before the playoffs again. If I'm staying true to my predictions, then I still have the Lakers winning in seven. Nothing I've seen changes that prediction. The Lakers have proved once again that when Shaq is focused L.A. will beat anyone.
With that said, I think the Pistons are really poised to give the Lakers a real scare. They're the only team in the East with a front line that can do something about Shaq and a backcourt that can handcuff Kobe. In fact, the only other teams in the league that can really make that claim are the Spurs and possibly the Kings. Still, I think that Larry Brown's refusal to get more creative offensively (by giving more playing time to guys like Mehmet Okur) will be the downfall of the Pistons.
Speaking of downfalls, have you ever heard such doomsday talk about two teams competing for an NBA title? Over the past week the Lakers and Pistons have grabbed plenty of headlines, not for what their doing on the court, but for what they might be doing off the court this summer. If Kobe Bryant wants out of L.A., his options might be limited. The speculation continues to gather steam in L.A. that Kobe Bryant may want out of there at the end of the season. It already seems like a given the Phil Jackson will be gone. Kobe, lately, looked like he'd be more willing to stay if Phil (and possibly Shaq) were shown the door. However, that was based, in part, on theories that Byron Scott (a close friend of Kobe's) would take over head coaching duties. Scott just took a job in New Orleans, squelching that rumor.
This week, however, the speculation has turned again to Kobe leaving with "sources" close to Kobe telling everyone who will listen that he wants out. Two months ago, the rumor du jour was the Clippers, who have the free-agent money (and possibly the sign-and-trade chips -- Dwight Howard and Quentin Richardson anyone?) to make it happen. Now the high-level chatter in the league claims that it could be the Spurs or the Suns who take home the prize. That will be more difficult to accomplish without Kobe taking a pay cut.
For the Spurs to do it, they'd have to cut loose two valuable free agents -- Manu Ginobili and Hedo Turkoglu. They'd do it to get Kobe, but they'd be awfully thin everywhere else if they go that route. I know several top teams with lots of free-agent money to spend that would love for Ginobili and Turkoglu to be on the market.
For the Suns to get it done, they'd have to ship out their No. 7 pick and at least one big salary (Jahidi White's in the last year of his deal) to get the money they need to sign Kobe. Or, they could try to trade Shawn Marion to a team with cap space or a big man. The Suns are fiscally pretty conservative and probably don't won't both max contracts on their books.
A Marion-for-Mehmet Okur sign-and-trade swap might make sense for both the Suns and the Pistons if Kobe came on board. The Suns could easily slide Joe Johnson over to the three to make that happen. Ironically, moving Marion for cap space would open up enough room for them to sign one more decent free agent in the process