Lakers Nation: Top Teams To Beat
NBA: New York Knicks at Los Angeles Lakers
© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Originally Published March 12, 2010

America loves winners—except when it comes to sports. America loathes teams that preside over their sports like overlords. The Lakers, due to their history and prestige, are despised from sea to shining sea in America. Part of it has to do with the fact that their alpha male, Kobe Bryant, is one of the more polarizing figures in sports. Most of the hate stems from the 15 titles and sustained success over decades.

When the Lakers come knocking, NBA teams and their fans always take their best shot at the Lakers. (This season especially, since the Lakers are currently wearing a target shaped like the Larry O’Brien Trophy on their backs). Many more teams consider the Lakers as rivals than the Lakers themselves consider rivals.

Despite this, there are still a few teams out there that can garner Lakers Nation a little extra satisfaction when they’re conquered. I have excluded the Boston Celtics from this list. The Celtics know where they sit on this totem pole. Also, as much as I enjoy defiling the Celtics in any way imaginable, I  would feel like I’d be picking on a crumbling, decrepit team that is hobbling its way into the slaughterhouse that awaits them in the playoffs.  I’ll let their current slide back into mediocrity continue in peace.

Honorable Mentions

Portland Trailblazers—They’ve never defeated us in the playoffs and really haven’t made any noise since the Jailblazer era. Perhaps if Greg Oden commits a felony this summer, they’ll get their jailhouse swag back.  I think they were much more entertaining (and successful) during the Jailblazer days. In a sick, twisted way, I miss them.

Utah Jazz (at EnergySolutions Arena)—Utah Jazz fans are awful. Their barbarity is shown by booing Derek Fisher—who was a playoff hero for them and generally considered to be one of the classiest guys in the league—because he left the team so he could relocate to a city where he could get top of the line care for his daughter’s rare eye disease.  I always love sending 19,000+ sad Utes home after another shellacking.

Sacramento Kings—Vlade Divac, Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Chris Webber… how did that team never win a championship? Oh, how could I forget. Their inability to sustain success over the last few years has led to a dissipation of vitriol in what used to be the NBA’s fiercest rivalry.

5. Phoenix Suns

Remember when the Phoenix Suns had fans? And they generally considered themselves to be basketball bluebloods? Even though the only thing hanging in the U.S. Airways Center’s rafters are Pacific Division titles, it didn’t stop the Suns from enjoying a meteoric rise a few years back. During that rise, Suns fans came out of the woodwork and acted as if they had been there the entire time.

On top of having one of the bigger bandwagon fan bases in the league (They’re suddenly nowhere to be found, coincidentally), they almost single-handedly ran Kobe Bryant out of Los Angeles. After surrendering a 3-1 series lead in the 2006 Playoffs (A series in which Kobe Bryant famously refused to shoot during the second half of Game 7—one of the lowest points in his career), they were again matched to do battle in Round 1 of the 2007 Playoffs. Amare Stoudemire famously declared that the Lakers had “no chance” against them. The Suns handled the Lakers 4-1. That summer lead to Kobe Bryant publically demanding to be traded.

Thankfully, the Suns never won a title. Their fans are already insufferable—and they’ve never won anything. Due to this, the Phoenix Suns of today hardly resemble the Suns that handled the Lakers in the darkest days of the Kobe Bryant era. I always enjoy it when the Lakers whoop the Suns, just to remind the Suns and their fans where they stand on the NBA totem pole.

Hopefully, the Basketball Gods reward the Lakers by offering the Phoenix Suns as a first-round sacrificial lamb. It would be fun to watch Kobe Bryant bury Steve Nash and company in their own blood. Am I still bitter that Steve Nash has as many MVP awards as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined? Maybe.

4. Orlando Magic

The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in 5 games last June for their 15th NBA title. During those five games, which were much closer than some remember, there wasn’t any bad blood. The Magic played the part well: showed up as an underdog, got stomped, and faded into the night without much of a whimper. They even were kind enough to let Derek Fisher cement his status as a Laker legend.

Something changed this off-season, though. They signed Vince Carter, one of the greatest villains in NBA history.  They also signed Matt Barnes, an NBA journeyman, to a modest contract.

I hate Vince Carter. His best game this year, he dropped roughly 47 points on the New Orleans Hornets backcourt consisting of two rookies. There he was though, talking trash, walking around as if he was a God amongst men, and taking dumb jump shots. You could tell Vince Carter was thoroughly enjoying himself.

Then, on Sunday, Vince started getting it going again. He had 15 points in the first quarter, and the announcers were gushing. Never mind that 10 of those points were free throws, and 6 of those came from just barreling to the hoop with no plan, jumping into somebody, and hoping to be the latest recipient of a federal bailout.

Then, over the next 3 quarters, Vince jacked-up dumb shot after dumb shot. He ended up with 25 points, (and somebody reading just the box score would be impressed) but almost cost his team the game by missing his only free throws of the day, which subsequently, were the only free throws of substance. It was a vintage Vince Carter performance.

And then you have Matt Barnes, a guy who is on his 7th team in 7 years in the NBA. For some reason, he began jawing with Kobe Bryant. Not only that, but he also pulled move straight out of the bush league: pump faking the ball at Kobe’s face during an inbounds play. Kobe didn’t even flinch and just continued to stare at him and chew on his gum.

I love NBA feuds, but, the ball-fake is something that would start a fistfight on pretty much every court in America. Since then, Barnes has taken to Twitter to continue to disparage the Lakers. (Lamar Odom in particular).

Did I miss the part where Matt Barnes wasn’t an NBA journeyman? This would be the equivalent of Chris Mihm rising up against Shaquille O’Neal. I  wouldn’t mind a Finals rematch, (That groaning sound you just heard? ABC Marketing Executives) so Kobe would get a chance to devour Matt Barnes’ soul in a cannibalistic ritual.  Matt Barnes will probably be watching the Finals from the same place I am: the couch. It’s a shame that we may have to wait 7 months before these two lock horns again. And Barnes could be playing for the Moscow Dynamo by then.

Then there’s Dwight Howard. D12 should be obliterating this league by now. I mean, every night. He should be squinting his eyes and ripping the hearts out of his opponents for 2 and a half hours every night. Clearly, he is still an All-World talent, but what would Shaq have done to him in his prime? Shaq would have needed a toothpick to pick Howard’s bicep muscles out of his teeth.

Vintage Dwight Howard sequence happened in Sunday’s game: Dwight Howard blocks a shot. Dwight Howard, 7’1”, does a little jig to celebrate giving the ball back to the other team. Dwight Howard then fouls Paul Gasol before the ball was inbounded, which gave the Lakers two free throws. It was also Dwight’s fifth foul, which rendered him pretty useless down the stretch of the game.

It’s just a bummy franchise, with bummy players that surround a guy with All-World talent that clearly doesn’t value winning the same way all great players do. As for the fan—last year, before the Finals, the Orlando Sentinel ran an article that explained the rules of basketball to the people of Orlando. (For example, “What is a foul?” and “What is a double dribble?”)  I think that should suffice as to what I think of Orlando Magic fans.

3. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are the only team in the league that can rival the Lakers’ success over the past decade. Led by Tim Duncan and the sage Gregg Popovich, they have been a formidable foe over the years.

Despite being a legitimate rivalry and having its fair share of memorable moments, it has lacked vitriol. The Spurs, for the most part, have always lacked a villain. Sure, some fans considered Bruce Bowen “dirty,” but he was just more of an old school basketball player who was going to make you know he was guarding you around the clock. Their best player, Tim Duncan, is just like his play: boring. I don’t like the guy, I don’t hate the guy, but there is no doubt that I respect him. I guess that sums up the Lakers-Spurs rivalry.

This summer, the Spurs traded a bag of peanuts, three Spalding basketballs, and some athletic tape for Richard Jefferson. At the time, it was hailed as a coup d’état that would lead to the revitalization of the Duncan-led Spurs. Unfortunately, it now appears that Milwaukee Bucks was the hustler and not the hustled, because Richard Jefferson died sometime during 2006. Somebody is just wearing his skin as a costume, as originally seen in Men in Black.

As it stands now, the Los Angeles Lakers dropped the death-knell to the Duncan era in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. It was an honorable death indeed.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Lakers and the Cavaliers have never met in the playoffs. There’s no over-lying geographical rivalry. They’re not in the same conference. So how can they be this high on the list?

Two words: LeBron James.

LeBron James, in my mind, is the best player in the NBA. Kobe Bryant, while an insane talent and legendary worker, is still a 31-year-old guard with 1,000+ NBA games on his odometer. There’s no shame in the decline—it’s biology. No matter how great Kobe Bryant is (and he’s one of the greatest), he’s not good enough to beat Father Time.

However, while LeBron James is a prodigy on the rise, Kobe Bryant is still the Sensei of the Dojo. It’s still his league and his crown until he is defeated in battle. Even though I have won as many Finals games as LeBron James (0, for the record), the media will continue his coronation when he is handed his second MVP award later this year. This shouldn’t upset Lakers fans in the slightest—because we know that legends are forged in June.

Many suspect that LeBron will get his chance to take Kobe’s crown this year. (Although, they said the same thing last year). A win by the Lakers would cement Kobe’s legacy even further and once again prove that, at 31, he is still the alpha dog.  Add in the fact that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant would both be vying for their 5th ring (and probably bragging rights for eternity), a Cavaliers-Lakers matchup could be biblical.

ASIDE: I grew up in Ohio, and let me just say—anybody who is under 30 and claims he was a Cavs fan before they drafted LeBron is a liar. They’re without a doubt, the biggest bandwagon fan base since the Suns. They also suffer from the same disease that afflicted Suns fans for a few years: despite not winning anything of note, they act as if they’re the defending World Champions.

1. Denver Nuggets

April 23rd, 2008 – The #1 Seeded Lakers are up 1-0 in a playoff series against the #8 seeded Denver Nuggets. Kobe Bryant, who was widely speculated to have just won his first MVP award, struggled in the first game.

Despite controlling the game early, the Nuggets’ J.R. Smith, decided to test the Black Mamba by talking some trash and posturing. He learned what many in the NBA came to learn: It doesn’t pay to talk trash to Kobe Bryant.

Kobe let his play do his talking He eviscerated the Nuggets, and dropped one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history: 49 points, 4 rebounds, and 10 assists. Afterward, he chided the young J.R. Smith saying that if “you shake a tree, a leopard is going to fall out.” The Lakers went on to sweep the Nuggets out of the playoffs.

The next year, the Nuggets dealt Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups, a move that paid dividends. The Nuggets made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they were pitted against the Lakers once again. With the series tied two to two, the Lakers handled their business and sent the Denver Nuggets home once again.

In February, after handling the Lakers in two early matchups, the Nuggets were up again at Staples Center. Going into the half, J.R. Smith stole the ball, ran it the other way, dunked it, and then held his finger up to his mouth, in a gesture telling the crowd to hush.

This gesture symbolizes the Denver Nuggets. There they were, up 9 during the second quarter of a regular-season game in February, talking trash and showboating. How did things transpire after the J.R. Smith gesture? They ended up collapsing down the stretch, in an eerily similar fashion to their 2008 Western Conference Finals performance. For the record, J.R. Smith missed every shot he took in the second half.

It’s antics like this that define the Denver Nuggets.

They have a guy who calls himself the “Birdman,” and flaps his arms like wings on the court. He’s a clown whose shtick would be better suited for the WWE. Their starting power forward, the always combustible Kenyon Martin, has a tattoo of lips on his neck and is getting married to a chick named “LaLa.” J.R. Smith is a clown. While Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony are stars—it seems that Chauncey thinks he’s the alpha male. (How many bad shots did he take down the stretch of the Lakers game?) And their coach has presided over some of the greatest collapses in playoff history.

The Denver Nuggets have never won anything; although, you wouldn’t know that listening to them talk. You would think their roster is full of Hall of Famers, but Chauncey Billups is the only one wearing a ring. They’re a bumbling group of blustering bullies, who can throw a punch or two, but when they’re hit with a punch they fold like a house of cards.

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