DOWN TO CHINATOWN 2001 NBA Season No Surprise By Eric Kim Hoya Staff Writer

One month into this year’s NBA season, we must face a few hard facts. The only way the Lakers will not win the next five championships is if junior cop Shaquille O’ Neal and his size-22 boot decide to join the police academy. The Jazz and Heat, both annual playoff chokers, will be looking at snagging Duke’s Jason Williams or China’s 7-foot-5 Yao Ming with the first pick in the draft next year. And even a wizard named ichael can’t get a team of Harry Potters off the ground.

Despite the fact that Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson is no longer Shaq’s “white father” the Lakers look poised to three-peat, four-peat, five-peat and more until Shaq retires. L.A. holds the best record in the league at 15-1, and it trounced its probable opponent in the NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks, last Tuesday. Ever since their fluke loss at Phoenix on Nov. 16, the Lakers have dominated not only their less-worthy Eastern Conference opponents but also their competitive Western Conference foes. In its last six games, the Laker show has beaten its opponents by at least 15, including a 26-point massacre of upstart innesota on Saturday.

There really isn’t anything new about this year’s Lakers. Over the offseason, they picked up role players in Lindsey Hunter and Mitch Richmond, whose stay in Washington made his shot disappear. But there’s still Mark “Mad Dog” adsen and Mike Penberthy getting their daily workout on the bench. There’s still Rick Fox riding the coattails of his wife Vanessa Williams for an acting career.

Kobe, who is actually averaging more points than Shaq now, continues to amaze everyone not only in games but also in his new Adidas commercials.

As for Shaq, he seems to be complaining more than ever. But he can talk all he wants because whether he weighs 330 lbs. or wears “John Stockton shorts,” he’s still the most dominant player in the league.

Speaking of John Stockton, the Utah Jazz (6-11) are struggling as much as Shaq’s size-54 waist squeezing into Stockton’s 32s. Everyone knew the Jazz would disintegrate, but they didn’t think it would be this soon or with Stockton and the Mailman still around.

For more than a decade, the two have led the Jazz to the playoffs and become synonymous with quality, if not dirty, ball-playing.

While Stockton and Malone are old (39 and 38 respectively), age cannot explain all of Utah’s misfortunes this year. Both are healthy and in shape, and they have a decent supporting cast. I blame their early-season slump on the curse of MJ. Remember, it was Jordan who broke Bryon Russell’s ankles and hit the championship-winner at Utah that forever sealed his greatness. Now with Jordan back, Utah can’t seem to shake that image.

Unlike Utah, Miami at least knows why they’re bad this year – they have no stability. Even under the guidance of Head Coach Pat Riley, who seems to become more overrated as the days go by, the Heat are in the midst of an atrocious 11-game losing streak and are tied with Chicago for the worst record in the league. Gone are Tim Hardaway and Anthony Mason. Instead, Miami features household names such as Vladimir Stepania and Sean Marks. In order to add experience to its lineup, it added injury-prone Kendall Gill and LaPhonso Ellis, both of whom have received more advice from doctors than they have given to younger players. Then there’s the big question of Alonzo Mourning, who’s been in and out of the hospital over the past two years. With Riley shuffling lineups daily because of injuries and bad players, the Heat haven’t been able to jell.

Finally there’s Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards. Notice the separation between the two.

Jordan has played phenomenally given that he’s been out of the game for three years. He’s averaging 25 points and 38 minutes a game. But the Wizards have responded little to Jordan’s magical presence.

Every night, Washington looks for someone to step up other than ichael. Ideally, Jordan wants to play Scottie Pippen’s role when he was on the Bulls. But because there’s no potential ichael on the Wizards, Jordan finds himself playing the entire game in Michael mode.

Christian Laettner has never adjusted to the pro game and what says he’ll get along with someone from UNC. Rip Hamilton can score but can’t play defense. And the future of the Wizards, Kwame Brown, is too raw and will likely leave Washington once ichael retires and his contract is up.

This season, the Wizards do not look like a playoff team. Jordan probably thought that his presence would elevate the playing level of at least a couple of veterans. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen, and I think Michael expected his team to be better than 5-11. Once TNT stops airing every Wizards game, maybe the team will calm down and play more relaxed basketball.

But with a four-game road trip starting today and news of injuries to Jordan, guys like Hamilton, Chris Whitney, and Courtney Alexander must prove what they have learned from His “Air”ness.

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