August 1, 2009
With Lamar Odom and the Los Angeles Lakers reportedly coming to an agreement, the Lakers are the odds-on favorites to repeat as NBA champions next season. And why shouldn’t they be? The addition of Ron Artest and the reintegration of Odom makes the Lakers the deepest, most complete, and most talented team in the NBA.
With the road to the Larry O’Brien trophy clearly running through Los Angeles, the rest of the league's elite have been in catch-up mode this offseason. While those contenders will need a number of elements in their arsenal to dethrone the champs, these are the four primary must-have factors:
1. A speedy, penetrating point-guard
The Lakers have shown to be extremely vulnerable in defending fast point guards who can get into the lane. With the exception of Jordan Farmar, the Lakers guards have a hard time staying in front of quick point guards, and the help defense is usually non-existent or late.
2. Three-point shooters
Whether it’s mental lapses or just a lack of effort, the Lakers have shown a pattern of not effectively closing out or staying at home on three-point shooters. As a result, they’ve paid for it time and time again by incurring large deficits or blowing huge leads.
3. A double-team "Commander"
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific position, but if a player can get defenders to leave their assignments, it provides opportunities for shooters whom the Lakers tend to leave open as discussed above.
4. A “Kobe-Stopper”
Obviously if you’re going to beat L.A., you have to be able to contain Kobe Bryant. Teams all have their own approach, but it seems the best way to do so is to have an excellent defensive specialist on him for most of the game. It’s not required that Kobe be shut down statistically because that is not going to happen. Instead, what has been effective is making Kobe work hard for his points by turning him into a volume jump shooter.
So, with these four concepts in mind, we’ll take a look at each of the top prospective contenders for this upcoming season, and see which squad has the best chance of ending L.A.’s back-to-back hopes. Each team will be given a rating based on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being absolutely-no-chance and 10 being victory-is-highly-likely.
Okay, the Rockets aren’t really a projected top contender, but they deserve mentioning for being the latest team to have had all four of the factors above. As a result, they were only one game away from upsetting the Lakers in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
Aaron Brooks tore up the Lakers' point guards with his dizzying speed. Yao Ming forced second defenders to help. Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Von Wafer, and Brooks were all able to connect from beyond the arc. And not only did the Rockets have one great on-ball defender on Kobe, they had two in Battier and Artest.
Alas, it just wasn’t meant to be, however. Yao left the series early because of a fracture in his left foot and the Rockets were left without their anchor. Despite the big loss, Houston was still able to give the Lakers a run for their money, as they took L.A. to a seventh game at Staples Center. No other Laker playoff series went beyond six games.
We won’t go into whether next season’s Rockets will have a chance since Yao will most likely be rehabilitating from foot surgery, and Artest has now joined L.A. And despite Tracy McGrady stating that he’ll be in uniform at the start of the season, there just won’t be much talent leftover for the Rockets to even contend in the West, let alone take down the reigning champs.
Final verdict: 2/10
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs of yesteryear were definitely built to compete with the Lakers. Like the Rockets above, they had it all: a fast point guard in Tony Parker; a double-team commander in Tim Duncan; three-point shooters in Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, and Manu Ginobili; and an on-ball defensive stopper in Bowen.
This new Spurs team sports a different look with the acquisitions of swing man Richard Jefferson and veteran 4 Antonio McDyess. While they still retain their core big three and a decent bench, thereby effectively covering three of the four factors, the Spurs’ loss of Bruce Bowen and a lack of a competent replacement could prove to be their undoing against the Lakers.
Ginobili has always given an admirable effort against Kobe, and Greg Popovich is certain to squeeze the most out of Jefferson, but the Spurs just don’t have a real answer for the Mamba. Without such a perimeter defensive stopper, Kobe could once again dismantle the Spurs just as he did in the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
Final verdict: 5/10
The Magic showed that they were for real last season when they not only dispatched of the Boston Celtics in a seventh game at the Garden, but also played spoiler to the Kobe-LeBron corporate dream matchup by convincingly ousting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although this season's Orlando team no longer has playmaker Hedo Turkoglu, they are still a force to be reckoned with, especially with the addition of Vince Carter.
On paper, last year’s Magic team had an excellent shot against the Lakers in the Finals. Dwight Howard warranted help defenders. There were almost always four three-point shooters on the floor. And Mickael Pietrus also did a commendable job in making Kobe work for his points.
Their missing factor, however, was the quick point guard, as Rafer Alston just didn’t have the speed to break down the Lakers defense. And despite seeing more playing time than many expected, Jameer Nelson was not up to his all-star form. Hence, he did not present nearly the same threat as in Orlando's two regular season games with LA.
Nevertheless, with Nelson returning to his old self, the retooled Magic may just have all four factors locked in to compete with the Lakers. Howard is sure to come back better and hungrier, so it will be very difficult to play him straight up. The long bombers are still there. And the defense on Kobe will arguably be better with Carter lending Pietrus a helping hand.
Final verdict: 6/10
The Cavs finished last year with the best regular season record, an MVP award for LeBron James, a Coach of the Year award for Mike Brown, and an Executive of the Year award for Danny Ferry. But in the end, none of those accomplishments mattered since the Cavs fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic exposed weaknesses in the Cavs that were apparent yet overshadowed by their impressive record and win margins.
These weaknesses were also exposed by the Lakers when L.A. compellingly swept the Cavs in the regular season, as Cleveland possessed only one of the above four key factors.
Against the Lakers, the Cavs enjoyed some success from behind the arc, thanks to shooters such as Maurice Williams, Daniel Gibson, and Wally Szczerbiak. However, Delonte West did not have the speed to collapse the Lakers defense, and defensively, no one was capable of raising Kobe’s heart rate, not even the King himself. And despite how dominant James might be, his lack of a post game limited double team opportunities to mainly drive-and-kick.
Shaquille O’Neal will certainly help remedy some of those flaws, as he has garnered multiple defenders his entire career. But at his age, one wonders how much playing time he’ll actually see, despite being in decent shape and putting up good numbers last year.
Even if O’Neal manages to attract defenders like a magnet, Cleveland still lacks a quick, penetrating point guard and a lockdown stopper on Kobe. James is definitely fast enough to present problems for L.A., and if he improves his ball denial on defense, he can certainly give Kobe trouble. But that is asking a lot.
James may be the most physically gifted athlete in the league, but he’s still human. We saw how much James had to do against the Magic, and we saw how much it took out of him. To do that much, and more, against the Lakers could prove to be too high a burden for the King.
Final verdict: 4/10
It’s almost a general consensus that the Celtics pose the biggest threat to the Lakers’ chances at a repeat, and for good reason.
First, no one’s going to forget the complete thumping they gave the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, least of all the Lakers themselves. Second, many held the opinion that had Kevin Garnett been healthy, the Celtics may well have taken the title again last season. Third, with newly-acquired Rasheed Wallace, the Celtics look even tougher, badder, and scarier.
However, this may be more smoke than fire.
The reason the 2008 Celtics dominated the Lakers was because they not only had all four factors in hand, the strength of each factor was nearly unmatched.
At point guard, rising star Rajon Rondo was quick enough to give the Lakers trouble. Garnett and Paul Pierce consistently saw multiple defenders. Ray Allen, Eddie House, and Pierce lit it up from downtown. Finally, Kobe had a sub-par series with James Posey practically wearing Number 24’s jersey.
Last year’s Celtics, while still formidable, lost one of the four factors when they allowed Posey to leave for the New Orleans Hornets. As a result, the Lakers were able to claw their way to a sweep of the regular season series.
Although the signing of Wallace gives the Celtics another player who will see double teams and stretch the floor, they are still missing a defensive specialist who can keep a leash on Kobe. It might not be a deal-breaker since the Celtics are still strong in the other factors, but it’s still an exposed Achilles' heel in their armor.
Final verdict: 7/10
By Kien Le
Staff Reporter for TheDailySportsHerald.com
Photograph by Tri Le
Photography Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com