The last thing that the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans are thinking about on Monday is the NBA Finals. The team has lost five straight for the first time in years, getting outrun by the slowest team in the NBA (the Portland Trail Blazers) on Friday night and out-executed down the stretch by a bunch of youngsters (the Oklahoma City Thunder) on Sunday. It’s never panic time when you’re the most talented and most tested team in the NBA, but things feel a lot different in mid-April than they did as recently as March, when the Lakers looked unbeatable, running off nine straight wins and briefly making a push for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
To his credit, Lakers coach Phil Jackson is saying all the right things, calling out his players’ professionalism in Portland, saying that any talk of the Finals is “ludicrous” and stating very simply according to ESPNLA.com : “We're not concerned with anything in the Eastern Conference at all. Nothing.” Jackson didn’t win any of his 11 NBA titles as a coach by looking ahead, and he certainly isn’t going to jeopardize his run at a fourth three-peat by allowing his players to skip a step.
While it’s Jackson’s job to keep the focus tight, it’s our job to break out the wide angle lens. And the panoramic view of the Western Conference still looks much like it has for the three seasons: It’s the Lakers, and then everybody else. Whether you prefer a more subjective approach or a numbers-based outlook, the Lakers make dominant arguments.
LA sports the league’s fiercest competitor, Kobe Bryant, who at 32 years old is still cranking out 25 points per game and maintaining his 45% percent or better shooting percentage for the sixth straight season. He’s the best one-on-one offensive player in the Western Conference and he lives for the moment. His resume says it all: five rings, two Finals MVPs, countless game-winners. The Lakers’ story starts and ends with his ability to impose his will on both ends of the court, extract maximum effort from his teammates and make the key plays down the stretch.
Inside, the Lakers have the best trio of bigs in the game: Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Each has his weaknesses: Bynum is slow in transition, Gasol gets knocked for being soft and floating and Odom has dealt with questions about his consistency and focus for years. But together they are an overwhelming force, particularly when L.A.’s ball movement is humming. Gasol, who averaged 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds, is a multi-dimensional threat, a skilled, fluid, long big man who is a nightmare match-up for all of the other top Western Conference teams. Bynum fills the space-eating and finish-at-the-rim roles well, while Odom can attack off the dribble, make effort plays defensively and gives L.A. some versatility in defending combo forwards.
The Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom core is supplemented by Ron Artest – a physical wing who excels at playoff head games and making stars uncomfortable – and veteran guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake – a heady, tested floor general and a knockdown shooter. Toss in Shannon Brown for some backcourt athleticism off the bench and Matt Barnes for more bullying hijinks and that’s the squad.
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This group is the West’s favorite because they can beat you in every way. The Lakers are the No. 7 offense in the league through Sunday, a number that’s a little misleading because they’ve slipped a bit during this recent slide. Make no mistake: they can carve you up or pound it down your throat on any given night. Defensively, the Lakers are No. 6 in the league and currently rank as the Western Conference’s top unit. They excel at controlling the backboards – the No. 4 overall rebounding team – and protecting the basketball – the No. 2 team in terms of limiting turnovers. Despite all the harping on Bryant for breaking out of the team’s offense and doing his own thing, the Lakers are even a top 10 team when it comes to assist rate, a measure of what percentage of a team’s baskets come via assist. To boil it down: other than staying motivated late in the season, the Lakers simply don’t have a true weakness.
For this reason, they are the nightmare match-up for each of the West’s other contenders.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Lakers would have their dream first round match-up: they would be the No. 2 seed facing the No. 7 seed New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets have had a great run under first year coach Monty Williams, but they’ve essentially played .500 basketball over the last few months and lost starting power forward and go-to inside option David West. To make matters worse, franchise point guard Chris Paul is dealing with knee issues, as he had fluid drained last week and failed to score against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night, the first time that’s happened during his NBA career. If that series goes five games, consider New Orleans lucky.
The Lakers are most likely to face the Dallas Mavericks, another team that’s stumbled in recent weeks, in the second round. Any way you slice that one, and regardless of who has home court advantage, the match-ups come up in LA’s favor. The Lakers have plenty of guys to harass Dirk Nowitzki, while Bryant is fully capable of making life miserable for any of Dallas’s perimeter defenders. The only tough cover for LA is Jason Terry, but that’s a secondary concern. A recent Lakers blowout of the Mavericks, in which Dallas lost its cool, felt like a fairly accurate playoff preview. This series wouldn’t be a landslide, but the Lakers are simply too skilled, top-to-bottom, to trip up.
Things get more interesting, though, when we get to the Western Conference Finals discussion.
Against the Spurs, the Lakers clearly have an overwhelming frontcourt advantage, with Tim Duncan unable to compete single-handedly with LA’s trees. His colleagues either too small or too old to provide an adequate counterbalance to the Gasol/Bynum/Odom triad. San Antonio will turn to its new-look, super-efficient offense to make up for their lack of size, but it’s unclear whether they will be able to consistently generate the pace necessary to make it work. The Spurs will also be seriously out-manned by the size, length and strength of LA’s wings with no good match-up for Lamar Odom. As long as Tony Parker doesn’t completely dissect LA’s perimeter defense, LA should be able to survive what is always a serious test.
The most intriguing Western Conference Finals match-ups, though, would come if either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets are able to slip through that side of the bracket. As the Thunder showed on Sunday, they’re not afraid of the Lakers and they are talented enough and boast enough star power, in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to make life really, really difficult for anyone they face, including the defending champions. In Denver, it’s a new-model approach to success in the NBA: a star-free, all-quality rotation that never lets up and executes extremely well. Both the Thunder and the Nuggets are riding high coming into the playoffs – both are 8-2 in their last 10 – and both are very well coached teams that play very well at home.
But even with the Thunder and the Nuggets, the arguments for the Lakers advancing are easier to make than the arguments against. This group of Lakers has beaten a super-efficient offense: the 2009 Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers has beaten a hard-working, team-centric group with great balance: the 2010 Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers beat the Thunder last year and beat a good approximation of the Nuggets when they downed the high-octane, hard-charging Phoenix Suns in last season’s Western Conference Finals.
LA has everything you need to be a true contender: good health at the moment, experience, top-end talent, solid coaching, a go-to scoring option a recent track record of success against their biggest threats and, of course, the rings. The Lakers certainly can’t take anything for granted, not with the quality of competition in the West this season, but they take our title as “Finals Favorite” with ease.