Five Critical Factors for the 2009 Championship-Contending Lakers
The Lakers have been the league’s most difficult team to analyze this season, but you need look no further than them to find the league’s most talented, most seriously contending, and best-coached team.
Although they hold command of an imposing 51-13 record, they have more intangibles heading into the postseason than any other title contender.
Let's take a look.
The Andrew Bynum Factor
Bynum had been averaging 26.2 ppg on 65.3 percent shooting, 13.8 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks over the five-game span previous to his injury.
The Lakers have certainly proved that they can compensate for his offensive abilities, but his interior presence and rebounding capabilities have been missed.
On the bright side, Gasol has stepped into the center role much more comfortably then he did last year. Even in the games with Bynum in the lineup, we saw much greater assertion from Gasol during the games against Cleveland and Boston.
My biggest questions for this team are: Will Bynum’s coming-out party resume upon his reinstatement into the lineup and, if not, will Phil Jackson, a coach well-known for tinkering with his teams, keep the Bryant-Gasol-Odom starting lineup and demote Bynum to the bench?
Fortunately, the Lakers have been as selfless a sports team as any we've ever seen thus far.Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton, and Lamar Odom, all of whom are fully capable of starting anywhere else, have been more than accepting of taking on a bench role when they felt it would benefit the team. If necessary, would Bynum be willing to follow his teammates’ lead?
The Bench Mob
The Lakers' front line, although spectacularly productive, isn’t the only thing that sets them above other elites like Boston or Cleveland. The key to the Lakers dominance this year has been their depth.
Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Josh Powell, and DJ Mbenga alone could probably qualify for the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the East.
The fact that they were able to run away from the Cavaliers in the second half of both of their recent encounters by an average of 19 points is a testament to that depth.
Can this young, talented bench continue to provide quality minutes in the playoffs?
Kobe Bryant is perhaps the best closer the league has ever seen. If the bench can continue to carry their weight, keeping the Lakers in games while Bryant rests, the jabs they provide will likely continue to be followed up by Bryant’s end-game haymakers.
Kobe Bryant vs. Kobe Bryant!!!
As odd as this is going to sound, when assessing the Lakers, it becomes easy to forget about Kobe Bryant.
When game planning as a coach, it has to be pretty easy to assume Kobe will account for 25 or 30 points of the Lakers’ final score…and why not?
As deep as this Laker unit has proven itself to be, even without Bynum, it becomes easy to assume Kobe will simply take his due, involve his teammates, and hope for the best.
After all, the Lakers are pretty far removed from the one-man show they were during Kobe’s 35 ppg season, and seldom has Kobe scored 40 or more points this season. He hasn’t had to. The Lakers are the league’s most talented offensive unit, averaging over 108 ppg, and that kind of production can only come from team effort.
These sort of questions have died down since those terrible playoff series against Phoenix, but if the Lakers find their backs against the wall at any point in this year’s playoffs, how will Kobe react?
Will he maximize his offensive potency and take over the game himself, hoping the Lakers would follow suit? Will we see more of the Kobe Bryant we saw in the first of the this year’s two games against Cleveland, who scored seemingly at will but still managed to involve his teammates with the dexterity of Chris Paul?
Or will we see more of the controlled Bryant we saw throughout the course of last year’s finals, the one who played predictably well but was still unable to involve his slumping teammates and therefore unable to assert his will on the game?
The Wild, Wild West
How wild is the West?
With only a three-game discrepancy between No. 8 seed Dallas and No. 2 seed San Antonio, the only certainty heading into the playoffs is that the Lakers will repeat as the top-ranked seed for the second straight year.
But don't let the Lakers' dominance fool you, because the West isn't getting any easier. New Orleans and Utah have a combined three losses in their last 20 games.
Before the Lakers continued their new streak-snapping tradition in Houston, the Rockets had rattled off 12 straight home wins. To cap it all off, every Western Conference team currently in possession of a playoff spot has single-digit losses at home to date.
It’s pretty safe to say that the road back to the finals may be a bit more challenging for the Lakers than it was last year.
Fortunately, if Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant manage to keep the team focused, even with all the progress surrounding them, there really isn’t a team in the West that they can’t successfully match up against.
Even the Celtics would be hard-pressed to compete in a series with a fully-healthy, fully-prepared Lakers squad now.
Defense or No Defense?
The Lakers, on any given night, can play defense as well as any team to ever grace the league. They held LeBron James to 23 points on the first of their two recent encounters and a measly 16 on their second.
During their flashy 7-0 start to open up the season, they were holding opponents to an average of 86 ppg. Their eighth game was a night of firsts. It not only marked the first loss of the season for the Lakers, but also happened to mark the first night their defense had allowed an opponent to score 100 or more points.
Has this pattern changed for the Lakers since? Not much. Until as recently as two weeks ago, the Lakers had not lost a game in which they held an opponent to under 100 points.
Offense is a given for this team. Kobe Bryant alone has that effect, never mind the rest of the offensive potency this team has to offer.
The question here is, will the Lakers rely solely on their depth and offensive potency in order to put teams down, or will they score AND play the hard-nosed defense that we’ve seen that this team is so capable of?
Make no mistake about it, the Lakers can consistently beat most teams in this league with pure offense.
Unfortunately, Boston isn't one of those teams, and if the Lakers want this season to end on a higher note than it did last year, they will need to gain much more consistency on the defensive end by actually fighting through picks, denying mismatches, and playing the kind of sound, excellently-coached basketball they played last night when they denied Yao Ming the ball for nearly the entirety of the game.
For the Lakers' part, the road to the championship title is pretty straightforward: Remain focused, play aggressive, and give Kobe Bryant as much fourth-quarter rest as possible.
Without that formula, the Lakers are nothing more than a bunch of talented players nursing a superior record; if they choose to implement that formula, however, no team will be able to stand in their way as they redeem last year’s championship loss and Phil Jackson will finally become the first coach to obtain double-digit championship titles in the history of basketball.