Lakers-Magic: A Positional Breakdown of the NBA Finals
The Lakers, who most had written off after the Houston series and spotty play against Denver, are back in the NBA Finals for a record 30th time, going for their 15th Championship.
The Cavaliers, who after first and second round demolitions were favored by many to not only reach the finals but to do so undefeated, crashed out to the Magic in six games.
Orlando was the only team out of the top three seeds in each conference to sweep the Lakers in the regular season.
Here is a position-by-position preview of the 2009 NBA Finals.
Point Guard: Rafer Alston vs. Derek Fisher
Advantage: Lakers. Although Fisher's shooting has bordered on awful at times during the playoffs, he improved markedly towards the end of the Denver series and hit several big shots at key moments.
Alston has been perhaps the best injury replacement in the league this year (exluding Lamar Odom filling in for Andrew Bynum after his injury) but this would be the first Finals appearance for the ex-streetballer and he is not the scorer Jameer Nelson was.
In Phil Jackson's time with the Lakers, no player has fit the triangle offense or his role within it better than Fisher, and his experience, leadership and poise give him the narrow edge here.
Shooting Guard: Courtney Lee vs. Kobe Bryant
Advantage: Lakers: Defensive specialist Mickael Pietrus could well start for the Magic, but that changes nothing. Kobe Bryant is one of the best players in NBA history and the best shooting guard in the NBA.
He kept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals on his own early in the series and took advantage of double and triple teams to help get six teammates in double figures in game six.
Whichever player guards Kobe, he will get his points if he needs them or hand the ball off if that is the better move (most of the time). That is the advantage of being the best player of the deepest team in the NBA.
Small Forward: Hedo Turkoglu vs. Trevor Ariza
Advantage: Magic: While the 2009 playoffs (and regular season for that matter) have seen the Lakers' Ariza break out, Turkoglu has been one of the keys in the Magic's elimination of the Eastern Conference's two top seeds.
This one is closer than it would have been a season ago, but the Turk gets the nod.
He has playoff experience against Jackson's previous Lakers team, having played for the Sacramento Kings earlier in the decade as well as in the infamous 2002 Western Conference Finals, averaging 10 ppg.
Power Forawrd: Rashard Lewis vs. Pau Gasol
Advantage Lakers: Rashard Lewis has played spectacularly during the playoffs. Pau Gasol has been better, averaging one point less and five rebounds more while shooting 10 percent better from the field. His regular season averages were better across the board.
The Spaniard is also one of the smartest players in the league, picking up one as offense notorious for its complexity on the fly in mid-season on the way to the NBA Finals and is the Lakers' most consistent scorer other than Kobe Bryant.
Add that to his previous Finals experience and Pau gets the edge here.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bynum
Advantage: Magic. The player who said he could hit free throws better than Shaq when he was drafted vs. the player who actually did in the victory over the Cavaliers.
While this matchup could be closer than most people think—Bynum has a history of big games and plays against great players such as Shaq, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett—the Lakers' Center of the Future has been virtually a non factor in the playoffs so far after an impressive return from injury to end the regular season.
This matchup would still be no contest however even if Bynum had been playing at his peak.
Howard has gone from the "man-child" to "Superman", is the Defensive Player of the Year and showed in these playoffs that he has what it takes to lead a team to the NBA finals.
Howard is arguably now the best Center in the league and one of the most dominant, but Bynum is arguably the best defender he has faced in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, Howard will come out on top if he shoots free throws like he did against Cleveland.
Bench: Magic vs. Lakers
Advantage: Lakers: For 95 percent of the season this would have been a non-starter.
The Lakers "Bench Mob" sometimes outscored opponents starters and brought a change of pace to the Lakers' games in the form of a running offense.
The Mob struggled on the road, however, and has not been a positive for the Lakers for most of the playoffs, with Sasha Vujacic not living up to his play last year and the point guards struggling.
The Magics bench has arguably been the most consistent of any during the playoffs, contributing frighteningly good three-point shooting, and great defense from Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat.
The edge here goes to the Lakers though due to their overwhelming depth and the emergence of Shannon Brown, not to mention the spectacular play of late from Lamar Odom who would start for pretty much every other team in the league.
On a bad day, the Lakers' bench could just about hang with that of the Magic. On a good day, it would be no contest.
Coaching: Stan Van Gundy vs. Phil Jackson
Anyone care to argue with a record tying nine NBA championships, a 9-2 record in the Finals and the highest regular season and playoff winning percentages in NBA history?
While Van Gundy has been exceptional this season, and arguably should have won Coach of the Year, Jackson and his triangle offense—which has no play calls, making it difficult for teams to adjust— are a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
Only Gregg Popovich rivals Jackson as a playoff coach among active coaches, and more times than not the Zen Master has bested even him. The Magic had better hope those nine rings weigh the Lakers coach down.
On-the-Court Leadership: Magic vs. Lakers
No offense to the Magic, but when you're two on the court leaders are both 12-year veterans, have played in five NBA Finals, have won three and are a former League MVP and the President of the NBA Players Association, it's hard to argue with the Lakers' advantage here.
While Bryant was once seen as an outsider and a selfish teammate, in recent years he has markedly improved as a leader and is popular with his teammates, willing to take up their cause when needs be, as attested by his NBA-leading five technical fouls.
Fisher has always been known as a consummate team player, expert at taking charges and one of the most sure headed players in the league.
His poise in pressure situations, such as the game-winning three pointer with 0.4 seconds left against the Spurs in San Diego, doesn't hurt his cause either.
The issue for the Magic here is they don't have such a clear leader as Bryant or Fisher.
Howard has improved significantly as a leader recently, but is still only a few years into his career. When it comes to playoff leadership, experience is key.
Finals: Magic vs. Lakers
Prediction: Lakers in six.
The Magic easily outplayed the Lakers twice during the regular season. That, however, came with Jameer Nelson healthy and leading the team in scoring on both occasions.
While Alston has filled in admirably, he is not the type of quick scoring point guard who regularly torches the Lakers for big points.
The Magic's biggest edge here is their three-point shooting. Easily the best in the league, the Magic have shot the three historically well this season and the Lakers have defended it poorly, in part due to their zone defense.
If Howard can score 25-30 points per game in the series (on decent shooting), the Magic could well be unstoppable, as the Lakers would be unable to counter the three-point shooters as well as Howard.
Los Angeles, however, has 12 fouls to give off its bench in the form of DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell, and that is after facing the physical Andrew Bynum.
Howard will have to hit his free throws in this series even more than against Cleveland. It is therefore not a given that Orlando will get its own way down low and from beyond the arc.
The Magic will have problems of their own. Howard is going to have to help defending Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza as well as Bynum, meaning foul trouble could be a big problem.
With perimeter defenders the likes of Bryant, Ariza, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic, the Magic's three-point shooters will likely have a much harder job against the Lakers than against Cleveland, and the Lakers are a deeper and better offensive team than Orlando.
On top of this, the Lakers have just hit their stride in the last two games against Denver. If the Lakers can get five or more players in double figures— four Lakers are averaging 10+ppg in the playoffs— and Kobe Bryant can get five or more assists, the title is theirs.
In the end, the vastly more experienced Lakers have the easier goal and more to work with. With Nelson, this prediction would be Magic in seven.