Lakers, Not Spurs, Are Favorites In The West

Craig MalveauxContributor IJuly 8, 2009

For a second there, I second guessed myself. Optimism quickly turned into thoughts surrounded by nothing but doubt with each passing day. Suddenly the glass I once saw half full, turned into the glass half empty.

The 2009 NBA Finals Champion Los Angeles Lakers appeared primed with confidence to make a serious run to represent the Western conference for the third consecutive year and defend their NBA title this upcoming season. Ready to forget the struggles they experienced against the Yao and T-Mac-less Houston Rockets as well as the never say die Denver Nuggets in the playoffs and identify themselves as the true favorites of the Western conference.

With the best player in the game, an improving Andrew Bynum, an All-Star forward in Pau Gasol, and the intentions of returning Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, and Shannon Brown back to the team, you'd be crazy to think the Lakers didn't have a legitimate chance to repeat as champions.

But just when I had begun imagining Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant hoisting the Western Conference trophy for the seventh time in the last decade in front of thousands of screaming fans in the Staples Center, The San Antonio Spurs made headlines on every sports news website on the internet.

Just two days before the NBA Draft, the aging Spurs made a blockbuster move to acquire small forward Richard Jefferson from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas, and Fabricio Oberto. Not to mention committing highway robbery by drafting both Dejaun Blair and Jack McClinton without any first round draft picks. Regardless of the draft, let's take a deeper look at what Jefferson adds to the Spurs.

The addition of the 29 year old former New Jersey Net brings much needed youth,  just under 18 points per game, 3 assists, and 5.3 rebounds as a fourth scoring option, and a lifetime 47 percent shooter along side the big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker.

Without a doubt, the acquisition of Jefferson is a much needed upgrade over Michael Finley and immediately makes them Western conference contenders but don't crown them as the favorites to win the West just yet. And here's why. 

Tim Duncan is the heart and soul of the San Antonio Spurs, however, he isn't the same player he once used to be because of age. The past five years Duncan has averaged 19.5 ppg compared to 22.8 ppg his first seven years in the league. His points have naturally decreased as well as his minutes per game but thats during the regular season. In the playoffs, the two time MVP's numbers have dramatically reduced to 32.9 minutes per game, 8 boards, and only 19.8 points, his lowest playoff points total in his career. That's just the beginning.

For the Spurs, their chances of even reaching the Western Conference Finals rests solely on Manu Ginobli. He can be reckless with the ball and make poor decisions sometimes. But he is the X factor who provides energy and immediate scoring off of the bench. Here's where the problem lies.

Ginobli has been injury prone the past two seasons and is showing wear and tear. Slashing in between the lane taking a beating nightly is putting unnecessary mileage on his body evidenced by the 44 games he appeared in this past season due to a foot injury. The Dallas Mavericks embarrassed the Spurs in the first round 4-1. Regardless of who the Spurs acquire, they won't win without a healthy Ginobli period. Health remains a concern for the Argentinean; If he is healthy, they are a dangerous team, if not, forget about it. 

Let's just assume everyone remains healthy the entire season, so what then? Well, there's an old saying people are familiar with. The Spurs won four championships this decade playing great defense and fundamental basketball. The addition of Jefferson boosted the offense but crippled them a bit on defense. "Defense wins championships" and no team knows this better than the old run and gun Phoenix Suns. Just ask them how many championships they won in the last decade while leading the league in points per game, the answer may surprise you.

While Bowen certainly isn't getting any younger, the eight time NBA All-Defensive player was their best perimeter defender they had. Last time I checked, Bryant hasn't opted out of his contract so it's safe to say he is grinning from ear to ear somewhere in Los Angeles right now. No one successfully defended him one on one except for the Houston Rocket's Shane Battier, so Bryant had his way every night scoring 30.2 ppg on 46 percent shooting throughout the playoffs.  I'm sure either Roger Mason or Jefferson are up to the challenge of defending Bryant, I just don't think either one can.

Beside Bryant, the Lakers have two 7 foot towers and a versatile forward who stands 6 foot 10 in Odom. With the departure of Thomas and Oberto, they loss depth at the center position. How are they going to guard Gasol and Bynum? The answer doesn't lie within Matt Bonner and Drew Gooden. Without help in the front court for Duncan, the Spurs can pick their poison. 

Still unsure? 

Well the Spurs aren't the only team who made changes to their roster, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kuptchak responded with his own changes. Days after big names such as Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Hedo Turkoglu accepted offers from other teams, Ron Artest signed with the Lakers ensuring the departure of Trevor Ariza. Some question whether bringing in the troubled Artest was a smart move or simply a panic move in response to the Spurs as well as other Eastern Conference teams' acquisitions.

But overlooking his past troubles in Indiana, Artest is a great all around player with a special skill set who is a competitor. The four time NBA All-defender and 2004 Defensive Player of the Year is just what the doctor's ordered in Los Angeles. He is amongst the top defenders in the league, play three positions on the court, and most importantly brings the physicality a finesse Laker's team needs.

Ariza was a great shooter and defender as well, however he struggled against bigger and stronger players such as Carmelo Anthony. In addition to his defensive skills, Artest can create his own shot, shoot at a high percentage, and get to the rim scoring 17.1 ppg as the third or fourth option for the Lakers.

The Spurs certainly have made the West more competitive and have closed the gap between themselves and the Lakers during the offseason. The additions make them a contender in the West and gives life to an aging Spurs dynasty. But at the end of the day, the Lakers have done just enough to remain the favorites out West.

As long as you have the Zen master and the best player in the game, the Lakers have to be considered one of the best teams in the league. Health is the biggest question surrounding the Spurs and if I'm a Lakers fan, I'll take my chances.