Los Angeles Lakers: Will This Be the Best Team of the Pau Gasol Era?

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Los Angeles Lakers: Will This Be the Best Team of the Pau Gasol Era?
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Without question, the Lakers have been the dominant force in the Western Conference for the last three years. 

They may have struggled in a series here or there, but they have been the Western Conference Champions every year since acquiring Pau Gasol in one of the greatest (or worst, depending on which side you’re looking from) trades in recent memory.

They fell short in the NBA Finals in 2008 due to spotty defense and a heavy reliance on a more elegant offense.  The Boston Celtics were too much defensively and even Kobe Bryant seemed to be worn down by the amount of effort he had to exert on defense against Paul Pierce, who played like the best player on the court that year.  Kevin Garnett was a man playing against Gasol, who looked like a mere boy, and dominated that match-up from the first tip to the closing seconds.  The Celtics bench played stronger, and the gritty play and focused defense carried them to an NBA-record 17th championship in 2008.

To begin the 2008-2009 season, the Lakers were knocked for their tendency toward finesse and inability to play rough with others.  Despite the early criticism, they looked dominant against a young Orlando team whose leader, Dwight Howard, stood and watched like a deer in the headlights in his first Finals appearance.

The more experienced and motivated Lakers refused to allow a repeat of the humiliation they suffered at the hand of their long-time rivals, the Boston Celtics, just one year earlier.  Kobe, jaw firmly jutted out and dialed in like a sniper, led his team to an impressive championship performance, getting help on key plays from the likes of his close friend and teammate Derek Fisher, whose playful smile after draining a three to seal the win in Game 4 of that series is one of the memorable moments of the ’09 NBA Finals. 

Trevor Ariza showed up with a couple key steals and some stellar outside shooting to help push the Lakers forward.  And with Bynum injured for the majority of the playoffs, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom came up large for their team when it was needed the most.  Who can forget the indelible image of Gasol standing under the rim after an and-one, fists held firmly at his side with his jaw agape, screaming at the crowd in celebration.  Kobe joyfully looked into the camera, holding both the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy and the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy, and triumphantly counted to four with the fingers on his left hand.

Despite being world champions in 2009, at the beginning of the next season there were still questions about whether or not the Lakers were tough enough to play with the East Coast teams, who were more rough and tumble with a defensive mindset.  To remedy this, the Lakers added Ron Artest to their roster after losing Trevor Ariza to free agency.  It was considered a risky move, but the theory was that Artest could play the gritty defense that Kobe usually played on the opposing team’s star forward/guard, allowing Kobe to focus on his offensive game. 

This theory was put to the test when NBA fans were blessed for the second time in three years with the league’s greatest rivals matching up once again in the NBA Finals.  The stage was set for the Lakers to take another shot at the Celtics. 

The individual facing the greatest scrutiny was Pau Gasol.  Evidently tired of hearing about how soft he was, he came out and dominated Garnett in Game 1.  The Lakers looked plenty tough and plenty solid on defense despite their star and leader, Kobe, playing with a variety of injuries including a broken index finger on his shooting hand. 

It was a long, hard-fought series with both teams stealing games on the other’s home court, but the Lakers emerged victorious in an intense Game 7 that was the most watched NBA playoff game since Michael Jordan’s last Finals appearance with the Chicago Bulls in 1998.  All questions about toughness were put to rest and Kobe had finally stepped out as a legend having accomplished everything there was to accomplish as an NBA player now that he had beaten the Lakers' bitter and long-time rival.

It was most definitely a ‘sweet 16’ for the Los Angeles Lakers.

We are now in the offseason in 2010 and the current champs are once again being questioned as a ‘new world order’ has been formed in Miami with D-Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining forces.  Everyone from the casual reader to the ‘experts’ in Vegas have declared this season over and pronounced the Heat the victors in the 2011 NBA Finals. 

The muted chuckle you hear coming from the West might be Kobe Bryant trying to suppress an outright laugh from his physical therapy center where he is rehabbing his knee after having surgery performed earlier this month. 

While bandwagon hoppers are quickly jumping aboard the S.S. Miami Thrice , the Lakers organization has quietly made some brilliant off-season acquisitions.  The best team in the NBA during the last two years has not only made themselves better, they’ve made themselves significantly better. 

The bench, which ranged from mediocre to a non-factor for the majority of the season, has been completely revamped.  Although he was a fan favorite, DJ Mbenga was little more than a large mascot that clogged the lane when the Lakers’ big men were in foul trouble.  And while he had some spectacular blocks, and the crowd cheered him on like Rudy in South Bend whenever he scored, replacing him with veteran Theo Ratliff is an obvious upgrade.  Ratliff may be aging and in the decline of his career but coming off the bench he will provide grittiness and a strong body to anchor the second team while his experience provides leadership on the floor.

Dead weight  Adam Morrison finally had his contract expire, but his joyride on the most magical bench in basketball gave him two championship rings, leaving little room for complaint.  The sizable contract he was awarded early in his young career was based solely on his college performance and in the end proved to be an overestimation of his talent.  It did, however, accommodate a beneficial trade allowing L.A. to unload an under-performing Vladimir Radmanovic and his bloated salary to the Bobcats while picking up the young athletic talent of Shannon Brown. 

Morrison’s replacement was an even more significant upgrade.  Los Angeles acquired Matt Barnes, the defensive specialist and outside sharpshooter who played for Orlando.  Laker fans may remember him best as the guy who shoved a ball in Kobe’s unflinching mug before the inbound play on the baseline in the third game of the 2009 Finals.  As a Laker fan myself, I hated Barnes for that juvenile play (although, Kobe’s non-reaction was legendary) but I couldn’t be happier to have him joining the squad now.  To quote Kobe, “Anyone crazy enough to mess with me is crazy enough to play with me.” 

Mess he did, and play he will.  If he’s got Kobe’s vote of confidence, I’m on board.  Artest worked out beautifully (if not sporadically) so I’ve learned to trust Bryant’s judgment. 

Barnes is a reliable mid-range and outside jump shooter who rarely makes poor judgment calls on the floor.  His defense is the real gem though.  He offers a solid defensive back up to Artest for those games when his over-anxious tenacity puts him in foul trouble early against players like Durant and Lebron James.  When that happens now, there is another solid defender ready to pick up where he left off.  This takes the pressure off Kobe to guard the best player on the floor if Ron-Ron gets excited and attacks with too much fervor early in a game.

One final improvement was at the point guard position, which has traditionally been the Lakers' Achilles Heel since the exodus of Magic Johnson.  Although I was somewhat saddened to see L.A. native and UCLA alum Jordan Farmar leave, his replacement is an upgrade.  Mitch Kupchak managed to lure Steve Blake for a very reasonable salary to come off the bench for the current champs. 

Blake has bounced around the league since entering in 2003, playing with Washington, Portland, Denver, Milwaukee, Portland again , and last year with the Clippers where he dropped his first triple double on, yep, the Lakers.  But here, on the more successful side of the Staples Center, is where he’d like to make a home for himself and his growing family.  He’s expecting his third child in August. 

Blake will be a far superior fit for the Lakers than Farmar.  Farmar was more of a scorer whereas Blake considers himself a facilitator first and his play backs that assumption up.  Blake was quoted as having said, “ I'm a guy that likes to set people up first and get everyone involved.”  He went on to say, “Giving the ball to a scorer and letting them do their work and read off of them is a role I'm definitely comfortable in." 

Blake provides some youth to an aging Laker backcourt.  Although he will likely be Derek Fisher’s backup it is reasonable to assume his minutes will be split much like Farmar’s were last year.  So he will most likely play between 20 and 25 minutes a game in order to save Fisher’s legs for the post-season.  Blake’s ability to reliably knock down the open jumper in double team situations will prove a golden asset for a second team that struggled to score in stretches last season. 

Beyond the new acquisitions, Kupchak and the Lakers have been working on retaining some familiar faces as well.  The verdict is still out on the insanely athletic shooting guard, Shannon Brown.  But reports from both parties seem to indicate that the outlook is good that his return will become reality.  With his ability to jump out of the building and his consistently improving jump shot, he will continue to flourish under Phil, Kobe and the Lakers.

 

But for Kupchak and Kobe, it was most important to bring back the only starter whose contract expired.  And fortunately for the organization and the fans, they managed to bring back Derek Fisher, whose clutch shooting down the stretch has saved the Lakers more times than I can count. 

More significantly, he is the yin to Kobe’s yang, providing a cool head and a supporting word when Bryant berates a teammate for not living up to his impossible standard of excellence.  Fish is the only player Kobe will listen to and is one of the few players he considers a legitimate friend and not simply a teammate or fellow NBA player.

Fisher’s place in the heart of Laker fans is irreplaceable.  It will be good to see him sporting the purple and gold for what I’ve got to imagine will be the conclusion to his illustrious career. 

Courted by Miami, he had the opportunity to play with some of the best up and coming players in the league but ultimately he chose to come home. I am positive there were an array of reasons why he came back: his friendship with Kobe, playing under Phil Jackson, his loyalty to the fans, better health care and doctors for his daughter. But the truth about Fisher is that he’s a winner.  I think he knows that this team is the best in the league and still the one to beat. 

When you look at the Lakers roster thus far, it is quite impressive and, frankly, kind of stacked.  The starting five will most likely remain intact.  Kobe will be returning and playing uninjured.  People tend to forget he was playing with several injuries last year.  His knee was bad enough he chose to have surgery and his index finger, which is not the only busted finger on his right hand, has been referred to as that of an eighty year old. 

After playing through the off-season in recent years with the Olympics and International competition, Kobe is finally resting this summer.  He will return healthier than fans have seen him in years and revitalized by new teammates, old friends, and making the most out of the last coaching year of his mentor, Phil Jackson.  If Bynum manages to stay healthy this is easily the best team, top to bottom, in basketball.  And from the play of a slimmed down Derrick Caracter, the Lakers young rookie, another large big man may be added before the season begins.  This team could actually get better!

So while the media focuses on the louder and splashier moves that have occurred this offseason, the Lakers have quietly carved out a very respectable postseason.  Miami may be the headline story right now, stealing all the room in the spotlight this summer and making every front page.  But Kobe and the Lakers know what matters most is being on the front page in June, not July.  And from the looks of this team, unquestionably the best team in the Gasol era of Lakerdom, there’s a good chance that’s exactly where they’ll be.  

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