Former Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers coach Rudy 'T' Tomjanovich once said "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."
He said this in 1995, right after his sixth-seeded Houston Rockets managed to overcome the 60-22 Utah Jazz, the 59-23 Phoenix Suns, the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs and the 57-25 Orlando Magic, beating the teams with the four best records in the NBA and leading his team as the lowest seed to have won a championship. They may have been the reigning 1993-94 NBA champions, but with their dismal record, the Rockets were largely counted out by the time the playoffs arrived.
Fast forward 15 years later, as the 2008 champion Boston Celtics faced off against 2009 champion Los Angeles Lakers to contend for the 2010 title. In a thrilling series between two of the most storied franchises in the NBA, the Lakers managed to beat the Celtics in the last few minutes of game 7 at Staples Center. It was an absolute exhibition of basketball played at its highest level, and the Lakers deserved to win.
However, with the Lakers facing both internal and external pressure, they will be hard pressed to achieve the same amount of success they enjoyed the last few years. Age, complacency and injuries could derail their title quest from within while all the other teams in the NBA are gunning for them.
I would never bet against them, especially with five-time champion Kobe Bryant leading the way, and 16 NBA trophies in their trophy case. For now, they are still the reigning champions and the favorites to retain their title. Nobody should underestimate their heart.
But with the intense amount of pressure they will face this season, that is a monumental task that could ultimately leave them just short of their big prize. With a multitude of obstacles in their way, the Lakers will face stumbling blocks at every point during the season, and I believe that they will ultimately fall just short of expectations.
During last season's playoffs, Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder gave a glimpse of their potential as they fearlessly fought against the reigning champion Lakers.
One of the first things they did was re-sign Kevin Durant to a long term contract. In the draft, they decided to continue the rebuilding project by drafting 6'11" C double-double machine Cole Aldrich from a stacked Kansas Jayhawks team, 7'1" C Tibor Pleiß from Germany, SF Latavious Williams from the NBDL, and PF Ryan Reid from Florida State University.
With a solid young core of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, and promising rookie James Harden coming off the bench, the Thunder have nowhere to look but up. Each of those players oozes class, and if any of their rookies plays up to their talent, they will be even more formidable than last season.
If they continue to improve, chances are the Thunder will become a powerhouse one day. But if the rookies contribute significantly this year, that day could be sooner rather than later.
More importantly, with a draft that seemed to target big men, the Thunder seemed to have shored their weaknesses with a firm eye on a Lakers matchup, and in truth, could give them a much tougher time if they meet in the playoffs. A few lucky breaks here and there could possibly even push them past the Lakers.
Age is just a number. Or is it?
The Lakers are not a young team. Time will catch up to them eventually.
A quick look at their roster shows that the only players who are under 30 or won't turn 30 this season are Shannon Brown, Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. With the exceptions of the athletically-gifted Brown and the injury-prone Bynum, those names do not inspire much confidence in a team.
Kobe Bryant is 32. Ron Artest, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Lamar Odom, and Luke Walton are all turning 31 this season. Pau Gasol is 30. By comparison, Theo Ratliffe and Derek Fisher are 37 and 36 respectively, making the rest of this group look like spring chickens.
As players grow older and time catches up with them, their athleticism and skills will inevitably diminish, and they will stop being able to compete for championships. It happens to every great player. Not even the seemingly ageless Kareem Abdul Jabbar or the great Michael Jordan himself could compete against time.
The Lakers tried the whole 'aging veterans' experiment a few years ago when 'the mailman' Karl Malone and 'the glove' Gary Payton joined the Shaq and Kobe show for a seemingly inspired run at the playoffs only to fizzle against a blue collar Detroit Pistons team proudly representing their home. It didn't work then. Worse yet, it seemed as if those players aged right before our eyes in that finals match up.
Whether that instant aging happens to the Lakers sooner rather than later is still unclear. What is certain is that most of the Lakers are past their prime. But the important question is how much and precisely how will that affect their quest for their third consecutive title.
Although Trevor Ariza's defenders will argue that Ron Artest didn't contribute as much to the Lakers winning the championship as Ariza did during the 2009 Playoffs, nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, Artest is a volatile character that is prone to erratic behavior and the odd boneheaded move. He does not always play as a team player, his shot selection leaves a lot to be desired, and his decision-making is not always spot on. And yes, he was the primary person responsible for the "Palace Brawl" in Detroit.
But he is also an excellent perimeter defender who bullies his opposition into submission by grabbing, pulling and riding his man throughout the game. Ariza may have been the quicker man and an excellent defender himself, but Ron Artest used his strength and tenacity to harass and frustrate his opponents into committing a turnover or taking bad shots.
More importantly, he was a huge reason the Lakers were able to beat Boston. In fact, without him, the Lakers might not have even reached the NBA finals. His last second shot against the Suns demoralized that team and practically snuffed out any chance of the Suns reaching the next round.
So why does it make the Lakers less likely to repeat?
After winning the championship, Ron Artest was understandably in a celebratory mood. He thanked everyone, including his psychiatrist, and during the post-game press conference, was so happy that he was almost incomprehensible.
That shows how much hunger he had to win that first championship and how happy and relieved he was to have that monkey off his back. Without that same hunger and motivation, and with his age starting to become a factor, I don't see Artest being nearly as effective as he was last year.
Losing breeds hunger and drives people while winning brings complacency. So just like Boston's 'Big Three', I expect Artest's overall production to drop off as he ages and loses his edge. He probably has a couple of years at most to play at the highest level.
At least when he retires, he'll have a budding career as rapper Tru Warier.
Like the OKC Thunder, the Portland Trailblazers have been building a team for the future these past few years. With unquestioned leader Brandon Roy leading the team, the Blazers are poised to make a splash in the NBA for years to come.
In previous seasons, the Blazers's title aspirations have been derailed by their inexperience and serious injuries to their big man Greg Oden. He is still recovering from the knee injury he sustained against Aaron Brooks and the Rockets, and will probably not start the season. His backup, Joel Przybilla, is also nursing a knee injury and will face a fight to make the opening game of the season.
But with Oden, Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers have a great young core that will be in contention for a title for years to come. They have size, speed, and athleticism. Though they aren't quite proficient at scoring, they make up for it by being a solid defensive team that holds its opponents to 94.8 ppg.
If both Oden and Pzrybilla manage to get healthy before the end of the regular season, they could be the ones to derail the Lakers in the playoffs. Oden, Przybilla, Aldridge, and Marcus Camby provide a great matchup for the Lakers' size, and in Miller, Batum, and Roy, the Blazers have solid perimeter defenders who can compete with the Lakers.
A lot depends on the health of an old-looking young man with rickety knees.
Speaking of rickety knees, here's another guy with suspect knees: Andrew Bynum.
It all started in the 2007-08 season against the Memphis Grizzlies when he caught his knee with teammate Lamar Odom's foot and dislocated his left kneecap. Later during the playoffs, amidst rumors of a comeback, he opted for arthroscopic knee surgery that virtually ended his season.
The next season Bynum, again against the Grizzlies, Kobe Bryant collides against against him and sprained his right kneecap, which later turned out to be a torn MCL. He would be sidelined until around April 2009. That year, despite losing much of the regular season to his injury, a hobbling Andrew Bynum helped the Lakers to the first of their back to back.
Last season, Bynum again injured his right knee, this time in their first round playoff series against the Thunder. That set the tone for the rest of the playoffs as Bynum struggled with his knee throughout, often draining it just before game time. But with his enormous contribution during the final and a knee injury to Kendrick Perkins in game 6, he helped the Lakers win a second consecutive title.
He has only played 35, 50 and 65 regular season games these past few years, and the wear and tear on his knees could eventually prove career-threatening. The lingering effects of multiple knee surgeries could be a huge factor in how he plays next year, and ultimately, how well the Lakers do in the playoffs. So the whole Laker nation needs to pray for his knees.
Without Bynum, the Lakers are very good.
With him, they're great.
Knee injuries often take a serious toll on players, especially giant 7 footers with large upper bodies. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of his knee injuries are, but if Bynum cannot stay injury-free, the Lakers' chances at a three-peat will definitely tumble.
During the last three seasons, only two teams have given the Lakers any kind of trouble during the playoffs: the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets.
Last year the Rockets were a fairly average team with a 6'6" starting center and no superstar or even a semblance of a 20 point scorer on their team. The fact that they finished with a 42-40 record and barely missed the playoffs was already a huge reach for them, especially after Charles Barkley said they were going to be the worst team in the West.
But during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, the Rockets gave the Lakers all they could handle, forcing them to 7 games despite losing Tracy McGrady to microfracture surgery earlier in the season, and Yao Ming to a broken foot in game 3 of that series.
The 2010-2011 incarnation of that Rockets team will be missing the toughness of Ron Artest, but they still display the defensive nous inherited from Jeff Van Gundy, and are beginning to feel comfortable in Rick Adelman's read-and-react offense. Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and Kevin Martin all provide ample scoring. But the additions of Brad Miller and Courtney Lee, and the addition by subtraction of Trevor Ariza — who scored a lot with an equally large number of shots — will ensure a much more efficient Rockets team.
With a supporting cast that had to experience growing pains because of Yao's absence last season, the Rockets have the perfect blend of size, youth, athleticism, and experience to overcome
While Yao's health and capabilities this season will be the biggest factor in determining whether the Rockets can stop the Lakers, there is an exciting wild card with the possibility of Carmelo Anthony joining the Rockets. If that happens, the likelihood of the Rockets beating the Lakers will jump up exponentially.
Without 'Melo, the Rockets have a slim chance of beating the Lakers in a head to head match up in the wild, wild west.
With 'Melo, that slim chance is upgraded to realistic.
With their long and storied rivalry spanning several decades, no matter how many championships they have already won, any time the Celtics lose to the Lakers, they are going to want revenge.
During last season's NBA finals, In one of the most hard-fought series between these two franchises of the NBA, the Lakers won the series in the last few minutes of the game in Staples Center. No one can know what would have happened had Kendrick Perkins not gotten injured, but what's clear is that this team of supposedly aging veterans was able to push the reigning champions all the way to seven games.
There was one area that the Lakers had a distinct advantage over most, if not all their opponents: their size. With the presence of three legitimate skilled 7-footers in Bynum, Gasol and Odom, the Lakers towered over most other teams.
Although the Celtics gave them a run for their money, they were woefully undersized last season, forcing 6'9" 'Big Baby' Glen Davis, 6'10" Kendrick Perkins, to pair up with 6'11" Rasheed Wallace and 6'11" Kevin Garnett to face up against a bevy of Lakers big men who towered over them.
This upcoming season, with Rasheed Wallace retiring, the Celtics addressed that problem, picking up one of the best big men to have played the game in Shaquille O'Neal as well as talented but declining veteran Jermaine O'Neal.
So although they are a rapidly aging team, they are only a few seasons removed from their own championship season, and with the key additions to their front court, they possess all the tools necessary to spoil the Lakers quest for a three-peat.
If they can renew their commitment to defense, and push for that little bit extra, even with Tom Thibodeau now coaching the Bulls, they could force an upset over the Heat and the Lakers.
On paper, the Dallas Mavericks have a roster that matches up very well against the L.A. Lakers. They've got a very good starting five and have quality in their depth.
But for this upcoming season, Mark Cuban's Mavericks boast one of the deepest teams in the league. With starters Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki all capable scorers and distributors who can create shots, and with Jason Terry, JJ Barea, and Rodrigue Beaubois coming off the bench, the Mavericks have no worries on the offensive side. How many other teams have a 16 ppg scorer coming from the bench?
This summer, to counter the Lakers' vaunted size advantage, they strengthened themselves by signing 7'1" Tyson Chandler and 7'0" Frenchman Alexis Ajinça to back up 7'0" Brendan Haywood. Unlike most other teams in the West, the Mavericks have size and strength in abundance.
But historically, their defense and mental toughness have been their problem. They lost to the Heat in the finals in 2006 and were ousted from the first round of the playoffs by the upstart Warriors despite having the best record in the NBA the next year. The next year, the 2007-08 season, they lost in the first round again against a red-hot New Orleans Hornets team. The following year they exited the playoffs in the second round against Denver. Last year they were again eliminated in the first round by 7th seed San Antonio.
Starting with the shock loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2007, the Mavericks have been shamed with the ignominy of losing first round match ups that they should have won. They have been the laughing stock of the league.
But if they can shake off that losing mentality and really tighten their defense, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Both the 2007 Warriors and last year's Spurs were matchup nightmares for the Mavericks. The New Orleans Hornets team of 2008 were on fantastic form coming into the playoffs. The Mavericks have been simply unlucky to have faced their perfect foils and succumbed to them.
All they need to do is win and shake off that stigma of losing. After all, Shaquille O'Neal was a perennial loser, getting swept numerous times, until he won his first championship.
With the gamble on Chandler, and the additions of Butler and Haywood, Cuban is betting on the next few years. Their roster is custom built to handle the Lakers' size advantage. Their star, Dirk Nowitzki, seems to be getting more efficient with age. So if they face the Lakers in the playoffs this year, they could really give them a hard time.
This year is really an all-or-nothing year for them.
Yes, Kobe Bryant was absolutely magnificent in guiding his team to consecutive championships last year, and yes, he was playing with a badly broken finger that ordinarily, should have taken six weeks to heal. Some might consider that a testament to his greatness. But in truth, it could be a decision that haunts him for the rest of his life.
After suffering an avulsion fracture in two places near the tip of his index finger catching a low errant pass from Jordan Farmar, Kobe Bryant opted to heavily splint the finger and allow the bone to heal while he continued playing.
To even attempt something like that meant that he had to re-tool his shooting motion to put more pressure on his thumb and middle finger. But at least it would allow him to continue playing through the pain and swelling, and give the Lakers a realistic chance of winning home court advantage.
They never did gain complete home court advantage, finishing 57-25, well below Orlando's 59-23 and Cleveland's 61-21. But in the long run, that didn't really matter because both teams were eliminated by the 50-32 Boston Celtics.
But the long-term effects of Bryant's decision to play through the pain are nothing short of devastating. The middle knuckle was in constant pain because he overcompensated for the lack of strength and stability in his index finger with his middle finger.
Even after the bone healed, he was forced to splint and heavily tape his index finger because it lacked strength. It seems that he could be stuck with those splints for as long as he plays basketball, and possibly suffer arthritis for the rest of his life.
But the long-term effects of this injury notwithstanding, the significance of the injury in the short-term is what worries most Lakers fans. How will Bryant play in the next few years? Will he be as good and dominant as he always has been? Or will the injured finger ultimately cause his intensity and ability to dip?
Only time will tell.
As I wrote in a previous article, if everything goes according to plan, I foresee a Lakers-Heat finals matchup. If there is one team that really looks like beating L.A., it is the Heat.
Many parts of the media have unofficially crowned the Heat as the new NBA champions before they have even played one game together. That thinking may be naive, but there is definitely sufficient evidence to back that assessment.
This type of coming together to win a championship is not unprecedented. The Boston Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and immediately won a championship. The only difference with James, Wade, and Bosh is that Miami's "Big Three" are all in the prime of their careers and except Wade, have yet to win a title. That means they are hungry to win a championship.
The idea of facing just James and his old Cavaliers team or Wade and his Heat was daunting enough for the Lakers fans. The combination of those two and Bosh should be absolutely terrifying for them. They have strength, athleticism, and scoring. Now all they need is decent production from a big man and some tight defense, and they could be absolutely devastating.
They are burdened by astronomical expectations and overflowing with talent, but are still an unknown commodity. But they are undoubtedly a talented team brimming with confidence amidst the promise of multiple championships, and they are quickly becoming the biggest obstacle to a second Lakers dynasty.
Now don't get me wrong. I think the difference between the Heat and Lakers is razor thin. I wouldn't be surprised if either team won it all. But if any team has a chance against the reigning world champions, it's the Heat.