Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers: 8 Reasons Why They're Still Favorites Out West
We never learn.
We cried that the sky was falling in 2001 when the Lakers finished with 11 fewer victories than they had finished with during their previous 67-win championship season.
Then, they completed the most dominant post-season run of all time.
We cried that the sky was falling in Boston when they finished with only 50 victories and before falling to the Lakers in the waning seconds of Game 7, they gave us one of the most classic Finals series ever, certainly the best the 2000's had to offer
We cried that the sky was falling in Miami after their 8-7 start to the season. They've played 11 games since and only one team managed to remain within single digits of them by the end of the final buzzer.
Barring injury, the great ones always find a way to emerge from a slump.
So why haven't we given the two-time reigning champions that respect? Well, here are 8 reasons why we should.
1) Health Issues Have Given Laker Opponents a Head Start
Let’s put things in perspective here: While the Lakers are currently behind San Antonio and Dallas in the standings, they’re the only team among the top six in the Western Conference with significant injury issues.
Aside from Boston, is there another team in either conference capable of winning over 70 percent of their games while missing two of their top three options at center?
If there is, I’m not familiar with them.
The Lakers have won the previous three games marking Bynum’s return by an average of 13 points, marking their best win differential across three consecutive games in a month.
The kicker is that they aren’t even getting much production from Bynum yet and Theo Ratliff has yet to return.
Though Bynum’s averages of five points and slightly under five rebounds per game aren’t exactly Wilt Chamberlain-esque numbers, his defensive presence and more importantly the rest he provides Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will restore the somewhat delicate balance to the Laker frontcourt that has dominated the league over the last few seasons.
When Bynum does regain offensive rhythm, watch out.
Even if Bynum’s production doesn’t increase much over time, he’s the clear cut linchpin in the Lakers rotation. His presence allows Gasol to match up with other power forwards who are typically less physical and shorter than the centers he’s been pitted against.
That fact alone makes Bynum a highly valuable piece to the Lakers’ puzzle. While Gasol has added a sizeable amount of grit and physicality to his game, he is not a “banger” inside.
Also, Lamar Odom is arguably the most talented sixth man in the league. There’s no question that the Lakers made a conscious effort to beef up their bench, but even with the improvements, the bench is still somewhat of a work in progress.
Aside from Shannon Brown, the top contributors so far have been Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. Blake has never been known as a sheet stuffer or a potential game-changer, and Matt Barnes can drop 20-plus on you one night and disappear for the next few weeks.
Odom affords the Lakers a much wider margin of error when coming off the bench, particularly when playing against the opposition’s second unit due to his typical advantage in size and skill.
When your greatest rival employs guys like Nate Robinson, Glen Davis and Shaq—and none of them are the designated starters—you can never have too much depth.
2) Their Major Opponents Pt. 1 (San Antonio Spurs)
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The Spurs should never be taken lightly.
The fact that they’ve been mere afterthoughts during the previous two Finals doesn’t dismiss the fact that they employ the most decorated power forward of all time or the fact that they’re the only team in the game to have made the playoffs each and every year since the beginning of the 2000’s.
Point blank: this is a very, very good ball club.
The Spurs’ big three, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, are all still among the top 10 players at their position.
Richard Jefferson, who took far too much blame for the Spurs unsuccessful 2009-10 campaign, has made noticeable progress across the board, cutting down on turnovers, increasing his field goal percentage and his scoring output. He’s also been a much more reliable option from beyond the arc so far.
Having said all this, anyone claiming to have predicted the Spurs’ incredible 22-3 start to the season after being swept out of the last year’s playoffs by the Phoenix Suns is lying through their teeth.
It seemed as though the Spurs had just enough in the tank to beat out the Dallas Mavericks before looking old, slow and washed up in their loss to Phoenix in the following round.
Sure they look rejuvenated now, but the season is still very early and they doubtlessly benefited from having such a long off-season.
Its doubtful that they’ll maintain this level of dominance throughout the season given the miles on the 33 year old Ginobili and the fact that they’ve become far more reliant on the three ball than they’ve ever been.
They are currently number one in three point shooting percentage and number two in total three pointers made.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, you don’t beat the Lakers from outside.
L.A. finished among the top three teams in opponent three-point field goal percentage over the last two seasons (ranked No. 1 last season) and remain in the top 7 at the category.
It would also seem that the Spurs lack the size to effectively combat the Lakers frontcourt of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Tim Duncan is the best (and perhaps the only) legitimate defensive presence the Spurs have on the inside, but in the event of a Lakers/Spurs playoff series, one would wonder how effectively Duncan could defend Pau Gasol given that Gasol is younger and the more productive of the two at this point in their careers.
Case in point: aside from Amar’e Stoudemire, Gasol has outplayed each and every power forward he’s been matched up against since 2008.
Although the Spurs have been very successful up to this point, the argument can be made that the Lakers have match up advantages at every position in the starting lineup besides point guard.
Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs won’t be an easy out for any team and a potential series between the two would be highly competitive, but even with the discrepancy between the current records for the Spurs and Lakers, the Lakers' track record and match up advantages don’t allow much room for the Spurs to be favored above them.
3) Their Major Opponents Pt. 2 (Dallas Mavericks)
With Dallas' track record (including the 2006 NBA Finals, the humiliating first round of the 2007 playoffs and the fact that they’ve only won a single playoff series since) they don’t really scare anyone.
While they rack up 50 win seasons as often as the Miami Heat get heckled on the road, the loudest noise they make come playoff time comes from the mouth of owner Mark Cuban.
There’s no denying the talent of their shooters or the dominance of Dirk Nowitzki, but the Mavericks lack that “elbow grease” factor.
When the crap hits the fan they don’t have a guy capable of consistently putting his foot down and willing his team to victory (and yes, that statement includes Nowitzki).
Putting aside the Mavericks’ less than stellar post-season track record, the Mavericks just don’t match up well with the Lakers at all.
Jason Kidd is no longer fast or spry enough to take full advantage of the biggest chink in the Lakers’ starting lineup, Derek Fisher. The rest of the match ups swing in the Lakers’ favor.
Kobe trumps any shooting guard in the Western Conference (more on that later), as good as Butler is, Ron Artest has fried much bigger fish during last year’s title run alone, and Tyson Chandler is almost as big a injury concern as Andrew Bynum—but without the all-star potential.
For the record, I count Gasol vs Nowitzki as a match up advantage as well.
Though the Lakers split the series with the Mavericks two games apiece last year, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’ve absolutely dominated the Mavericks since trading for Pau Gasol.
It took seven tries for the Mavericks to finally win one over the Lakers since the acquisition.
The kicker? Gasol spent that game on the sidelines.
In the seven games Gasol has played against the Mavericks in a Laker uniform, the Mavericks walked away with the win once. At home.
Despite the Mavericks’ considerable offensive talent, they lack the defensive fortitude necessary to take them to the next level. Though they’re ranked sixth in points allowed this year, they haven’t finished a season ranked higher than 15th since 2008.
So let’s recap:
Size advantage: Lakers
Talent advantage: Lakers
Post-season track record: Lakers
Recent match up history: Lakers
4) Their Major Opponents Pt. 3 (The Rest Of The West)
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After San Antonio, who's really next in line to challenge the Lakers?
Portland? Not without Greg Oden.
New Orleans? Me, myself, I and sometimes David West doesn’t cut it against the Lakers. Not even for a player like CP3.
Oklahoma City? Possibly, but they haven't established themselves as a good enough road team to take one at Staples, and they’re still at least one piece (probably a big man) away from being able to make it over L.A.
Utah? The last three regular seasons and post-seasons speak for themselves.
Denver? They’re dangerous and match up against the Lakers as well as anyone, but won’t win more regular season games than L.A. and given that their only real success against L.A. has come in Denver, they would likely need homecourt advantage to have a plausible shot. And oh yeah, Melo may be headed East before the end of the season.
The Lakers’ talent isn’t the only major factor here, it's that most of the teams out West are either severely flawed or hampered by injury.
The most legitimate Western Conference threat the Lakers have is probably a toss up between San Antonio and Oklahoma City. A potential series between those teams could really go either way if the Lakers are without homecourt advantage (they’re 30-4 at Staples over the last three post-seasons).
The problem is that the Lakers aren’t too likely to be without it.
Yes, that means that I put more precedence in the fact that the Lakers are the first team since the ‘96-’98 Bulls to win a conference’s number one seed and conference title for three consecutive years (a feat that has only been accomplished by one other team in NBA history, the 60’s Celtics) than the fact that the Spurs have an relatively sizable, yet early lead in the standings.
5) Their Division
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The Pacific Division is hands down the weakest division in the West, maybe in the entire league.
Though the Atlantic Division is arguably the next in line, Stoudemire’s Knicks have proven to have more than a little bit of fight and the Sixers had won five of their last 6 games (the loss being a one point, buzzer beater loss to the Celtics) entering yesterday’s game with the Lakers.
The Central Division may look weak at first glance, but the Pacers and Bucks are some of the scrappiest young teams in the league.
The Southeast Division holds the Heat and Magic, ‘nuff said (sorry, Atlanta).
Back out West, the Northwest division boasts four of the eight total playoff seeds from last year and the Southwest holds the Spurs and Mavs.
In the Pacific division, the toughest team the Lakers have to contend with are the Suns, who have all the inside presence of your average Manhattan bagel and are currently ranked among the bottom three teams in the league in rebounding (39.3 rpg for the season).
Though the Lakers have already sustained a division loss this season, it came against the Suns on a night in which they made 22 three-pointers, an event that isn’t particularly likely to take place again.
As for the rest of the division? They’re hardly worth the bother.
The Pacific division is the only division in the NBA without at least two representatives among the top fifteen teams in total points allowed.
Worse, aside from the Suns, who at No. 19 barely made it into the top 20 teams in point differential, no non-Laker team in the Pacific is ranked higher than 25th in that category.
If playing against teams like these won’t pad your win total and help establish rhythm, not too many other things will.
6) Kobe Bryant
You knew this was coming eventually, right?
The debate between Kobe and LeBron has come to an indefinite halt.
Kobe supporters proudly point to his five rings while LeBron supporters point to his unparalleled production.
Entering the season neither side really won, but given that LeBron is playing with another all-world talent, comparing the two at this point is akin to apples and oranges.
The good news for Bryant and his supporters is that there really isn’t anyone else.
Durant was supposed to be the new king out West this year, but Durant has yet to find a way to match last year’s production with the increased defensive attention he’s found himself dealing with and has struggled to regain the rhythm in his once dominant jumpshot.
Though the Nuggets are doing somewhat well, Carmelo Anthony has taken a noticeable step down in his scoring output (last year 28 ppg, this year 24 ppg) and isn’t quite the dark horse MVP candidate he’s been in years past.
Even if James still contests Bryant for the league title, Bryant is still the undisputed king out West, and he’s got plenty of reasons to remain as hungry as he’s ever been.
Not only does Bryant have the opportunity to secure his second career three-peat championship run, he has the chance to tie Michael Jordan for six career championship titles.
Sure, Bryant downplays how much either chance means to him, but you can take that with a grain of salt.
As Bryant proved in last year’s Finals, its when he’s downplaying and denying the historical importance of his opportunities that he’s motivated the most.
Given the Lakers size and depth, if they are to lose this year (barring injury), someone’s going to have to outplay Kobe Bryant over the course of seven games and I don’t see that happening out West.
7) Coaching Advantage
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Let it be known that for all Phil Jackson’s unmatched successes, he’s probably the worst in-game adjustment coach of his caliber.
He’s known for his hesitance to call time outs when the other team is making runs, and he’s not very big on changing defensive schemes or his rotation to match up better with the opposition.
With that said, he typically forms superior game plans to begin with and over the course of his two latest title runs, he’s continued the trend established over his entire career in severely limiting some of the best players he's been faced with.
The 15 points per game Dwight Howard averaged in the 2009 playoffs was his lowest average of the post-season.
In last year’s playoffs, the Lakers held Durant to 25 ppg, five fewer points than his season average while subjecting him to a sub-par 35 percent shooting average, more than a 10 percent decrease.
The 13.6 ppg and 7.6 apg Rajon Rondo averaged in last year’s Finals were both post-season lows.
Don’t even start with the obvious argument that the aforementioned players had exploitable flaws in their game.
While its true that Howard’s entire offensive repertoire could be displayed at a dunk contest, that Durant was far too reliant on his shot and that Rajon Rondo had no outside game to compensate for the extreme distance he was afforded when Bryant sagged far off him over the course of last year’s Finals, these players all dominated prior to being matched up against the Lakers.
Its true that the Lakers' unique roster allowed them to match up successfully with these players in ways that other teams couldn’t, but its also true that Jackson’s game plan put the Lakers in the right position to defend these players and prevent them from taking the series over.
One should also respect that the aforementioned players are all among the very best of their position. No other coach over the course of the last few post-seasons has had nearly the success Jackson has had in limiting such a wide variety of talent.
Simply put, Jackson is the greatest basketball mind of our generation, arguably of all time.
While his complicated triangle offense is typically the brunt of the conversation when discussing his coaching prowess, his defensive schematics are actually underrated and a large part of why the Lakers have been so successful.
We already talked about Kobe’s opportunity to tie Jordan for six rings, something I don’t think Jordan is thrilled about.
(Can you really name nine guards better than Kobe, MJ?)
We talked about the Lakers' opportunity to become only the second team in NBA history to win three consecutive titles on two separate occasions.
We skipped a few things like Phil Jackson’s opportunity to capture a 12th title (a record not likely to be broken by any coach in any sport) and Pau Gasol’s opportunity to capture a third ring, propel him to the ranks of the top 5-10 power forwards of all time and guarantee a spot in the Hall of Fame.
But what else have we missed?
Oh, just the fact that the Lakers have the opportunity to tie the Celtics for championship titles and remove all argument for the title of the NBA’s greatest franchise.
Of course, these guys won’t talk about that.
Even if the Lakers and Celtics do face off in the Finals for the 13th time in their history and the third time in four years, I wouldn’t expect much commentary on the opportunities for either franchise.
The reporters will try to get these players to bite, but they won’t. They'll just downplay it as a fan thing and to an extent they’re right.
But deep down you know the Celtics want revenge. You know the Lakers want to get the green monkey off their backs permanently and erase the last bit of the nasty aftertaste of the 2008 Finals.
These guys act like they don’t know about their stats or their records or who and what they’re chasing but we know better.
We can see it in their demeanor, their attitude, their swagger. The Lakers are damn proud to be Lakers and the Celtics are damn proud to be doucheb...I mean Celtics.
They’re the two best teams, the two best franchises and odds are both want a tie breaker to settle the score for good.
I don’t see anyone in the West who should be favored to prevent that from happening.