Despite the fact that Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers are the two-time defending NBA world champions, they certainly aren’t playing like it.
As of Dec. 23, 2010 their record was 21-8, respectable, but hardly world beating, especially considering their competition thus far.
Their latest loss came at the hands of a woefully undermanned Bucks team—a 19-point collapse that's left many asking what’s wrong with this team.
Though the team is different than the one that won back-to-back titles, the consensus from a talent and chemistry perspective is that they’re better.
The main cast of characters has returned and with the additions of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake as well as the emergence of the steady play of Shannon Brown, this is the deepest team they’ve had in the post Shaq era.
However, despite being relatively injury free (Bynum’s knee and Gasol’s fatigue notwithstanding), lack of focus and inconsistent play continue to plague the Lakers.
It should come as no surprise that many are beginning to wonder when or if the “real” team will show up.
By contrast their opponents in the finals, the Boston Celtics are dominating the east.
Also much improved but suffering from a litany of injuries (Rondo, Perkins, Shaq) and yet, bolstered by the big three, continue to keep on winning.
Their league leading streak at 14 games and counting (a probable 15 after they visit the newly discombobulated Magic) is something nearly everyone expected of the champs, not the team in green. They’ve won convincingly, they’ve won ugly (see Wed. nights victory over the lowly 76ers), but above all they’re winning.
The Celtics record is a heady 23-4 placing them on a collision course for the number one seed in the east come playoff time and that’s when things will really begin to matter.
More on that in a moment.
The Lakers aren’t even the gems of the west, as evidenced by the truly impressive records of the San Antonio Spurs (25-4) and their cross-town Texas rivals the Dallas Mavericks (23-5).
Each team is winning at a positively blistering and impressive pace.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the Spurs appear to have discovered the fountain of youth. Led by an attack that now features Ginobli, Parker and to a lesser extent, the ever capable Duncan, the Spurs are scoring and winning early and often. Coach Popovich has taken what was widely perceived to be an aging also ran and turned them into a scoring machine.
It would seem, reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated.
The Mavericks have equally wreaked havoc in the league.
Not only did they knock the wind out of the sails of the superstar-laden Miami Heat twice (most recently ending their 12-game winning streak), they additionally bested a newly-configured Orlando team on the second night of a back to back.
To say owner Marc Cuban is smiling right now would be an understatement.
So where does this leave the Lakers?
Presumably, right where they want to be.
The team is notorious for underachieving, never more so than during the regular season. Invariably, they and the universe, find a way to do just enough to position them to win.
Here’s why there’s cause for concern:
Celtics have done this before as recently as last year only to have things go south the second half of the year. That they were able to recover despite being seeded forth and go through each of the East’s most challenging teams (Cavs, Magic), says a lot about their mettle.
It is widely believed that home court advantage (despite a healthy Perkins) would have made the difference in last years finals. By being league leaders, they aim to prove it.
Only they may have different competition this time around ...
While I still remain unconvinced about the Mavericks (collapses to the Heat in '06 and Warriors in '07, will make it infinitely difficult to change my mind), the Lakers haven’t had to face them in the playoffs the last few years. And while I believe the Lakers would beat the Mavericks over the course of a series (heart issues), I can’t say the same about the Spurs.
The Spurs, when healthy, know how to win. When it came to naming the team of the decade, the choice became a difficult one between naming the Lakers or the Spurs.
Maybe more than in recent years, record will play a role in how things ultimately play out. The Lakers cannot as they have in past years count on the league leaders losing in earlier rounds especially if those teams are the Celtics or Spurs.
Don’t believe me? Believe this: the last time the Lakers were in a series without home court advantage, they fell in six to those same Celtics.
Here’s why there isn’t:
For all the evidence presented, for all the doom and gloom forecasted, we’re talking about the Los Angeles Lakers—the team that has been and prevailed in the playoffs more than any other in the last decade.
In Paul Gasol, they have the most skilled big man in the game. When bolstered by the presence of Bynum, Gasol terrorizes even the stingiest of defenses with his versatility and length.
Lamar Odom is playing the way many believed he could. At long last, the consistency that has plagued him throughout his career appears to be here to stay.
The Lakers have the 11-time ring-wearing master of Zen.
But not for much longer—by all indications, coach Phil Jackson is going to retire at season’s end. That said, does anyone really believe he’ll go out without completely emptying the chamber from his bag of tricks?
The probability exists that he won’t be able to walk away without the bookend that would be his fourth three-peat with two teams.
Moreover, no one has more to benefit from this trip than Bryant. Three-peat without Shaq (possibly against him). Go through the Celtics twice. Tie Jordan with six rings.
Bryant is very aware of all of these things (as well as the hyperbole that shadows the Heat) and will do everything in his considerable power to ensure that he and the Lakers are in a position to return to the promised land and win.
As Bryant has said repeatedly throughout his career, “I want to be the best…That’s why I play the game. To be the best you have to win, that’s what drives me.”
That we are questioning Bryant and Jackson this early in the season says as much about us as it does about them.
Nothing is certain, but any of us would be fools not to believe the road to the title goes through the NBA Champions. However, should the Lakers not find the focus necessary to regain their championship swagger and rhythm riding into the post season, they may well find themselves forcefully abdicated from the throne.