We're approaching the midpoint of the 2010-2011 NBA season.
There have been lots of interesting story lines so far, but one of the most intriguing has been the runaway early success of the San Antonio Spurs. Now, the Spurs have been one of the NBA's elite for a while, but they've been exceeding even their own high standards this year.
They've already ripped off two winning streaks of at least 10 games and currently boast the best record in the league at 32-6. That's better than the ascendant super team Heat, the defending Eastern Conference Champion Celtics, and the two-time defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, whom they recently defeated in convincing fashion, 97-82.
But we're still early, and lots can happen between now and June. The Lakers aren't worried. Here are 10 reasons why they have good reason to believe that they're still the class of the Western Conference.
The Lakers have been there before.
As the NBA Champions the last two years, and the Western Conference Champions the year before that, Los Angeles has earned the right to see the playoffs as their domain. They've fought the battles in May and June, and they know what it takes to win them.
What gives them the advantage over the Spurs in this area? After all, San Antonio has fought in the playoff trenches as much as any team. They've won the title three times already with the current nucleus of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili intact.
What it comes down to here is, what have you done for me lately? The Lakers recent experience trumps the Spurs recent experience.
Tying in with that recent experience is the fact that the Lakers have the confidence of a champion.
They don't think they can beat anyone else. They know it. Over the last three seasons, they've defeated eight different teams in best-of-seven playoff series, including these Spurs, back in the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
That series wasn't even really that close, as L.A. won, four games to one. In the ensuing two years, San Antonio has lost in the first round (to Dallas) and in the second round (to Phoenix). Despite their past successes, the longer those recede into memory, the more precarious the Spurs' confidence becomes.
That Phil Jackson is the most successful coach in NBA history is well documented and indisputable.
The Lakers coaxed him to put off retirement this year for good reason. Over the course of his brilliant coaching career, he has led his teams to a cumulative .705 winning percentage, 12 division titles and a record 11 NBA Championships. That's not to mention the title he won as a player with the Knicks in 1973.
Yes, you can say that a large part of the reason he's been so successful is because of the teams he's coached. Perhaps other coaches would've been able to win titles with duos like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
But the fact remains that he's always gotten the most out of whatever players he's had. The fact that his cumulative playoff winning percentage stands at .697, basically as good as his regular season percentage, shows that he's not just beating up on the soft underbelly of the league.
There's nobody else you'd want on your bench.
The Lakers can afford to treat the regular season as basically one long exhibition.
That's not to say that they'll slack off, but rather, they know that May and June is what really matters. They're in no danger of not making it to the playoffs, and they have nothing left to prove at this time of year. Kobe's won scoring titles, as well as the MVP. They've been the number one seed.
They can be smart about the season, and Kobe (as much as he might not want to) can afford to get more rest now, saving himself for the battles to come. He's played just 32.9 minutes per game so far this season, his least PT since his second year in the league.
Of course, the Spurs have been trying to do this in recent years with Tim Duncan, but big men age quicker in the NBA, and especially last season, Duncan seemed gassed in the playoffs. In the league straight out of high school, Kobe's no spring chicken either, but his energy has stayed more consistent.
That kind of freshness will pay dividends when it's win or go home.
The Lakers' complimentary pieces are as talented as any in the league.
This topic always comes up with regards to Kobe Bryant and the MVP award. As great as Kobe is, if you took him away from the Lakers and replaced him with a league average shooting guard, they'd still be a pretty good team. They wouldn't be where they are now, but they'd be a lot better off than many teams if you took their star player away.
Pau Gasol is one of the most talented big men in the game today, Lamar Odom would probably average 20 and 10 on most other clubs, and Ron Artest gives L.A. a mismatch almost every night. Even overlooked Derek Fisher is as steady and trusted a floor general as there is.
Yes, the Spurs have a talented team surrounding Duncan as well. They have to; otherwise, we wouldn't even be talking about this. But as good as Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Richard Jefferson are, they fall just a bit short when it comes to the Lake Show.
Yes, Kobe and the Lakers have had their fair share of off-the-court drama over the years, but give them credit: as things stand today, they've largely been able to put all that behind them and just focus on basketball.
That used to be the M.O. of the Spurs. Nothing fancy, nothing splashy, just quiet consistency. But this year, they've had to deal with a major drama involving point guard Tony Parker and his soon-to-be ex-wife, actress Eva Longoria.
After enjoying years as one of the sports and entertainment world's "It" couples, rumors began swirling this past fall about alleged infidelity on both sides of the marriage. Parker was said to have enjoyed dalliances with the wife of former teammate Brent Barry. The bad blood eventually boiled over, with Longoria officially filing for divorce in November.
This kind of scandal plays even louder in a place like San Antonio, where they aren't as used to things like this, than it would in La-La Land.
The Spurs don't need any other complications; the road for them is hard enough as it is.
Let's look at the one-on-one matchups between the two teams.
The Spurs generally try to match up George Hill as a defensive stopper against Kobe Bryant, and while he does an admirable job (even frustrating Bryant so much in their recent game that Kobe lost his cool and began throwing elbows, drawing a technical foul), it's still all but impossible to stop Bryant for 48 minutes. He shot eight of 27 in that game (and the Lakers shot just 35 percent as a team), but you'd have to expect those numbers to even out over the course of a seven game series.
Meanwhile, the Lakers can use Pau Gasol to counter Tim Duncan, who generally becomes even more of the centerpiece of the Spurs attack in the playoffs. They also have the ability to rotate in Andrew Bynum (provided he's healthy), who more than neutralizes Duncan size-wize, as well as change up the look by using Ron Artest, who's undersized but as ferocious a defender as they come. He's proved he can lock down just about anyone, from Paul Pierce to Kobe himself, to big men like Duncan.
Let's not forget that Kobe is an All-League defender, as well, so the Spurs will have to be hot and hope they catch the Lakers off their games. That happened at Christmas time. Will it happen four months from now?
The allure of a repeat three-peat is very appealing.
Phil Jackson already has three under his belt, of course, the first two coming with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls back in the 90's, with the most recent coming with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers from 2000 to 2002.
But Kobe, while he was a part of that previous Laker dynasty, has always been about proving himself against the specter of Jordan and Shaq. He'll certainly be keenly aware of what earning his very own three-peat will mean for his personal legacy and how it will help him stack up against those legends.
Jordan is meaningful to him because he's always tried to emulate his game. It's clear the Jordan represents to him what Jordan has represented to everyone. And matching what Shaq brought to the Lakers would be the final statement he needs to finally prove himself every bit Shaq's equal. Plus, it would ensure that even if Maestro Shamrock manages to squeeze another title out of his career, he'd still be one behind Kobe.
Don't underestimate the power of those perceptions as motivating factors for a player as driven as Kobe and a coach as historically aware as Phil.
I just delved a bit into the things that Kobe uses to motivate himself. He's keenly aware of his place in history as it compares to his contemporaries. He has greatly enjoyed being able to have this team, built around him and him alone, reach the heights it has.
Now this Laker team is being presented with one of the greatest challenges to their throne. The newly formed South Beach super-trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh threatens Southern Californian basketball superiority. Everyone's been talking about them this season. Their formation has overshadowed the two-time defending champs. And you can bet that the Lakers don't like that one bit.
A lopsided 96-80 home loss to those Heat only served to further fan the flames of motivation for L.A. They want their crack at being the ones to prove that their still on top of the NBA's mountain. They'd like nothing more than to face the Heat in the Finals. The Lakers never took on the Cavaliers in the Finals when LeBron was there, so there's still that speculation over who would dominate that most marquee of matchups.
Sure, the Spurs would love to be there and knock off both the Lakers and the Heat as well, but it just isn't as personal to them. Remember, Miami is where Shaq went to win his fourth title, with Wade the new Robin to his Batman. That couldn't have gone over too well with Kobe and the L.A. faithful. So the seeds of this rivalry have long since been sewn.
It all comes down to Kobe, in the end, of course.
He's the biggest difference maker there is. He's shown himself to have the ability to take over a game time and time again, carrying his team on his shoulders. Love him or hate him, he's got the killer instinct that great athletes have to rise to on big occasions.
He'll will himself to get the Lakers back to where they want to be. Sure, they're another year older, perhaps under normal circumstances, a little less motivated. But Phil, master motivator that he is, and especially Kobe, won't let the Lakers fall into a rut.
And that is why Los Angeles still has the edge over the Spurs, the Heat, and any other team come playoff time. It's a cliche that you're the champs until somebody beats you, but it's a cliche because it's true.
I'm no Laker fan, and it'll be interesting to see where the chips fall when it comes down to it, but for now, I have to say, still: advantage Lakers.