From the Romans’ ballista to Motorola’s cell phone, humans have relied upon machines to enhance the success and lifestyle of their society.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, their “machine” malfunctioned at the worst possible moment during Game Four of the 2008 NBA Finals.
Sasha Vujacic, known as the Machine for his strong shooting touch—or for the fact that he has no conscience, since he is always looking to shoot no matter the situation—was asked to defend Ray Allen with the Lakers trailing 94-91 and just 25 seconds remaining.
The Celtics ran an isolation play for Allen, and when he realized no help was coming for Vujacic, he broke toward the basket and made a subtle hesitation move that enabled him to blow by Vujacic. Pau Gasol was far too late switching onto Allen to prevent him from converting the lay-up that sealed an Finals-record 24-point comeback victory for the Celtics.
Singling out the Machine for the Lakers’ defensive problems in the series is easy, but their problems ran much deeper than that. The lack of a physical presence in the paint and an inability to stop dribble penetration were flaws that were glaringly exposed by the Celtics.
General manager Mitch Kupchak did nothing to address these problems in the offseason—and really did not have much flexibility to do anything, as the team is already over the luxury tax limit and did not possess a first-round pick.
Instead of trading for a defensive-oriented player like Ron Artest, Kupchak and the Lakers are pinning much of their 2008-09 hopes on the return of center Andrew Bynum, who was morphing into a top-flight center before he dislocated his left kneecap on Jan. 13.
Bynam is no Bill Russell or Ben Wallace in his prime, but his seven-foot presence is only going to help.
Now, nobody should be misconstruing the Lakers’ defense for that of the Warriors. While they surrendered 101.3 points per game, which was 19th most in the NBA, they held their opponents to a .445 shooting percentage from the floor, good for sixth-best in the NBA.
On the other hand, the offense performed like a well-oiled machine as it averaged 108.4 points per game, which was fourth-best in the League.
Knowing that Bynum is behind them, though, will allow point guards Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar to play more aggressively, as his wingspan will deter guards from driving into the lane as often and dishing off to a cutting teammate for an uncontested lay-up or dunk.
His return will also provide the finesse-oriented Gasol with more favorable defensive assignments, as he will no longer will have to guard the low-post beasts such as Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.
Of course, the Lakers are also going to be leaning heavily on the reigning MVP in Kobe Bryant. Even with his injured pinkie, Bryant is still as ruthless as ever as his lock-down defense and clutch shooting at the Olympics displayed.
As for the rest of the Lakers’ backcourt, Farmar and Fisher combine to form a solid point-guard duo. There’s nothing flashy about them, but they get the job done more often than not.
The problem is that they are vastly overmatched against the elite point guards in the Western Conference. A lot of teams have trouble guarding the likes of Chris Paul, but the Lakers allowed him to average 23.3 points and 15 assists per game with just nine turnovers in four contests last year.
This is a crucial year for Farmar. since his contract is up at the end of the year and he has yet to prove he deserves the starting spot. There are still too many stretches where he becomes timid running the offense and/or outmuscled defensively.
Luke Walton’s injury problems and sub-par play last year allowed Vladimir Radmanovic to move into the starting small forward slot. VladRad, though, provided contributions similar to Walton’s, and has been nothing short of a salary cap hindrance thus far in his Lakers career.
He has failed to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, and models his footwork on defense after Will Ferrell’s character in “Semi-Pro.” Radmanovic is better suited coming off the bench, which is why it is imperative that Lamar Odom gets his act together.
There are not many players that can contribute in all aspects of the game, but Lamar Odom carries that unique ability. Besides Kobe, Odom is one of the only Lakers who can create his own shot.
What frustrates Lakers fans is that Odom can disappear faster in an important game than FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. Head coach Phil Jackson has been chiding Odom’s inconsistency since he arrived in L.A. and recently called him out for playing like a curler instead of a basketball player.
Even so, Odom led the team in rebounding. Unless they are getting Shawn Marion in return, the Lakers would be best served by seeing if Odom can work through his sulky attitude and avoid dumping him for Vince Carter’s bloated contract, as Chad Ford of ESPN.com has speculated.
Trevor Ariza, Vujacic, and Walton anchor a strong bench that will be relied upon even more often this year, as Jackson is looking to cut down on the minutes Kobe plays. Having a deep bench is going to be crucial, as the Lakers will face a deeper Western Conference than last year—with Greg Oden joining the Blazer roster, Chris Paul and the Hornets having a year of playoff experience ,and Ron Artest being shipped to Houston.
And, much to the chagrin of network executives, the Spurs are not leaving the championship equation just yet.
With Bynum back on the court, the Lakers become a multi-dimensional machine better equipped to combat the point guard dynamism of the Hornets and Jazz and physicality of the Celtics.