Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best in the West

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IDecember 7, 2010

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best in the West

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    Kobe Bryant and the Lakers Still Trump Kevin Durant and the Thunder
    Kobe Bryant and the Lakers Still Trump Kevin Durant and the ThunderDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The NBA regular season is a long prelude to the “real” season: the playoffs.  Injuries, motivation and competition play a huge role in determining a team’s success or lack thereof.  For Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the road to three-peat is paved with purple and gold as long as they avoid their own self-inflicted wounds. 

    The Rest of the Best of the West—Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder, Hornets and Jazz—are legitimate threats to win it all.  They just don’t measure up to L.A., and here’s why:  These 2010-11 Lakers are better than the last two that won titles back to back.  No team in their division is as deep from one through 15.  They have the game’s best closer in Bryant, the league’s biggest and best collective bodies in the paint in Odom, Gasol and Bynum, an explosive guard in Shannon Brown, veteran newcomers Steve Blake and Matt Barnes who bring added stability and grit and the game’s best coach in Phil Jackson, who has the motivation of capturing one more title before calling it quits.

    The competition in the West is undeniably strong and getting better as its younger stars mature.  It will not be an easy road to the NBA Finals for L.A.—it never is.  Teams are more determined than ever to knock out the champions and stake their own claim to the crown.  A closer look:

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best In The West

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    San Antonio's Manu Ginobili's energy and scoring have ignited the Spurs this season.
    San Antonio's Manu Ginobili's energy and scoring have ignited the Spurs this season.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    San Antonio Spurs: The aging Spurs under Coach Gregg Popovich are off to a blazing start with the league’s best record through early December.  Manu Ginobili has taken over as the Spurs' leading scorer.  They run more, shoot early in the clock and often use 34-year-old future hall of fame center Tim Duncan as a decoy. 

    Any team that has Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker leading the charge is bound to win a lot of games.  What they don’t have, however, is a formidable front line that can legitimately challenge L.A.'s Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, who go 7'0", 7'0" and 6'10" respectively.  The Lakers rank second in rebounds with 45.2 rebounds per game.  Their 108.2 points scoring per game is also second in the league, much of that coming from second chance points off rebounds.  Not having enough muscle inside will eventually undo the Spurs.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best In The West

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    Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his team focused on dethroning the Lakers in the postseason.
    Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his team focused on dethroning the Lakers in the postseason.Michael Buckner/Getty Images

    Dallas Mavericks: Owner Mark Cuban would like nothing more than to take out the Lakers in the postseason.  To their credit, the Mavs are playing outstanding defense, limiting opponents to just over 92 points per game and 43 percent shooting, among the best in the NBA.   Now in his 12th NBA season, 32-year-old Dirk Nowitzki is still the team leader, averaging almost 25 points and shooting 55 percent from the floor.  Jason Kidd averages nine assists, while Jason Terry and Caron Butler combine for almost 30 points of offense and Tyson Chandler collects nine-and-a-half rebounds in just over 26 minutes of playing time. 

    They’ll give the Lakers fits but won’t be able to keep the champions from scoring.  Odom, Bryant and Gasol average 62 points among them.  A healthy Bynum will give them another double-digit scorer, to go along with the hot shooting Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown, both of whom can knock down three-pointers with jaw dropping consistency.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best In The West

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    Russell Westbrook has become one of the league's leading point guards.
    Russell Westbrook has become one of the league's leading point guards.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Oklahoma City Thunder: This young, quick, athletic, high-spirited team gave L.A. all sorts of trouble in their postseason matchup last season.  Former UCLA standout Russell Westbrook and All-World forward Kevin Durant make up what may be the league’s top forward/point guard tandem.  Together, they average 51.5 points per game (27 for Durant and 24 for Westbrook).  Westbrook dishes out close to nine assists per game, meaning he is responsible for just over 40 points every night.  Those are eye-popping, All-Star numbers. 

    Where they falter is on the defensive side. The Thunder gives up as many points as it scores, 103.  The Lakers also out rebound them by almost five boards per game.  If the Lakers stay within their half-court mindset, utilize their strengths of the triangle offense and a clamp down defense, they’ll take care of the Thunder come playoff time.  Bryant loves a challenge, and he’ll get one with Westbrook.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best In The West

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    Pau Gasol of the Lakers plays keep away from New Orleans Hornets forward David West
    Pau Gasol of the Lakers plays keep away from New Orleans Hornets forward David WestHarry How/Getty Images

    New Orleans: Any team in the NBA would love to build a squad around point guard Chris Paul.  He supposedly wanted out of New Orleans after last season, but the team heard his cry of frustration, went out and acquired new talent and is off to a fast start.   Five players share the bulk of the scoring load, ranging from forward David West at 18.2 ppg, to center Emeka Okafor at 10.1.  Paul is having another All-Star season, averaging 10.4 assists to go along with 16.2 ppg and a highly respectable 49 percent success rate from beyond the three-point arc. 

    Forwards Trevor Ariza and Marco Belinelli each average 11.5 points a game for a team that only gives up 92.7 points a contest.  The fact that the Hornets were purchased Monday by the league should not have an adverse affect on their play, although it could prove a temporary distraction. 

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Why NBA Champs Are Still Best In The West

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    Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams has always played well in match-ups with the Lakers.  Here he goes by Shannn Brown on a fast break.
    Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams has always played well in match-ups with the Lakers. Here he goes by Shannn Brown on a fast break.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Utah Jazz: In point guard Deron Williams, the Jazz have yet another scorer who can and has hurt the Lakers.  He averages 21.6 points per game to go along with 10 “dimes,” equating to over 40 total points.  Utah likes to run and, scoring at a clip of 101 points per game, has already defeated the Lakers in their only meeting this season, 82-74.  The Jazz signed forward Al Jefferson in the offseason and he’s been a major addition to the offense, scoring close to 17 points per game.  Paul Millsap is steady and strong, averaging 18 points while also hitting 57 percent of his three-point shots. 

    Lakers point guard Derek Fisher does get beat off the dribble by Williams at times, but his resiliency and willingness to stand up to a charging opponent has earned him a reputation as an inspirational leader.  The addition of Matt Barnes through free agency and Derrick Caracter through the draft have helped L.A. get stronger and more active in guarding scorers like Jefferson.

Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers: He Has Every Reason To Be Smiling

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    The goal for the Lakers is always another NBA Championship:  They could be on the road to their third in a row.
    The goal for the Lakers is always another NBA Championship: They could be on the road to their third in a row.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The Lakers face formidable foes in all five of their Western Division rivals.  But this is a veteran team with leadership (Bryant, Fisher, Gasol), scrappiness (Barnes, Brown), depth (a bench that will be led by Odom when Bynum returns) and a proven track record. 

    Each team presents its own set of unique problems for L.A.  The keys to a Lakers title run are few but critically essential:  Stay away from serious injury, stay motivated and keep working the triangle.  Do those things and the Lakers go back to the Finals yet again.

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