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An Early Look at the 2009 NBA Champions : Respect Kobe

An Early Look at the 2009 NBA Champions

As part of CelticsBlog‘s annual NBA Blogger Previews, I have volunteered to preview the Lakers this year. I know, I know: CelticsBlog? But not to worry — all those Celtics fans can enjoy reading about their futures for June!

Click here to view other Lakers previews, as well as previews of our four Pacific Division rivals. You can also check out the previews for the Atlantic, Southwest, Central, Northwest, and Southeast divisions, all of which have already had their turn.

Lakers Season Preview: 82 Games for this Dish to Cool Off

Los Angeles Lakers
2007-08 Record:
Key Losses: Ronny Turiaf
Key Additions: None

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

Not a single one, unless you count the departure of Ronny Turiaf. I don’t, because while the loss of such an energetic, enthousiastic player would usually be significant, the Lakers depth is such that they are hardly likely to notice. Not only is their front court quite deep this year, but they also have plenty to keep them occupied. From learning to play with a new lineup — perhaps drastically new — to fighting off the endless Western Conference hopefuls, these Lakers won’t have time to miss Turiaf until after June.

Meanwhile, the Lakers didn’t make a single addition, nor did they attempt any trades. For the first time in years, however, that’s acceptable. This is a team that made it to the Finals without Andrew Bynum, their young center who, by the time of his injury, was quickly becoming their Second Option behind Kobe Bryant. Around the same time, they also lost their (other) defensive stopper in Trevor Ariza — a loss they surely felt in the Finals.

When you consider the circumstances of last year’s run to the Finals (more on that in a minute), it becomes clear that the best course of action for 2009-10 is to get everybody healthy and then see what they can do with a full season ahead of them.

That said, the fact that the Lakers didn’t make any significant moves doesn’t mean they aren’t significantly different this year. Bynum is back, Gasol will be moving to power forward, and Odom will be going… somewhere else. Jordan Farmar could challenge for the starting point guard role, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kobe Bryant playing at the small forward slot — especially with the arrival of Yue Sun and the increased depth at the guard positions. Chris Mihm just might be back, and with Kobe’s ability to slide down to the small forward position, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar both get near starting minutes off the bench.

Bynum and Gasol have to learn to play together, and Gasol has to learn a new position in the Triangle. Odom has to figure out where he fits, and overall, this team may be looking at a starting lineup that is 40% to 60% different from last year. (In any case, can we please be done with Vladimir Radmonovic as a starter?) Though this year’s roster is largely unchanged from last year, the likely lineup changes could still make for a lot of adjustment and a significant learning curve.

2. What are the Lakers’ biggest strengths?

In order: Depth, Versatility, and Kobe.

As one sportswriter recently put it, any team that is openly discussing bringing Lamar Odom off the bench clearly enjoys significant depth. In 2007-08, the Lakers played with two different teams: the first to start the season with Bynum and Trevor Ariza, and the other to finish it with Pau Gasol. Either of those teams boasted more depth than all but two or three teams in the NBA last year, and that advantage is that much greater heading into 2008-09. With Bynum and Ariza both back, and the return of Chris Mihm looking plausible (at this point, Mihm’s return will not be considered “likely” or “probable” until it is a verified historical fact), this team is so deep at every position that its second string can hold its own against most teams in the league.

A byproduct of the Lakers’ luxurious depth is the versatility it affords them. Coach Phil Jackson has more options available to him than he’s likely to use — from playing the second string as a full unit for significant minutes, to moving individual players around and toying with various lineups.

Pau Gasol returns to his natural power forward position, but can easily slide down to the center spot when Andrew Bynum goes to the bench. Lamar Odom will likely start at the small forward position, but can easily move to the power forward position to play off either Bynum or Gasol at center. Jackson has also experimented with other possibilities for Odom, including playing him at the point position and bringing him off the bench in a Ginobili-esque sixth man role. Kobe Bryant can play any of the wing positions (point guard, shooting guard, and small forward) with mastery; Sasha Vujacic, on top of being a high accuracy long distance marksman with a hair trigger, is a good ball handler and a tenacious defender, and can also play the three wing positions effectively.

Jordan Farmar could very possibly take over the starting point guard role, but then, he may be most effective leading the “bench mob” and racking up points while the Lakers’ primary scorers rest. At the small forward position, Jackson can choose between the deft passing of Luke Walton, the stifling defense and extra effort of Trevor Ariza, or the athleticism, length, and selflessness of Lamar Odom. In fact, Jackson’s biggest challenge, given the Lakers’ versatility, may be making up his mind as to what the 2009 Lakers should look like.

And then there’s Kobe. When Kobe is on your team, he is your team’s strength — as Team USA can well attest. But this year is different. This year, I’m listing depth and versatility before Kobe, as even bigger strengths. That’s because this year, this team’s biggest strength is the team itself. No longer is this Kobe and a host of ghosts, as it has been in years past, when the names of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson were the only things to show up under the “strengths” column. This year, Kobe’s supporting cast can stand on its own. This year, the idea that basketball is a team game is no longer mere wishful thinking.

Kobe Bryant will always be the strength of his team. But this year, he is no longer its only strength — its only hope. This year, he goes into the firefight with a fully loaded arsenal of weaponry at his disposal.

3. What are the Lakers’ biggest weaknesses?

In order: Defense and Lamar Odom.

Clearly, defense is the single largest and most glaring area of weakness. Had the Lakers been able to play solid defense in the Finals, they could have taken the Celtics’ best shot and kept coming. But this Lakers team, in recent years, has lacked the commitment to defense that has always characterized Phil Jackson’s championship teams. And from what I can tell, it is, in fact, for lack of effort. This team is capable of playing very good defense, as they did in very limited stretches last year. But defense doesn’t seem to be something they work on; certainly, not nearly as much as they work on the Triangle Offense.

This is Phil Jackson’s responsibility, and the ball is in his court. My mother-in-law probably knows that the most important thing for the Lakers to work on is defense — so one can only hope that Phil knows it, too. That is why the biggest question for the Lakers heading into this season is, “Will the coaching staff make defense a priority?”

Then there’s Lamar Odom. Always extremely talented, not always extremely motivated or “present.” The biggest question for Odom, however, will be how he fits into this system now that Bynum and Gasol will be on the court at the same time. More on this later, but ultimately, how he fits into the new rotation may determine whether he’s still wearing purple and gold in June.

4. What are the Lakers’ goals?

NBA Championship — nothing less. After going to the Finals last year, anything less than going back — and this time, winning — is unacceptable. Add to that the fact that this team is home to one Kobe Bean Bryant, and the expectations are magnified almost infinitely.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that last year’s team overachieved, and that they weren’t somehow “supposed” to go to the Finals in 2008 — and, therefore, that the road back is not expected to be an easy one. Let’s have a look at some of the challenges they faced in 2007-08:

  1. The season started out rough. The Kobe Bryant Trade Saga was a major distraction. Yes, we get that it was partially Kobe’s fault, but right now, we’re not concerned with assigning blame — the point is that, regardless of who’s fault it was, the situation heading into camp was tense, and did not lend itself to a productive preseason.
  2. Injuries plagued the team. Andrew Bynum missed half the season and didn’t return. Trevor Ariza returned late in the Playoffs, but it was too late for him to be effective. Chris Mihm continued to struggle with is ankle, and Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmonovic each missed a number of games due to ankle injuries (even now, Walton’s is not yet fully healed).
  3. In addition to all this, their superstar and leader, Kobe Bryant, struggled with his health, suffering through food poisoning, flu, wrist injury, shoulder injury, ankle injury, upper respiratory infection, groin injury, and dislocation and later fracture of the pinky finger on his shooting hand. The fact that he somehow managed to play through all of the above, not missing a single game, is a testament to his strength, thoughness, drive, and determination — but it certainly didn’t make things any easier for the Lakers.
  4. The Pau Gasol trade changed everything, and caused everyone to make significant adjustments. Now, don’t get me wrong: it was most assuredly a positive thing for the Lakers. But it’s worth noting that this type of mid-season blockbuster trade virtually always comes with a lengthy adjustment period, during which the team struggles and isn’t able to match their early season success, let alone surpass it. Last year, every other blockbuster trade that occurred produce exactly that result — Phoenix and Dallas, for example, got worse before they got better. Only the Lakers completed such a trade and had immediate success, but that fact should not be used to minimize the challenge that is adusting to such a big trade on the fly.
  5. These injuries and mid-season moves created a situation that was in constant flux. Lineups were constantly changing, and the team had little time to adjust to recent changes before things changed again. Most teams are able to begin in training camp and move forward from there throughout the season. This team didn’t have that luxury. Every time they began to get comfortable, some major addition or subtraction to the rotation occurred.
  6. Finally, the Lakers had the toughest Strength of Schedule throughout most of the season. The end of the season was easier than most, but during the first two-thirds of the season — the time during which they were constantly making adjustments — they were tied with Minnesota for the second toughest schedule.

At the start of the season, a whole host of ESPN analysts predicted where each team would finish. These analysts voted that the Lakers, with an average 8.4 ranking in the West, would be lucky to make the Playoffs. While those expectations changed with the growth of Bynum and the aquisition of Gasol, it’s worth noting that no other team that made a mid-season blockbuster trade experienced the kind of immediate and sustained success that the Lakers enjoyed. Combined with the plethora of injuries that hit this team across the board, and it’s foolhardy to say that last year’s team “should have” made it to the Finals.

The fact that they had such great success despite all of the above challenges, even to the point of incorporating Pau Gasol almost as though he had always been with the team, is a testament to them — to their leadership, both on and off the court, and to their camaraderie and hard work. Despite a very challenging, complex, and constantly changing set of circumstances, they overcame all reasonable expectations and made it to the Finals.

This, then, is part of the basis for this teams high hopes and expectations. If they made it to the Finals despite the innumerable challenges of 2007-08, then better health, better depth, more experience, and the luxury of playing together since training camp should all combine to produce an even more successful 2008-09.

5. How will Gasol and Bynum play together?

Very well. Picture the two of them as concentric circles. They don’t conflict with each other; they complement each other. Bynum does what Gasol hates doing: bodying up to the bigs and playing with his back to the basket. Gasol, then, is freed up to work from the elbows, playing the short- to mid-range game with hook shots from either hand and soft jumpers from inside the free throw line. Bynum will be a better and more physical defender under the basket, while Gasol’s length will bother opposing power forwards.

In fact, Bynum and Gasol aren’t the problem. Lamar Odom is.

6. Why is Odom a problem?

I’ve said that Odom will be the biggest weakness, and the biggest potential problem, fo the Lakers this year. Simply put, I say that because he is not a good long range shooter. The Triangle Offense needs shooters to space the floor, and the lane is going to be very busy with Gasol and Bynum sharing space and Bryant and Ariza slashing to the basket. But Odom is not a long range shooter; in fact, the period during which he showed major improvement last just happens to coincide with the point at which he virtually stopped attempting three-point shots altogether.

So if Odom is not a shooter, how can he expect to have success at one of the wing positions, which in the Triangle Offense almost requires one to be a good shooter? My fear is that he won’t. He’ll struggle with his jumpshot, he won’t have enough room to get closer to the basket, and he’ll be stuck on the outside, unable to dominate in rebounding as he did for much of last year. I get that Odom is a selfish player who would actually enjoy not needing to shoot as much, but the Lakers need their wing players to be viable long distance threats. Even if they don’t take many shots, they have to keep the defense honest. Odom won’t do that. Defenses will play off him, taking away his drive and clogging up the rest of the floor.

For my part, I think that bringing Odom off the bench is a fantastic idea… assuming it doesn’t cause him to lose confidence, leading to another disappearing act. And that’s a valid concern, as Odom’s reputation isn’t necessarily one of mental fortitude. However, if he could handle coming off the bench, he would dominate opposing teams’ second strings, and he would be able to take leadership of the “bench mob” in a way that would probably be more comfortable to him. He’d have the flexibility to play a position more suited to his abilities, and the Lakers would have a powerful and dynamic weapon coming off the bench. It has worked for the Spurs, why not the Lakers?

Meanwhile, Jackson could choose between Luke Walton’s passing and three-point shooting, or (preferably) Trevor Ariza’s defense and energy. Since the Lakers don’t need Walton’s offensive facilitation nearly as much as they need Ariza’s defensive prowess, my vote is for the latter.

If Odom is unable to find success at the small forward position, and unable or unwilling to be successful off the bench, then it would seem that his greatest value may come in a trade. Odom is a really, truly great guy, and I would hate to see him go, but Lakers fans have permanent concussions from banging their heads against walls while waiting for him to be what they need him to be. If he can’t make it work fairly early on this season, this may be his last chance.

7. How will it all end?

With Phil Jackson’s tenth and Kobe Bryant’s fourth ring, in an extremely satisfying victory over the Celtics. While the East may have improved, I don’t see any other team beating the Celtics in a 7-game series yet, though the Cavs might have the best chance. Nor do I think any West Coast team can handle the Lakers at full strength, though the Hornets would give them a good fight. But I’m expecting the Lakers to really shore up their defense this year — partially by making it a bigger priority, and partially by incorporating better defensive players like Bynum and Ariza back into the rotation. With Bynum on the court and consistency bourne of experience from Vujacic and Farmar, the Lakers will be too much for an older, less motivated Celtics team this time around.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Well, this dish has 82 games and three rounds off Playoffs to cool off before Kobe & Co. serve it up.

Predicted Record: 62-20
Predicted Finish: Win championship in 6 games over Celtics

Filed Under Kobe Bryant | 17 Comments

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17 Comments so far
  1. Anonymous says...November 2, 2008 9:19 pm

    Since Slackquille left this is the first time I feel confident that the Lakers could win it all. Last year I thought the Lakers over-acheived and were to young, inexperienced, injured and soft to win the Title. This year, barring major injuries, they are primed to get back to the finals. They are more experienced, more tough, deeper, hungrier, and based on the first few games are commited to playing tough/agressive defense.

    It was also good to hear Phil say one of the goals this year is to have the best record so they could have home-court advantage (a big bonus) throughout the playoffs. This will help keep the players focused no matter who they play in the regular season so no team will be taken for granted.

    There is strong competition so it will be a tough road back, but I think the team is really ready this time. I really believe Kobe’s toughness, drive , will, deternination and work-ethic has rubbed off on several of his teammates, so for the first time he’s going into the season with a talentd, tough, battle-tested team. The Lakers will be tough to beat. We’ll see what happens.  

  2. Willie says...November 2, 2008 9:23 pm

    Forgot to add my name to the last comments beginning with ” Since Slackquille left this is the first time….”

  3. grail says...November 2, 2008 11:30 pm

    glad you’re back Josh… I was wondering if the next article would appear during the playoffs (joke).

    just one comment, if you listed Turiaf as a Key loss, then you should include Josh Powell as a key addition, since both of them provide basically the same thing (rebounding ferocity). Powell is cheaper though.

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  15. Brittney says...November 11, 2008 6:38 pm

    Yup Josh I can agree and I just can’t wait to see if this season turns out the way we see it.

  16. Anonymous says...April 16, 2009 1:17 am

    You were three games off the mark Josh. Got any playoff predictions for the Lakers?

  17. Mike says...April 16, 2009 1:17 am

    You were three games off the mark Josh. Got any playoff predictions for the Lakers?

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