They're going to be the No. 1 team. All of the hype is going to be on the Heat, as well as on Shaquille O'Neal in Boston. That means the champs can lay back a little bit. They'll be able to win 55 to 60 games and pace themselves the way veterans like to do it. Most of their guys have been through the championship run so they're not going to get too carried away if they go on a losing streak and it takes a little while for it to come together.
The attention on Miami is going to get Kobe Bryant hyped up. He's going to be smart about this. He isn't going to try to win the scoring championship or worry about competing with LeBron James. He's going to make sure he's healthy, and he'll get up a million three-point shots in practice because his jumper -- with all of his injuries -- wasn't very good last year.
Last year, Kobe was forced to be in the post a lot because he wasn't being as effective as normal with his outside jumper, and so he would take advantage of people down there with his great post-up game. But I think he would prefer to be out on the perimeter as a true shooting guard and avoid the banging inside for 82 games.
Right now, Pau Gasol is the best power forward in basketball. The only three who are competing with him are Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, and they're all older than him and wrapping up their careers. Gasol is peaking. Look at what he did for them in Game 7 of the Finals when Andrew Bynum couldn't play and Kobe couldn't shoot. That was the best part of the Finals: Kobe was struggling, and the guy who was maligned as being "soft" was the one who stepped up. With that performance on that stage, Gasol quieted a lot of people.
Gasol is smart and skilled and he doesn't force things. He's in the right spots defensively and he doesn't foul as much as he used to, and he's starting to get credit on the close calls. I can't name a big man who passes the ball better than he does; the second-most-skilled big man in the league is his teammate, Lamar Odom, and the triangle makes full use of those skills. The greatest thing for the Lakers is that he took the summer off from playing for Spain and rested for this season.
A lot of their hopes depend on Bynum's health. I can't name another team that can match the Lakers' pairing of Bynum and Gasol at the big positions. If [Portland's] LaMarcus Aldridge was rolling and Greg Oden was playing at full strength, then size-wise they might be able to play with Gasol and Bynum. Or if Shaq and KG are both healthy, they could match up for a stretch. But nobody has two 7-footers who can play in the post, and then you add Gasol's ability to face up and shoot or pass that allows him to play high-low with Bynum. That is a tough matchup.
Based on Bynum's injury history, anything they get from him during the season will be a bonus. They don't have to have the best record in the league. They're not going to get caught up in being the No. 1 seed in the West because they know it's a marathon and they've been through it all. It's going to be about April and being fresh and ready to make a run, and so they won't worry about rushing Bynum back from knee surgery.
When he's healthy, Bynum can affect the game at both ends. He's a back-to-the-basket player, which you don't see in a lot of young guys. But that potential doesn't mean as much because he has yet to remain healthy over the course of a meaningful season.
Now that he's won a championship, you'd have to figure Ron Artest is going to create some kind of issue. It's going to be interesting to see how they do with Artest and Matt Barnes -- two high-maintenance guys -- on the same team, and how patient Kobe is going to be with them.
Artest worked hard last year to fit in -- he didn't force as many bad shots as he had in previous years -- but will he continue to do that for another year? I don't have the impression that he's as bombastic as he used to be. I thought he was going to cost him early in the playoffs, but he made it all worthwhile in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals. If Trevor Ariza had been there in his place, the Lakers wouldn't have won the championship against Boston.
Artest isn't the great defender he used to be. He can still bring it against the big wings like Paul Pierce or LeBron. But he's not so versatile to be able to stop the aggressive, quick drivers like Dwyane Wade, who will get the angles and use Artest's size and physicality against him. But when he's in a physical matchup, that's when Artest is still a very good defender, and that was apparent during the Finals.
I don't think Phil Jackson gives Lamar Odom as much praise as he deserves. I know he's not as consistent as they'd like him to be, but while everyone is dwelling on Gasol and Bynum and Kobe and the storyline of Artest, it's too easy to forget that Odom is one of the big reasons they've been able to win. He's so important because his skill set is too hard to prepare for. He's basically a 7-footer but he's able to pass, dribble and shoot like a smaller player, which means you can't take away everything from him. His versatility puts him in the same boat that Rasheed Wallace used to be in -- they can do so many things that they float along, pacing themselves through the season, and things become boring and routine for them.
In the past, their bench players got up the floor and guarded you. But they don't have Jordan Farmar anymore and they've replaced him with Steve Blake, who isn't going to pressure you and get steals the way Farmar would. The bench is deeper now with experienced players, but I don't see them bringing in high-energy guys to change the tempo -- though that could change if Sasha Vujacic becomes important again and has a big year.
Blake is a competitor and he's a good fit in the triangle. They needed somebody to give them solid minutes at the point because of Derek Fisher's age. Everybody doubts Fisher every year until he comes through in the playoffs. But during the season, you have to figure Fisher's production will decrease. Blake is decent enough as a shooter, and he has enough size to play some shooting guard.
Their X factor is Luke Walton. He's a good player who can handle two or three positions. He understands the triangle and they're comfortable with him, and they can become a really deep team if he's healthy.
As a coach, you always like to have a pain-in-the-butt guy who stirs up the pot, and Barnes is that guy who wants notoriety. But then so is Artest. They do similar things, though Barnes is the better shooter. So the chemistry in the locker room between those two will be interesting.
Now that Shannon Brown has a bit of security with a two-year contract, will he be the same player? He needs to improve his outside shot so he can become a legitimate 2-guard.
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