In a league of copycats, Lakers and Magic will be hard to duplicate

Publish date:

Time was, someone called you a copycat, you'd be fixin' to meet them after school with an Opie Taylor knuckle sandwich. In the NBA, though, calling someone -- hey, calling everyone -- a copycat elicits reactions that range from nods all the way to shrugs.

Big deal. Yawn. It's the way of their world. If it isn't coaches embracing the grinding, half-court defenses that the late Chuck Daly drilled to perfection in Detroit, it's players deciding that one of Daly's disciples, Dennis Rodman, was onto a good thing with those tattoos. If it isn't the league's general managers changing their terminology almost overnight in describing certain shoot-first little guys as "combo guards" rather than "tweeners," it's synchronized opt-out years by the stars of the Class of 2003. Or draft strategies. Or the "expiring contract" obsession. Or puppets -- it's only a matter of time before we get Sasha Vujacic and Tony Battie in soft-sculpt.

You know you're into copycat territory when you hear coaches or team execs talk about the need on their rosters for a "-type," as in Ron Artest-type, Ben Wallace-type, Dwyane Wade-type. What that generally means is that the original isn't available or is too expensive, so you try to find someone who sort of, kind of has one attribute of those players' skill sets. Another buzzword that cries copycat is when NBA people start talking about "trends" -- the "trend" of struggling GMs such as Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale heading to the bench as coaches put pressure last season on Phoenix's Steve Kerr and Chicago's John Paxson to maybe do the same when their clubs were struggling.

Eight coaches fired during the 2008-09 season: Trend? Nah, copycat. Sometimes teams simply ape excess -- seven of those franchises missed the playoffs anyway -- although the goal usually is to mimic success.

"Most teams try to match the elite teams," Magic guard Rafer Alston said during these playoffs. "That's why you see a lot of teams running the same plays. They're all followers."

Not all. Someone has to lead, and typically, in the months between the Finals and the preseason, that task falls to the NBA champions, occasionally the runners-up. It makes sense: The other 28 teams want to get where, in this case, the Lakers and the Magic have gotten. To do so, they'll have to figure out a way to eliminate those two teams, the reigning bar-setters, along with any other aspirants. And that's where the "if you can't beat them, join them" thinking comes in.

Teams in the Eastern Conference spent the better part of this decade seeking counters to the Pistons' mix of defense, depth and shooting. In the West, the Spurs were the gold standard, while Phoenix's up-tempo style was admired but not imitated because the Suns won no rings or even reached the Finals. Now the Magic and the Lakers are the teams that others might emulate (that's another kind synonym for copy), or at least try to meet strength-for-strength.

"With Orlando, I'd probably say no to that for a couple reasons," an assistant coach from an East contender said. "That team is built uniquely, surrounding a great post-up guy, an inside force, with all those three-point shooters. It's not how some coaches are willing to play, and to find that guy is really difficult. Obviously, you'd like to have [Dwight] Howard's presence in there, but that's hard to find."

Or, as Orlando general manager Otis Smith told the Houston Chronicle the other day: "It is a copycat league -- if you can. If you don't have a big, you can't play big."

Still, the Cavaliers saw what happened in their big men's inability to cope with Howard's strength and quickness. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Joe Smith seemed to suddenly age in dog years, and Anderson Varejao battled fouls (and might leave as a free agent). "That's why Cleveland needs to find a guy who can guard Howard by himself," the assistant coach said, "where they don't have to always double-team." That explains why names such as Rasheed Wallace and Tyson Chandler have been floated in the Cavs' direction.

Finding an array of reliable outside shooters to match Orlando's, or a 6-foot-10 forward with the ball skills of Hedo Turkoglu, would be challenging, too. But adding a lengthy wing defender like Mickael Pietrus -- or, in the Lakers' version, Trevor Ariza -- who can score a little, too, might be more doable.

For teams in the West, finding a Kobe stopper has been a priority, and a Quixote-like quest, for more than a decade. Good luck with that, same as landing a LeBron counter. But slowing down Pau Gasol as a skilled, improbably long weapon offensively might be a more achievable goal. "Probably you want to have someone who can make Gasol guard him, for the fouls and the energy he'd use," the East coach said. "That's why Howard has to attack more inside."

Copycatting the Lakers during their three-peat of 2000-02 was impossible, given the one-and-only Shaquille O'Neal, in his prime, in the middle. Why, though, haven't we seen more rivals try to embrace the triangle offense that has produced nine championships for coach Phil Jackson, six in Chicago when he and guru Tex Winter built the system around Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and three more in L.A.?

"They did try it in Dallas when [longtime Jackson assistant] Jim Cleamons was down there," the coach said, "but you have to fully commit to it as your primary offense. It's like that Princeton offense -- Eddie Jordan runs it as well as anybody, but not everyone can.

"The triangle involves moving the ball from one side of the floor to the other and requires the right spacing, so you can get into a shot-clock problem. Teams that have tried to run it, as they're learning, you see them moving the ball and now there's five or six seconds left on the shot clock. It helps at that point if you have Michael or Kobe you can give the ball to and just let them go."

Then there's this: The Lakers could be hard to imitate because they might be a moving target. If center Andrew Bynum stays healthy and continues to develop, he could add another wrinkle -- a dominating low-post threat good for the next dozen seasons -- to that attack. That's Frank Caliendo learning that John Madden has begun speaking like Truman Capote with an Irish brogue. At which point copycat becomes a lot more like mockingbird.