Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Los Angeles Lakers

Okay, okay, so I realize as I continue to try to get posts out here at a reasonable rate that I'm running out of time. After this, I have maybe 3 more entries I'd like to get in, those are, the three Eastern Conference contenders: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic. And here I am, barely scraping through the last of the Western Conference. It's doable, I just need to get it done. Hopefully this doesn't adversely affect the writing quality (if there was any to begin with) of these posts. Anyways, I'm juggling this with a fairly rigorous school load right now, which I hope doesn't end up being a cop out on my part. Okay, down to business.

I don't know that I need to say a whole lot about the Lakers, I mean, their accomplishments speak for themselves. They are the returning champions. After the Finals meltdown against Boston in 2008, the Lakers turned it up a notch and blew through the regular season, and post season, despite stiff competition. While many of the games were close, the Lakers still eked out 16 of them to take home the title of NBA Champions, I don't think they really played a whole lot more than 16 games through the post season. That being said, the face of LA is still the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant, and even though he's getting up there in age (31) he's still probably one of the best, if not the best perimeter players in the league right now. That says a lot. A couple of roster changes here and there with the most dramatic one being the essential trading of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, which I'll discuss a little further down. Let's take a look at what we've got here though:

San Antonio Spurs:

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Los Angeles Lakers

PG - Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown
SG - Kobe Bryant, Sasha Vujacic
SF - Ron Artest, Luke Walton, Adam Morrison
PF - Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
C - Andrew Bynum, DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell

Adam Morrison will probably only see garbage minutes, Powell and Mbenga will probably only see spot minutes, and therefore the only thing up in the air is whether or not Shannon Brown can learn Phil Jackson's triangle offense better than Jordan Farmar. What makes the Lakers' engine run so smoothly is not just the addition of Pau Gasol, not just the potency of Kobe Bryant, but honestly, what makes the Lakers so good, is the versatility of Lamar Odom. I was really hoping someone would throw some kind of big contract at Odom, just so he wouldn't be on the Lakers, anywhere but the Lakers. Nevertheless, he's back. Odom adds that degree of versatility that makes the Lakers a big transition team, with Odom and Gasol in the frontcourt, the Lakers become a nightmare on the matchups. Both are so active, that it's hard to defend both of them. Tack on Kobe Bryant on the wings, the pin-point ball movement of the Triangle, and it's a hard team to beat. Should Bynum improve anymore and this team is nigh unstoppable, and will be contenders for years to come (Bryant and Fisher being the oldest players on the roster).

The natural point of exploitation for the Spurs will have to be at the PG position, Tony Parker has to work Derek Fisher, every single time. This will force the Lakers defense to adjust and help on Parker and free up one of 4 other players to make big buckets. I think in terms of depth, the Spurs are fairly comparable to the Lakers, but of course, the Spurs don't have known quantities like Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, or Luke Walton. However, with Manu back fully healthy, the wings have to continually attack, freeing up the big men, and giving Duncan an easier time at the basket, since Gasol has to worry about helping. If the threes are falling, all the better, almost everything has to be going right if the Spurs want to have a shot at knocking off the Lakers in a series, the chances of it happening are still there, the Lakers aren't indestructible. Complacency is probably the Lakers' worst enemy, and to take a series, the Spurs have to blitz the Lakers defense, and stay at home with their own defensive philosophy.

Richard Jefferson or Manu will probably have the unenviable job of chasing Kobe around on the defensive end, but as is the case with the other matchups, Jefferson and Manu have to make both Kobe and Artest work at the other end of the floor as well. Attack, be aggressive, but be smart. This is where it becomes important for another big outside of Duncan to step up as a shot blocker, coming across to help if necessary when the drive comes in. However, this becomes dangerous as the man being left is not Chris Dudley, but rather Gasol, Bynum, or Odom. However, the wings just need to consistently attack aggressively, and if Finley and Mason can make threes to keep players out of the paint, all the better, more room for Parker to operate in.

Gasol will likely have the brunt of guarding Duncan for whatever playing time they share, and he's probably one of the better post defenders in the league. He's smart about moving his feet and not fouling, and also big enough to bother Duncan and stand firm, being difficult to move in the post. Ideally, the perimeter defense of the Spurs will force the ball to go to Gasol in the post more, where Duncan is probably one of the best post defenders in the league, certainly Gasol will score, but he won't get easy buckets, in essence, the Spurs need to focus their defense appropriately, so as to make the Lakers key players work harder. You're not going to wear out Kobe Bryant, but you can frustrate him into taking draining 20 foot fadeaway jumpers.

The biggest question will end up being whether or not McDyess or Haislip can keep up with Odom. I think the development of Haislip into an NBA caliber tweener forward will be of utmost importance, because he does have the length to keep Odom in check, but the question is now, does he have the speed or versatility? Odom has the size of a PF but the handles and offensive game of an SF. He's tough to cover, and he's long on defense, he is the ultimate x-factor. However, one weakness of his game, is that he's not a great post defender, can the Spurs find a way to exploit that?

The final question mark then, is do the Spurs gamble on baiting Ron Artest into breaking the Triangle? This will be determined by the regular season play, but if the Spurs can get the ball into Artests hands and stay there until it flies to the rim, I rather like their chances. Artest is one of the more inefficient scorers in the league, and if the Spurs can get him to eat up Kobe and Gasol's shots, then it's a good thing. That's almost as big an x-factor as a healthy Manu.

Key Matchups:

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