The Road to the Promised Land is Fraught With Difficulty

We here at Silver Screen and Roll have done just about everything we can to prepare you for the upcoming season.  We’ve looked at everybody on the team, all 5 positions, and even the coaches.  We’ve identified the important and telling statistical features to pay attention to in the upcoming season.  We’ve even taken you on a bit of a history lesson, looking at how things played out every other time the Lakers have attempted to defend a championship.  The only thing left to do is spend some time talking about the teams that are the most likely to keep L.A. from reaching the intended destination:  Repeat champions.

In former seasons, a Contenders preview might have been a short piece.  Earlier this decade, for example, one would really only have to mention the Kings and the Spurs, and perhaps pay lip service to whichever Eastern Conference teams were likely to be served up as sacrificial lambs to the almighty Western Conference.  In the 80’s, the entire piece would probably be about Boston (until Detroit got involved later in the decade).  Philadelphia was good in the early part of the decade, and Milwaukee was always pretty strong, but in the end, it was likely going to be Boston and L.A.  This year is different.  This year, there are four main contenders the Lakers will have to deal with, and each one of them has a legitimate chance to win the title, at least on paper.  And paper is all that we can deal with at this point.

What does the paper tell us?  It tells us this season is going to be something special.  Historically special, if you ask me.  So many circumstances have come together to create a perfect storm of ridiculously talented teams. 

  • The Summer of 2010 has created a very unique free agency situation, where the only teams interested in adding players are those who think they can win a title.  All other teams are content to sit this season out so that they have the necessary cap space to go after the big name free agents next season.  That’s why you’ve seen deals like Artest and Sheed for the Mid Level Exception, Brandon Bass for less than the MLE.  Hell, even Odom’s 8 mil per year probably wouldn’t happen in a normal year, somebody would have out bid us for Odom’s services, but nobody wants to commit long term money this year, unless they are going for broke.
  • Adding to this "Contenders will spend, everyone else will not" mode is that the economy sucks (both in general, and specifically related to the NBA).  There are lots of small market teams who are losing a lot of money, and they don’t want to shell out for anything.  In fact, they are pretty much willing to give you anybody on their team for a contract that won’t last as long, or isn’t fully guaranteed. 

  • There are three teams who are legitimately in "This is our last chance, we have to give it everything we have" mode.  Boston and San Antonio have aging core players who will only get worse as seasons pass.  And Cleveland has to win this year so that they can convince The King not to jump ship in the offseason.  That, combined with factor #1 and #2, has led to deals like Richard Jefferson and Shaq being traded for expiring contracts.  And Boston and Cleveland signed an entire roster’s worth of decent players to come off the bench.

  •  Further adding to the economic uncertainty of the entire league, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire in 2011, and there is a very decent chance that a work stoppage will occur at that time, because the owners have made it clear that many things will have to change, or the smaller market teams may go out of business.  The main point here is:  If you aren’t building a team that can win in the next two seasons, you might as well not even bother.

 The result of all of these collective circumstances coming together is not one, but 5 incredibly good teams.  If you don’t believe me, consider this statement.  Every team that has participated in the NBA Finals in the last three seasons is entering this season with a team which is better than the one that won a championship, or came close.  There are 5 teams this year which might all be better than the champions of the past three seasons.  I can’t verify it with research, but I’d be willing to bet a small fortune that this has never happened before.  In fact, taking it one step further, if you assume that San Antonio is a better version of their own previous championship-winning teams this year, you could make a legitimate case that any one of the 5 best teams from this year might be better than ALL of the past champions dating back to the beginning of the post Lakers dynasty.  There is simply no precedent for this level of improvement in so many championship quality teams.

 I think this will go down as the most top heavy season in NBA history.  All four of these teams (plus the Lakers of course) could win 60 games.  If (and this is of course the big if) all 5 teams stay relatively healthy, I think all 5 will do it, because these teams are all that good, and they all know that there are 4 other teams which are just as good as they are.  Everyone will be looking for every advantage they can get, and home court advantage is the biggest prize that can be had.  They say that the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint.  This year, such an attitude will see you get left in the dust.  All these teams know it, and all of them (except maybe San Antonio) will come out of the gate hard and never turn back.  As I’ve written before, I think that it is possible a team could win 70 games this season, and NOT win the NBA championship.  There are simply no impossible scenarios this year.

Sorry for the extremely long intro.  In truth, it could and should be treated as its own piece regarding the nature of the NBA this season.  Now, without further ado, here’s a breakdown of the four main contenders to the Lakers throne (in alphabetical order, so as to not stir up additional argument).

 

Boston Celtics

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On paper, this may be the most formidable team of the bunch.  Their starting 5 contains 3 Hall of Famers, a point guard who nearly averaged a triple double in a playoff series last year and is generally considered an All-Star in the making, and a brick wall for a center who’s only job is to rebound and block shots.  In case you are wondering, he’s pretty good at his job.  Their bench has turned from a weakness into a strength with the signings of Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to a unit already boasting a very good shooter in Eddie House, and a decent backup power forward in Big Baby Davis.

The Celtics’ defense is what makes this team so potentially special.  Two years ago, they were one of the better defenses of all time (statistically proven).  They still have the same core of guys, although the loss of James Posey definitely hurts them on that side of the ball.  With the addition of Rasheed Wallace (in his prime, a very good defender), the potential exists for this team to be even better on defense than they were two years ago, which is a scary thought.

Unfortunately for the C’s, the regular season and the playoffs aren’t played out on paper.  While the Celtics have the best potential for greatness of the four teams previewed here, they also have the biggest question marks.  I’m sorry, I meant question mark.  Because any analysis of the Celtics’ potential boils down to one question, what are they getting from KG?  If KG is at his best, returning to the form he had two years ago, captaining the Celtics’ defense and instilling them with the intensity and mentality for which he is known, the Celtics become an extremely difficult team to beat.  If he remains limited, because his knee injury isn’t an injury at all, instead just wear and tear at the end of a very long career, then the Celtics become very beatable.  Not as vulnerable as last year, because picking up Sheed should help them if Garnett turns out to be limited again, but not a favorite, especially in this stacked field.  The Celtics’ entire season hinges almost entirely on the health of Kevin Garnett.  There are other questions (will Pierce and Allen decline at all?  Was Sheed’s failure last season due to lack of motivation, or deterioration of skill and athleticism), but in the end, KG decides almost everything for them.

A Lakers-Celtics matchup in this year’s Finals would be almost as if envisioned by God himself.  Sure, there’s the rivalry itself, the major media markets involved, but the main factor is the style of play these two teams possess.  They are the NBA’s Yin and Yang.  Kelly Dwyer described these two teams so perfectly at the beginning of last season (before KG went down) that I simply have to use that description.

The Lakers are a devastating offensive team who play defense so well you can’t possibly hope to outscore them.  The Celtics are a devastating defensive team who play offense so well you can’t possibly hope to keep them from outscoring you.

That’s why, in terms of being able to observe a legendary matchup, Lakers-Celtics should be what you root for.  In terms of who the matchups favor, that’s a tough, tough question.  If KG is what he should be, Pau will have to prove once and for all that he can handle KG’s physicality, and Bynum will have to have success against a very good post defender in Perkins.  Also, the Lakers ability to handle the pick and roll will be vital to success against Boston, because the PG position is the only place where the Celtics have a clear cut advantage on the floor.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers

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The truth is, no one really knows what to make of this Cavaliers team, because their regular season and the end of their playoff run were so incongruous.  Is the real Cavaliers team the one that won 66 games, good for home court advantage throughout the playoffs?  Or is it the team that crashed out to the Orlando Magic, lucky to extend that series even 6 games, even though the Magic were without their All-Star point guard and the Cavs had no serious injuries?

The answer to that question?  None of the above, because this year’s team bears little resemblance to last year’s squad.  Gone are Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, entering are Shaq, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, and Leon Powe (once he recovers from injury).  This is a completely different team, which is why the Cavs have the greatest potential of any of the 5 to fail.  The addition of Shaq cost them basically nothing, in terms of player personnel.  But Shaq changes the way a team plays offense, and it will be interesting to see how well he is incorporated to the offense, while maintaining the same model which enjoyed success last season.  Also, the addition of Shaq does little to address the matchup problems which Orlando created for Cleveland last season.  They still appear to be a team that can be pick and rolled to death, as neither Shaq nor Big Z have the quickness to be able to do much with a quick guard coming off the screen.  But the biggest question, the biggest problem, facing this Cavaliers team doesn’t have to do with players at all.  The Cavs might struggle more this season because they lost Jon Kuester, who was the offensive mastermind that turned the Cavs offense from a slightly upgraded version of the Los Angeles Kobes (circa 2005) into a very decent offensive team last year.  Kuester is now the head coach for the Pistons, and his offensive mind has not been replaced.  That, combined with head coach Mike Brown’s lack of offensive acumen, and the addition of an offense changing force like Shaq, could be the biggest issue with the Cavs recapturing even last season’s success.

Still, this is a team that won 66 games last season, and they have improved their depth over last season’s squad.  And they have LeBron James.  Regardless of where you fall on the James scale, there is simply no denying that he is a dynamic force that is capable of carrying a team. If the Cavs overachieved last season, he’s the reason why.  No team with LeBron is going to be a bad one, and he has more talent around him than he’s ever had before.

A Lakers-Cavs matchup would have a ton of storylines attached to it.  Kobe vs. LeBron.  Shaq vs. the Lakers (and Shaq vs. Kobe specifically).  Nike (and something like 10 other sponsors) would have an absolute field day.  That said, for me the Lakers cause far more matchup problems with the Cavs than the Cavs do with the Lakers.  They played twice last season and the Lakers won relatively comfortably both times.  Despite all their success, one never got the impression that the Cavs were better than the Lakers in a head to head matchup last season, and I see too many questions this season to believe that has changed.

 

Orlando Magic

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More than any other team on this list, the Orlando Magic are in a similar situation to the Los Angeles Lakers.  They will be good next year, there is no doubt.  But they will also be good the year after that, and the year after that, and so on.  Unlike Boston and San Antonio, Orlando’s core are young players.  Vince Carter is no spring chicken, but Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson are both still in the ascension phase of their careers, and Rashard Lewis isn’t on the way down.  Unlike Cleveland, there’s no doubt regarding their young star’s presence on this team for years to come.  Like LA (with Bynum, Farmar, Brown etc.), Orlando has the greatest possibility of improvement simply because their players are still improving.  Howard should continue to develop an offensive game, and Nelson was having a truly breakout year before he got seriously injured.

However, unlike LA, Orlando was very busy in the offseason.  They allowed Hedo Turkoglu to sign with another team, but they traded for Vince Carter, who is theoretically an upgrade over what Hedo provided.  They also signed Brandon Bass, and pimp slapped the Dallas Mavericks by matching Dallas’ offer for Marcin Gortat, after Dallas did not match Orlando’s offer for Bass.  It remains to be seen, but they appear to have significantly improved upon a very good team, especially considering they made the Finals with Jameer Nelson playing the role of "The Shell of Jameer Nelson".  A healthy Nelson alone would be reason for this team to be optimistic about their chances.  However, they were taken to 7 games by a depleted Celtics roster, and Boston does have the personnel to deal with Orlando’s matchup nightmare, Rashard Lewis.  So it’s easy to see why the Magic felt the need to make so many plays to try and keep ahead of the curve in the Eastern Conference.

Similar to the Lakers situation, the Magic’s season will be defined by how well they incorporate their new star player into a very successful, and somewhat unorthodox, offensive system.  If the ball gets sticky in Vince Carter’s hands, and he isn’t as successful a playmaker as Turkoglu was, Orlando might not be as successful.  Then again, Vince Carter’s best is far beyond Hedo’s best, so it seems likely that everything gets worked out.  VC isn’t the best defender in the world, and Orlando was a very good defensive team last season, but Howard is the best backstop in the league, so VC’s defensive weaknesses will be somewhat masked.  Besides, when was Hedo ever known as a defensive juggernaut.

A matchup between Orlando and LA doesn’t seem particularly interesting to me, if only because we have seen it so recently.  Yes, a few of the faces have changed, but the core matchup problems still exist, and those matchups seem to be heavily in favor of L.A.  Although Bass should help them in the rebounding category, he is still very undersized, and the Lakers should be able to take advantage of their very good length, regardless of whether Bass or Lewis is playing PF.  The only area that the Magic truly have the advantage against LA is at the PG position, and Jameer Nelson was definitely the main reason why Orlando swept LA during the regular season, but Orlando has gotten worse, not better, at defending on the perimeter, so if the two do end up re-matching last year’s Finals, look for Kobe to have even more success than he had the year previous.

 

San Antonio Spurs

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Always included in a list of contenders, the Spurs are the only team on this list that weren’t particularly good last year.  They limped into the playoffs (literally and figuratively) before exiting in Round One to a Dallas Mavericks team that seems to consistently have their number.  So, if they are to truly be included in this list, they clearly have the furthest to travel from last season’s mediocrity.  And yet, here they are, undisputedly included amongst the league’s best.  I guess a core that has won 3 championships, and is led by one of, if not the, greatest power forwards of all time, gives you a little bit of street cred.

And yet San Antonio would probably not be on this list if they didn’t make what has to be the most one sided trade since Pau to the Lakers.  The terms of that trade with the Milwaukee Bucks?  Richard Jefferson, a former All-Star, for Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, and Kurt Thomas.  Of the three, only Thomas is still on the Bucks roster.  And that’s not all San Antonio did.  They signed Antonio McDyess to be their big man off the bench.  They drafted Dejuan Blair, despite the fact that he apparently has no knees, and are making every team who let him slide through the first round look foolish as Blair looks like an absolute beast.  The kid may not last 5 years in the league, but the Spurs are going to get a huge Return on Investment while he’s here.  It’s quite possible the Spurs have had the most successful summer of all, but they needed to do so in order to even be included on this list.

Like Boston, San Antonio’s entire season is defined by how healthy their stars are.  I guess all teams can be defined this way, but San Antonio’s case is special, because they have the most injury prone star of any of these teams, Manu Ginobli.  A healthy Ginobli is a game changing force, fearlessly driving the lane, getting layups at ridiculous angles, hitting 3’s and making plays for his entire team.  A Ginobli hampered by injury is depressing, trying to do all the things he knows he can do, and having no success.  San Antonio hasn’t seen healthy Ginobli in the playoffs since their last championship, three years ago.  That’s why the Lakers beat San Antonio with little trouble in 2008, and why the Spurs were dispatched in the first round in 2009.  If anything, trading for Jefferson has better prepared the Spurs to deal with an injury to Ginobli, but if he isn’t 100% come playoff time, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs making it through the Gauntlet to give TD a 5th ring.  But Ginobli isn’t even the Spurs most important health concern, just the most troubling.  The most important is, of course, Tim Duncan.  Duncan is getting up in years, and in games played, and he definitely took a step back in 2009, the type of step back that won’t be reversed by another step forward.  If Duncan continues on the slow, steady decline rate, and Ginobli is healthy, the Spurs are a force to be reckoned with, backed by more Championship experience than any other team in the mix.  But if Duncan drops off considerably, or even worse, his body starts giving up on him, the Spurs simply can’t be successful without their anchor in the middle.

A Spurs-Lakers matchup is extremely likely, as they do seem to be the cream of the crop in the Western Conference.  It’s a matchup that always excites, but the new faces this time around make it a bit tough to analyze properly.  Tony Parker will always kill LA, and his speed is absolute death to Derek Fisher.  However, the Spurs no longer have a Bruce Bowen type to even slow down Kobe Bryant.  Ginobli will need to be at his absolute peak to even have a chance at matching up with Kobe, and if he isn’t, Bryant will be able to dominate enough to counter-balance the Spurs advantage at the point.  Artest should be able to do alright with Jefferson, and you have to like the Lakers front court depth over the Spurs’, even if Duncan is close to as good as he is capable of at this point.

Some quick snippets on the sleepers

  • Portland has the greatest potential of any team to crash this Big 5.  They have a ton of young talent, and they made a huge jump from two years ago to last year.  Another huge jump is quite possible.  But, in the end, they need too many people to improve, and have to change their entire team mentality regarding defense, so it seems unlikely.  Besides, even if they do join the ranks of the elite, it will be their first time on the dance floor when they come up against the championship experience of the Lakers or the Spurs, and it’s a pretty safe bet they won’t be able to handle the pressure, even if everything else is equal.  They are still 1-2 years away.
  •  Dallas has made improvements, but they have serious holes on the defensive side of things.  Besides, I’m not sold at all on Shawn Marion’s ability to change the dynamic of a team that, even at its best, was a step behind a few other teams in the West
  • Denver seems likely to fall back down to earth this season.  I don’t see any particular reason to expect dramatic improvement over last year’s squad, and last year’s squad had a great deal of things go right for them.  I expect them to take a step back.
  • Washington is an interesting team in the East.  They’ve added a bunch of pieces, and getting a player like Arenas back is nothing to sneeze at.  They have to prove to be worth their salt on defense before anybody will consider them a threat to the 3 powers already residing in the East.

Sorry for the tome, but this subject just keeps on going and going.  Did anybody even make it to the end?  Who do you think poses the biggest threat to the Lakers’ repeat aspirations?

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