Doing Our Part: Previewing the Defending Champion Lakers

As I've mentioned before, we're participating in CelticsBlog's giant round-up of previews. We've seen the Atlantic & Southwest divisions, and I just posted links for the Central & Northwest divisions a few moments ago (be sure to check those out). Southeast division links will be coming soon, but now it's our turn.

Yes, I'm aware that a season preview the day after the first game of the season is a bit unusual, but hey — CelticsBlog organized this, so see it as a positive thing: another reason to blame the Greenie Weenies, right? Meanwhile, we've done a lot of detailed, in depth work here at SS&R, over the last two weeks, to preview our Lakers, meaning that some of this will be a bit redundant (it's too much to link; just browse our recent archives if you haven't seen it yet). Part of the idea here is to help those who don't know our team as well as we do to get better acquainted with the Lakers (though I think that may be more of a concern for the Grizzlies than the Lakers); for those of you who have been with us as we geared up for the start of the season, consider this a final summary of what we here at SS&R expect for the season.

With that, click on through for our final season preview piece of the 2009-10 season.

Team Name:  The Champs¹
Last Year's Record:  2009 Champions²
Key Losses:  Trevor Ariza
Key Additions:  Ron Artest

Q1:  What significant moves were made during the off-season?

A1:  No new information here, even for those not really following the Lakers. I think the entire world knows that the Lakers signed Ron Artest while letting Trevor Ariza walk; each went to the other's team, and they signed for essentially the same price, which is why many are referring to it as a de-facto trade. It was the only player personnel move made by the Lakers since winning the 2009 Championship.

The question is, was it the smart move? You know most of the arguments, and we've discussed it here at SS&R several times, so we'll skip over the basics:  Artest is potentially dramatic and volatile, he uses more possessions less efficiently, and Ariza fit the Lakers' system. Some consider Ariza to be the better defender, and being absurdly wrong is absolutely their prerogative. Blah, blah, blah. So let's talk about a few things that either (a) haven't been mentioned much in this Ariza vs. Artest discussion, or (b) have come to light in 8 preseason games and 1 regular season game in a way that wasn't previously very apparent:

 

  • Artest can be a beast on the inside. That's not necessarily a new insight — Henry Abbott was one of the first to point out that the Lakers would have a starting line-up chock full of excellent post-up players, and it has been repeated many times since that for that reason, the Lakers would likely be a slower team on offense, this year. But after a few games, it's a point that nonetheless needs to be reiterated. He is so big and strong that he can simply be a factor in the paint in ways that Ariza could never dream of. His post-up game is half traditional post-up, half bull-in-a-china-shop charging at the hoop, but either way, it seems quite effective. Even in a single game, there are numerous occasions on which Artest does something close to the basket where you think, "Wow, Ariza could not have done that."
  • Here's something that was either unexpected or overlooked in pre-analyzing this Artest-Ariza trade:  Artest is a much, much better passer — both in/from the post, and in general. Specifically, his ability to be a playmaker for his teammates close to the basket is quickly jumping out as something that we hadn't foreseen, but are already loving. Sure, he has the ability to draw the defense in the paint and kick out to shooters, but even more deliciously, he has shown an ability to create havoc off of penetration, and then find an open Bynum or Odom (and add Gasol to that, once he's back) for a layup or dunk, before the defense even realizes what happened.
  • In general, Ron Ron is a much better passer than Ariza. Last night, we noted more than one occasion on which, in perfect triangle execution, Ron got the ball in the mid- or high-post and then hit a cutting teammate on the way to the basket with a picture perfect, Tex Winter-approved pass for deep penetration, usually leading to a layup or dunk. These crisp passing skills, which he seems already able to utilize well in the triangle offense, are another aspect of his game that we may have undervalued. It will take more time for him to learn when he needs to make cuts in the triangle offense, and where to — but when he gets the ball in a post-up position and other players make their cuts around him, he seems like a natural fit for this system.
  • Most importantly, his mindset has been tremendous, thus far. If anything, he is looking to pass too much. He is not looking first for his own shots, but is making defense and playmaking his main priorities while on the floor. At the same time, he is able to anchor the second string in much the same way that Odom does — and so far, he has been very effective in that role. As always, this just gives Phil Jackson more options, greater flexibility, and more versatility.
It's a long season, but at this very early point, all signs are positive, and it seems as though this "trade" should be not just an upgrade for the Lakers, but a very big one.

 

Q2:  What are the team's biggest strengths?

A2:  As mentioned, the post game has now become a huge weapon for the Lakers. For one, they're simply bigger, longer, and stronger than you. I mean, Ron Artest is our Small Foward, okay? Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant — already perhaps the most skilled post player in the NBA, pound-for-pound — worked with Hakeen "The Dream" Olajuwon over the summer, and if the first game of the season is any indication, he is looking to his post game more than ever. Even Derek Fisher, fairly large and strong compared to many of the leagues smaller, quicker point guards, will get occasional post-up opportunities.

This means that the entire Lakers starting unit can be a post threat — and that's with Lamar Odom coming off the bench. This should equate to high points in the paint totals and plenty of drawn fouls.

Versatility and depth are the Lakers other strengths. And you know what? I'm just going to say it — talent is another major strength of ours. Four of the Lakers starting five either are current All-Stars, or have been in the past. They're likely to send three to the All-Star Game this year, and that's with All-Star caliber players Lamar Odom and Ron Artest staying home. This team is not just deep, it's deep in top level talent. Though Phil Jackson isn't likely to use it very often, the Lakers could even put Kobe at point and run an All-Star lineup of Kobe, Ron Ron, LO, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum.

Meanwhile, we still expect significant improvement from our bench over last year. Look also for Phil Jackson to sometimes run what we might refer to as the "1.5 Unit" — half bench, half starters. With so much talent, PJ can utilize an entire array of options in creating lineups.

The versatility, in large part, goes back to the Lakers strengths in the post. Bynum and Gasol are obvious post threats. However, Odom and Artest can also be very effective in the post, and Kobe isn't too shabby. This allows for a greater range of options, both in terms of lineups and offensive sets, regarding who anchors the triangle in the post, and how the triangle forms around him. Defensively, guys like Artest and Odom can easily guard three different positions, meaning that whether we're talking about a big, strong Small Forward like LeBron James, or a long, lanky Power Forward who likes to shoot from outside like Dirk Nowitzki or Rasheed Wallace, the Lakers have options in matching up with them defensively.

Q3:  What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

A3:  The point guard position is a relative weakness for the Lakers, mostly on the defensive end of the court, and the bench is a question mark, at this point.

I'm honestly not as worried about Derek Fisher at the point as some. Lakers fans fret to no end over penetration by quick, little point guards like Chris Paul and Aaron Brooks. Frankly, I don't think it's that big a concern, for two reasons. First, the Lakers won the 2009 Championship with Derek at the point, and though he sometimes struggled with the Aaron Brooks of the NBA world, in the end we were sorry for our outrage at his continued involvement, humbled by Phil Jackson's great insight, and glad he had left Fish in the game (and not listened to us). Simply put, with a team this strong in every other area, we can afford to be "just okay" at the point — especially when "just okay" equals one of the best floor leaders and clutch shooters in the game.

Second, I tend to accept a fair amount of quick guard penetration as inevitable. Because of the NBA's current perimeter defense rules, it's basically impossible to stop penetration by quick guards. The bigger concern should not be preventing penetration; that is not possible. The bigger concern should be how the interior help defense responds to said inevitable penetration. In this regard, the Lakers were much improved last year over 2007-08, and a strong, healthy, active Andrew Bynum patrolling the paint on defense should further strengthen them there. This where Bynum needs to take ownership and responsibility on defense, declare the paint his own, and see not only the Shaqs and Howards of the NBA as personal challenges, but the Brooks and Pauls, too.

The bench, on the other hand, is still a big question mark. The potential is there for them to be one of the best reserve units in the league, even capable of hanging with many starting units at times. However, that was not the case last year, and it certainly wasn't the case in the season opener. (Note:  Don't read too much into the season opener, as Pau Gasol's absence brought Lamar Odom into the starting lineup, leaving the bench without either a significant stabilizing presence or a player who can create shots for himself and his teammates. Once Gasol returns, Odom and Artest will probably share that role, to a degree, and I expect much better things from the bench as a result.) Jordan Farmar never fully recuperated from injury, from which he probably came back too quickly. Machine's shot took a sabatical. Shannon Brown was a late-season addition. The coaching staff have been working gingerly to slowly get Adam Morrison back to productive form. Josh Powell is a solid rebounder and mid-range shooter, and one of the few that didn't devolve into nothingness last year.

All of these are areas in which the Lakers' bench can improve, and there's just as much reason to think that they will as there is to think that they won't. Nonetheless, the second unit has to be considered a weakness until it proves itself a strength, because as a group they disappeared so thoroughly last year.

Q4:  What are the goals for this team?

A4:  The cliché thing these days is obviously to say, "Anything short of a championship has to be considered a disappointment." So, how about this:  Anything short of major disappointment in San Antonio, Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando has to be considered a disappointment.

No? Okay, well let's get let's cheesy and more concrete with this. The goal is to repeat as champions, and that presents a number of other goals:

  • To manage the season, staying on top while having enough left come May.
  • To successfully integrate Ron Artest, and to adapt to the ways in which the offense and defense will change with his arrival.
  • To manage all drama and distraction — with Lamar now a tabloid favorite and Ron Ron his same Crazy Pills self, drama and distraction cannot be avoided. Thankfully, this is L.A., and we've always been great at dealing with it and winning anyways.
  • To avoid injury — and, hand in hand with that goal, to see Andrew Bynum build momentum in a season uninterrupted by injury, finally emerging as an elite post player.

Unofficially, several players seem to be shooting for the 70-wins goal, and maybe even 73. This could be both a good and bad thing — good in that a goal like that might keep them from complacency, but bad in that this team needs to worry less about over-exerting itself in the pursuit of regular season goals, and more about positioning itself for another championship run in the spring.

As observers and commentators on the Lakers and this 2009-10 season, I think I speak for most of us when I say that, at least at this point, 70+ wins is NOT one of our goals/hopes for this team.

Q5:  What makes the Lakers more likely to win the championship than the other challengers?

A5:  I've said this recently, but it bears repeating. The Lakers have the greatest potential for improvement among the five teams considered legitimate championship contenders; at the same time, they have the lowest foreseeable potential for failure.

The return of KG, and the additions of 'Sheed Wallace and several solid bench players could give this team the defensive intensity of 2008 with extra firepower and depth to boot; on the other hand, another injury to KG and they're out of the running, and that's without even mentioning the odds of one of the other Green Geezers getting injured (the "Big 4" are all in their mid-30s).

The Cavs added Shaq, but he didn't look nearly as good as he needed to last night (a game in which he should have been extremely motivated). Meanwhile, there have been so many other roster changes, and they would have to outlast four other elite teams while at the same time completely retooling — a task made much more difficult by the departure of Kuester, their offensive coordinator who is already sorely missed, after just one game.

The Magic are young, and Vince Carter is an upgrade, but he's a manageable threat for Kobe and Artest, and the Lakers still possess the matchup advantages. Meanwhile, they've changed enough that it might not work for them, and there is a lot of doubt that they can get past the retooled Celtics and Cavs.

The Spurs are potentially more susceptible to injury and age than even the Celtics, and even when healthy, the Lakers have all the matchup advantages, and it's doubtful that the Spurs can match the Lakers in the frontcourt.

For the Lakers, the three main areas of potential improvement are also the three main areas of potential failure. First, Ron Artest could be a huge upgrade over Ariza, or he could be a disappointing distraction. Second, Andrew Bynum could remain healthy and morph into a beast under the basket, or he could go down again and force us to do it without him for a third time around. Third, the bench could return to their 2008 form, or they could be just as frustrating as they were last year.

But for all of the other four challengers, if the reality is reflects more of the negatives listed here than the positives, they're probably done. For the Lakers, even if they don't improve in all three of these key areas, they're still the same team that won the 2009 Championship. Meanwhile, if all three of these factors become areas of significant improvement for the Lakers, they their ceiling is far beyond those of the other teams, even on their best days. Not convinced? Consider this: Take off the best player on each team, and only the Lakers is still a strong playoff team.

Of the five contenders, the Lakers have the highest ceiling and also the greatest margin of error. Their likely downsides represent the least potential for failure. That is why the Lakers are favorites to win the championship (again) in 2010.

 

Projected Finish:  2010 NBA Champions³

 

¹ Or:  The Los Angeles Lakers, The Lake Show
² Or:  65-17 regular season, 16-6 playoffs, 81-23 overall
³ Or:  69-13 regular season, 16-5 playoffs, 85-18 overall, NBA Champs

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