With the "real" season upon us, it's time once again to start our previewage of the playoffs, starting with SSR's traditional Playoff Positional Preview for Round One of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, featuring the Los Angeles Lakers versus the New Orleans Hornets. The Lakers really lucked out in terms of matchups for the first round, in that the Grizzlies tanked the end of the season (or, alternatively, you could follow ESPN's explanation of events) to avoid the Lakers, and as such, despite not having the number one seed in the conference, the Lakers begin their 2011 postseason run with the easiest playoff opponent in the West.
The Hornets had trouble matching up with the Lakers in the regular season, losing all four meetings between the two teams primarily because of their not being able to deal with the Lakers' length and the mysterious lack of aggression on the part of franchise MVP Chris Paul. With the David West injury, things look even more dire for New Orleans, who lack even the slightest punter's chance of toppling the defending champion Lakers in a seven-game series (provided, of course, Steve Blake's chicken pox doesn't spread to the entire team). There is only a single position in which the Hornets possess an advantage over the Lakers, and Chris Paul hasn't seemed either willing or able to exploit this in the teams' prior meetings.
For the purposes of this preview I'm going to assume Bynum is healthy enough to play from the onset of the series, but not 100% (a reasonable assumption, I would contend). In terms of stats, Bynum and Okafor's season numbers are quite comparable at a glance, with both averaging a near-double-double of approximately 11 and 9, but when adjusted for minutes played the base numbers tend to favour Bynum. Advanced metrics, take them as you will, follow this trend, with Bynum edging Okafor in all major categories including assist rate, block rate, rebound rate, True Shooting Percentage, Win Shares per 48 minutes and PER. Okafor has a decent post repertoire and is a solid positional defender, but he lacks the soft touch and length of Bynum on offense and is simply not big enough (a generously listed 6'10" compared to Bynum's seven-foot-plus height and expansive wingspan) to provide the same level of intimidation in the paint as a help defender. Okafor nonetheless is a surprisingly good shot-blocker, at two per game, but I doubt he will intimidate Laker perimeter players to the point of being deterred from attacking the paint.
Ultimately, if there were any guarantee of Bynum's physical and psychological recovery, this matchup would easily be in his favour, but given Bynum's history of slow return to form following injury it's doubtful he fully takes advantage of this matchup. Noting that Okafor often performs better than average against the Lakers (12 and 10 on 62% shooting), I suspect these two will play each other to neutrality when sharing the court in one-on-one situations. However, considering Okafor is currently the Hornets' second-best player, while a recuperating Bynum ranks at best fourth in the Lakers' pecking order, this would be a favourable outcome for Los Angeles, particularly if Bynum can provide some intimidation in the lane as a bonus. The key here is that Bynum play enough minutes for his presence on Okafor to be felt, as Okafor, like many centers, has the potential to bully Pau Gasol.
POWER FORWARD: Pau Gasol vs. Carl Landry
In lieu of the injured David West, the Hornets start famed Laker-killer Carl Landry at power forward. While the skill and length differential between Gasol and Landry is so obscenely large that on paper Gasol should dominate this matchup, anybody who's watched Landry play against the Lakers knows that that is rarely the case. Players of his mould - slightly undersized, but scrappy and full of effort, energy and physicality - often give the Lakers' power forwards plenty of trouble. The explanation lies at least in part in the fact that players like Landry can bully the Laker power forwards, as Lamar Odom is more of a stretch four than a true big and Pau Gasol isn't exactly the most physical player going round. This generally results in offensive rebounds leading to easy putbacks. There's also maybe a tendency on the part of Laker power forwards to overlook such players, allowing them to back cut for easy baskets and pop out for open jump shots.
Of course, we musn't discredit Landry, who in recent years has shown a respectable ability to score. With New Orleans this season, he's scored 16.6 points per 36 minutes on a 57.8 true shooting percentage. Gasol's length should be enough to bother Landry, both inside and on jumpshots, but that of course assumes that Gasol actually contests Landry's shot attempts. On offense, Pau has the length to shoot over Landry. His back-to-the-basket game, however, may be somewhat limited as Landry has a solid base and is quite strong. Gasol may be well served to attack on the move, or with his running hook shot, moreso than with traditional back-to-the-basket play.
At small forward, the Lakers will be pitting defensive stopper Ron Artest against former Laker Trevor Ariza. While upon his departure from Lakerland, many were predicting a bright future for the young Ariza, who had shown plenty of potential in the Lakers' 2009 title run, and were questioning the wisdom of letting him go for Ron Artest, it quickly became evident that Ariza was not suited for a larger role, and indeed he truly struggled to function in Houston, who grossly miscast him as a primary offensive option. Deprived of superstars like Kobe Bryant to play off of, Ariza put points up with near-historic inefficiency for the Rockets before coming to New Orleans and providing less scoring at a similarly inefficient rate. Quite frankly, the Lakers would be well served by any Hornets possession that results in an Ariza shot attempt, unless it's an open dunk. Ron has a significant size advantage over Ariza, and will likely use it to make Trevor miserable.
SHOOTING GUARD: Kobe Bryant vs. Marco Bellinelli
Hornets' starting shooting guard Marco Bellinili scores decently, and that's pretty much all he does. More than half his points come from behind the arc, where he converts 41.4% of his attempts. Basically, he's an NBA-standard spot-up shooter from the wing, the exact mould of player whom Kobe is likely to disregard defensively. I predict at least one game where Kobe's lack of contests on Bellinelli's longball attempts leads to him putting up at least 20 points on hyper-efficient shooting from deep. Nonetheless, the Hornets aren't going to get far relying on Bellinelli jump shots, so this isn't too much of an issue. Also of note: it's likely that Kobe and Fish cross-match at times, with Kobe on Paul and Fisher contesting Bellinelli's threes.
SMALL FORWARD-SHOOTING GUARD CROSS-MATCH I: Kobe Bryant vs. Trevor Ariza
As Ariza is the Hornets' designated defensive specialist, he will likely be tasked with guarding Kobe Bryant in a cross-match. Ariza has length and quickness and a penchant for using these two attributes to garner steals, but although good, he's not an exceptional defender. He's a skinny player, and provided Kobe can shoot over his length Kobe will likely post him up often. Compared to the likes of Shane Battier, Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha or Arron Afflalo, he's a pretty tame defender to throw at Kobe.
SMALL FORWARD-SHOOTING GUARD CROSS-MATCH II: Ron Artest vs. Marco Bellinelli
With Ariza cross-matching on Kobe Bryant, the 6'5", sub-200 pound Marco Bellinelli will likely be left to attempt to guard Artest. Artest has two inches and close to 70 pounds on Bellinelli, coupled with a strong post game. This matchup is decidedly in the Lakers' favour. I hope to see Phil exploiting it often, with post-up sets for Artest forcing the Hornets to reverse their cross-match, leaving Bellinelli to attempt to guard Kobe Bryant. The Hornets can't even resort to their bench for relief, as their other options at two guard include the 6'4" Willie Green and the 6'3" Jarret Jack. For all the talk of the Lakers' frontline length, their size and length on the perimeter are arguably just as hard to defend.
POINT GUARD: Derek Fisher vs. Chris Paul
In years past, the Hornets' crushing advantage at this position could have won them a game or two, but post-injury Chris Paul is quite different from the CP3 of old. In lieu of combining his blinding speed and athleticism with his superlative court-vision and passing ability, not to mention his soft touch as a scorer, the new incarnation of Chris Paul picks his spots more cautiously. Thus his scoring average has dropped by three a game this season, reflecting a larger lack of aggression offensively, with his shot attempts rarely exceeding 14 per game. When he is literally the only hope for the Hornets to score enough points to win a basketball game, one would hope he'd shoot a lot more, but even post-David West injury his scoring and field goal attempts have not significantly increased.
However, Paul is still a superstar in this league, and his desire to win is unquestioned. He's been picking his spots during the regular season, but I have little doubt that in the playoffs he'll be more assertive. It seems he's been rounding into form, with his averages for the last four games being around 23 and 9, numbers more resemblant of the CP3 of old. I expect him to put up a couple of dazzling performances in the series. Whether those performances will be enough to will this mostly talentless New Orleans Hornets team to a victory or two is less certain.
As for Derek Fisher, we know who he is and we know what he's capable of. He's certainly not going to outplay Chris Paul by any degree, but count on him to hit many a few shots throughout the series and steady the Lakers offensively. And at the very least, he'll give it his all in trying to defend Paul.
BENCH: Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Joe Smith, Theo Ratliff, Luke Walton and either/or Trey Johnson and Steve Blake vs. Jarrett Jack, David Andersen, Quincy Pondexter, Jason Smith and Willie Green
Instantaneously, one notes that the Lakers have the hands-down most talented player on either bench in Lamar Odom. After that, it becomes a crap shoot. Jarrett Jack probably has a slight advantage over Shannon Brown. If Matt Barnes is healthy he's better than any backup New Orleans wing, but that's currently in doubt. Steve Blake is out indefinitely with the chicken pox (I wouldn't mind if he sat out the whole series as a precautionary measure). Trey Johnson is likely inferior to Willie Green. Luke Walton plain sucks. And the pickings of non-Lamar Odom big men are slim on both sides, though once again the advantage would have to go to the Hornets. Ultimately, however, one has to give the Lakers' bench the overall advantage, simply because they possess the one true difference-maker of the lot in Lamar Odom.
On paper there's no reason to look at these match-ups and think anything other than "Laker sweep." However, we all know that the Lakers rarely play up to their potential. They have a knack for letting an otherwise-insignificant role player or two explode in a way that can occasionally cost them a game. The Hornets possess two players who're in the mould of players known to give the Lakers trouble in Carl Landry and Marco Belinelli, along with an all-world talent in Chris Paul, who at his best can play with anybody. Whether any of that is enough to make this series interesting is up for debate, but in the end the facts are that the Lakers hold the advantage everywhere except the point guard position.