Team Record: 41-25
First Round Opponent: No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets
How would you describe The Lakers in the regular season?
Erratic. So, so erratic. The Los Angeles Lakers may have ended the year third in the Western Conference, but lost out only to the New York Knicks when it comes to insane twists and turns over the course of the regular season (and the corresponding media following to cover said twists). From the pseudo-trade for Chris Paul to the very real trade of Lamar Odom for nothing (a trade which, sadly, appears to have been justified), from the early season struggles (in which all but the top four players were, statistically, among the worst in the league) to the post trade-deadline rennaissance following the acquisition of Ramon Sessions and the re-discovery of an energized Metta World Peace, this has been one wild ride of a season. And just when you think you've got a handle on this bizarre Lakers team, Andrew Bynum jacks a three pointer or MWP cracks James Harden's head. Never a dull moment.
What are the Lakers strengths? Are there any areas that concern you?
Assuming MWP comes back with his head on straight (which is in no way a safe assumption, but you can only analyze the information in front of you), and also assuming Andrew Bynum has his head on straight (ditto), I don't think its a stretch to say the Lakers have the best starting lineup in the league. Ramon Sessions has cooled off after a torrid start but is still mountains better than what the Lakers started the season with, Kobe is still a top-2 shooting guard, Andrew Bynum is (sometimes) the most unstoppable low post presence in the league, and Pau Gasol, despite his seeming failure to live up to our unreasonable expectations, is a pretty amazing third wheel to have. And MWP was enjoying quite the stretch of enthusiastic and capable play on both sides of the court prior to his MMA turn. Outside of Kobe, the team is a collection of players who's consistency is extremely suspect, but at their collective peaks, that starting unit is an intimidating force.
The area of concern (aside from the obvious bench weakness at guard and inside which gets minimized as rotations get shorter) is the very same volatility that gives the Lakers the ability to throw out a core five that other teams are afraid of. The only two players a Laker fan can have confidence in performing to a baseline of expectation are Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Ramon Sessions is awesome, but this will be his first playoff dance and he's struggled of late. Andrew Bynum could be dominant, or could maintain the petulant antics that have cropped up all season. And MWP is a complete crap shoot after Elbow-gate. Honestly, if the Lakers make it through the post season without trying to de-capitate anybody, it'll probably be a great postseason run.
What is your likely playoff rotation? Who is likely to see their minutes increase? Who might fall out of the rotation completely?
Good question. You'd think we'd be able to answer that question at this point of the season, but I just don't know. That's what happens when your starting small forward is suspended for most, if not all, of the first round, and you picked up a huge win in the second to last game of the season in part because of the strong play of a backup big man who played twice as many minutes in that game as he had for your team on the season. Will MWP come back strong (or at all)? Did Jordan Hill really usurp both Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy in just one game with his inspired play against OKC? What about Devin Ebanks and his surprisingly effective defense on Kevin Durant? These answers are still up in the air, giving credence to the overall theme that the Lakers are the most volatile team in the playoffs.
Who is most likely to step up their level of play? Do you have a potential "breakout" performer this postseason?
Hill certainly has the look, for two reasons: His energy and ability to defend the pick and roll are both vital needs in the Lakers big man rotation, and his two main competitors have been pretty terrible all season long. Murphy and McRoberts are both poor defenders, and aside from the "threat" of outside shooing Murphy can provide (though he rarely does), neither player has much of an offensive presence either, giving Hill the rare opportunity to be of major import to the Lakers despite contributing virtually nothing to the team in the regular season.
How far can you realistically see the Lakers advancing in the playoffs?
There is no such thing as realistic when it comes to the Los Angeles Lakers. They have far too much talent, and far too little consistency, so as to render predictions of their potential outcomes virtually meaningless. A first round exit would not surprise me (OK, it would a little). Nor would a championship. With Sessions providing another weapon, the Lakers do have the talent for the latter, but there are so many things in flux with this team that are normally well sussed out on a traditional contender that there's just no telling what will happen. If the small forwards hit threes and the Lakers have their heads in the game on defense, they are a very, very tough squad to beat.
If I have to put a prediction out there, I'd say I like the Lakers chances of getting out of the West and into the NBA Finals as much as I like any one team's. It's hardly a coin flip proposition, but the West is wide, wide open, so it should be an interesting ride.