Yesterday, we took part in SB Nation's network-wide effort to preview the 2012 NBA Playoffs. That preview wasn't so much for you fine folks who've been following the team every day.
66 games in the time normally reserved for 50, the regular season has finally come to a close. Unlike in seasons past, where our proud fanbase (and for that matter, our proud team) might have languidly meandered through the final 4 weeks of the season with one eye looking ahead, this year was a gauntlet which continually flew at you at breakneck speed.There was never a chance to catch your breath, never a chance to stop and think about what the Los Angeles Lakers accomplished, or failed to. With just one day between the end of the season and the start of the playoffs, that pace continues.
It behooves us then, to take a moment. To smell the roses, to assess the state of the Lakers heading into a another postseason. This will be the first postseason in a long time in which the Lakers are not favorites to win the NBA title, or even get to the NBA Finals in the first place. It will be the first time in a long time in which they are not the defending champions. At the start of the season, there was talk of re-loading, of grabbing a superstar via trade and continuing both Kobe Bryant's and the franchise's assault on the NBA record books. When CP3 fell through, and the Lakers' extremely advantageous All-Star big man rotation was shipped out of town with Lamar Odom, the talk turned to survival. Now, after the Lakers' offensive explosion and decent showing against high quality teams since the acquisition of Ramon Sessions, we've come full circle.
The Los Angeles Lakers enter the postseason with a chance, a legitimate chance, to win another NBA title.
That chance is not what it has been. Last year, as two time defending champion, it was considered more than a chance. The "experts" agreed that a Lakers title was the most likely outcome possible. It wasn't probable (with 16 teams with a theoretical chance, probable is highly unlikely) but another Lakers title was the pluralistic outcome. We know how that turned out. This year's team has even less margin for error. In years past, the Lakers seemed willing to throw away one, sometimes even two, games in a seven game series due to lack of focus and general sense of entitlement, of being able to turn it on whenever they want. Then last year happened, and Dallas wiped the floor with that mentality. Now, there seem plenty of teams capable of beating the Lakers even when the Lakers do play well, making it all the more important that the Lakers do so every game even to have a chance.
They have more challenges to face. Their starting small forward will be suspended for the first six games of the playoffs. They will rely on a group of backup big men that are either unproven, or proven liabilities. Despite bringing in a defensive coach, the Lakers find themselves ranked outside the top 10 defensively for the first time since pre-Pau Gasol. They are ranked in the top 10 offensively ... tenth to be exact. The numbers do not portray them as a good team.
But make no mistake, the Lakers do have a chance. They have a chance to put all the pieces together for a deep playoff run. It is a chance forged from the peak performance of five men: Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions, and Metta World Peace. That is the Lakers starting lineup. It contains one of the top two shooting guards in the league, the best center in the playoffs, a power forward one year removed from being All-NBA 2nd team, a point guard who, prior to a late season slump, was averaging better numbers with his new team than just about any point guard in the league, and a small forward defensive force who averaged 15 points per game in the month of April. As a starting unit, if each one plays as each one is clearly capable of playing, they are unmatched in the NBA. With assistance from the effective Matt Barnes, and surviving whatever minutes are necessary from Steve Blake and the backup big man du jour, the Lakers starting five can win any game, against any team. Rotations get shorter in the playoffs, and the Lakers short rotation has the capability to be as good as it gets.
The capability. It's hardly a guarantee. You know what you'll get from Kobe, and Pau Gasol will, at the very least, consistently do whatever the team asks him to do. Gasol's effectiveness has been less this season than it ever has been in a Lakers uniform, but that's because he has ceded the middle of the court to Andrew Bynum. Gasol is still a fantastic player, and the Lakers are lucky to have him. Meanwhile, this is Andrew Bynum's time. There have been times this season when he has looked the most dominant big man in the league. If he has the touch, he is literally unguardable, because nobody is tall enough to prevent him from shooting the arsenal of hook shots and fade aways he has at his disposal. At other times, he has proven to be mobile enough to be a worthy anchor for any defense. If he does either one, the Lakers are truly formidable. If he does both, they cannot be stopped. Sessions needs to snap out of his current funk and go back to being the guy that gives the Lakers just a little bit extra, from a place on the court they aren't prepared for due to years of Laker neglect of the point guard position. And Metta ... he just needs to come back with the necessary sobriety to do his job properly. And make threes, he needs to make threes.
Sessions aside, these guys all know what it takes to win. They've all done it before, and they all should have quite the bitter taste in their mouths for how their journey ended one year ago. Do not think for a second that it is lost on this roster that they start this year's journey in the exact same position as last year's champions. 3rd seed in the Western Conference is an uphill climb to the NBA title, but it most certainly can be done.
Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have done their jobs. They have addressed the team's needs, and given them the tools with which to succeed. They've given Kobe, and Drew and Pau and everybody else, a chance. Now it's time for Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers to do their jobs, and bring that beautiful gold ball back where it belongs.