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On Ice: 2008-09 In Review

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The Lakers' playoffs start today. But before we jump in, we have one last stop for you. What follows is a review of the 2008-09 regular season — a collaborative work, co-written and fused together from the efforts of three of our new authors, which I have edited into a single retrospective. Thanks to Sideout11, WildYams, and ryebreadraz for contributing to a fantastic tribute to the third-best regular season team in Lakers history.

Rebuilding

Three years ago, the Lakers entered the summer having narrowly missed upsetting the second-seeded Suns in a seven-game first round matchup. Entering the next season, many in Lakerland were optimistic about the Lakers' chances, and anxious to see how the team would build on their surprising near success of a few months earlier.

To be sure, the Lakers started off on a roll, going 26-13 in their first 39 games. But in mid-December, Lamar Odom got hurt in what would become a horribly devastating string of injuries, ultimately leading to another first round matchup with the Suns, this one a more decisive Phoenix victory than the year before. That led to Kobe Bryant's "summer of discontent," in which he questioned Mitch Kupchak's decision not to trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd, and later demanded to be traded.

When the 2007-08 season rolled around the Bryant still on the roster, no one expected much of the Lakers. But Kobe is Kobe, and the Lakers were relatively healthy, and once again they surprised the league, getting off to a 27-12 start in their first 39 games, good for the best record in the league. When Andrew Bynum went down with what would become a season-ending injury, the strong start to the season seemed to have been wasted. But unlike in previous years — and likely motivated to a degree by Bryant's offseason diatribe — Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers' front office didn't allow injuries to dictate their season, trading Kwame Brown and change for Pau Gasol.

The move propelled the Lakers to the 2008 NBA Finals, but the Lakers fell two wins short of securing their 15th championship banner, once again leaving Laker fans with unfulfilled dreams and a sense of, "What if...?"

With Andrew Bynum starting the season healthy, and Pau Gasol and mid-season acquisition Trevor Ariza able to start the year off in training camp with the team, the 2008-09 season would be when we, as Laker fans, hoped finally to see what this team was really capable of, when fully healthy. The Lakers were no longer rebuilding; they were, once again, championship contenders.

Expectations

For Laker fans, expectations were high. This team had gotten to the Finals with ease, without the help of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza. This year, they would surely build on their recent championship experience, bringing home the trophy where they had failed in previous years. Outside of Los Angeles, however, many were skeptical. Few teams that lose in the Finals are able to get back the next year.

For the third straight season, the Lakers started off incredibly strong, destroying opponents from the opening tip. A few minor bumps aside, the Lakers early season performance quickly reassured the doubters, and they began to look like not only contenders, but even favorites to win the championship. A decisive win over the Celtics on Christmas day reinforced these expectation, as did a win going away in their first meeting with LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Finals, it quickly became the general consensus that the reason the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals was that they weren't tough enough. This year, that no longer seemed to be an issue. The Lakers appeared significantly tougher, both physically and mentally. After once again losing Andrew Bynum in January, the Lakers refused to be discouraged, going 6-0 on a road trip that ended with consecutive games in Boston and Cleveland — decisively sweeping the season series with both of their likely Finals opponents despite the absence of their "big, strong" injured center.

It was on this road trip that the Lakers' newfound mental toughness was put on display. On the day that the Lakers learned of the severity of Bynum's injury — his prognosis was eerily similar to last year's — Kobe Bryant delivered a performance for the ages, scoring 61 points and breaking all scoring records in Madison Square Garden. His team took it as the message it was — that the Lakers would not be discouraged, they would not be defeated, and they would not sit around waiting for Bynum to return, as they had last year. They would play without him, and they would win without him. In Boston and Cleveland, they drove that point home, winning not with dazzling offense, but with physical and mental toughness, unwavering determination, and stifling defense.

It had been assumed that the Lakers were simply made up of "soft" players, but perhaps, indeed, this supposed toughness differential between Boston and LA had never actually been about personalities. The title-winning Celtics had been led by a trio of veterans who had all experienced more than their share of playoff heartbreak. Off the bench, they had a swingman with championship experience, and two other veterans who had experienced playoff heartbreak similar to that of their "Big Three." This team was hungrier — not by nature of personality, but by hardened experience. Their sense of urgency was more immediate, not just among their stars, but across the entire roster.

The Lakers were led last year by two players who had playoff success, and had but one player off the bench with similar playoff success. The rest of the Lakers had hardly even been out of the first round, much less to the Finals. Prior to last year, they had never even been in a situation with a realistic chance at winning the championship. These players were ill-equipped to handle the pressure of the Finals, and aside from Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, their drive didn't come close to matching that of the Celtics. For most of the roster, merely reaching the Finals exceeded their expectations.

Coming into the 2008-09 season, the shoe was on the other foot. These Lakers who had been so inexperienced, virtually incapable of the kind of championship ambition necessary to secure victory in the Finals, had now experienced playoff heartbreak.

They had been to the Finals, and a repeat of that experience would no longer exceed their expectations. They had significant playoff experience, and had spent the summer working on lessons they had learned from last year's disappointment — lessons they would continue to work on throughout the course of the season. They were tougher, harder, more determined. Their coach was well known to claim that a team had to be beaten in the playoffs before it was ready to win a title, and they were prepared to show that they had reached that point of readiness.

The Lakers, like the Celtics of last year, had become a team with a singular goal and focus, a hunger unmatched by any of their rivals, and a burning need to return to the Finals and win where they had lost the year before. As Luke Walton recently mentioned, anything less than a championship will be a disappointment, and a failed season.

Back Where We Started

With the playoffs starting, the Lakers are back where they started, 16 post-season victories away from ring fittings and a parade down Figueroa. Unlike last year, Bynum has returned, is making solid progress and appearing to bounce back more quickly than he did from the last injury, and actually looks to be on track to be back in shape in time for the Finals. Trevor Ariza has emerged as a valuable defender and swingman, an "energy guy" and a "glue guy" who does all the little things that don't show up in the box score.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are better for Bynum's absence, as they have learned to play without him. In the process, they've become even tougher, even more resolved, and they've learned about themselves that they are strong and versatile, capable of playing at a championship level even in the face of major injury. They may not have home court advantage in the Finals, if they do indeed face the Cavs, but they have the confidence that comes from knowing that they have soundly beaten all of their likely Finals opponents — Cleveland included — both on the road and at home, with Bynum and without.

Ultimately, they've finished with the third best regular season mark in Laker history, and one of the best records in all of NBA history, and yet it's clear that they have rarely played to their potential this year, conserving energy instead for when it will be most needed, in the NBA Finals.

What We Learned

After 82 regular season games, there are several things that have become evident as we head into the real season playoffs:

  1. The Lakers have exorcised their demons. The 2008 Finals, to be sure, have surely haunted these Lakers at times. That is no longer the case. Instead of discouraging them, that experience is what drives them forward. They have secured major wins over their toughest opponents, including the ones that humiliated them 10 months ago, and enter the Playoffs with a sense of confidence and the mental upper edge their likely opponents.
  2. The Lakers soft no longer. They have the playoff experience, the hardness that comes from such a rough defeat, and the mental edge of a team with a singular, unified drive and purpose. Physically, they accept the challenge of every team that would try to bully them around, responding in kind. Pau Gasol is learning how to use his size, fighting for position rather than settling for 12-foot jumpshots, and Lamar Odom is playing with a passion and making fewer frustrating mistakes. Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum give them physical toughness and defensive tenacity that they didn't have at their disposal a year ago.
  3. The Lakers are better. They are still growing and learning, and have clearly not yet reached their full potential — all of which is bad news for the rest of the league. Gasol and Ariza have a full year in the triangle offense under their belts, but certainly have room for improvement, and will become even more comfortable in the Lakers' system next year. The team as a whole has been subject to an incredible amount of fluctuation in the lineup, and players are still becoming comfortable with each other — another fact which bodes well for the Lakers and poorly for the rest, as LA begins to develop a more consistent rotation through these playoffs and going into next year.
  4. The Lakers have both met and adjusted their goals. Their first goal, homecourt advantage in the Western Conference, was a cinch. Their second, the best record in the league and homecourt advantage in the Finals, they missed by a single game. Yet, one gets the sense that such an advantage no longer feels as vitally necessary to the Lakers as it did early in the season, when it felt like a necessity in their quest for a championship. Now, the Lakers have learned that they can and will win on the road, and they are confident that they will meet their third and most important goal, which is yet to come.
  5. Bynum is going to be very good. Duh, right? Before his injury, Bynum was quckly becoming a force to behold — averaging 20.8 points and 8.7 rebounds in the 12 games prior to injury, and a particularly potent 26.2 points and 13.8 rebounds in the 5 games prior — and beginning to turn in regular 20/10 and even 20/20 games... including one game in which he became the first Laker not named after expensive steak to score 40 points in a game since the departure of Shaq. Coming off of injury, it has taken but four games for his offensive game to round quickly into shape, in most ways. Though his defense and rebounding still depends on more gradual improvements in timing and conditioning, it is clear that he will soon be back to where he was prior to the injury, and even better — a force to be reckoned with. After a jumpstart in the summer of 2007 (see: Kobe Bryant's "summer of discontent"), he has shown that his learning curve is much, much quicker than any of us had once expected it to be.
  6. Kobe Bryant is hungry; now, so is everyone else. The league's best player was embarrassed by a rival team — once. Don't expect it to happen a second time. Meanwhile, don't expect his teammates, who have finally begun to grasp his drive, to let him down again, either.
  7. No more settilng. There were time last year that the Lakers fell in love with the long ball on offense. They could get away with this, as Vujacic and Fisher were near guarantees from that distance. They tended to play a finesse game, and struggled against teams that packed it in and played physical defense in the paint. This year, Fisher and Vujacic have struggled at times, but the Lakers haven't missed a beat. Bynum has become an offensive presence down low, and Pau Gasol has made a point of getting into the paint. Odom has improved defensively, is making fewer mental mistakes, and is cashing in on all the attention paid to Kobe, Bynum, and Gasol by diving to the basket, crashing the boards, and creating second chance opportunities. Meanwhile, his jumpshot, once a liability, is becoming more reliable with every passing day, forcing teams to play him honestly on the perimeter and possibly leading to a day when he can play side-by-side with Gasol and Bynum. As a group, the Lakers are still capable of playing that finesse game that they perfected last year; but now, they're also capable of playing with power and strength, giving them incredible offensive versatility and the ability to adjust their style of play to exploit the weaknesses and match the strengths of their opponents.
  8. The Lakers can defend. When they are motivated, believe it or not, they are the best defense in the league. Their strong side zone defense is perfectly suited to their strengths, and it is a scheme that they have fully bought into. They haven't always played their best defense, often preferring to skate by on less than 100% effort, but appear to be capable of "flipping the switch" and "turning it on" at a moment's notice. And when they do, the defense is ferocious.

Positives and Negatives

At this point, the positives should be clear. It has been an interesting journey for the Lakers, to say the least, but everything points to a team that is mentally tough, physically gifted, and not yet as good as it can and will be. They get up for big games and play their best under pressure. They are deep and talented, and have managed to add another key rotation player in Shannon Brown, who has shown flashes of being able to become the Lakers point guard of the future.

On the negative side, the defense is middle-of-the-pack at best, when not motivated. This team has yet to reach a point of where they are mentally capable of sustaining a high level of play throughout the season, regardless of who they play — the kind of mentality that, if they had it, could lead them to win 72 or more games, like Jordan's Bulls once did. They've shown a tendency to give up large leads, though they've also shown an ability to turn it on and take a game back over when they fall victim to their own lack of interest against lesser teams. The bench has lost some of the strength it boasted last year, though it is possible that with more consistency in the rotations, some of that bench production will return.

In all, the positives seem to vastly outnumber the negatives. As Kenny "The Jet" Smith recently predicted on TNT, the Lakers look like likely candidates to represent the Western Conference in "four out of the next five Finals."

Anything less than a championship will be a huge disappointment. But should the Lakers win that championship, they will soon be looking to next year, where their improvement over this year has the potential to be as big a jump as this season has been compared to the last.

That's the 2008-09 regular season in review, with great promise for the playoffs. It's amazing enough to almost make me want to start thinking about 2009-10.