I'm not a conspiracy theorist. With regards to basketball, I have never subscribed to the idea that this or that external force is to blame for one team losing or another winning. I believe that in any championship campaign, things will go wrong, and that great teams are not the ones who would have won if things had gone right, but those who do win despite the things that went wrong. Great teams overcome adversity.
That's why I don't buy the theory that the suspensions of Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw were why the Suns lost to the Spurs. In the game in which they were suspended, the Suns enjoyed a comfortable lead, up 11 at halftime, eight with less than six minutes remaining, and leading until the three-minute mark – only to give it up in the final minutes of the game. Should a team good enough to build such a lead not be expected to hold such a lead? But even more than that, Game 6 seals the deal for me. You want me to believe that the presence of Amare and Diaw would have equaled a win? Then that should have been the case when they came back, nice and rested from their one-game break. Instead, the Spurs controlled the entire game, and the Suns never had a chance, even with Amare and Diaw.
Great teams play through adversity.
Remember Magic Johnson's first championship? He was a rookie point guard, and was playing in the Finals when center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with a sprained ankle. Magic started at center, and also played guard and forward at different times during the game, and he tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals while leading the Lakers to victory.
Great teams play through adversity and win anyways, and that is exactly what the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers did.
Click on through for a look at the various challenges and obstacles the Lakers overcame in winning their 15th championship...
Getting Back to Where They Once Belonged
In June 2008, the Lakers lost in the Finals to the Boston Celtics – and not only did they lose, but they did so in an embarrassing, disgraceful fashion. Many questioned whether this team could bounce back from such a heartbreaking loss, and it was often pointed out that few teams returned to win a championship the year after losing in the Finals – the last being Detroit in 1989. But a team led by Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant is mentally stronger than most, and sure enough, they started out the 2008-09 season in such dominant form that such questions were quickly put to rest.
In the end, they proved up to the challenge, returning to the Finals and winning in dominant fashion.
Andrew Bynum was expected to be the "difference maker" for this team, and he started the season healthy. But once again, the Lakers faced adversity with their young center in January, with Bynum injuring his knee and taking to the bench for nearly three months. Nonetheless, this Lakers team responded admirably, sweeping the six-game road trip they were in the middle of, and finishing with the second-best record in the NBA, one game behind Cleveland.
Andrew Bynum returned to the Lakers for the last four games of the season, scoring well and making a strong return seem likely. But in the playoffs, he struggled from day one. He collected fouls almost as quickly as Sasha Vujacic, and was largely ineffective in the post, unable to score against or rebound over significantly smaller defenders. At times, he showed glimpses of improvement, and for a while, Lakers fans held onto the hope that he would be ready by the time the Finals rolled around. It soon became clear, however, that Andrew Bynum would not be the "difference maker" he was expected to be this year, and the Lakers would have to win a championship with Bynum as a role player.
Once again, they responded decisively to the challenge. Pau Gasol defending Dwight Howard was expected to be a huge advantage for the bigger, stronger Howard, but Gasol's defense of Howard was masterful. The Lakers provided Gasol with significant help, and their defensive scheme was hugely successful in frustrating Howard, but Gasol deserves a lot of credit for his defense on Howard. According to ESPN DB, Dwight Howard was held to 4-10 shooting when guarded one-on-one by Gasol (Gasol, meanwhile, was 9-19 when guarded one-on-one by Howard). In Game 5, Gasol was the primary defender on Howard for in 38 possessions – in those 38 possessions, Howard didn't make a single field goal, and went to the line only once, where he went 1-2, for a grand total of one points on 38 possessions with Gasol as his primary defender.
Bynum was also a non-factor offensively. He played 17.4 minutes per game in the playoffs (18.8 in the Finals), and averaged 6.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.35 fouls (6.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.2 fouls in the Finals). Yet again, however, Pau Gasol stepped up and the Lakers prevailed despite the irrelevance of their young center. While Howard was held to 42 points in the paint on 21-42 shooting, Gasol had 56 points in the paint on 28-44 shooting. Meanwhile, Gasol shot 7-14 on mid-range shots and had 16 points outside of the paint, while Howard had none.
Andrew Bynum may one day become a major factor in the middle, but for this championship run, he was little more than a role player, and typically a marginally effective one, at that. The Lakers overcame this challenge, controlling the paint (Points in the Paint: Lakers 202, Magic 166) and winning anyways.
Derek Fisher & Sasha Vujacic
Part of the reason the Lakers' offense is so potent is because of their ability to stretch the floor with knockdown shooters. Between Bynum and Gasol scoring in the post, Kobe hitting mid-range jumpers and driving for layups and dunks, and the Lakers' marksmen shooting the lights out from long range, the Lakers are a nearly impossible cover.
Unfortunately, the Lakers best shooters often fell short in the 2009 Playoffs. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Derek Fisher shot .328 from the field and .235 from three-point range. He regained his form in the Finals, shooting .500 from the field and .438 from three-point range – but even in the pivotal Game 4, he had missed all five of his three-point attempts before hitting the game-tying three at the end of regulation and the go-ahead three in overtime. Meanwhile, the patience required for Fisher to find his shot was excruciating at times, as the Lakers won most of their games in the first three rounds despite Fisher, rather than because of him.
Sasha Vujacic, on the other hand, lost his shot and never found it. In 2007-08, he shot .454 from the field and an incredible .437 from three-point range. In 2008-09, however, he shot .387 from the field and .363 from three-point range. His shooting actually worsened in the playoffs, where he shot .264 from the field and .314 from three-point range. His playing time gradually decreased from 15.4 minutes per game against Utah down to 4.4 minutes per game against Orlando. Meanwhile, he has morphed from a pesky, effective perimeter defender into a defensive liability, picking up quick, senseless fouls and often putting the Lakers in the penalty very early in the quarter.
Derek Fisher's struggles were painful to watch, but he fought through him, Phil Jackson kept the faith, and he delivered in the biggest moments. Sasha Vujacic, meanwhile, was thought by many to be an important component in the Lakers' championship bid. This season, however, he was largely ineffective, and even moreso in the playoffs – but players like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown stepped up, and the Lakers won without him.
Jordan Farmar and the Bench Mob
Heading into the season, Jordan Farmar and Andrew Bynum were thought to be the young center and point guard of the future for the Lakers. Farmar made considerable progress last year, and was expected by many to take over the starting role this year. Meanwhile, Derek Fisher was getting older, and his ability to play starters' minutes was becoming an ever bigger concern. Unfortunately, Farmar suffered an injury in December, and after coming back earlier than expected, he was largely ineffective. He struggled while on the court, and Phil Jackson decreased his minutes as time went on. He hardly played at all in the first round against Utah.
Against Houston, Farmar seemed to regain some of his mojo, but he averaged only 9.7 minutes against Denver and 11.6 minutes against Orlando. In the Finals, he averaged 3.4 points and 0.4 assists per game, while shooting .368 from the field and .125 from three-point range. Once again, a key player for the Lakers struggled, was mostly ineffective in the playoffs, and was a non-factor in the Finals – but Shannon Brown stepped up in the earlier rounds of the playoffs, and Derek Fisher shouldered the load in the Finals, as the Lakers won despite Farmar's struggles.
Meanwhile, one of the Lakers' greatest strengths last year was their bench, affectionately labeled the "Bench Mob" and generally considered the best bench in the NBA. Because of the strong secondary unit, the Lakers were considered the deepest team in the league last year. This perception carried over into this year, but it quickly became apparent that the bench was not as solid as they had been the year before. Most of the Lakers' fourth quarter struggles – including those instances in which they gave up large leads late in games – occurred with the second string on the floor, and the Lakers' reserves were often a liability rather than a strength.
Nonetheless, the Lakers' weathered the second unit's tendency to give up leads, got good production out of Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, and relied on their core unit of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol to roll to a dominant Finals victory.
It's no secret that the officiating in these playoffs has been disappointing, to put it mildly. In the Finals, the Lakers certainly seemed to get the short end of the officiating stick. It is generally accepted that teams that attack the basket, while taking fewer three-pointers, are more likely to shoot free throws than teams that settle for jumpshots and take high numbers of three-point baskets. With that in mind, consider the following:
- The Lakers outscored the Magic in the paint, 202-166, an average of 7.2 more points in the paint per game
- The Magic attempted 115 three-point shots (23 per game), compared to 86 for the Lakers (17.2 per game)
- The Magic were awarded 139 free throw attempts (27.8 per game), compared to 120 for the Lakers (24 per game)
- The Magic took more free throws than the Lakers in four of five games, including both games in Los Angeles
- The Magic were awarded 0.37 free throws for every field goal attempted, while the Lakers only received 0.29 FTA per FGA (again, despite taking more three-point attemtps than the Lakers)
In the most egregious example of free throw disparity, the Magic enjoyed a 17-0 free throw advantage over the Lakers in the critical fourth quarter of Game 4, which went to overtime. This happened despite the Magic taking 12 shots to the Lakers' 20. The Lakers were called for 11 fouls in the quarter, while the Magic were whistled for only two.
For the entirety of Game 4, the Lakers were called for 28 fouls to the Magic's 21, and the Magic shot 37 free throws to the Lakers' 20. Most disturbingly, the Magic were awarded a staggering 0.50 FTAs per FGA, compared to 0.22 for the Lakers.
Despite the free throw disparity, and the Magic's disturbing ability to draw significantly more free throws while playing a style typically less conducive to drawing fouls, the Lakers pulled through to win Game 4 in overtime, and the series in four games.
Much has been made of the things that went right in order for the Lakers to win the 2009 NBA Championship, but the fact is that quite a few things went wrong, any of which could have prevented them from winning, if they had been inclined to let it. Between the repeat injury to Andrew Bynum and his inability to be a significant factor, the long dry stretch and defensive problems for Derek Fisher, the complete irrelevance of Sasha Vujacic, the struggles of Jordan Farmar and the entire second unit, and the often lopsided officiating in the Finals, the Lakers would have had every reason to fail, as many thought they would, to return and win where they had lost a year ago. Instead, they overcame all the odds, played their best basketball despite being far less deep than they had been previously, and not only got back to the Finals, but became the first team in two decades to win the championship after losing in the Finals the year before.
Great teams – championship teams – often face just as many obstacles as the good teams that don't get as far. The difference is that great championship teams overcome those obstacles. As the Lakers did this year, they win not because they manage to avoid facing adversity, but because when they face it, they overcome it.
Congratulations to the Los Angeles Lakers for disproving their doubters, silencing their critics, and overcoming a whole host of challenges to become one of the greatest championship teams in NBA history.