I've been working on this piece in various forms (mainly in my head) since the day after the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2009 NBA Championship. It was apparent to me then, as it is now, that the Lakers had all the potential to win a few more championships over the next several years. Of course, every time I prepared to write this piece, something major happened to change the NBA landscape, as the league's best teams attempted to better position themselves to challenge the Lakers next year. As a result, this post has gone through many changes in my mind.
Of course, the Lakers responded to all these moves by their biggest competitors with the acquisition of Ron Artest. So it is that while some of the specifics have changed, the final conclusion has not. I expect the Lakers to repeat as champions in 2010, and I foresee a new Lakers dynasty over the next several years. And I'm going to tell you why.
Hopefully, nothing drastic happens before I'm finished typing.
It Starts Where They Left Off
It's one thing to win a championship. That's hard enough — so hard, in fact, that only 17 teams have done it (one of which is now defunct), meaning that 14 of the league's 30 teams have never won a title. The Lakers and Celtics, of course, have combined for 32 of the league's 63 titles — more than half. The Spurs and Bulls have combined for 10 more. But despite the success of a very few teams, the moral of the story clearly is that winning a championship is a significant enough accomplishment. To build a dynasty in a league in which winning even one title is so difficult is no easy task.
So it is not simply the fact that the Lakers won the 2009 NBA Championship that leads me to proclaim the beginning of a Lakers dynasty. In large part, it is how they did it that leads me to that conclusion. It is how they looked in the 2009 NBA Finals that makes me think that they have what it takes to dominate the NBA for years to come. They didn't just win; they dominated. They found a level of play they had not yet touched until then — but one they will be able to continue to play at (particularly when it matters most), now that they have found it.
I could tell you about it, but honestly, Kelly Dwyer summed it up as well as anyone could have, so I'm simply going to ask you to take a moment to let his words sink in, to realize how great these Lakers were... and are.
First, to fully understand how truly amazing it was that this team dominated as they did, consider the numerous things that worked against them:
Problem is, they didn't stay healthy. And some of the career arcs seemed to spin off course.
After completely shoring up Los Angeles' awful point guard defense from two years ago in 2007-08, Derek Fisher fell off the face of the earth defensively, like an NFL running back that somehow went from 1300 to 500 yards in a year's time. Jordan Farmar, out of nowhere, fell off. Andrew Bynum tore a significant ligament in his knee, and Kobe Bryant lost a little bit of patience. A lot of patience. Especially in the first three rounds of this year's postseason.
But with all of that logged against them? 65 wins, in 82 tries. 81 in 105 attempts, overall. Third in offense, sixth in defense. Those are championship stats... And, from November until mid-June, they walked all over this league.
I'll add one more: Sasha Vujacic went from a 44% three-point shooter and very good defender to a hopeless "chucker" and defensive liability.
When foolishly attempting to predict, at the beginning of the NBA season, which teams will make it to the NBA Finals, these are the types of things that serve as asterisks. When predictions are coupled with phrases like, "assuming nothing goes wrong," these are exactly the kinds of things they are referring to. That is what was so incredible about this Lakers team — those things that usually serve to undermine a pre-season prediction happened, and the Lakers won anyways. The Lakers dominated anyways. Are you grasping the weight of this?
Along the way, they played some very tough competition. Tougher, by far, than Cleveland. And if you ask me, equally as tough as Orlando. Again, KD with the recap:
The playoffs, I'm sorry, but that was a tough, tough run. Laugh at the Utah Jazz all you want, but that team can play. And some of the best offensive stretches (small things, good four or five minute runs, but "stretches" nevertheless) I've ever seen in my life came from these Lakers against a Jazz team some picked to win the West before the season started.
The Rockets? Chortle if you must at the absence of Tracy McGrady and (eventually) Yao Ming, but that was an impossibly-tough defensive team that had advantages in all the right slots (Aaron Brooks taking on Fisher's defense, most profoundly), and were about as stern as second round warnings come.
The Denver Nuggets? Mock if you will, but that was a championship caliber team that had quite a few pundits wondering aloud about who, exactly, would win a Denver/Orlando Finals pairing. They weren't wrong in that line of thinking, because the Nuggets were good enough to get there.
I'm with KD; that was a very, very tough path to the Finals. Sure, the Lakers appeared to struggle at times. But was there ever a moment where you wondered whether the Lakers had what it took to overcome their opponents? For you, maybe there was. For me, not a single one. Perhaps you would have liked more consistent dominance from the Lakers — here again, Dwyer offers some food for thought: "Could it have gone better? Could it have gone smarter? Yes, and yes. And guess what? They're not robots."
Not robots, indeed. And whenever it was necessary, and even often when it was not, the Lakers delivered in ways that their opponents couldn't even have dreamed of matching.
And then there was Orlando. This was a great team. This was a team that was one game from elimination, and responded by beating Boston at home, and then turning around and beating them a second time in a row — this time in Boston. This was a team that manhandled the Eastern Conference favorites, drop kicking the Cleveland Cavaliers in six shocking games. This was a team that had responded to every challenge, that had gotten up stronger each time they were knocked down.
These Orlando Magic were a truly great team. But again, don't take my word for it. Click on over and read the first thirteen paragraphs of Kelly Dwyer's Finals recap. He was so impressed by the Magic, it's simply too much to quote. They were that great.
And the Lakers put them away in a mere five games.
And still again, to convey to you how completely Los Angeles dominated the 2009 Finals, I give you more Dwyer (emphasis added):
And they were great enough to down the Orlando Magic in five games. Three may have been close. Two may have been won in overtime, but they beat a great, great team four out of five times in June. That is so, so impressive.
These are the things we have to remember. These are the things we need to appreciate, now. Not just for this week, as something to chew on before the Draft hits and free agency takes over.
But for all time. These Lakers were a powerhouse. These Lakers are a powerhouse.
Understand what the Lakers did to Orlando, with their offense. Please.
Teams double-team offensive firebrands like Kobe Bryant all season long. But nobody seems to get away with doubling Kobe, not just because of Kobe's brilliance, but because of Los Angeles' offense. And when the Magic, the best defensive team in the NBA did it, Los Angeles seemed to have a 6-on-3 advantage due to that offense, with its unmatched spacing. Not just your typical 4-on-3. The Magic were helpless once that ball started moving.
115, 104, 121, 103 and 110 points per 100 possessions for the Lakers in the series. That's against the NBA's best defense, a defense that gave up only 101.9 points per 100 [possessions] on average during the regular season. If the Lakers are the unstoppable force, and the Magic were the unmovable object, well, the force wouldn't stop. And the object got to moving.
That's the stuff I have to remind myself of. The Laker defense, however, will be hard to forget. Splayed out in front of me from Games 1 through 5, [the Lakers' defense] is the biggest thing I'll take from this series.
I don't know what you saw when you watched the five games of the shorter-than-expected 2009 NBA Finals. Me? I saw a team that figured out how to play at a level far beyond anything even the regular season Lakers had been capable of. The pundits often talk about championship teams having "that extra gear" for the playoffs. The Lakers found an extra gear even beyond that.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Lakers of the Finals would have beataen the Lakers of the regular season very solidly. Chew on that for a moment. Remember that those regular season Lakers won 65 games, despite once again losing Andrew Bynum to major injury. Recall how the Lakers dominated the regular season. And understand what I'm suggesting when I say that I believe they would have been dominated by the team they evolved into by early June.
I believe the Lakers figured something out throughout the course of the playoffs. I believe they were tested in ways that simply weren't possible in the regular season, and they grew into a team the likes of which we have rarely seen. They figured out how to play at a level they had previously been incapable of.
And here is the key: For 2009-10, this is where they begin. Let that ruminate for a moment.
I don't expect them to play at that level consistently for 82 games. I doubt any team could do such a thing, and retain its sanity. Any team that tried just might burn out before they made it to June. But I do expect that these Lakers will have the ability to go to that place whenever they need it. I expect to see it against Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando. They've discovered the ability to play at a level they did not previously know, and now that they have that, they will be able to use it. And, especially in the playoffs, they will be able to build on it.
One of the struggles for an NBA Champion attempting to repeat is figuring out how to keep things fresh, how to keep the fire burning, while simply repeating the same exercise. If little changes — if there is no external impetus to compel continued dedication, no internal impetus to keep things interesting — then a team can become complacent, and therefore vulnerable to those other teams taking aim at them.
Fortunately for the Lakers, that will not be the case in the upcoming season. Externally, all of their biggest competitors have made serious upgrades to their roster.
The Cleveland Cavaliers added Shaquille O'Neal, addressing their need for a post presence to match up with Dwight Howard (and, potentially, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol). I'm on record as not being convinced of the effectiveness of that trade, and my position hasn't changed. More importantly, the Cavaliers had very serious needs in other areas, and they have failed to address those so far, with time and options both running out. Nonetheless, they boasted the best record of the regular season last year, and while I don't see Shaq alone putting them over the championship hump, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they continued to dominate the regular season, perhaps even more than they did last year.
The Magic appear to be letting Hedo Turkoglu walk, but they have added Vince Carter to their roster, which was a great move for them. At the same time, a healthy Jameer Nelson would also go a long way for the Magic, and would give them a starting lineup featuring four All-Star level players and the go-to pure scorer they didn't have last season. Given good health entering the playoffs and a year of extensive (and very tough) experience, they could be even better than they were this year.
The Celtics have added Rasheed Wallace, and — are you detecting a recurring theme? — I'm with KD in thinking that everything rides on how motivated he is. If he is dialed in, happy, and engaged, then he can be a very significant contributor for the Celtics, and could potentially make them favorites in the East. But I'm goint a step further than Dwyer, and saying now that I do actually expect him to be motivated and happy again. Of course, health is probably even more important for the Celtics than the acquisition of Wallace, but if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are healthy come playoff time, and Rasheed Wallace is once again playing inspired basketball, the Celtics could be a force to reckon with.
Even the Spurs have upgraded, adding Richard Jefferson — though Jefferson isn't the player he once was, and the Spurs may have sacrificed the front court depth they needed to combat the Lakers in the process. Word is they have moves left to make. Dallas is also making its best efforts, though I doubt it will put them over the hump. Portland is another team with money to spend, capable of making a stir and taking steps to become true contenders.
The end result is that so much has changed in the NBA, with the best teams getting better and the worst teams preparing for the summer of 2010, that the Lakers simply can't afford to become complacent. They will never have the chance to start feeling over-confident. They will feel the pressure immediately, and they will have a whole slew of new challenges (and challengers) to respond to and prepare for coming into this year. When the risk of complacency is a concern, this is a good thing.
Think of the 2009 playoffs as a microcosm for what the entire 2009-10 season (regular and playoffs) could be for the Lakers. I'm becoming more and more convinced that an easy path to the Finals is not a positive thing. Last year, the Celtics struggled and were faced with challenges while the Lakers stomped on easy competition. But the challenges they faced forced Boston to grow and prepared them for the ultimate challenge of the Finlas, while the Lakers arrived untested and, ultimately, not ready for what they would face. This year, the tables were turned. The Lakers faced plenty of challenges in the early rounds, and you saw what they became in the Finals. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went for a stroll in the first two rounds, and looked dazed and confused against their first real challenge in the conference finals.
So it is that I believe a more challenging postseason schedule is better for a championship contender. In the same way, an entire season that presents a new round of challenges should ensure that the Lakers are prepared for the postseason once it arrives.
A New Look
Of course, the Lakers didn't stand pat while their opponents were upgrading. They responded by adding Ron Artest, a move which makes them considerably tougher, better defensively, and in my mind, even better than before and still favorites to win the 2010 championship. On this issue, KD and I part ways, though I think Henry Abbott is spot on.
But we've talked at great length about the ins and outs of the Ron Artest acquisition, so let's not beat a dead horse here. The key issue here is that this, along with fairly new acquisition Shannon Brown — he was with us last year, but this will be the first time he really has a chance to learn the offense and really become integrated into the system — should give the Lakers plenty to do to keep things interesting on the inside.
Especially because it's Ron Artest.
Everything from the challenge of integrating his game into the triangle offense, to the question of how to keep the ball moving with him on the court, to the inevitable randomness and quirkiness that follows him everywhere he goes — all of these things, and more, will serve to keep this season plenty interesting for the Lakers.
It will also present a new challenge. They are a different team now, with a somewhat different look. Can this team be as good as the last team was? Can this team accomplish the same thing? Can they change things up and still win it all — are they that good? These are the questions that will keep the Lakers going.
And of course, having Kobe Bryant cracking the whip and imparting his insatiable desire to win another ring, always another ring, certainly won't hurt.
Andrew Bynum — Again
I know we said the same thing last year: Andrew Bynum will change things. That didn't really pan out. He looked set to become something between a very good center and a dominant force in the paint, and then he once again suffered a major injury.
In the playoffs, he was almost a non-factor. Credit to him for recognizing that he would not be the dominant force he may have at one point hoped he could be, and willingly accepting his role as enforcer and relief defender. In that regard, he had some important moments. But he was expected to be a "deciding factor" this time around, and he simply was not that, or anything close to it.
So let's do this with qualifications this time around. Let's make it clear that this is not something we, as Lakers fans, are counting on. It is not something we're expecting, and not something we're relying on. We do not see the Lakers championship hopes as hinging on Bynum this time around. But we do still see a significant possibility for him to finally become the strong post presence he has shown the potential to be.
He takes some time to get going. He took most of 2008 to heal, and came back supposedly in full health to start the 2008-09 season, but he still took until January to really get going. Expect the same thing this year. He didn't really get going very much in the playoffs; he also struggled with foul trouble.
But if Andrew Bynum can remain healthy, and if he can learn from his experiences in this postseason (and perhaps receive a bit more leniency from the officials the second time around), then it is very possible that come May, he may be that strong post presence we've wanted him to be. And if that happens, he will be playing with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher. That would be the biggest, strongest, most talented, most dominant and indefensible team in the NBA. (Sidenote: It would also put Gasol at the power forward spot, where he would be an even better defender than he is at center.)
At this point, don't bet your pretty penny on it — but if it should come to pass, and Andrew Bynum can become a big time contributor for the Lakers in 2010, these Lakers will become significantly better than they were in the 2009 Playoffs, where they essentially played without him. And the rest of the league will be in big, big trouble.
Built to Dominate
These are your Lakers. They were one of the greatest NBA teams I have ever seen in June 2009, and they have an entire season to build on that. They've learned to play at a level that few teams can even touch, and I believe they can get back there when they want or need to. They face new challenges, which will keep them from getting complacent. They have also made some major changes of their own, which will keep things interesting and keep them engaged — and ultimately, in my opinion, make them better than they were before. And on top of all of this, they still have room for improvement, room for a few things that went wrong this year to go right next year. They've shown that they can not only win, but win in dominant fashion, in the face of setbacks that would take most teams out of the running. If a couple of those setbacks (such as Andrew Bynum's injury) resolve themselves, I can't see any team stopping them.
In the end, looking at this team, they just have that "feel." They feel like a team capable of just destroying everything in its path. They feel like a team with all of the talent and ability they had last year, but with added confidence, strength, and toughness. As always, for today at least, Kelly Dwyer summed it up best:
These Lakers? They look set to dominate. And that, to me, is never a bad thing when the basketball is good. And with these Lakers, the basketball is so, so good.
Indeed, the Lakers look set to dominate. With a rested Kobe Bryant for the first time in two years and a very strong starting cast that is now fully confident in what they are capable of, I feel confident in expecting at least a couple more championships in the near future for these Kobe-led Lakers. Who knows? Maybe even another three-peat...
As my dad would say: Pay attention,
Josh folks — we're watching a dynasty in the making, right in front of our very eyes.