I've been awful quiet around these parts as of late. I'm not really a big fan of the NBA offseason. I do my due diligence and pay attention to it all, but I don't like commenting on negotiations and trade rumors. However, the NBA landscape is looking a lot clearer these days, especially at the top. So I come back to you now to pose a question that, on the surface, may sound ridiculous.
Could it be harder for the Lakers to repeat as champions than it would be to win 70 games next year?
Before I try to convince you of the validity of that question, a caveat. This entire conversation ignores the possibility of a major injury (missing 15+ games) to a major player (any of the top 5). I know this is a huge leap of faith, and is the main reason why any team would be hard pressed to win 70 games. I know it is unlikely to happen. I'm choosing to ignore it because trying to predict if and when a major player goes down is the trade of an Oracle, not a blogger. Besides, as Boston found out last year, injuries can just as easily derail a championship run as it can a highly successful regular season. So, understand that when I talk of the possibility of 70 wins for the Lakers, I'm already assuming that health won't be a major issue, and I know just how astute that assumption is.
Right, now that the rules are set, here's my case for why 70 wins could be more likely than a 2nd straight parade:
The Lakers won 65 games last year ... and had plenty of room for improvement.
The crux of my argument. Last year, the Lakers won 65 games, and were constantly under-performing while doing so. A few bench players took a step (or three) backwards, even as the Lakers were beating everybody under the sun because the starters were so dominant. Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic were the main culprits here. Farmar had a significant early injury, came back too soon, and was actually a detriment to the team for most of the year. He only began to show signs of his old self in the limited minutes he got in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Vujacic completely fell off the wagon. While his shooting wasn't nearly as bad as you think (for many players, especially outside shooters, an eFG of 49% is OK), it was a far cry from the Machine of 2007-2008, and if his actual shooting numbers aren't terrible, they don't tell the whole story. Vujacic was constantly putting up shots that made every fan cringe. Luke Walton also took a step back, although not nearly as dramatic as the other two players. The significant point here is that all three of these guys are young players. They are at a point in their career where they should be improving, not regressing. Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum started the season slow, began turning into a real powerhouse, and then promptly lost half the season to injury again. Simply a full healthy year of Bynum would be quite an improvement over last year's squad. Further, Shannon Brown will be able to pick up the slack if Farmar falters again, and even Sasha's role could possibly be filled by Adam Morrison if he can't find the stroke. Improved bench play won't win you a whole lot of playoff games, but during the regular season, a strong bench can be a huge difference maker in turning close games into blowouts.
Outside of themselves, the Lakers division is weaaaak.
Besides the Lakers, the Pacific division is the worst division in basketball, and it's not even close. The Pacific was the only division to have only one playoff team last year. It was the only division to have two teams win less than 20 games. And with a winning percentage just under 43%, including the Lakers' stellar record, the division won 6% less games than the next worst division. The only other decent team in the division (the Suns) appear to have gotten worse due to Shaq's departure, and another year on the legs of Nash and Grant Hill, and the only truly significant addition in the entire division was Blake Griffin. The Lakers could very well go undefeated in their own division.
The NBA's power consolidation works in favor of more Lakers wins.
The motto of the NBA offseason has been "The rich get richer". There has been a lot of power consolidation in the NBA this offseason, with all the teams which were contenders last year making major plays to be better this year. Shaq's in Cleveland, VC is in Orlando, Sheed is in Boston, and Richard Jefferson is in SA. You'll notice only one of those teams is in the West, which means the Lakers will only have to deal with the NBA elite twice each, save San Antonio.
Meanwhile "the poor get poorer". Small market teams are doing everything they can to shed salary, either because they want to be ready for the free agent bonanza of 2010, or because they are hemorrhaging money faster than an American automaker, and a majority of the really bad NBA teams are in the Western Conference. I'm not going to get into whether the East or the West is better, because the argument completely changes based on your sample size of teams. But the West had 6 of the 7 teams which did not win 30 games last year, and for my money, only LAC (Griffin) and OKC (Durant's continued growth) may be noticeably better than last year. Add to that list the incredibly sad story that is the Houston Rockets, and you've got quite a few games against piss-poor competition. Lots of games vs. really bad teams = lots of wins even if your team is having an off-night.
The Lakers' nemesis got a lot weaker
Only three teams managed to beat the Lakers twice in the regular season last year. The Orlando Magic (eventual NBA Finalists), the Portland Trailblazers (both losses in Portland, one of the toughest venues in the league, and always a sore spot for L.A.), and ... the mighty Charlotte Bobcats. Any Lakers fan shudders at the mere mention of the plucky team from Charlotte who almost always seem to have the Lakers' numbers. Well, that plucky team made themselves worse by trading away Emeka Okafor for Tyson Chandler. I'm not saying Okafor is a game-breaker, but he was a very decent defender who could rebound and hurt you inside. Chandler can be a great rebounder, but his defense is too highlight oriented (going for the block) and his offense can best be described as an extension of Chris Paul's will. Now that he doesn't have Paul's gorgeous oops to throw down, I think it's pretty certain that he will be exposed badly on the offensive end. So ... the Lakers are sure to pick up two wins just by finally sticking the fork in Charlotte ... right?!?
Even besides Charlotte, the Lakers lost some pretty winnable games
In my opinion, the Lakers 17 losses break down like so: 10 understandable losses (both Orlando games, @ SA, @Den, @Atl, @Mia, NO, @Utah, 2 @ Por), 3 losses that probably shoudn't have happened (@ Char, @PHX (No Nash, No Stoudamire), home to Detroit), and 4 losses that are just embarrassing (home to PHI, @Ind, @Sac, home to Charlotte). Three of those losses (@SA, @Ind, PHI) came on last second plays that fall somewhere on the spectrum between unrealistic and WTF? A few more were very close. It's not hard to see more than 5 of those games turning from L's into W's next year, providing a buffer against the predictable drop in success against the NBA elite this year (6-3 last year, maybe 6-4 or 5-5 this year)
On the other side of the equation, the NBA playoffs look to be a bloodbath.
With 5 teams looking like legitimate Goliaths, this year's playoffs will be a massive war of attrition. The Lakers seem to be clear favorites going into the season, but who knows what will happen when 5 teams of that quality (and some not too shabby potential party crashers in the Blazers and Nuggets) square off. With all those super powers, winning the championship will not be an easy task at all, no matter who ends up in the Finals, and no matter who has the home court advantage. While the Lakers may have the best chance to win the title, the probability of it is still less than 50:50. One can not understate the difficulty of winning 70 games in any season, but this year the same could be said of winning the championship. The degree of difficulty in this year's playoffs will be astronomical for all of the major players, and there will be no margin of error from the 2nd round onward.
Trying to repeat as champions only adds to the degree of difficulty
It may sound odd considering how many champions have been able to repeat in the last 20 years, but winning a 2nd championship in a row is a lot harder than winning the first. It usually happens only when one team is a clear head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA. Since the demise of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, that team has not existed (although the Spurs deserve honorable mention for their off-year domination), hence no repeat champion. Were the Lakers a dominant team last year? If looking at their record against the NBA elite, one could certainly make that case. But their performance against the rest of the NBA clouds the issue considerably. Are they head and shoulders above the rest this year? With all the upgrades made by all the other contenders, and with the risk-reward proposition that is Ron Artest, there are too many variables to come to a firm conclusion, and it is certainly not clear cut.
So, is the likelihood of winning 70 games higher than that of winning a championship? Probably not. There's a reason only one team in NBA history has won 70 games. It takes a massive level of commitment from a team to play in a professional manner night in, night out. The Lakers certainly didn't look like that model of professionalism during the last regular season. And, as previously mentioned, the shadow of injury looms over the whole scenario, ready to bring it crashing to the ground at any time. That being said, the NBA landscape this year, with a large number of teams who are very bad (mostly in the West), and a large number of teams who are very good (mostly in the East), provides the proper circumstance in which a team could win 70 games without being clearly more dominant than every other team in the league. The Lakers are the most likely candidate, but it could also happen to any one of the three elite teams in the East. I made this argument from a Lakers perspective, but many of the points can apply to the Eastern elite as well, especially since most of the teams on the other end of those power consolidating moves were Eastern conference teams. More than in any other NBA season in my memory, there are enough great teams and enough terrible teams to make it plausible to have a 70 game winner come up short at the end of the season.
Is it possible? Am I full of crap? Did I just jinx the Lakers? What do you think?