The regular season is over. After 82 games, after 6 months of our lives spent watching the Los Angeles Lakers, I think all of us fans have been left with the same general feeling ...
Thank God that's over.
The regular season is a grind, whether you are a player, a coach, a blogger, or a fan committed to watching every game. If you don't take nights off, the regular season can and will consume you with its tedium and frustration. It has purpose in general, but on a game to game basis, results don't matter, and that reality is impossible to ignore. It's purpose, for teams with even the faintest aspiration of winning a championship, is simple: Prepare yourself for the playoffs. It's important to do well, so that you have a more advantageous position in the playoffs, but getting in to the 2nd season is the only requirement.
One has to look at the Lakers regular season and consider it an underacheivement. They were 8 games worse through 82 than last year, and every player on the team is a reason why. Across the board, I can't find one player who performed better, over the entire season, than they did last year, with the possible exception of Andrew Bynum, simply because he was healthy for more games. Kobe Bryant started strong, but has succumbed to an injury list that could cover an entire team in lesser mortals, and hasn't looked Kobe-esque in over a month. Pau Gasol started strong (and has ended strong), but has been routinely bullied in big games so far this year, bringing back the "soft" storylines. As recently as a month ago, Ron Artest could have been called an improvement over Trevor Ariza, but Artest's shooting stroke has been missing for so long now that I put in a call to have it placed on the side of a milk carton. Everyone else, from 1-12, they all failed to live up to last season's performance.
Even more concerning than a comparison between last year's championship squad and this year's team is the comparison within the season. Buoyed by a home heavy slate, the Lakers started the season strong. Last year's team boasted a top 3 offense with a good defense, but the addition of Ron Artest changed the identity enough to switch those things around, and the Lakers were annihilating teams with defense, culminating in holding the Utah Jazz to a 6 pt 4th quarter. However, any defensive identity the team found early on seems to have been lost. The Lakers have been barely better than average defensively since the All-Star break. Sadly, the offensive identity the Lakers have accumulated over the season has never been a positive one. The Lakers can't shoot, which is a real shame because they love shooting. It's been a topic of conversation all season long, the Lakers inability to take full advantage of their substantial inside assets, and their propensity for trying and failing to hit long distance shots.
The Lakers struggles do not come without reason. Both literallly and metaphorically, the Lakers are limping into the playoffs. Much of the late season difficulty can be attributed to injuries throughout the squad. The only players (besides the very end of our bench) who can claim a clean bill of health are Pau Gasol (who has missed more time this season than any other starter) and Derek Fisher (who many fans might wish was injured). As previously mentioned, Kobe is dealing with anywhere from 3-4 injuries right now. Every perimeter player on the team seems to have an injured hand. It's tough to find a game in April in which one Laker didn't go down with something, and the last two meaningless games cost the Lakers a backup guard a piece, killing what was already a razor thin bench. One has to imagine the Lakers would have simply forfeited those games if they could. As of this moment, the Lakers have an injury situation that can rival even the cursed Portland TrailBlazers. LA has got nothing on the severity of Portland's injured list, but in terms of players missing or playing well below 100% right now, the Lakers have it as bad as anyone. In a couple rounds, if the Lakers make it that far, it might not matter. At this moment, however, injuries are the lead story for the Lakers postseason run.
And yet, despite the doom and gloom so far described, the fact remains that the Lakers are still in a favorable position to advance to the NBA Finals. They have won the Western Conference for the 3rd year in a row. The West is a gauntlet in that it is tough from 1 through 8, but there is no one team that has distinguished itself as a surefire juggernaut, and despite their struggles, you would have to imagine the Lakers are still the favorites to advance. It's certainly not impossible to imagine a West team beating LA in a 7 game series, especially if they can't improve over the regular season's final month, but if the Lakers get even a portion of their mojo back, they are still clearly the cream of the Western Conference crop.
Towards that end, up first are the Oklahoma City Thunder. A few weeks ago, I wrote for Land o' Lakers that the Thunder were the team that I least wanted the Lakers to see in the first round, because "playing them was like Russian Roulette. Their inexperience will probably kill them, but if it doesn't, you might end up dead." Well, my opinion has changed, because their form has changed. At the time, they were surging, but they enter the playoffs as the 2nd worst WC playoff team in the last two weeks (sadly, we are the worst). For a young team, confidence is key, and with 4 losses in their last 6 games (including a road loss to the Golden State D-league), the Thunder have closed the season on a less than positive note, and a win in any one of those losses would have helped them to avoid the fate of playing the defending champs. Similar to the Lakers, the Thunder's identity all season long has been a defensive one (as evidenced by the 47 pts through 3 quarters they dropped on us a month ago), and lately their defense has left a lot to be desired. It should come as no surprise to you that Silver Screen and Roll will have this series (and any others that follow) on lockdown. We'll have analysis coming out of your ass by the time things kick off on Sunday. Check back a few times a day, there will always be something new.
There are a bevy of questions surrounding this Lakers squad, as many or more than may have ever surrounded a title defense for the purple and gold. The Lakers have tried to repeat, and suceeded, with a similar record (the 2nd of the Kobe-Shaq titles came with a 56-26 record), but I don't remember any of those teams ending as poorly as this one did. By any advanced metric, the Lakers are not the favorites in this title race, and some metrics have their chances less than their WC brethren. This Lakers team, with so much talent and a championship pedigree, but with so few impressive performances to show for it, is perhaps the best test case in years for the importance of regular season results. If they flame out in the 2nd round, it will be a strong measure of proof that "stuff" like point differential really are good predictors of future success. If they win it all, it will do significant damage to predicting postseason success based on regular season results.
We're finally here. At the place where every game is crucial. At the point where the season is truly defined. As Lakers fans, blessed with following a franchise that has been here more than any other, and taken home the big prize nearly 1 in 3 times over the past 30 years, we know this place well. It's time for questions to stop getting asked, and start getting answered.
Are you ready to find out what the answers are?