Envious Position

LA Lakers (last season 65-17; #1 in the Western Conference; NBA Champions)
Lakers logoWhen the reigning champion’s biggest worry is how one of the best lock-down defenders in the league is going to fit in, it’s a bad sign for the rest of the league.
Still, time to explore the Lakers, and what 2009/10 holds for them…
LA won the NBA title last season, struggling somewhat through the Western Conference playoffs, but winning in relatively dominating fashion over the Eastern Conference champions, Orlando. To prognosticate, first let’s look at the what happened between winning the Championship and now.
  • In the off season, LA lost Trevor Ariza, but gained Ron Artest in an almost-swap with the Houston Rockets.
  • Shannon Brown signed a two years/$4.2 million deal. 
  • LA signed Lamar Odom to a team-friendly four-year deal worth up to $33 million.
  • The rest of the roster remains relatively intact.
Rotational players will be Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Josh Powell, DJ Mbenga and Sasha Vujacic.  Probable starting line-up will be Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Gasol, Bynum.
I’ve read a lot of blog previews of other teams that have stated that they have the best depth in the NBA, but really… does anyone go beyond what LA have?
Let’s explore by position.
Point Guard…
Fisher, Farmar, Brown.
Definitely the weakest spot on the LA rotation, but given the offensive sets that LA run (the Triangle; Kobe/Pau rolls) – it’s not as big a hole as it could be in other teams.
Whilst I’d like to see Farmar get the nod here over Fisher, it’s unlikely to happen.  Fisher’s got the job, and that’s unlikely to change… at least at the start.  Farmar/Brown will see more minutes tho’ – and if the pre-season’s any indication, often together, presenting a very high-octane backcourt.
Shooting Guard…
Kobe-bannerKobe Bryant remains one of the most dangerous players in the NBA.
LeBron might be a better player, but in the Finals Kobe showed that he has a sense of timing that is bettered by no-one in the NBA.  Kobe knows when it’s time for him, and when it’s time for his team-mates.  Not only that, he knows WHICH team-mate is due.  Don’t believe me?  Check out who had the assist on Fisher’s dagger 3 against Orlando in the Finals.  And Kobe has much, much better support than the King… which in turn makes him all that more dangerous.
Discussion on Kobe is really superfluous.
Kobe remains Kobe.
Could just list the number #24, and it puts LA ahead of the pack.
But LA also runs Shannon Brown at that position, and Sasha Vujacic. So let’s discuss them.
“The Machine” appears to have taken quite a few steps backwards over the last season, and despite other LA sites painting a sunnier picture, it’s not something I would expect will improve.  The stat-line basically says that that’s who Sasha is.  I see him losing quite a bit of court time this season to Shannon Brown, who will rotate between playing at the 1 and 2 slots.
“Shan-WOW!”‘s really starting to come along, and he remains a very exciting player to watch.  Picked up as a throw-in to make up salary in the dump of Vladimir Radmanovic, Brown’s another player who has found his niche in LA (see Trevor Ariza).  I expect Slammin’ Shannon to pick up minutes at both guard spots, and continue to provide very good value.
Small Forward…
LA lost their starting SF (Ariza) due to his agent over-estimating his value (a gamble that really screwed his client over), but managed to have an ace-in-the-hole in Ron Artest.  In a veritable swap, Artest comes from Houston as Ariza heads to the Rockets for pretty much the same money.
Now, there’s no denying that Ron Artest comes with baggage… but there’s also no denying that he’s a better player than Trevor Ariza is.
I like Ariza, but I don’t expect him to be quite as efficient in Houston as he was in LA.  In LA, he was hitting open threes because … well… because he was VERY open.  With Kobe Bryant ‘n’ co. on the floor, Ariza was often left alone to hit shots.  Which he did.  However, when he’s one of the top 2 options on the floor, I don’t expect the same success rate.
His agent – David Lee – expected more than nearly 9ppg and just over 4 rpg could really expect… and in the end he settled for the same money that he would’ve earnt in LA, just in Houston.
Now, back to Ron Artest.
Yes, the guy can be a distraction… but it all comes down to if you think that LA can withstand that.  Two years ago, no way on earth.
Now?  I think so.  Coming off a title, with a veteran presence and Phil Jackson, the Lakers are well positioned to incorporate Artest.
The pluses that Ron-ron brings outweigh the negatives.  The one deficiency that LA-detractors always brought up was toughness.  At times, defense.  In one fell swoop, LA bring in one of the best man-to-man defenders in the league, who is also perhaps the game’s toughest exponent.
Other players that will see time at the 3 spot will be Lamar Odom (at times), Luke Walton, and Sasha Vujacic.  Vujacic’s been covered, and I’ll talk on Odom in the PF slot… so Luke Walton.
Walton’s extremely underrated.  His court vision is amongst the best at LA, and he is a perfect example of a player who does the ‘1%ers’.  With this roster (and last season’s), he is best suited to the role of ‘2nd unit player’, he lacks the ability to impact a starting roster that LA need at this position (clearly, he is below Artest on the depth chart anyway).  Walton’s a role player that knows he’s a role player – every team needs those. He’s also a ‘stable’ person… and god knows LA will need that this season.
Power Forward…
Gasol-by-GarnettFor years, this was the position that LA lacked the most in.  For years, LA lacked a power forward that could even be termed ‘competent’, then Mitch Kupchak landed Pau Gasol.  Now an all-star, Gasol is tougher than he seems (without a doubt tougher than his detractors think), quicker than he looks, and very, very long.  He also possesses that oh-so-vaguely described skill, ‘touch’.  Generally speaking, I regard that as “getting-the-job-done-without-muscle”.  Which sums up Gasol completely.
Suprisingly strong for someone so lithe, Gasol does have the ability to hit the shot away from the basket, the length to make it difficult to defend him doing so… and he’s quick enough to get by those who are tall enough to stop him and finish at the basket.  Gasol is – whether people enjoy hearing this or not – one of the premier power forwards in the league.  When called upon to do so, he’s also a more than able center.
Lamar Odom.  Talk about an enigma.  Odom continues to surprise me both on and off the court.  His excellent showing throughout the playoffs, when all expected both he and Gasol to come up – again – short.  His on-again-off-again-on-again contractual negotiations (signing for less than the original offer).  And of course, his marriage to Khloe Kardashian.  Weird.
But I maintain that re-signing Lamar Odom was the single biggest coup – at a rate that places all the power in the franchise’s hands – that LA achieved over off-season.  Playing-wise, Odom presents perhaps the most difficult-to-guard 6th man in the NBA.  On any other team in the NBA, any other team, he is a starter.
His presence means that at any one time, LA have two very, very tall players out there (alongside one of Gasol/Bynum).  All of whom are both a presence at both ends of the floor.
Off the court, Odom is one of the only voices that the ever-combustible Ron Artest will listen to… and that has value beyond measure.
Last season, Odom added range to his offense.  If he can merely retain focus, then LA are going to be very, very tough to beat.
Andrew Bynum has been looking THE GOODS thus far in pre-season.  And after two seasons that have both showed promise, and delivered disappointment, Big Drew’s due for a good season.  Bynum presents the third head in LA’s 3-headed beast.  Bynum’s looking fit, strong, and ready to provide the muscle to start alongside Gasol’s lithe frame.  There were times during both of the last two seasons that Bynum looked like a 20/10 guy… but late last season he never got back to playing like that.  He seemed somewhat lost and tentative out there, and never seemed to fit in with what was going on with the rest of the team.
This preseason, that look of apprehension has disappeared, and if he can continue that throughout the season, then it’s going to be a very long year for those not wearing purple ‘n’ gold on their hearts.
Those backing up Andrew not named Gasol/Odom, are DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell.  DJ Mbenga will continue to see small minutes, providing short breaks, or getting garbage time.  A bit of a pity, because I do like his bruising brand of basketball.  I do think he could/should get more court-time against teams that LA are going to beat handily… but Phil Jackson tends to play not-that-deep through his roster.
Josh Powell on the other hand, has the ability to play both at 4 and 5 (I’d actually label him a natural 4, rather than a center).  Powell will get court time, but again, providing rest for the 3-headed beast, rather than being a regular rotational member.  Powell continues to be a great story, post being told by Patrick Ewing that he’d never make an NBA player.  It’s great to note that Josh Powell will always have more rings than Ewing, regardless of his role in that team.

Phil Jackson… ’nuff said.  GOAT (X).
The only thing that’s going to beat the Lakers is… the Lakers.  I get that that’s a cliche, but it remains a truth none-the-less.
There’s been a lot of criticism over not signing Trevor Ariza, but it’s misplaced on several levels.
Ariza’s a better fit than Artest… well, maybe personality-wise (and that remains to be seen), but Artest is clearly still a better player.  Those that claim that Ariza’s a better player aren’t watching.  The only aspect of Trevor’s game that’s better is his ability to guard some of the quicker, smaller players.  Artest can guard bigger players than Ariza.
Lose on the littles, gain on the bigs.

I really like Trevor Ariza, and I wish him all the best in Houston. Ariza hit big shots, but he hit big shots because he was open.  He was open because he was playing on a team where he was the 4th option.  I’m not entirely sure that he’s going to replicate the form he had in LA.
But I hope so.
Bottom line is that Trevor Ariza’s agent (David Lee) screwed up bigtime on this.  He overestimated what his player was worth, and now Trevor left his hometown LA, family, friends where he won a title, for a team in Houston that is likely to be competing at best for a low slot in the playoffs.  Most likely they’re lottery-bound.
RonnieLA shouldn’t have messed with something that was obviously working... in this day and age, where everyone else rostered up heavily, you cannot just stand pat and hope.  The Lakers saw a chance to upgrade, and upgrade they did.  Same money they would’ve been paying Ariza.
Artest is a nutjob.  It’s a matter of “when”, not “if”... Possibly.  But I think that the Lakers are the one side in the league that can probably cope if he does go apeshit.  That said, I don’t think he does.  Phil Jackson, now wearing the title “GOAT”, is a coach that has a history of being able to deal with nutjobs.  Look up some of Dennis Rodman’s antics.  That guy was is(?) a tortured soul if ever there was one. Kobe Bryant is one of the only players in the league that Ron actually defers to.  Lamar Odom and he have a shared background, both coming from Queens, NYC.  They’ll be fine.
– LA remain weak, and will be beat up by a healthy Boston… Not on your life.  LA faced down ‘healthy Boston’ twice last season, and once with no Bynum.  Those soft Lakers of two seasons ago are long gone, Gasol and Odom made sure of that.
And there isn’t a player in the NBA who would stand toe-to-toe with Ron Artest, and call him “soft”.
Defending small PGs remain a weakness for LA… This is true. Something that remains of concern is LA’s defense on waterbug-quick point guards… those little guys in the Tony Parker/Aaron Brooks mold that have given LA fits over the last two seasons.  Hopefully, Jordan Farmar can make a return to form.  If so, he has the pace to limit, if not stop, guards of that ilk.
Realistically, you can’t stop everything, just hope that this one flaw doesn’t beat you completely.  And it’s unlikely to.
So, LA fans.  Rejoice that your team is in a position to do something that’s become very, very hard to do. Repeat.
LA will finish 67-15, #1 in the West.
Not an LA fan?  Wallow in envy for another season.