The common assumption this season among NBA analysts and fans is that the Lakers have the Western Conference locked up; their starting lineup is too talented and balanced for any opponent to contend with. That assumption is certainly not baseless. The Lakers post one of the best front courts in the league with Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom off the bench. Of course, they have arguably the second-best player in the league, the Black Mamba, at the 2, who has the hardware to show he has done it well into June before. Nevertheless, the Lakers do have 18 losses this season — so they can be beaten. Here I’ll run down what factors are necessary to defeat the reigning NBA champions in a seven-game series come playoff time.
Stopping number 24
To beat the Lakers, you need to get a handle on Bryant. If he goes off, the rest of the team is too reliable that there’s very little chance you’ll get a win. Accordingly, Kobe cannot get open shots — if he’s hitting heavily contested 20-foot jumpers, there isn’t much you can do, but giving him easy layups and wide-open shots will lead to a 20-point deficit on the scoreboard in a hurry. So which teams from the West have a defender that can have some chance at containing the Lakers’ star?
- Houston Rockets, Shane Battier/Trevor Ariza: Last year in the Western Conference semifinals, the Rockets (without Yao for most of the series) played better against L.A. than most teams expected them to. One of the primary reasons for that was the team’s defense on Kobe. Battier drew the assignment most of the time, but Artest got some minutes on him, too. Despite Bryant’s arrogant mouthing of “You can’t guard me” in Battier’s direction after hitting an admittedly difficult shot, Battier did a hell of a job. He limited Kobe’s shooting percentages and made him give up the ball to his teammates more than he likes to. If the Rockets make the playoffs and see the Lakers, expect an equal effort from Shane.
- Dallas Mavericks, Caron Butler: The Mavericks propelled themselves to elite status in the league with their deadline deal that brought in Butler and Brandon Haywood. Butler has always been a talented defender who draws comparisons to Artest on that end because of his toughness and grit — two things that frustrate #24. Furthermore, Butler’s equal skill on the offensive end will require more attention that Battier’s, making Kobe work harder than he wants to and tiring him out.
- Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant: You probably weren’t expecting this. But if the Thunder, who seem playoff-bound, draw the Lakers in their first title run in the new location, expect Durant to crave that defensive assignment. He’s not really known as a premiere defensive stopper, but he has the speed to stay with Kobe and, more importantly, the absurd length to bother his shots. They have Thabo Sefolosha, too, who’s near the top of the league in defensive rating.
Taking advantage of the Lakers’ poor bench
No one really seems to notice this, but beyond Odom, the Lakers’ bench is subpar. Shannon Brown has shown some promise, and played well down the stretch last year, but Jordan Farmar is having a down year, and the rest of them are questionable Association players. Consequently, opponents need to take advantage of the few minutes in which the Lakers’ weak points are exposed; they need to dominate during second-unit play.
- Phoenix Suns: The Suns play fast, so they give a lot of minutes to non-starters, which makes them better conditioned for playoff games. Leandro Barbosa is filthy quick, and quick guards give the Lakers trouble (which I’ll get to later). Goran Dragic, Steve Nash’s backup, is a better distributor than he gets credit for. Up front, they feature Louis Amundson off the bench, a high-effort Varejao-type player, and Channing Frye, a sharpshooting center with whom no player on L.A. can really match up.
- Dallas Mavericks: I think the Mavericks may be a theme here. Dallas boasts a wealth of talent on the bench. At guard, J.J. Barea plays way better than his size indicates. Rodrigue Beaubois is a rookie but has shown he can score at the NBA level. DeShaun Stevenson, too, can score. And everyone knows what Jason Terry is capable of. Up front, they have Erick Dampier, a defensive stalwart who can guard both Bynum and Gasol.
Matching up in the low post
Gasol, Bynum, and Odom are a huge part of the Lakers’ success. Teams that hope to defeat L.A. need to account for that and have good strength and size up front to defend these players, so they have to rely on Kobe more.
- Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets gave the Lakers their biggest test in the playoffs last season, and everyone was talking about their toughness and physicality. Nene, Kenyon Martin, and the Birdman Chris Andersen did a great job of slowing down Gasol, Bynum and Odom. With all three of them back this year, expect a similar result.
- Dallas Mavericks: Sure, Dirk’s a cream puff. But with Brandon Haywood in town now, and Dampier available on the bench, the Mavs have two of the elite post defenders on their squad.
Quick point guard play
One of the central weaknesses of the Lakers’ help-reliant defense is a quick point guard who can get in the lane and take advantage of the Lakers’ starting lineup’s weak link — the aging Derek Fisher.
- Phoenix Suns: Have you all heard of Steve Nash? Dude gives L.A. trouble every time he faces them.
- Utah Jazz: Deron Williams, one of the league’s top point guards anyway, should be able to run rampant against Fisher.
- Denver Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Mr. Big Shot, does it every year in the playoffs. 2010 should be no different.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook has the speed and athleticism to torch Fisher and the distribution skills to find Durant and Jeff Green for easy baskets when the help comes.
- San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker is one of the best at driving the lane and getting layups.
Even with all these things, beating the Lakers is still a crapshoot. You need to do absolutely everything right. Nevertheless, the Rockets and Nuggets proved it is possible last year. Going by these criteria, it looks like Dallas has the best shot. In all these categories, I didn’t even get to mention Jason Kidd — one of the biggest parts of their team. He’s running out of years in the NBA and craving a title after he came so close twice in a row in New Jersey. Wouldn’t it be great for him to get revenge on Kobe and the Lakers after their 4-0 thrashing of the Nets in 2002?