Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Paper, Lakers Look Like Sure Thing

Lamar Odom came off the bench for the Lakers in their preseason tilt with the Kings on Sunday, and seemed fine with it for a change. Previously, Odom had expressed disgust at Phil Jackson's declaration that he will make Lamar the team's sixth man if he struggles with his transition to small forward. Odom's discontent had the potentiality of sabotaging what could be a dream Lakers season.

Los Angeles has the highest ceiling of any NBA club this year. The Rockets match the Lakers in terms of sheer talent (the trio of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Ron Artest, along with their dedicated working class teammates, looks like bloody murder on paper), but aren't as much of a sure thing. The Lakers went to the Finals last year without Andrew Bynum, and other than whether or not Kobe's pinky will fall off, the only concern (at least to me) was how Lamar (or, to be more accurate, Lamar's attitude) would fit into the season. The Bynum-Gasol co-existence issue will work itself out in time, and even if their union is a little awkward, a healthy Kobe makes the matter moot. Bynum's presence shores up the shotblocking and rebounding problem, and I'm sure Jackson will enforce a newfound defensive intensity. And they will definitely be playing with a chip on their shoulder, after being humiliated in the Finals last year.

Now, Lamar vows not to be the large piece of ice that sinks this magnificent passenger liner. Which means that if these Lakers stay healthy, it's very likely that, at some point next June, they will have a parade that ends on 1111 S. Figueroa Street, and there will be nothing anyone can do to prevent it.


In the post-Jordan era of the NBA (1999-present - forget the Wizards years), no other organization has assembled a roster with such a transcendent superstar, surrounded by such a killer supporting cast. The Lakers have the league's best pair of big men; a (mercurial) walking double-double aptly nicknamed The Goods; and the game's deepest collection of role players. That, by itself, is a pretty damn good foundation. So to throw Kobe Bryant into the mix is really just piling on. His subpar performance in the Finals against Boston is our most recent memory of him (the Olympics don't really count), so it's only natural that he seems a little more human right now. But we should not remove from our minds the level of play we witnessed him ascend to before that championship series. For roughly a month-and-a-half, or about the time it took him to lead the Lakers to a 12-3 record through the torrid Western Conference playoff, Kobe Bryant played basketball as well as it can possibly be played. Let us not forget that truth. In 2008, he won an MVP and a gold medal, but could manage only a mere trip to the Finals; he falls just shy of Jordan. But in today's game, his peers fall short of him. And if Jordan is basketball's only true immortal (think about it, he is), then Kobe is the next nearest guy.

By the time you get to the Zen Master, you realize that this current Lakers team is not merely built to win, like other contenders; Mitch Kupchak has put together the type of personnel that should not lose and, if there were such a thing, cannot lose. We saw this with the Jerry West-built three-peat teams of the beginning of the century; it seemed obvious that a team with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, headed by Jackson, would be the squad that won the championship. Then again, when Karl Malone and Gary Payton were added to that nucleus following the ringless 2002-03 campaign, the title felt inevitable, too. And we all know how that ended.

Needless to say, nothing is guaranteed.

But a team with Kobe Bryant, in his prime, with three supporting stars, led by the best coach in league history?

You have to admit, the Lakers feel like more of a cinch than anybody right now.

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