Monday, June 15, 2009

Can the Other Lakers Get Some Love?

The Lakers win the NBA championship, and all anyone can talk about is how it's Kobe's fourth and first without Shaq, and Phil's 10th overall, surpassing Red, and where it ranks them all-time. Well, can a single coach and a single player win a championship by themselves? Of course not, it's a group effort, and so if no one else is going to do it then allow me this opportunity to thank assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Kurt Rambis, who will be heading their own squadrons in the near future, as well as longtime Zenmaster bench aids Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons. Tex Winter, wherever you are, get well soon, so you can enjoy this also. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we salute you as well, you deserve much better than a job as a tutor and a seat behind the bench.

And the front office, I mean, how can Mitch Kupchak not get more praise? He built this team, he had a vision and the patience and fortitude to see it through despite great pressure to do otherwise. This guy knew what he was doing. And Dr. a league in which few owners are willing to put winning above all else, you are one of the exceptions, okaying the Gasol trade even though you knew it would put the team over the luxury tax threshold for years to come. Finances don't matter to you as much as championships do, the tradition of great Lakers basketball, and for that we salute you, that's why Los Angeles now has a ninth banner under your keep.

But now we must get to the men on the court, afterall that is where the games are won and lost. Kobe will get most of the credit for this, and indeed he dererves the lions share, but he couldn't have done it without these guys, most notably...

...Pau Gasol, whom, as Jeff Van Gundy likes to put it, is the NBA's best second best player. This season, and especially in the postseason, he went from a very good player to a great one. Not only does he score on anyone and possess a sky-high basketball IQ, but his defense has become much improved. Last season it was mock-worthy, then it became adequate, to above-average, to damned good in the Finals, as evidenced by the job he did on Dwight Howard, holding him to 15 points a game on a mere 49 percent shooting, eleven percent south of his overall postseason effort. Of course he couldn't have done it without a little help from...

...Lamar Odom, much maligned and asked of for more, but finally arrived. This was his finest season: Before the season began he accepted a demotion to the bench in a contract year, and after some brief discontent he embraced his new role. Then, when Andrew Bynum went down to a knee injury in January he quietly and seamlessly filled in until Bynum's return in April, at which point he quietly and seamlessly transitioned back to his position as sixth man. With Drew failing to recover his previous form and constantly plagued by foul trouble, he picked up the slack once again, averaging a 13-8 in the finals and a 12-9 overall in 32 minutes a game in the postseason. Redemption and vindication at last. I'm happy for Lamar, he's been here for a while now, through all of the post-Shaq angst, tons of scrutiny, and enough trade rumors that I'm almost shocked he lasted this long. He's a great guy, adored by his teammates and well-liked by reporters, and there's not a lot of guys unselfish enough to make the sacrifice he made, get jerked around and treated like an object all season, and remain such a positive team guy. Lesser men would have become the kind of cancer that can sabotage a championship dream. If Odom leaves this summer, he will leave a champion, and he didn't need a ring to prove it.

Derek Fisher - we already covered him, so let's move on to...

...Trevor Ariza. I think Odom is more valuable to this team. With Bynum's injury history and general flightiness, you can't underestimate the importance of having a guy on the bench who fits into the puzzle so easily and brings just as much to the table in his own way. But Ariza's defense, athleticism, outside shooting, and knack for getting his hand on the ball were huge to this championship run. If he ever learns some moves off the dribble he'll be Eddie Jones 2.0. Every title team has a Trevor Ariza on it; I hope the Lakers still have him next year.

Andrew Bynum - Didn't do much in the postseason, aside from a moment here and there, but if he hadn't gotten hurt last season, L.A. might not have felt the same urgency to cash in on the Gasol insurance policy. He's shown flashes of dominance, and when he gets right again, it'll be even more hell for the rest of the league.

Luke Walton - Other than Odom, he made the biggest impact of any Lakers bench player this postseason. Just solid.

Sasha Vujacic - Wasn't much of a Machine this time around. Sasha kind of went in the tank this season after a breakout performance last year. He saw a decrease in playing time as Ariza stole the minutes he got playing alongside Kobe to finish games last year, but he also didn't shoot as well as he did last year, from 45 percent overall and 44 percent from deep to 39/36. It was almost as if he played over his head last year and fell back to earth this season. He went scoreless in the Finals, which is kind of incredible - when he signed that new contract last summer no one envisioned him struggling so mightily. But he's still Sasha, he's still our Sasha, and we love him regardless. Regardless of his poor play he was a key rotation player this year, so he can wear his ring with pride. The same can be said of his backcourt buddy...

...Jordan Farmar, another good character guy on a team stacked with them. Jordan hit a sort of junior wall this season, if that exists (I know it doesn't). He missed time with a knee injury and just flat struggled all season, somehow regressing from a strong sophomore campaign. He lost his job at the end of the season and beginning of the playoffs, shared it, and finally retrieved it in the Finals - a lot of this fluctuation dictated by the matchups that were presented in each series. He just has to get his confidence back and he'll be fine, I still see him as the point guard of the future. However, I hope...

...Shannon Brown is still around to push him. He's a free agent also, and hopefully the Lakers can afford to keep him. A perceived throw-in in the Radmanovic trade, Brown surprisingly proved a natural fit for the triangle offense: he has good size, he can shoot, he defends, and it doesn't matter that he's not a pure point guard because the triple post doesn't require one. He's also an insane athlete (the best on the team and one of the best raw athletes in the league), allowing him to play the two on occasion, and he plays hard as hell every second he's out there. He could probably make more money elsewhere, but I think he fits in best here.

Josh Powell - Another shrewd pickup by Mitch, Powell made only spot appearances in the playoffs, but when Bynum went down his number was dialed and he answered the call. A money 18-foot jump shooter, Powell always made a positive impact when he was on the floor.

Adam Morrison, Sun Yue, DJ Mbenga - Thanks for coming guys (and Vladi and Ronny, wish you were here).

Everyone deserves a curtain call, too often people forget that while the NBA is a star driven league, and certainly the sport in which individual players can have the greatest impact on the outcome of a contest, ultimately basketball is a team game, and it takes a group effort to win. Like all other champions, that level of teamwork is what the Lakers have achieved.

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