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Heading into the season, the Los Angeles Lakers were widely seen as the favorites to win their third consecutive NBA championship. Even the Miami Heat, after making their free agent splash during the offseason, knew that the road to an NBA title went through the Lakers.
However, with more than half of the regular season gone by, Los Angeles is only tied for second in the Western Conference with the Dallas Mavericks and trail the San Antonio Spurs by seven games. Not only that but the Lakers are tied for fourth in the standings overall, so home-court advantage throughout the playoffs may not be a luxury that they’ll enjoy this year. That doesn’t mean that Los Angeles still isn’t seen as a threat to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy when it’s all said and done, but clearly their road is going to be a bit tougher than in previous seasons.
To preview today’s matchup between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, I asked Andy Kamenetzky of ESPN Los Angeles a few questions.
In your opinion, who’s more important to the Los Angeles Lakers’ success? Is it Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol?
This isn’t a popular opinion among your average Laker fans, who often view Kobe as a cross between “basketball god” and “political prisoner,” but I’d say Gasol. To be clear, Kobe is still the best, deadliest and most talented player on this team and that’s not about to change anytime soon. But more often than not, Pau’s performances swing the Lakers in one direction or another.
At the top of his game, Gasol is a nightmare matchup in the high and low post, a facilitator (sometimes even more effective than Kobe), an outstanding offensive rebounder and an often underrated defender. At his most passive (an oddly recurring state this season), he settles for jumpers instead of making opponents defend him, gets pushed off his spots, bobbles the ball and rotates slowly. In the former mode, the Lakers can be brutally difficult to beat, even with Kobe off his game. In the latter mode, the Lakers become considerably more vulnerable, even with Kobe in a “Mamba” zone. Plus, when Pau dominates, Kobe can be less inclined to go into “takeover” mode, which sometimes creates as many negatives and positives.
The same correlation can be found between the Lakers and Lamar Odom, but I think Pau tips these scales slightly more.
Lamar Odom, without a doubt, is playing the best basketball of his career right now for the Lakers, which is a little surprising given that he’s 31. How much did him playing with Team USA in the FIBA World Championships have an impact on his season this year?
Without question. Beyond arriving at camp in outstanding shape, there was no need to rediscover his timing. Lamar’s been in rhythm since the season began and hasn’t slowed down since. Still, I wouldn’t say LO’s All-Star caliber campaign is entirely the result of FIBA. Maturity has played a tremendous role, tool.
LO has talked on several occasions about a desire to maximize this time. He’s 31 on and an elite team. There is a window for his talent and his squad to coincide at their peak. Lamar knows this fortunate position won’t last forever, and seems pretty determined to make the most of it. This also leads to another unexpected wrinkle: The positive effects of getting hitched to a reality TV starlet. To hear Odom and others around him talk, his marriage to Khloe Kardashian has actually increased his focus. And in a weird way, this development makes sense. Say what you will about the family or the TV shows, but they are nothing if not driven to strike while the iron is hot. LO has talked about his new family encouraging him to capitalize on everything at his fingertips and squeeze everything possible out of basketball. Despite all of his outside projects, he’s been the most consistent Laker all season.
What’s head coach Phil Jackson’s legacy with Los Angeles?
The ability to pull off the seemingly impossible. He instantly got Kobe, Shaq, and the gang over the hump in 2000 after a few years’ worth of playoff fizzles, then helped sustain that excellence despite constant tension. He repaired a relationship with Kobe, despite all appearances of it being irreversibly damaged. (When Kobe went ballistic on the Radio Tour in 2007, Phil served as a valuable confidant, which was beyond ironic.) He nearly coached a team with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting into the second round of the playoffs. He managed to date the boss’s daughter without it turning horribly awkward. He emerged the survivor after being at odds with Jerry West.
When you think about all those improbable events, a staggering five titles (maybe six) and seven finals appearances are arguably the least head-spinning achievements. That’s pretty amazing.
Would you consider the Lakers, with a fully healthy roster, the favorites to win a third consecutive NBA championship? Why? Why not?
Maybe not the true “favorite,” since they could play one or even two road series after some careless losses to lousy teams. But assuming the current level of play is maintained (or, as I suspect will be the case, improved upon), I’d still put my money on them even as a slight underdog. This is a team built physically and (especially) mentally for the playoffs. For reasons simultaneously understandable and totally frustrating, maintaining the necessary focus and discipline for a consistently high level of play in December and January was a struggle. But it now being mid-February, they seem committed towards the process, and operating with a sense of urgency and purpose, they’re big, deep, and seasoned.
Without question, a title run will be more difficult this season. The Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Thunder are all improved, while the Celtics remain a major threat. Having said that, they match up well against every contender, and arguably “need” home court advantage less than any of them. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice, but I really believe coming out on top of last season’s brutal Game 7 provides a unique confidence which can offset a road series. Plus, Kobe, Fish and Phil are pretty good at this whole “three-peat” thing.
They were my preseason pick, and I’ve yet to waffle.
I like to thank Andy for taking the time to answer my questions.