July 28, 2010

Shut Up and Show Me the Ring(s)

In amongst all the LeBron mania, it's easy to look past what the Lakers have been doing this summer. They tried hard to get Raja Bell, but ultimately failed. They re-signed Derek Fisher, who, in spite of his limitations, is money in the playoffs. They signed Steve Blake, a good half-court quarterback, to back up Derek Fisher. And now, they've added Matt Barnes.

Sure, not as sexy as Bron-Bron and Wade and Bosh (or even Mike Miller), but I like the method to this madness. Think about it: when the Lakers titled in 2009, they knew that they couldn't stand still, so what did they do? They added Ron Artest who, even at his worst, is going to cause problems for the opponent's 2 or 3, and sometimes even the 1 and 4. Turns out that the mercurial Artest was just enough to push the Lakers over the top for 2010.

Unlike LeBron, who decided he was going to use his influence to put together a fun-time he-man's club with all his friends, Kobe decided to go after the players that pissed him off the most (on the court, at least) - last year Artest, this year Bell and Barnes. Kobe figures that if a player is annoying (and good) enough to get under his skin, then he can do the job against anybody. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh are big kids, Kobe is an assassin.

When you're champions, you don't rebuild, you tune up. What the Lakers have done is to make the NBA's best team even better. Right now, they can go with lineup of Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Gasol, and Bynum, and then sit them all down and run out a lineup of Blake, Vujacic, Odom, Barnes, and Theo Ratliff. Now, that second platoon in and of itself isn't going to scare anybody, but mix it up a bit, get a scorer on the court (maybe leave Gasol out on the court as a pivot with the second unit, put Odom out with the first unit and use Bynum in the middle), and with the exception of Bryant, there's not a hell of a lot of drop off.

The other thing that bothers me about the whole LeBron thing is that, in basketball, a team is never the sum of its parts. Both LeBron and Wade need the ball to be effective, and last time I checked, there's only one ball on the court when the whistle blows. Now, I take all of the Miami Three at their word when they say they will check their egos at the door, but that's not the same as meshing together as a team. Bosh won't be a problem, since he can get a fair amount of action cleaning up underneath. If I'm the point distributing the ball at crunch time, I'm looking for Wade first, LeBron second. As a matter of fact, force of nature though LeBron may be, Wade is easily the better offensive player. The question is this: will LeBron step aside to become the second option on the offensive end? Can he be a role player? More to the point, willing or not, does he even know how to be a role player? It's not like he's ever had to before.

From the beginning, I thought James and Bosh made sense. Or Wade and Bosh. Or James and Stoudemire. Or Wade and Stoudemire . . . well, you're starting to get the idea. Think of a modular basketball team: players have roles defined to varying degrees, but if two players with similar tendencies trying to do the same things are on the floor at the same time, then they're going to get into each other's way. And, as referred to earlier, scorers (as opposed to pure shooters) need the ball to score, and there's only one ball on the court. Both James and Wade make their living the same way: ball in their hands on the wing, creating, moving in to the rack and finishing, or dumping off to the big (Bosh, in this case), or kicking it back to an open shooter on the wing. Who's going to be the creator? Neither Wade or James is going to be the shooter on the wing. James could be one of the orbiting bigs, but Bosh has to be the main offensive focus underneath. There is no clearly defined role on offense for James. It would seem to me to be best if he became an offensive opportunist, maybe a pick and roll guy a la Karl Malone (with Bosh as the low post back-to-the-basket guy).

Whatever . . . they may be able to make this work, but it won't be easy, and at least one player is going to have to move far out of his comfort zone, and ego or no, that will be difficult. It is much easier with clearly defined modular roles, like maybe a slasher and an inside scorer . . . like Bryant and Gasol. The Lakers have a clear blueprint with two top notch scorers, and it is demonstrably hard to kick them off the track. There's not only one solution to the problem, or even a best solution, but the Lakers' solution is clearly effective.

As US National coach Mike Kryzewski has pointed out, one place where Miami will be immediately dominant is on defense. This will give them time to figure out the offense, and ultimately be the key that opens the door to a championship for them. Ironically, if Miami does win it all this year, it will most likely be in an ugly, Detroit Pistons-style championship team, not the super flashy Dream Team-style team. If you remember, the most recent superstar trio (the Celtics' Pierce, Allen, and Garnett), was also a defensive grind-it-out unit in spite of the offensive talents of all three.

But until the confetti falls, don't talk, show me the rings. Kobe has them, LeBron doesn't. Right now, if forced to bet, my money's still on the Lakers.

* * * * *

Don't take this to mean I'm down on LeBron for his free agent soap opera. While the whole TV special was appalling, and while I value a certain hometown fidelity, I am glad to see a player in control instead of the owners for a change.

But I've never been a Miami fan, and now I want them to loose every game. And I'm pissed at them for turning me into a Lakers fan again, no matter how marginally.


Matt said...

I'm not sure if anything could make me into a Lakers fan.

Excellent point, btw, about a player taking charge of his destiny as opposed to an owner.

comfortstarr said...

Damn Bill, I don't remember you being such an NBA head. I agree with your assessment, both the analytical one and the emotional one. But, I guess I would have to admit that a Lakers v. Miami final would be a) fun, and b) not a sure thing for Kobe et al.

Personally, I'll be pulling for the Thunder next year. Living here in the greater NYC metro-area, I can't stand any team within 100 miles of me.

Also, and only marginally related to this, you should do a search on nytimes.com for Shane Battier. The article is over a year old and it's by Michael Lewis. Really interesting piece about how to evaluate an NBA team.

Bill Zink said...

Yeah, I started paying attention to the NBA again the year the Pacers drafted Reggie Miller. It's been a painful few years to be a Pacers fan, but hope springs eternal . . . after all, they have a whole bunch of expiring contracts at the end of this year. Unfortunately, that looks to correspond almost exactly with another owners' lockout, so the bad luck/bad karma that started with the brawl in Austin Hills doesn't look to be letting up anytime soon.

Reading back on this article, I think I undervalued just how dominant the Heat will be on defense. They are freaking world-class scary on defense. Oddly enough, the best way to attack this defense is going to be with an old-school back to the basket style center like Timmy Duncan or (say it ain't so!) even Shaq, if anybody bothers to pick up the fat bastard.

I don't want to like the Thunder, because I hate the way they left Seattle, but they are a really attractive team. They remind me a lot of last year's Butler team in that everybody likes them because of their attitudes and the way they play the game, and everybody likes to say how good they are, but nobody really believes it. And, like Butler, I think people are going to find out that all the talk about them is more that lip service. I think they will be the second best team in the West next season, though the Jazz are a permanent wild card, because they are always better than you think they are.

I'll look for that article. I loved that Rockets team with Battier and Artest (a.k.a Jekyll and Hyde).

Bill Zink said...

"more than lip service", that is.