Can the Lakers Defend Their Title?
This question wasn’t even asked at the beginning of the season, when the Lakers added Ron Artest and still found a way to keep Lamar Odom on this championship caliber team. And this question would have seemed ridiculous just a few weeks ago, as the Lakers have secured themselves the number one spot in the Western Conference, and seemed to be cruising on their way to another NBA Finals. Now though it is time to really look at this Lakers team and ask…Will they make it to the NBA Finals, much less win it all?
I think the answer to that question is beginning to be no, as some glaring weaknesses have been exposed on the Lakers. With last night’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Lakers dropped 6 games in the month of March. While that is not a major question mark, and plenty of teams in the league would be happy to win 6 games in a month, it doesn’t speak much to their championship caliber. Especially with the playoffs just around the corner. Now part of their slide is due to the fact that center Andrew Bynum has been out the past 6 games (three of which ended up in the loss column), but that is not the only reason. Bynum is a good young, emerging player, but in reality he is no better then the Lakers 4th best player, behind Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Ron Artest. And to replace Bynum in the starting lineup the Lakers just bring in ‘6th man’ Lamar Odom, who would be starting on most teams. While Bynum being out has hurt the Lakers a bit in the front court and the depth of their bench, it has also shown another weakness, and that is the lack of a true point guard.
While Derrek Fisher has manned the position effectively for the team in the past, his age has caught up with him and he is no longer the player he once was. His backups, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown can score in bunches, but that is mainly due to having so many open looks being on a team of all-stars. Neither are true floor generals, that can lead the Lakers attack and consistently hit the open shot. The Lakers had the chance to attempt to trade for a better point guard at the the trade deadline, by possibly adding a player like Kurt Hinrich. While he isn’t an elite point guard either, he would have been an upgrade and not created such a major hole in the Lakers starting 5.
Right now the problem isn’t a major one, as L.A. can still put 4-5 top players on the floor for the majority of the game. And they have the size and defensive ability to shut down opposing offenses. But come playoff time that could be a bit of a concern. In any series they play they won’t be able to match up at the point guard position. And that will likely be their downfall. As a top point guard like Chauncey Billups in Denver could have a big series and carry the Nuggets over the Lakers.
Another issue that could hurt the Lakers, is how average they’ve been on the road this season. While they will have home court advantage throughout the West (unless the completely collapse these last two weeks), I don’t know if they will be able to take any road games against the better teams in the West. If that’s the case they will have to be perfect at home. Which means one bad shooting day for Kobe and/or Gasol or if Bynum isn’t 100% returning from his injury (Achilles injuries can be very scary even if it is just a strain) and the Lakers could be eliminated from the playoffs much sooner than anyone expected.
Overall I’d expect the Lakers to at least make it to the Western Conference Finals, but something tells me that L.A. will be watching the Finals from home this season.