For the first time in what seems like forever, the best basketball team in Los Angeles is not a given.
The Clippers, of course, traded for Chris Paul this off season and are finally relevant in the league again after years of dismal performances and inept management. The Paul-Blake Griffin duo has been one of the more exciting pairs to join together in years, and the team could make some noise in the playoffs.
But the Los Angeles Lakers’ season has not been nearly as smooth.
Their turbulent off season began with the retirement of Phil Jackson and the hiring of former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown as his successor. The team then tried to trade for Paul, but a package agreed on by both the Lakers and New Orleans Hornets was shockingly rejected by the NBA itself.
Next, the team dumped Lamar Odom on the Dallas Mavericks after he was to have been included, along with forward Pau Gasol, in the Paul deal. All of this took place before games even started.
After years in Jackson’s triangle offense, where players were given lots of offensive freedom to make plays, the team has had a slow transition to Brown’s offense. Although Brown was calling plays on almost every possession early in the season, he has since scaled back the designed plays. The team has responded with an 8-2 record in its last 10 games, including a convincing 93-83 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday.
But a look at the Lakers’ roster leaves many questions about the team’s ability to contend for a title this season. Offensive non-contributors like Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace log significant minutes for the group. The bench does not have much scoring punch at all. Constant trade rumors swirling around Gasol in particular have raised the tension around the team to unhealthy levels at times.
Even with all these problems, the Lakers enter play Monday with a 23-14 record, good for fourth in the Western Conference. But the regular season has never mattered in Los Angeles; it’s all about getting it done in the playoffs.
As long as Kobe Bryant is healthy and performing at his customary levels, the Lakers will be a tough opponent come playoff time. The inside duo of Andrew Bynum and Gasol, assuming he’s still with the team, give the Lakers an interior scoring punch that few teams can handle.
But something just hasn’t clicked with this group since the embarrassing four game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s Conference Semifinals. The team’s multiple attempts to acquire Paul, and its inquiries into Dwight Howard’s availability show that general manager Mitch Kupchek is not satisfied with the team as is.
To that end, would acquiring Paul or Howard really have made much of a difference this season? The proposed deal for Paul sending Odom and Gasol to New Orleans would have left the team dangerously thin in the frontcourt. Couple that with Bynum’s lengthy injury history, and the team could have been in trouble in a hurry.
Paul has also always been the undisputed leader and best player on his teams. Even with Griffin on the Clippers, Paul runs that team on the court. The relationship between Paul and Bryant could have taken some getting used to for both players, a luxury no team has with the compressed schedule this season.
Any potential Howard deal could have caused similar problems for the team. Most Magic-Lakers rumors have seen both Gasol and Bynum sent to Orlando in exchange for the gregarious Howard. Even more than the Paul deal, this would have made the Lakers a two-man team. Bryant and Howard certainly would be a formidable duo, but they would not be able to compete with the depth in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas or even Memphis. And that’s just the Western Conference.
It seems that the Lakers may be better off not having made either of these deals. When healthy, Bynum rivals Howard as the best center in the league, and Gasol is averaging a double-double for the third consecutive year. These three have won a championship together before, so the ability and chemistry is there.
Ultimately, this is still a very good team. Bryant, through sheer force of will and his unrivaled intensity, has worked basketball magic in the past. But this year, things don’t feel the same. This has the look of a team destined for another second-round playoff exit.
While the Clippers are riding high, the Lakers are struggling to bring it all together. What a difference a year can make.