How the League Was Won
The Lakers' Only Potential Obstacles
Based on this [[link|url=http://wvbr.com/sportsblog/352]] nifty little chart [[end-link]] , you can see I’ve chosen a predictable and probable chalk final: The top seed in the West vs. the top seed in the East. Lakers-Cavs, Kobe-LeBron, Lower Merion-St. Vincent/St. Mary, Spain-Lithuania, The Goods-Boobie. At 65-17, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have the best record in the league; they are definitely the best team in the league. They’ve got the best player, a top 3 center, a great 6th man, and experience. Put all of these together and you’re going to have Kobe Bryant lifting the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell trophies in June. But it won’t be as easy as it looks. Even though they finished 10 games ahead of the second seeded Nuggets, the rest of the West is extremely talented, and once they fight their way out of there the LeBrons will be waiting in the Finals.
As tough as it will be for them to get there, there are realistically only six teams when healthy in the entire league that can beat the Lakers in a seven game series. The Jazz will give them a tough time, but they can’t beat them 4 out of 7 times. With Manu and KG done for the year (KG probably, and if he comes back he’ll be at 65% tops), that rules out the Spurs and the Celtics respectively, which leaves four (from easiest to toughest): New Orleans, Miami, Portland, and Cleveland. Allow me to explain.
New Orleans is the 7th seed out West, but they’re only 5 games worse than the Nuggets, who they get in the first round. The reason the Hornets can beat the Lakers, and mind you, they have to get to the Conference Finals to even have a chance, is Chris Paul. The best point guard in the NBA and one of the top five players overall is cut from the same mold as Magic, Isaiah, and the Big O. He can absolutely put the team on his back, keeping everybody involved for the first 36 minutes and demolishing the opposition in the last 12. Don’t be surprised if they “shock” a surprise Denver. Ultimately though, CP3 makes everybody better, but he still needs his teammates to show up. The reason New Orleans is a 7 is because many of them haven’t this year. Health issues are a major problem in the Big Easy, and this year it’s going to cost them.
Moving on, Portland matches up the best out of everybody in the league. Brandon Roy is a go-to guy who can take over and match up with Kobe. LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, Joe Przybilla, and Greg Oden are bodies to throw at Pau and Bynum. The Portland bench is as deep as the Laker bench. It’s the first time ever a team has had four rookies play in 50+ games on a 50 win team. This is a sign of things to come in the West and in the league for that matter. Unfortunately, they’re still at least a year away. That being said, the Lakers-Blazers second round matchup might be the most entertaining and exciting of the playoffs.
As far as Miami and Cleveland go, the reasons they can beat LA are Wade and LeBron. Cleveland has a slightly better supporting cast, and LeBron is more of a physical force than Wade, which is why I consider the Cavs to be the team with the best chance at taking down the Lakers. As of right now though, Wade and LeBron are numbers 3 and 2 in the NBA behind Kobe, and the only one who knows this is #24. LeBron and Wade each think they’re the best player, which I would hope so. Neither of them should ever take the court with even a flash of weakness in their minds, and if I was either of their coaches I wouldn’t have them believe any different. But Kobe is better, and if he faces either of them (probably ‘Bron) in the Finals, he'll use that stage to set the record straight. A rivalry bloomed between the three of them in Beijing last year, and they all used this season to show each other up.
Kobe is the only one competitive enough to make the Finals about their 1 on 1 match up, and in doing so would shut the other one down. While yes, you shouldn’t go into a championship series thinking 1 on 1 in any sport, in Kobe's case it would work because he's a good enough defender to make sure the other guy suffers. Kobe would take it as a personal insult and think his pride and legacy is on the line, unlike when he took on the Celtics last year. It wasn’t him vs KG or Pierce or Allen (even though Kobe and Allen hate each other). It was about Lakers-Celtics, and Kobe didn’t care about that (Kobe’s motivations are a topic for another time). If it’s Lakers-Heat or Lakers-Cavs, there isn’t 60 years of rivalry to overshadow it. It’s him on the center stage, Kobe vs superstar #2. In a head to head matchup I take Kobe every time, unless it’s against Michael.
In the end, I stand by Lakers over Cavs in 6. However, the Lakers road through Utah, Portland, and San Antonio is no cake-walk like the Cleveland has in the East (Detroit, Miami, Boston) and LA will be tested and tired for the series. Regardless, the Lakers are too talented, experienced, and competitive (thanks to Kobe) to lose in the NBA Finals two years in a row.
(April 17, 2009)