Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Case Against the Lakers

The Case Against the Lakers

OK, I admit 100% this is hopeless rationalizing, and that if none of this comes true I will look like a complete idiot, but this is just a very early point of view that I think has to be taken.

The Lakers last year were MOST LIKELY the NBA's best team. How they would have fared on the road against Cleveland is up for debate because of Cleveland's 3rd round departure, but given their win in early February in Cleveland, one can assume they would have won. But things have changed.

The most obvious difference is the sort-of trade that brought Ron Artest to town for Trevor Ariza. While, on paper, this trade appears very good for the Lakers consider this. The Lakers are at their best with Kobe creating for himself, and finding open teammates. Other than point guard Derek Fisher and Bryant, the ball rarely touches the ground for the Lakers. The Lakers have been very quick to adapt to the "slash and kick" idea of basketball. Ariza was PERFECT for this style of play. His contract/ego didn't demand a lot of touches, his athleticism got him open all over the court, and—especially in the playoffs—he knocked down open threes.

Has anyone watched Ron Artest over the last four years? He pounds the ball into the floor, he forces horrible shots, and late in games he has the tendency to think he's a star. I know he's never played for Kobe and Phil before, and I do expect some early adjustments, but what about later in the year? What if there's a losing streak, or worse, what if Kobe gets hurt for a week and Artest IS a primary offensive weapon?

And then there's defense. Artest has survived for QUITE a long while on his defensive reputation. He's always been considered one of the best defensive players in the league. And while he remains one of the most PHYSICAL defenders in the league, he wasn't even the best defender at his position on his TEAM last season. Did Michael Lewis write his incredible, league-shaking piece on Artest's merits last year? No, that was teammate Shane Battier. Ariza on the other hand, is an athletic, defensive oriented kid. Sure, he gives up some pounds to bigger perimeter guys like LeBron or Pierced, but Kobe has seemed to take that burden on in recent years.

The point I'm making is that while on paper Artest is an improvement, off-the-court issues aside, I think that Ariza is a MUCH better fit to play 4th banana on a team that just won a ring. And I think that would be hard to argue against.

Then there's the obvious post-ring let down. Last year everyone had something to prove. Kobe (obviously), Phil, Lamar, Fisher…everyone. After 2008's loss to Boston, after Shaq's 2005 ring, these guys needed to prove they had what it took to take a team from the lottery to the Larry O'Brien. And they did it. Wire to wire. This year, there's less of that. There ARE storylines. Kobe vs Shaq, Kobe vs Lebron, Phil vs Red, Lakers vs Celtics…but these aren't necessarily the most compelling "no one believes in us" storylines. They got their ring. I'm not saying they won't go all out, but I am saying that when push comes to shove in June, they may have a LITTLE less shove in them, and I'd be interested to see, in today's incredibly high-level NBA, if that makes a difference.

And the big thing: Kobe. 1200 games? Are you kidding? Look, I know he's young. But the guy has gone through a LOT in his life. More than Michael. He's played a lot of games, and he's played the last three years in "fuck you" mode more than anything. He had a lot to prove, and to me, he proved it. He led the Lakers, without Shaq, to a ring. Fuck you mode is OVER. The first 2/3 of his career is OVER. And if you ask me, Kobe as an unstoppable force for 100 games is OVER. There will be moments, there will be stretches, but last year Lebron passed him. This year Wade passes him and MAYBE Durant passes him. Kobe is the same age Michael was when he returned from baseball to win three rings. But remember, the late 90s NBA was arguably, along with the late 70s, the worst era in history. The Iverson, Pierce, Kobe class was too young, the Ewing, Malone, Drexler class was old. The game was in transition from the Lakers/Celtics 80s to the bullshit individual 90s. Jordan's biggest hurdles were an aging Malone and Stockton, an aging Ewing, and a not-nearly-as-good-as-today's-stars Reggie Miller. Not to mention, Jordan was about 275 games short of Kobe at this age. Kobe is on the wrong side of this hill.

Look, I'm not saying he's not a star. I'm not even saying he's not the second-best player in the NBA (though I may be saying that in about three months), I'm saying he's not going to single-handedly carry anyone to a ring while not in crazy-ass Fuck you mode. I think short of a new rape case, a Shaq/Lebron collaborative rap about Kobe's diminishing skills, or another crazy event that turns him into the Incredible Hulk, Kobe is about to be passed. Toss into this an aging Fisher, a crazy off-season for a troubled player in Lamar Odom, an increasingly less interested Phil, and a not-quite-as-good-as-we-thought-they'd-be corps of youth (Farmar, Bynum) and the replacing of Ariza with Artest, the Lakers are OLD. Not Celtics old, but old. This stuff matters when you go up against Wade, Durant, Roy, Paul, Melo, Lebron, Howard, and Rose.

The changing of the guard has been READY to happen for two years. Only the Garnett trade and the Gasol trade have delayed the passing of the torch from the draft of '96 to the draft of '04. I think it happens this year. I don't know who wins, but I don't think it will be the Lakers.

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