The NBA championship is not decided in December. The NBA season is a long slog where contending teams want to develop good habits, win games and stay healthy for the second season.
We get that. But we can’t help but wonder…
When you look at the West right now what do you see? Dallas just had a 12-game win streak and behind its 2-3 match-up zone is playing its best defense in years. The Spurs are 20-3 and have been the best team in the league over the course of the young season — good defense and an elite offense (even if they have slowed the pace lately). They are getting to rest Tim Duncan so much he is putting himself in games to play.
Then there is the consensus preseason pick to come out of the West, the Lakers — who have looked good but not dominant against a pretty soft schedule. Their defense has been pedestrian. Pau Gasol has looked tired and Ron Artest is not fitting in as smoothly. They have losses to good teams like the Jazz and Bulls, they had to squeak out wins against the Nets and Clippers. It has not been a tour-de-force.
It’s time to ask — should the Lakers be worried? Could the Spurs or Mavericks (or Thunder or Jazz) knock them off come the playoffs?
I put that question to a variety of scouts and player personnel (and development) people around the league in the last week and they said:
Yes. Sort of. But it’s still about the Lakers and not their opponents.
Everyone stuck to the conventional wisdom before the season — if the Lakers are healthy and focused nobody in the West can touch them. Maybe an elite team from the East can get them in the finals, but in the West the Lakers are still the class if properly motivated.
But that’s a big if.
There’s a sense right now that the Lakers are coasting, with several people saying they needed an “edge” or “fire.” That may be a reflection of the Zen ways of Phil Jackson, or it could be the mentality of a team that has been to three straight NBA finals, a team that has played a lot of basketball in recent years, and is just not that pumped up for December. It’s hard to picture a Kobe Bryant led team coasting into the playoffs, but there were questions about them flipping the switch again.
Several scouts noted that the return of Andrew Bynum — which happened Tuesday night — makes the Lakers a whole lot better. It gives them a better defensive presence in the paint and moves (eventually) Lamar Odom back to the bench. Everyone said the Lakers will win plenty of games and likely still be the top seed out west (right now they trail the Spurs by three games).
These same smart basketball minds were raving about the Spurs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been on top of their game and Gregg Popovich got props from one scout for his willingness to adjust the system and make it less Duncan-centric.
Scouts were impressed with Dallas as well, but one noted what Andrew Bogut was able to do to them inside (along with Bucks penetration) on Monday night (21 points on 10-12 shooting and 1o rebounds). He said you have to now imagine what a healthy Gasol/Odom/Bynum could do. Still, Dallas got raves.
If the Lakers take even a little step back during the playoffs both Dallas and San Antonio have a shot. Maybe the Thunder, too. A real shot.
One person compared the Lakers to the post-title Pistons teams of the last decade, — “Reminds me of the Detroit teams that coasted on talent but could not muster enough raw energy and grit to win that second title.” Those teams couldn’t flip the switch when they needed it. The Lakers have shown grit in the past but the margin for error may be smaller than ever if the Spurs can stay healthy until the playoffs, if Dallas can keep playing this kind of defense and integrate Rodrigue Beaubois.
But in the end, it’s all about the Lakers — they have to beat themselves before anyone else can do it.