Bill wrote an article on the teams in the West and who will come out. He listed the Lakers as #1.
ESPN: 1. LOS ANGELES (49-22)
Scouting report: This team has everything you’d ever conceivably want in a playoff contender — a superstar, two more scoring options, a low-post player who has to be double-teamed, a shotblocker, multiple three-point shooters, a bench that can affect games, a superior coaching staff, and most importantly, a scorer who’s going to get every borderline call in a close game because he’s Kobe Bryant … if they’re healthy and running on all cylinders, they have the highest ceiling of any playoff team … of course, we don’t know if they’re healthy yet, so all bets are off … they’re most vulnerable in round one as they’re working back Bynum and Gasol into the rotation, which is what makes a potential Lakers-Warriors series so damned tantalizing.
Biggest strength: Whether they win the title or not, it’s been a sincere pleasure as a basketball fan to watch Kobe tap into his talents, trust his teammates, pick his spots, forget about statistics and become the player we always wanted him to be. Whether he wins the MVP award or Chris Paul wins it, we haven’t seen two better individual seasons in the same year since Jordan and Barkley in 1993 … and if you throw in the fact that LeBron is averaging an absurd 31-8-8 right now, you’d have to go back to Bird, Magic and M.J. in ’88. Holy schmoley. Should I write the word “amazing” again? Probably not. This season has turned me into “The Bachelor.”
Biggest weakness: I know he’s been playing out of his mind lately, but I still don’t trust Lamar Odom. During regulation of Monday’s Warriors game, he went to the line in the final few seconds with a one-point lead, endured a few taunts and standing-in-front-of-him maneuvers from Davis and Jackson … and eventually, he had this weird smile on his face, almost like the smile a boxer gets right before he’s about to get knocked out. Of course, he missed the first free throw. Mark my words — there’s going to be at least one monster moment in April, May or June when Odom has to come through in a humongous spot for the Lakers. And he won’t.
(Follow-up to that story: In that same game, the Lakers were up two with four seconds left in overtime when Kobe got fouled. Three interesting things here. First, none of the Warriors came within 10 feet of him. Second, he stared down all the Warriors around him, drained the first free throw and muttered “Game over, game over” to everyone who would listen. Third, he made the second one and that was that. The lesson, as always: It’s good to have Kobe Bryant on your team.)
Biggest X-Factor: Bynum. Can he bounce back from the knee injury? Can he get back in shape in time? Will he be able to effectively defend Shaq or Duncan in round two or round three? Every Lakers fan just stopped breathing for a few seconds.
Unsung Hero: Sasha Vujacic, quite possibly the league’s best bench player of anyone who plays 20 minutes or less. He’s a feisty defender, he shoots 40-plus from three, he can guard anyone and play three positions, he’s a legitimate threat to get punched in the face during the playoffs, and if that’s not enough, I’m almost positive that he’s wearing some sort of hair net. We haven’t had a so-much-fun-to-hate-him playoff villain like this guy in eons. He’s like Bruce Bowen crossed with one of John Lithgow’s henchman in “Cliffhanger.”
Best-case opponents: New Orleans, Denver or Utah.
Worst-case opponents: San Antonio or Golden State.
Prediction: A throwback Lakers-Celtics Finals will end up being the single best thing to happen to the NBA in 10 years. And that’s an understatement.
Eventual 2007-08 Legacy: Put it this way — I wouldn’t bet against the answer to this question being, “The year Kobe won the MVP and the title and earned his rightful place among the greatest players ever.” As always, stay tuned.