MAILBAG NO. 3 – Wednesday, March 11
Q: Who do you think would be the Lakers' toughest opponent in the playoffs? San Antonio might be the only significant opponent.
- Mark, Angeles City, Philippines
MT: Since the Philippines led all countries outside of the U.S. in Mailbag questions, who better than our buddy Mark from Angeles City (I mean, you can’t live in Angeles City and cheer for the Celtics) to kick things off? First of all, Mark, let’s be fair to you: Your question came in a few weeks ago. Now, what we’ve seen particularly in the last few weeks is that there are at least three, maybe four legitimate threats out West, which we’ll break down in a tier system in a few lines. To my mind, the Western Conference has been overlooked/underrated throughout the season (other than L.A.), primarily due to injuries and because the Lakers, on the heels of their Finals loss, charged out of the gate like a WWE wrestler finally tagged in after straining to enter the ring while his partner got double-teamed/beat up.
Every contending team has had an important player (or two) miss significant time. Look: Manu Ginobili (still out), Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Ron Artest, Tracy McGrady (done for the season) Amare Stoudemire (ditto), Jason Terry, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and even Greg Oden (I’m probably missing a couple). Meanwhile, the East’s top teams had stayed almost oddly healthy until Kevin Garnett (another week?) and Jameer Nelson (season) went down.
Now that Utah, Denver, New Orleans and Denver are basically healthy, the Spurs are still very good (but not great) without Manu, the Suns are still good (but not really good) without Amare and Portland’s fine without Oden, we’re seeing that the West is basically as good as it was last year. The East probably has but two serious contenders (unless you buy Orlando without Nelson, Detroit’s sans-AI resurgence, the Heat with Wade by himself or Atlanta without a bench. This has started to even out in the standings of late, and mostly stopped reporters from asking Phil Jackson what he thinks is wrong with the West (um, injuries). The major point here, Mark? Don’t even think about giving the Lakers a pass to the Finals, not with having to likely get past at least two of the teams in tier two:
Tier 1 – The Tiger Woods Team: L.A. Lakers
If Tiger’s playing in your tournament, he’s the favorite. Period. Similarly, on paper in the Western Conference Playoffs, L.A. will be the favorite, thanks in part to the almost-assured home court advantage. Sure, L.A. has begun to feel the effects of Andrew Bynum’s injury. Kobe, Pau and Lamar were unbelievable for about three weeks after he went down, but haven’t been able to carry the load on the road without much help from the bench. Still, three road losses to team’s playing their own version of the Finals (Denver, Phoenix, Portland) as L.A. failed to match the energy has to be taken into context, at least for now. Bynum’s expected back in a few weeks, either Gasol or Odom will still give you All-Star play up front, the bench remains talented and, most importantly, you have Bryant, who probably wears a red polo shirt under his jersey just like Tiger on Sundays.
Tier 2 – The Roger Federer Group: Utah, San Antonio, New Orleans
Federer may not win every tournament anymore, but you know you’re going to have to drag him off the pedestal to get to the title, kicking and screaming. Each of these teams has enough talent to challenge the Lakers, as all three have already done in the regular season. Tim Duncan’s still the best player in this group, I’d argue (is he the most underrated player ever??), but notice the other commonality between the three squads: a fantastic point guard. Deron Williams, Tony Parker and Chris Paul can all create havoc in the paint, and as such, Bynum’s return is a major key to squashing a Western rebellion. When the big center’s timing is on, opposing point guards all of a sudden can’t do much in L.A.’s paint (what a coincidence). The question is, can he get his cadence back in time? The good news for Lakers fans is that even if he can’t completely, ‘Drew should at least be on the floor as a threat, which coinciding with home court advantage still makes L.A. the favorite. Oh, by the way, L.A. won the West last season without Bynum and Ariza. But if the Lakers can’t get it clicking, the Artful Roger’s sitting there waiting to pounce…
Tier 3 – Phil Mickelson’s Squad: Houston
You’re probably a few key shots short of beating the best without a healthy Tracy McGrady in the backcourt, a key club in your bag, particularly with Tiger Woods lurking. But that’s not to say that in a given tournament, you can’t find some way to make tough chip shots and long putts while driving the ball consistently, using the Ron Artest-Shane Battier defensive combo alongside Yao Ming to get the job done. You have a lot of decent clubs in your bag, some really solid role players, but there’s no way we’re picking you to close it out on Sunday against the red jersey.
Tier 4 – The Andy Roddick Club: Denver, Portland, Dallas, Phoenix
You’ve had talent for a while now (OK, except for Portland) like Lacoste’s favorite spokesman, have terrific specific assets like a huge serve and Brooklyn Decker (Melo’s scoring/Billups’ leadership; Dirk’s shooting/Kidd’s floor game; Nash’s passing/Shaq’s dominance; Roy’s all-around game/young athletes) and are capable of advancing to the semifinals of Wimbledon (finding a way out of round one). But you’re not beating Rafa or Roger in the semis. It’s just not happening – too many flaws, and one special asset short.
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