The Los Angeles Lakers are at the top of everyone’s power rankings again. They’re widely considered to be a serious threat to the Oklahoma City Thunder — although most would say it’s the other way around — and they’re given what seems to be a better prognosis than what the Miami Heat are given.
There’s no question that the Lakers will win an NBA championship this upcoming season if Mike Brown can correctly allow Eddie Jordan to install the Princeton offense in order to utilize severely misused big man Pau Gasol. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, if the Lakers bench is as improved as it seems on paper, and if Kobe Bryant relinquishes total control (and, subsequently, defers to his teammates), this team is going to be holding up its third Larry O’Brien Trophy in five years.
But the question is not, “Can the Lakers win an NBA title?” The question is, can the Lakers clumsily stumble into an NBA Finals match-up the way the Miami Heat did in 2011, when they backed their way into a match-up with the Dallas Mavericks based purely on talent?
Because those 2011 Miami Heat did back their way in. That season, the Heat had no cohesive offensive gameplan except the infamous “do whatever the f*** you want” offensive gameplan that Erik Spoelstra seemed to employed at the whim of his players. They were out-executed in every way imaginable in that series, but the point is, they added an NBA Finals appearance to their resume by being incredibly talented only.
This season, the Lakers might have the most talent of any team in the NBA. Dwight Howard is the consensus best center in the league, Kobe Bryant is still a top-3 shooting guard, Steve Nash is a top-10 point guard (who might be underrated here because he played on an awful Phoenix team), and Pau Gasol is on the verge of being (or is already a) top-five power forward. Meanwhile, Metta World Peace is still a solid defender (a drop off from “the best” defender), Antawn Jamison was very good in Cleveland, Jordan Hill was very serviceable and Jodie Meeks provides for more outside shooting. All in all, this team is deeper and more talented at the top than what the Heat were in 2011 and probably even deeper than the Heat were in 2012.
We already know Mike Brown can be pretty inconsistent in formulating gameplans, especially on offense. Even then, though, his supposed area of expertise — his defense — has been shaky at best. For all that defensive acumen, the Lakers were ranked 11th in terms of adjusted defensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions adjusted for how good an opponent is offensively), a category in which L.A. was ranked fifth in 2010-11 under Phil Jackson’s staff.
(For comparison’s sake, the Miami Heat’s 2009-10 team, prior to their acquisition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh, was ranked eighth in the NBA in adjusted defensive rating, all while finishing with just 47 wins in a full 82-game schedule.)
If Brown is pretty inconsistent with the Lakers, does coaching matter all that much when it comes to nabbing an NBA Finals berth in a league that rewards top-heavy teams? Winning is a different story — the 2012 Miami Heat learned that the hard way, and Spoelstra has developed into a brilliant coach — but is garnering that much talent 95 percent of the battle?
This team could back its way to the NBA Finals if Kobe continues to jack shots, Pau Gasol is inconsistent and comes out whenever Kobe or Howard does not and if Nash is relegated to being an off-ball shooter that can make the extra pass while, on occasion, throwing some lobs to our bigs. So long as the team tries, being a cohesive, smart unit might not matter all that much. This team might nap in the playoffs and could wake up to find themselves playing the Miami Heat.
But most likely, it cannot. The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off a massively disappointing NBA Finals loss, and their resolve will be greater than it ever has been. A team that is inconsistent and sloppy — but more talented than OKC is — can’t beat a slighty-less-talented team that will destroy anyone in its path en route to another shot at playing in June. It’s not that the Lakers will be less driven to keep playing in early June, it’s just that cohesion might not all be there while some may not make the sacrifices necessary — in terms of deference — for this team to beat a Thunder team that will play basketball with reckless abandon in 2012-13.
This Lakers team was not built to lose in the NBA Finals, though. This team was built to win championships, and that will require a team with a solid gameplan, smart and hard preparation and willingness to defer to one another and step up, all when necessary.
But the thought of the Lakers screwing around and making it to the Finals — not unlike the way they did in 2008, we suppose — is a pretty entertaining (if scary) thought.