Balanced, Deep Cavs Push Around LakersThere are a lot of subplots to consider in the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers' thoroughly convincing 102-87 win over the L.A. Lakers at Staples Center on Christmas Day but first and foremost is that this game represented a complete debunking for a national television audience of the ludicrous statements that far too many so-called experts have made regarding the Lakers' alleged talent and/or depth; this is a subject that I have written about for quite some time, so let's set the record straight once and for all: as I explained in detail last summer, "The 2009 Lakers are Phil Jackson's 10th championship team and they are not as deep as most of the teams that won championships since Jackson claimed his first title in 1991."
Thus far in the 2010 season the Lakers' reserves have been even less reliable than they were in 2009; all of the hype about how talented the Lakers are and how deep the Lakers are is just that: hype. The Lakers are led by the best all-around player in the NBA (Kobe Bryant) and they have a solid second star in Pau Gasol--who was never seriously touted as an "elite" player until he came to the Lakers and reaped the benefits of playing alongside Bryant--plus an excellent defender/solid third scoring option in Ron Artest. Starting center Andrew Bynum has showed flashes of ability--like many players in the NBA--but the reality is that he has yet to have even one full season in which he stayed healthy and remained consistently productive (and the abrupt recent downturn in his statistics suggests that this season will not break that trend even if he manages to finally stay healthy for a full year). Derek Fisher is a wily veteran point guard who is probably more valuable to the Lakers than he would be to just about any other team--due to his maturity, his knowledge of the Triangle Offense and his ability to hit timely shots in the playoffs even if he has not shot well for significant stretches during the regular season--but it is worth keeping in mind that other recent Conference Finalists all have bona fide All-Star caliber point guards (Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Jameer Nelson, Mo Williams, even Rajon Rondo, a player who has yet to make the All-Star team but certainly plays at an All-Star level at least in terms of his floor game). Lamar Odom has long since "jumped the shark" from underrated to overrated in the sense that writers and TV commentators now regularly hype his virtues with complete disregard to his actual production and value: Odom has not once been voted to an All-Star or All-NBA Team by fans, media members or coaches and this season he is averaging less than 9 ppg while shooting less than .430 from the field and yet people--even the normally sensible, insightful and reasonable Jeff Van Gundy--speak about Odom as if he is a great player instead of what Odom really is: a talented enigma who simply does not bring forth maximum effort and maximum concentration on a nightly basis. Odom has been that way for his entire 11 year career so it is foolish to imagine that he will suddenly change; he is a good, solid NBA player who can show flashes of greatness but that is not even close to the same thing as actually being a great player. Anderson Varejao is a more valuable--and more productive--player than Odom. So what if Varejao is not a ballhandler or three point shooter--the truth is that Odom is not nearly as adept at either of those skills as many people think, so it is actually a disadvantage for the Lakers that he handles the ball and shoots as many perimeter shots as he does. The Lakers would be better off if Odom simply played good defense every night and dove to the hoop from the weak side for layups and tipins--things that Varejao does more often and with greater efficiency than Odom. When the Lakers are really clicking their best offensive set involves Gasol setting a screen for Bryant while Odom either dives to the hoop along the baseline or else pops up to the top of the key to be a pressure release player who receives a pass from Bryant or Gasol and then reverses the ball to the open man on the weakside. When Odom goes coast to coast he is just as apt to turn the ball over or shoot a brick layup as he is to do anything productive. At least Varejao understands his role and his limitations.
Yes, this was just one game and I well understand that no one should jump to conclusions about anything based on a small sample size of information--but the point is that this game was not an aberration but rather a demonstration of the validity of several observations that I have made about both teams:
1) The Cavs are a defensive-minded team that is consistently underrated by the national media--and even some of the media members who cover the team--because too many people focus on Cleveland's alleged offensive deficiencies instead of giving Coach Mike Brown the praise he deserves for turning the Cavs into Spurs East without having a mobile, perennial All-Defensive Team big man like Tim Duncan patrolling the lane erasing any defensive lapses by his teammates. For the past several years I have consistently picked the Cavs to go farther than most other commentators and I have been right; even last year's loss to Orlando--which many people still blame on Cleveland not being able to guard Rashard Lewis--had at least as much to do with Mo Williams' shooting slump as anything else; if Williams had simply continued to shoot the ball at his normal percentage then the Cavs likely would have won the series (which is not at all to suggest that Danny Ferry was wrong to seize the opportunity to strengthen the roster by adding Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon instead of standing pat with a championship-caliber team that won a league-best 66 games).
2) The Lakers' rise to championship-level prominence in the past two and a half seasons is significantly linked not only to Bryant's individual excellence but also to his leadership, to the way that he drives his teammates to work harder and to the way that his very presence makes the game easier for them by attracting so much defensive attention. Bryant is not playing with multiple All-Stars--like the Celtics have--nor does his team have the depth and roster flexibility that the Cavs and Magic do. Bryant has been celebrated for a lot of his individual accomplishments yet the two most remarkable things that he has done have not been fully appreciated: first he carried the Lakers to the playoffs with Kwame Brown at center, Smush Parker at point guard and Luke Walton at small forward and then when the Lakers upgraded Bryant's supporting cast he transformed them into championship contenders even before Pau Gasol's arrival.
3) In my preview of the Lakers-Cavs game I mentioned five matchups worth watching and I described how four of them could turn in Cleveland's favor (later in this post I'll discuss what happened in the fifth matchup, namely the battle between MVP candidates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James):
a) Although Shaquille O'Neal did not get Andrew Bynum into foul trouble as I said that he likely would, O'Neal outplayed Bynum to the point that the Lakers' much touted young center was a complete non-factor (four points, six rebounds, 2-5 field goal shooting) while O'Neal had a quintessential "Big Bill Cartwright" performance, making an impact felt well beyond his numbers (11 points, seven rebounds, 5-8 field goal shooting), much like Cartwright anchored the paint for Michael Jordan's first three championship teams. Meanwhile, even though Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a poor shooting night, he used his length to grab a game-high tying nine rebounds and to help harass Gasol into a subpar performance (11 points, six rebounds, 4-11 field goal shooting).
b) I suggested that J.J. Hickson might not play much (he started but only logged 10 minutes) and that Varejao is more efficient than Odom and more than capable of negating Odom's impact; Varejao finished with nine points and nine rebounds while shooting 4-5 from the field while Odom tallied six points and five rebounds while shooting 2-4 from the field. Odom also ran his mouth so much that he got ejected.
c & d) I noted that the Cavs have much more depth than the Lakers and are a vastly superior three point shooting team, concluding "if O'Neal makes the most of his early touches, Delonte West plays like he did last season and Mo Williams makes open jump shots then the Cavs are certainly capable of winning." O'Neal did his part, West contributed seven points, four assists, three steals, two rebounds and a blocked shot in just 17 minutes and Williams scored a team-high 28 points on 8-13 field goal shooting, including 3-3 from three point range. The Cavs' reserves outscored the Lakers' reserves 31-17--nearly matching the margin of victory--but even those totals are deceptive because the Lakers' reserves scored some meaningless garbage time points. The reality is that the Cavs blew the game open in the second quarter with James on the bench as the Cavs' reserves dominated the Lakers' reserves even with Bryant in the game to anchor his skittish second stringers (Bryant did not get a rest until the fourth quarter when the outcome was no longer in doubt). We hear ad nauseam that James is doing more with less than Bryant is and that if the two switched teams then the Lakers would be unbeatable while the Cavs would not be as good as they are now but the evidence does not support either thesis; the Lakers won the 2009 Championship with Bryant and have made the Finals the past two seasons, so any objective person understands that it is more than a bit of a stretch to say that someone else could do more with the Lakers than Bryant has--and the Cavs' roster is stocked with players who have started for playoff teams, so why are we supposed to believe that they would collapse without James or even that they would be worse if Bryant replaced James? The Cavs are more physical than the Lakers--this was true even last season before O'Neal arrived--and they are more consistently defensive-minded, so in some ways Bryant would feel more at home with the Cavs than he does with Lakers' teammates who he constantly has to push and prod to be tougher and to grind things out defensively. Since Bryant made it to the playoffs with the immortal Kwame/Smush duo I have trouble believing that he could not match what James did last year with an Ilgauskas-Varejao frontline supported by a Mo Williams-Delonte West backcourt.
While we are on the subject of who could do what with various rosters, note that on the same day that the Lakers fell flat on their faces versus the Cavaliers the Boston Celtics traveled to Orlando sans 2008 NBA Finals MVP Paul Pierce and beat the reigning Eastern Conference Champions 86-77. Some fool once posted a comment here to the effect that he'd like to see Kobe Bryant get a non-serious injury--just bad enough to keep Bryant out of the lineup--to refute my contentions about just how vital Bryant is to the Lakers' success. There are two problems with his "thought experiment":
(1) Bryant does not miss games due to non-serious--or even some serious--injuries, as indicated by the fact that he is currently playing with a broken index finger on his shooting hand and the fact that he as been playing for nearly two years with a similar avulsion fracture to his right pinkie finger that has never been surgically fixed. You may recall that not long before Bryant first suffered the injury to his pinkie LeBron James missed five games because of a left index finger sprain (I am not questioning James' toughness at all, but merely pointing out that Bryant's toughness/pain threshold/will to win are off the charts even in comparison to other tough minded, elite athletes).
(2) In nearly every Lakers' game we get a mini-glimpse of what the team would look like without Bryant when Coach Phil Jackson tries to get him some rest and then has to hustle him back on the court before the Lakers either blow their lead or turn a small deficit into a major catastrophe. On numerous occasions last season and this season Jackson has expressed his extreme dissatisfaction about having to bring Bryant back to save the day after he had hoped that the reserves could close things out on their own, so if you do not believe my version of events then just take a listen to Jackson's postgame comments sometime.
What about the much hyped showdown between Bryant and James? As I predicted, they rarely guarded each other. Artest drew the assignment of covering James, though Bryant switched on to James for a few possessions in the fourth quarter but by that time the game was all but out of reach. James stuck with Artest because no other Cav wing player can match Artest's physicality and also because the Cavs can send a veritable wave of lean, athletic players at Bryant: Parker, Moon and the undersized but bulldog tough West. Frankly, neither Bryant nor James played an exceptional game by their lofty standards: Bryant led the Lakers in points (35), rebounds (nine) and assists (eight) but his near triple-double is somewhat offset by his uncharacteristically inaccurate shooting from the field (11-32); on the other hand, even if Bryant had shot .500 from the field the Lakers still would have lost by five points (unless the five additional makes were all three pointers but that is asking a lot even of Bryant). The know nothing critics--starting with Stuart Scott during the halftime show--will carp that Bryant shot too much but that is because they do not understand the game. As Jackson likes to say, Bryant will sense a vacuum and try to fill it, which means that if his teammates are playing tentatively then Bryant will assume a bigger burden--and even though Bryant shot more than 30 times the eight assists show that Bryant was indeed passing the ball and anyone who watched the game knows that he could have had 10 or 12 assists if his teammates had canned some wide open shots that he spoonfed to them. Meanwhile, James' line looks less dominant but more efficient than Bryant's (26 points, nine assists, four rebounds, 9-19 field goal shooting) but those numbers do not tell the whole story. James scored most of his points after the outcome had been decided and his field goal percentage was a lackluster 7-17 until he hit a couple meaningless buckets near the end of the game. James also had a game-high seven turnovers, though to be fair it must be noted that just like his last two field goals were meaningless the same could be said of his last two turnovers.
The Lakers' loss to the Cavaliers surely brings back vivid memories to Laker fans of their team--specifically, their big men--being pushed around and bullied in the 2008 NBA Finals by the Boston Celtics and of the Celtics throwing waves of defenders at Bryant while ignoring virtually everyone else and daring Bryant's teammates to make a shot or make a play. The Lakers overcame that problem last season--though beating the Nuggets and then the Magic is not quite the same thing as beating the 2008 Celtics--and if they want to repeat as champions then they will either have to get tougher or hope that Orlando finds some way to slip past Boston and Cleveland once again.
So if I am so smart why did I not pick the Cavs to win the game when I wrote my preview article? Simple--this looked like a "scheduling loss" for the Cavs; the Cavs were playing their fourth game in six nights while the Lakers were not only at home but also had been off for three days (and had spent most of the first part of the season playing at home). In my preview I indicated that the Cavs have the technical capability to match up well with the Lakers--which could be very important if the teams meet in the playoffs (i.e., the NBA Finals) when both teams would have adequate rest. Both the Cavs and the Celtics actually match up better with the Lakers than the Magic do (as we saw in last year's Finals)--I am still not totally convinced that the Lakers would have beaten the Cavs in last year's Finals if the Cavs had not fallen to Orlando but we'll never know the answer to that (because the Cavs have since revamped their roster).
posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM