Thursday, July 29, 2010

Can Anyone Challenge LA in the West?

Seven teams finished within 7 wins of the Lakers' 57 last year, so it's not hard to imagine that at least one of them might seriously challenge LA's three-year hold on the West title. Of those seven, the Spurs are probably too old and the Thunder too young to pose a real threat. Having been raided by the Bulls and despite solid pick-ups Al Jefferson and Raja Bell, the Jazz' roster has some serious holes. Dallas only has 7, maybe 8 legitimate rotation players and their 2nd-best record in the West obscured an 8th-best point differential last year.

The Nuggets were clearly the 2nd best team in the West in 2008-2009, and might have been again in 2009-2010 if they hadn't fallen apart towards the end of the season while coach George Karl underwent chemotherapy. This year they've improved with the addition of Al Harrington (16.82). Chauncey Billups' PER is nearly equal to Kobe's (20.25 to 21.95), even if Kobe is underrated by that stat. The Nuggets' Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith are better than any of the Lakers' other guards.

The Lakers added Matt Barnes (13.66) as a back-up for Ron Artest (12.12) on the wing. Maybe together they're as talented as Carmelo Anthony (22.29), who is always capable of taking over a series. While Nene (18.95) and Harrington are no Gasol (22.97) and Bynum (20.26), Denver does have depth of quality big men to contend with LA's Big 3. I would give LA a slight edge in a best-of-seven series, and it would be a good one.

Only the Boston Celtics came closer that the Suns did to eliminating Los Angeles in the playoffs. For that reason, plus their fairly impressive recovery from losing Amare, we have to at least consider Phoenix. The Suns actually look to be more talented that the Lakers across both the guard and wing positions (Nash 21.67, Richardson 16.63, Childress 18.00, Hill 14.07, Dragic 14.87 against Kobe's underrated 21.95, Barnes 13.66, Artest 12.12, Blake 11.61, Vujacic 11.39, Fisher 9.29). Channing Frye (43.9 3pt%) and Hedo Turkoglu (37.4 3pt%, 4.1 asts) will spread LA's big men and possibly neutralize their defensive strengths. On the other hand, neither Robin Lopez nor the undersized Hakim Warrick seem likely to stop Gasol or Bynum, so it's hard to say that Phoenix would be a favorite. But I couldn't count them out.

Every year, the Blazers have the potential to be the top threat to the Lakers, if only they can stay healthy. With injury-prone stars like Brandon Roy (21.36, 17 games missed) and Greg Oden (23.14, 61 games missed), that's a pretty big challenge. At guard, the Blazers can't match Kobe, but Andre Miller (18.18), Rudy Fernandez (13.10), and Jerryd Bayless (14.38) are a solid group. Edge Lakers. At the wings, Roy and injury-limited Nicholas Batum (17.31) were both way better than Artest and Barnes in 2009-2010. Edge Blazers. If healthy, Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge (18.30), and Marcus Camby (17.91) would form a big 3 as impossible to defend as Gasol, Bynum and Odom. Portland's weak point might be a one-on-one match-up between the slow-footed Oden and a more athetic Bynum or Gasol.

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