In the Land O’ Lakes

Welcome to the biggest matchup of the year! Make sure to catch the national broadcast on… oh wait, that’s right, there is no national broadcast. This game will very probably decide the MVP race, and hugely influence the race for #1. The Hornets face off against a very talented Lakers squad in Staples, but thankfully Andrew Bynum is nowhere in sight. And since I’m lucky enough to be in Los Angeles right now, I’m going to be there!! Somehow I doubt I’ll be able to start an MVP chant for Chris Paul though… anyway, Kurt of Forum Blue and Gold graciously agreed to help me preview this one. So here goes:

At the Hive: Let’s get this one out of the way first: Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul? Why?

Forum Blue and Gold: This is a big issue for a lot of Lakers fans, who feel that Kobe is disrespected by the national media. The argument is that Kobe has been one of the best players in the NBA for a decade and has never been MVP, that the knock on him for years was always “he’s selfish and doesn’t pass” and this year he has done more of that than ever, that he has led this team back to a level of contention and deserves to be rewarded for that. (As for the “trusting his teammates” thing, would you rather pass to Smush Parker or Derek Fisher? Kwame Brown or Pau Gasol? It’s easier to trust teammates worth trusting).

I think you can make a very good case for Kobe, for Paul, frankly for LeBron and KG. Depends on how you want to define MVP. I personally don’t get very worked up over this for the simple reason that don’t care much for what most of the old-school media who vote say for most of the year anyway, so why do I care who they think is the best player?

At the Hive: Come the playoffs, the Lakers will be able to do something no other team can- boast three 7 footers (or near it) in the starting rotation. What suggestions would you give to Lakers’ opponents on how to play Lamar, Andrew, and Pau both offensively and defensively?

Forum Blue and Gold: Well, first off, we’ll see if and whey Bynum returns, the reports are that it could be in the first round of the playoffs before we see him. (Look, he’s the future of the franchise, he’s 20, don’t rush him back from this injury if it means future risk.)

How to slow the Lakers offense is going to be very hard — even without Bynum back, the Lakers are loaded with offensive weapons. Gasol is a perfect fit for the triangle offense with his high-low offense. They spread the floor with shooters like Fisher and Radmanovic. That Kobe guy is going to be pretty good. And Odom thrives with the pressure off him, he moves very well without the ball. Most importantly, every Laker player is a good passer, which makes them a very tough team to cover when they run the offense and move off the ball. First off, opponents have to be efficient on offense, because the Lakers will be. The best suggestion is to try to make Kobe a jump-shooter, double Pau in the post (but don’t do it off Radman), make Odom or Fisher or Farmar of Vujacic beat you. They’re going to hit a lot of shots, but a lower percentage than Kobe and Pau. And, at key moments, go to a zone — the Lakers are slow to react to it.

Without Bynum, the Lakers are not a great defensive team. Pau is a nice defensive guy in the middle, but not the shot-blocking intimidator in the paint that Bynum is when healthy. The Lakers do not stop good penetrating point guards well (say, um, Chris Paul for example) and without Bynum as a backup guys can get layups. If you can get in the lane on penetration, the Lakers tend to collapse down on defense off three-point shooters (say, um, Peja). You can get good looks from three — can you hit them.

At the Hive: The feel-good story of Derek Fisher returning to L.A. to care for his daughter has been mostly swept to the wayside by the Lakers’ success as well as numerous NBA fans’ (insane, in my mind) feeling that he “betrayed” the Utah Jazz. Fisher has been shooting far and away his best eFG% on jumpers in his career (an incredible 53%). Has anything changed about his shot, or is he just getting better looks?

Forum Blue and Gold: I think it’s simply a matter of him returning to an offense where he is very comfortable, where he understands and knows the spaces, and getting good looks because of the attention on Kobe/Gasol/Bynum. A lot of his looks, particularly from three, are very wide open. He’s also getting very open looks in transition — the Lakers like to run, freelance for the first 7-10 seconds of the clock, then run the offense.

At the Hive: Heading into the Playoffs, who is the one team you would definitely want on the far side of the bracket? If there was one thing you could change about this team that might help them in the playoffs, what would it be?

Forum Blue and Gold: The only thing I would change on the Lakers is health — if we had a healthy and integrated Bynum, I don’t think we fear anyone. (That’s not to say the Lakers could beat everyone, this is a deep conference, but all things equal the Lakers might have to be the favorites).

Is there anyone in the Western Conference you do want to face? There are no easy outs. Asked this same question a few weeks ago I said bring on the Suns, not sure I feel that way now. They keep losing but I still fear the Spurs. I fear the Hornets. The Jazz scare me. The teams currently on the bottom of the conference may be playing the best ball (Phoenix, Dallas, Denver). Seriously, any way we can get the Wizards in the first round? I think I’d like to get the banged-up Rockets in round one in a perfect world. But who scares me is a long, long list right now.

At the Hive: Finally, the Lakers have some decisions to make this summer, with Turiaf and Mihm possibly leaving. Both would obviously be coveted as back-up big men by many teams. What do the prospects of bringing back one or both players look like?

Forum Blue and Gold: I think there is a desire among fans, and the front office, to keep Turiaf unless someone makes a ridiculous offer to him (the odds of that go down once Thomas is canned in New York). I think the Lakers and Turiaf want to make it work — this team stuck by him during the open-heart surgery and recovery, so he has loyalty to the franchise. His game needs some rounding out, but you can’t find guys with that kind of energy very often. He is a fan favorite. He brings a lot from the bench and off the bench onto the court. Plus, who dances like that? For any reasonable price, I hope the Lakers keep him.

Mihm, that is a story that just makes me a little sad. A few years ago, during the “year that shall not be named” (the one between Phil Jackson stints), he was the only Laker besides Kobe to play hard every night. If he could ever get healthy, return to that form, he’d be a great backup center on a contending team. He’s long and pretty athletic, with a variety of post moves. But I’m not sure we will ever see that Mihm again. If you have the room on the roster, I’d take a shot on him, because he can be valuable again if he can just get healthy.


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