Archives For July 2010

Lakers I Miss: Rick Fox

Jeff Skibiski —  July 26, 2010

[picappgallerysingle id=”2653499″]

As this latest potential Lakers dynasty rounds into shape, I got to thinking about one of the most beloved players from the team’s last three-peat bid—Rick Fox. The former UNC grad was a critical component of three championship squads and will always be remembered fondly for his seven years of service with the forum blue and gold. While this current Lakers group relies on the likes of Derek Fisher for locker room leadership, the Lakers teams at the beginning of the decade had several savvy veteran leaders with which to rely—and none with a smile brighter than Mr. Cool, Calm and Collected.

In a true testament to his lasting impact during his L.A. tenure, most fans have either forgotten or are willing to dismiss the fact that Fox played the first six years of his career in Celtics green after being drafted by Boston with the 24th pick in the First Round in the 1991 NBA Draft. During his seven years with the Lakers, Foxy averaged nearly 10 points per game in 25 minutes, while also pulling down nearly four rebounds and shooting 35% from beyond the arc. Though his numbers never quite matched his 15 points per game average in his final year with the C’s in 1996-97, Rick unselfishly took a backseat on offense, recognizing his role in the team’s budding title hopes. However, Fox stepped to the forefront on defense and was one of the premier defenders at his position throughout his career.

Relive some of Fox’s greatest moments as a Laker in this fan video (Sorry for the low quality…I don’t think they had HD during Rick’s day).

His impact on and off the court can’t be measured on stat sheets though, as it was often the even-keeled Canadian small forward who served as a voice of reason when inner turmoil between Kobe, Shaq and the like threatened to derail the team’s title dreams. Like Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Brian Shaw, Fox also had a knack for performing well in the clutch, even if he doesn’t get as much publicity for his late-game heroics as his former teammates. In fact, the Lakers might not have held on to win their first title of the new decade had it not been for Fox’s key buckets down the stretch of the deciding Game 6 of 2000 NBA Finals against the Pacers. At the end of the day, Fox was a player who was trusted by both Coach Jackson and teammates and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more consummate professional during his 13 years in the league.

Maybe even more than his leadership, fans and critics alike revered Rick for his willingness to mix it up against opponents—most notably in a 2002 pre-season game at STAPLES Center against the Sacramento Kings. Only two minutes into an exhibition game between the heated rivals, Fox and Christie jostled with one another, leading to a memorable fight in the alley on the way to the locker room—a battle that foreshadowed the teams’ epic seven-game series in that year’s Western Conference Finals. Aspiring actor or not, Rick’s grit and flare for the dramatic provided a huge spark for a team whose success hinged primarily on the play of Kobe and Shaq.

Recent additions Ron Artest and Matt Barnes undoubtedly embody a lot of Fox’s strengths, but the uncanny poise and class displayed by Rick still stand out to this day. Fox was a true winner at every level—not only leading the 1991 Tar Heels to the NCAA Final Four, but proving himself as an invaluable piece of a back-to-back-to back championship squad. Though he’s still as visible as ever off the basketball floor, his contributions on it will never be forgotten.

Lamar Odom is surrounded by members of the media at a U.S. national basketball team practice in Las Vegas, Nevada July 21, 2010. REUTERS/Laura Rauch (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Last night, ESPN2 aired the Team USA intra-squad scrimmage. As you would expect from an exhibition game featuring guys who haven’t spent a lot of time together on the court, the game was rather sloppy and I don’t expect the scrimmage to weigh too heavily on the decisions made by Coach K and Brian Colangelo. Recapping the game won’t be necessary (the white squad won 114-96), but there were a few guys who stood out and made a case for a spot on the team.

* Before I get into some of the players who impressed, I’ll take the opportunity to share a few thoughts on Lamar Odom. Odom went into camp out of shape and hadn’t participated in any basketball related activities since helping the Lakers bring home number 16, and it showed in the scrimmage. LO finished with just two points, six rebounds and three assists (which you’ll see in Kevin Garnett and Derrick Rose highlights later). Odom’s poor showing in the intra-squad scrimmage really doesn’t mean much in terms of him making the squad. From everything that I’ve read, Odom is pretty much a lock to make the team as a veteran presence among a slew of youth. His versatility (he started at center in the scrimmage) and the lack of size on Team USA is coveted by the Colangelo/Coach K brain trust and will definitely make the first set of cuts to be happening on Monday.

THE WHITE TEAM

* As expected, Kevin Durant had the biggest showing of the bunch finishing with 28 points and player of the game honors. Durant began his night with what was arguably the highlight of the night – a nifty crossover that led to a dunk that set the tone for the white squad – and had a four-minute stretch in the third quarter where he scored 10 of his 28. Durant picked his spots nicely, didn’t force anything and was genuinely enjoying himself out there on the floor. He did have seven turnovers, but it was a sloppy game all around. Only Derrick Rose and Chauncey Billups played more than 20 minutes and finished with no turnovers. Below are a few highlights from Durant’s night.

* Derrick Rose played along side of Durant and also had a fantastic night finishing with 15 points, eight assists, five steals and no turnovers. Rose played a lot stronger than his counter parts at the point guard spot and definitely made a case for not only making the team, but also for starting as he impressed more than the other point guards. Rose’s quickness isn’t news to anyone, but watching how fast he changes direction and his ability to change speeds is still awe inspiring every time you get an opportunity to watch him play. You’d be hard pressed to find a more athletic point guard in the NBA right now. Below are some highlights of Rose.

* Also for the white team, Andre Iguodala impressed with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. His game was stamped all over the first half with athletic moves to the basket, he hit all three of this 3-point attempts and got to the free throw line six times. Eric Gordon hit four of seven from behind the arc and was 50 percent from the field for the night. I don’t think Gordon has done enough in the past week to earn a spot on the roster, but he did some good things while on the floor in the scrimmage.

THE BLUE TEAM

* Rudy Gay did a lot of the damage for the Blue Team scoring 23 points and going three for four from behind the three point line (both teams shot over 45 percent from behind the arc). No news, Gay is a terrific scorer and was able to get his points in a multitude of different ways: he hit from behind the arc, was able to create shots off the dribble, scored from the block, got the free throw line seven times and was able to grab a few offensive rebounds (4) and convert those to points. Like Durant, Gay finished with seven turnovers but seemed committed to playing defense, finishing with a pair of blocks and steals. Starting Gay and Durant on the wings would make Team USA awfully long, but bringing Gay off the bench to replace Durant would keep a long, athletic scorer on the floor at all times. I don’t think there is anyway Gay doesn’t make this team. I’ve been having problems getting my Rudy Gay clips up, so hopefully I can have them for you guys at a later time.

* Rudy Gay’s Memphis teammate, O.J. Mayo, also had a strong night scoring 18 points while showing off the clean stroke on his jump shot. There was a lot of talent on the floor, and Mayo didn’t let anyone forget that he was on the floor. He was able to get loose on a few fast breaks and excite the Thomas and Mack crowd with some dunks. Mayo has wanted to play point guard since he was a Trojan at USC, but is finding his game translates better as an off guard with his ability to shoot. He hit a few pull up jumpers and knocked down half of his three point attempts. Mayo highlights are shown below.

* Also for the blue team, teammates Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green both did a lot of good things. Westbrook was a hound defensively on the parameter and finished with three steals to go along with his 14 points. Westbrook is one of the most fearless guys in the NBA and attacks the rim relentlessly. Jeff Green finished with 11 points and a very quiet eight rebounds (second only to Tyson Chandler). If you’re going to make this team, grabbing rebounds is a great way to do it considering Team USA’s size issue.

As I mentioned earlier, Coach K and Brian Colangelo will look to make four cuts on Monday and hope to have their roster down to about 15 by the time they play an exhibition game against France in New York at the Madison Square Garden in August 15. From there, the team will travel to Europe to play a few more exhibition games before the FIBA World Championships start on August 28.

[picappgallerysingle id=”8468579″]

With a roster as top-heavy as the Lakers, it’s easy to knock the bench for not performing at the same level as the starters. Biases aside though, it goes without saying that the Lakers’ bench struggled at times last season, with Lamar Odom serving as the only reliable force on a team that won an NBA title almost in spite of its sub-par reserve corps. This offseason has brought swift, if not expected change to the forum blue and gold’s roster though, as Mitch Kupchak has masterfully found a way to fill six open roster spots with proven NBA players, while also drafting two promising second-round picks, who both stand a good chance of making the team. Darius posted a great write-up yesterday about the additions of Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff—two players who, along with Steve Blake, Odom, Sasha Vujacic and the possible return of Shannon Brown, should go a long way toward re-creating the bench mob that propelled the team to an unexpected title run in 2007-08. More importantly, they will allow veterans like Kobe, Artest and Fisher to play less minutes, while also providing insurance against injury. Even though some of the pieces are still moving, we take a look at just how deep is this year’s team is compared to other potential contenders around the league.

Barring any major surprise moves, Boston essentially brings back the same bench that helped them pull away from the Lakers in Game 4 of the Finals last season, minus defensive ace Tony Allen. They swapped out the underperforming Rasheed Wallace for another perennial underperformer in Jermaine O’Neal, though the latter’s more consistent production at this stage of his career should represent an upgrade for the C’s. Boston also re-signed Nate Robinson, who played in the post-season for the first time last year with mixed results. Their overall depth chart took a hit though when starting center Kendrick Perkins underwent surgery nearly two weeks ago that will likely keep him out until next January or February. O’Neal and Glen Davis will certainly help fill that void, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Boston picks up another piece before training camp starts.

The constantly evolving Miami Heat roster has rounded into shape quite nicely for Pat Riley, with the organization successfully luring several former veteran difference-makers to play alongside the Superfriends. Depending on whether or not head coach Erik Spoelstra chooses to start the newly re-signed Carlos Arroyo at the point, the team’s bench will likely consist of NBA journeyman Jamaal Magloire, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Juwan Howard. Mike Miller will fit in there somewhere, but again, that depends on what type of lineup the Heat ultimately decide to use. In any case, the team has flanked Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh with savvy veteran leaders who only improve Miami’s status as an instant contender.

The Orlando Magic have operated with arguably the league’s best bench unit for a few years running now and will once again bring back a strong second unit in 2010-11. While the Lakers poached Barnes from Dwight Howard and Co., Orlando added some scoring punch with the additions of Chris Duhon to back up Jameer Nelson and Quentin Richardson as another outside shooting threat. Combined with the newly re-signed J.J. Redick, Martin Gortat and Brandon Bass, the Magic boast an explosive, albeit defensively underwhelming bench.

Fresh off of a six-game series against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns will bring back a decidedly different roster next season after the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire, the trade for Hedo Turkoglu and free agent signings of Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. The moves made by Phoenix after losing Stoudemire have fallen under the radar this off-season, but their roster is still loaded with versatility and adept shooting, not to mention Steve Nash. Phoenix could go with a number of different lineups, but assuming that Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Robin Lopez all remain starters, that results in a possible bench of Childress, Channing Frye, Warrick, Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley, with one of those players being used to fill the void at starting power forward. Phoenix will miss Leandro Barbosa, who was shipped to Toronto in the trade for Turkoglu, but they have re-tooled in a hurry and will undoubtedly prove to be a matchup nightmare for many teams.

The Mavericks weren’t able to entice Cleveland into a sign-and-trade deal for LeBron, but they have re-tinkered their roster a bit around Dirk Nowitzki by trading for Tyson Chandler and re-signing Brendan Haywood. Super-sub Jason Terry and the under-used Jose Juan Barea form a potent bench for Dallas that will keep them in contention once again next season. Those pesky Oklahoma City Thunder bring back virtually the same bench that took the Lakers to six games in the First Round last season, led by Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor. The Thunder traded two first round picks to New Orleans for outside shooting specialist Morris Peterson and promising rookie Cole Aldrich, who will provide much-needed size for Oklahoma City’s undersized front line. San Antonio also improved its front line when Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter, selected by the Spurs in the first round of the 2007 NBA Draft, finally agreed to sign with the team to back up an aging Tim Duncan. The same can’t be said for Denver, who wasn’t able to land the free agent big-man they so desperately needed to sign with their mid-level exception, leading them to sign another one-way player in Al Harrington.

One of the primary reasons the Lakers teams were so successful at the beginning of the decade was the front office’s careful management of the roster around Kobe and Shaq. Flash forward 10 years and the front office continues to support Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Artest and Odom with key role players off the bench. Moreover, these are players in Blake, Barnes and Ratliff who are hungry for an NBA championship and will surely keep the team’s title aspirations moving along in the same way Artest did last season. Sometimes, a small tweak in personnel here and there is all that is needed when molding NBA benches, but I would venture to say that the Lakers have gone a step beyond that by not only directly addressing their greatest need—point guard—but also signing players like Barnes who will potentially play a huge role defensively against other title contenders’ top threats. Further, Blake, Barnes and Ratliff will add much-needed consistency off the pine—something that Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell, D.J. Mbenga and Luke Walton were never able to provide. The end result is a versatile, complete team that is well-prepared to defend its crown.

May 24, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02171441 Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (L) and Orlando Magic forward Matt Barnes (R) grapple with each other in the third quarter of the Eastern Conference final round playoff game at the TD Bank Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 24 May 2010. The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-0 and the winner will advance to play either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

Coming into this off-season the Lakers had a shopping list of needs to fill.  It sounds strange to say this about a team that just won its second consecutive championship, but it was true.  The team had 6 free agents at every position on its roster that it could potentially lose and while the Lakers have (rightfully so) been considered top heavy in its talent, losing that many players – even from the bottom half of the roster – is something that needs to be addressed and (hopefully) done in a way where the team actually improves.  Well, after the Lakers signed Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff to contracts on Thursday, the Lakers have done just that.  At this point, the Lakers have added Steve Blake, Barnes and Ratliff via free agency and drafted Devin Ebanks and Derrek Caracter to replace the departing Jordan Farmar, Adam Morrison, Josh Powell, and DJ Mbenga.  When you look at the additions and measure them against the subtractions, I don’t think anyone can argue that the Lakers have upgraded their roster.  And while we’ve given you our thoughts on Blake and have explored the games of Ebanks and Caracter, we’ve yet to touch on yesterday’s additions.  So, here we go…

Matt Barnes is the marquee add; the player that still had interest on the market from a variety of teams and nearly every contender that is still looking to complete their roster (Miami and Boston especially).  This speaks to Barnes’ value as a player and the skill set that he brings to the table.  In essence, Matt Barnes is a very similar player to Ron Artest, just less talented overall.  That’s not a knock on Barnes as Ron is one of the more talented two way players in the league that possesses an all around game that can thrive in a system like the Lakers run.  So, while Barnes may be a step down in talent, he’s still a fine player that will help the Lakers in a variety of ways.

Barnes is a good shooter (last season: 48.7% FG, 57.6 TS%) that has the ability to get hot from beyond the three point arc.  He’s a dogged defender that uses his good size and length to body offensive players and effectively contest shots while restricting their movement around the court.  Barnes is a capable ball handler and an adequate passer that has a good feel for the game.  He’s an excellent rebounder (ranked 2nd among SF in total rebound rate for those playing 20+ minutes) and does have a nose for the ball both off the glass and when loose in the open court.  And most of all, Barnes plays hard.  He’s a competitor.  He rarely takes possessions off and will fight the opposition for the ball and for court space all while furiously trying to do the right thing.  Like I said, this guy reminds me a lot of Artest and at the salary that the Lakers signed him for, I think the team has gotten extraordinary value and found a very nice piece to help complete a roster that will once again compete for the NBA championship.

However, there are negatives with Barnes’ play.  If he was only the player that I described above, he would have been one of the most sought after (role player type) free agents on July 1st, not a player that signed for a fraction of the mid-level exception on July 22nd.  Essentially, Barnes is the ultimate double-edged sword player as nearly every positive trait he exhibits can also be taken a step too far and turned into a potential negative. 

As I mentioned, Barnes is a capable shooter and can get hot, but he’s not a consistent player from behind the arc and has shot 32.9% from 3 point range for his career.  And despite that low-ish percentage, Barnes has still found a way to average two and a half attempts from that range a game for his career.  Two years ago he shot over 4 a game while with the Suns and 4 years ago he took nearly four a game with the Warriors.  So, shot selection is a question mark for Matt.  I also mentioned that Barnes is a dogged defender that plays hard, but there are times when his effort crosses the line from playing hard and scrappy, to being rough and on the line of dirty.  He’s not always been the best at containing his anger and has earned his fair share of technical fouls.  I also mentioned Barnes’ ball handling and decision making being solid, but he is a turnover prone player that at times will look to make the complex play rather than the simple one.

None of this is to say that Barnes is a bad player.  I like him a great deal and have followed his career pretty closely since his time with the Warriors.  It’s just to say that we must all understand the player that has been signed and how he’ll help and where there may be areas of concern.  And while I wanted Raja Bell over Barnes when the Lakers were intially looking to add a back up wing, I think Barnes is a great get and that he’ll add a physical toughness and desire to win that every championship team needs when they’re looking to repeat.  Barnes will help the Lakers bench a great deal and I can already envision him getting hot in some games and Phil staying with him over Artest if Ron is in a funk on that particular night.  Remember, Phil is the master of putting players in position to succeed and with Barnes being a veteran player that is used to playing 20-25 minutes a night, it’s easy to foresee there being nights where it’s Barnes that closes out the game as Ron gets an extended rest.

As for Ratliff, I think the Lakers have done very well for themselves with this signing.  However, my opinion on this is shaped by role and expectation.  Ratliff is not a difference maker.  He’s not a 20 minute a night player that will score in double digits when given extra burn or grab 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of play where Bynum/Pau are out of action or in foul trouble.  But, Ratliff is a guy that will exude professionalism and will be ready to play when his number is called.  He’ll play smart, tough basketball and will defend the opposing big that he’s asked to mark and do it to the best of his ability.  He’ll play to his strengths and that means defending the paint and deferring to his teammates on offense.  And for a 4th or 5th big man, this is exactly what the Lakers were looking for.  Remember, the Lakers still have the Gasol/Bynum/Odom triumvirate in the front court.  If (and I know it’s a big if) all those guys are healthy, there aren’t many minutes available to any other big man on the Lakers roster and I think that’s exactly the way that most fans would have it.  So, while I would have loved  Kurt Thomas to sign on to play this role, the odds of that seemed to be getting slimmer by the day once all factors are considered.  So, really, I’m quite happy with Ratliff.  Yes he’s aged.  And no, he’s no longer the “plus” athlete roaming the paint that routinely averaged 3 blocks a game in his younger years.  But overall, when looking at this signing as the player that we hope can replace Mbenga and play some spot minutes on occasion, I think it’s a very good pick up.

So, we’re now at the point where the Lakers roster is nearly (if not already) complete.  After the Lakers ink their two 2nd round draft picks, they’ll have 13 players under contract – which is the same number that the team carried last year.  I will say, though, do not discount a return of Shannon Brown.  With Walton’s back injury looming and the want to reduce some of Kobe’s workload (he did play nearly 3 more minutes a night this past season than in 2009), bringing back the guard that actually backed up #24 isn’t a far fetched idea.  I understand that Sasha or Barnes could fill that role, but those aren’t gurantees especially with Sasha’s tendency to reside in Phil’s doghouse and Barnes’ (aforementioned) turnover issues.  We’ll see how this develops, though.  In the meantime, it’s time to celebrate again Lakers fans as this team just got better…again.  Saying that never gets old either.

May 24, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02171471 Orlando Magic forward Matt Barnes reacts during the second quarter of the Eastern Conference final round playoff game at the TD Bank Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 24 May 2010. The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-0 and the winner will advance to play either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

From Kevin Ding, Orange County Register: The Lakers continue to become a better team this offseason on the sheer basis of experience. Shot-blocking center Theo Ratliff, 37, signed a one-year deal for $1.35 million, the veterans’ minimum salary, on Thursday evening. He gives the Lakers a far more savvy and dependable big man to fill in for Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom than last season, when the Lakers didn’t get much at all from Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: The Laker roster may be officially set, for all intents and purposes. On a busy Thursday, the team added two new bodies to the mix. The bigger name is small forward Matt Barnes, a Cali kid and UCLA product now making $3.6 mil over two seasons. The smaller (though, ironically, taller) player is veteran’s minimum-priced center Theo Ratliff, who first began blocking NBA shots in the late ’70s. (Okay, 1995.) Two veterans who appear pretty stoked at a shot to ride the O’Brien train. Barnes is the flashier signing, between his profile, flirtation with seemingly every team under the sun, and prematurely announced sign-and-trade to the Raptors. Of the two newbies, he is the one figuring to become a rotation mainstay.

From Eliot Teaford, Los Angeles Daily News: Forward/center Theo Ratliff signed a one-season deal with the Lakers today, giving the team a replacement for Josh Powell, who is about to sign with the Atlanta Hawks. The deal is for $1.3 million for the 15-year veteran who played last season with the San Antonio Spurs and the Charlotte Bobcats. The signing of Ratliff gives the Lakers 10 players under contract. It’s possible they could sign forwards Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks, a pair of second-round draft picks, and then add a low-budget guard to fill out the roster.

From Mark Medina, Los Angeles Times: The Lakers took another step toward rounding out their bench, agreeing to terms with 37-year-old center Theo Ratliff on Thursday. Ratliff, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum of $1.35 million, gives the Lakers an experienced defensive presence among their reserves. Next season will be the 16th for Ratliff, who began his career with Detroit in 1995, when Andrew Bynum was 8 years old.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen and Roll: It’s been an active day for Mitch Kupchak and his efforts to shore up the Lakers’ bench. First came news that Theo Ratliff signed a one-year deal to fill the role played by D.J. Mbenga last year. The 37-year-old Ratliff will make the veteran’s minimum of $1.37 million. A couple hours later, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Matt Barnes has agreed to join the Lakers on a two-year, $3.6 million deal. Barnes could’ve made almost twice that amount if he’d signed with the Cavaliers, but the man wanted to play for a contender and was willing to take a discount for that privilege.

From ESPN.com: Veteran swingman Matt Barnes, one of the most coveted free agents left on the open market, is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers. The seven-year veteran announced the move via his Twitter feed on Thursday, and the Lakers confirmed the deal. Yahoo! Sports is reporting that Barnes agreed to a two-year contract worth $3.6 million. “Its official I AM A LOS ANGLES LAKER. I wanna thank u for all ur patients and understanding. This is a dream come true!!! Good lookn Kobe,” Barnes posted on his Twitter feed.

From David Aldridge, NBA.com: The Los Angeles Lakers won the battle for one of the last fussed-over free agents on Thursday, agreeing to terms with Orlando Magic free agent forward Matt Barnes on a two-year, $3.6 million deal. Barnes turned down more money from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had offered a multi-year deal worth more than $3 million annually. The Celtics and Heat also had pursued Barnes, who finally found a team after a proposed sign-and-trade deal with the Toronto Raptors fell apart earlier in the week.

From Elliot Teaford, Los Angeles Daily News: Matt Barnes signed tonight with the Lakers. The deal is for $1.77 million next season and then about $2 milion for 2011-12 at his option. He joins Theo Ratliff, who was signed earlier today, and Steve Blake, who put pen to paper, earlier this month. Those three represent a significant upgrade to the Lakers’ second unit, which got run off the court far too often last season. About all Mitch Kupchak needs to do now is sign second-round draft picks Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks to complete the Lakers’ 13-man roster.

From Ian Thompson, Sports Illustrated: The defending champs should be favored to repeat despite the sea change in Miami. Should Miami and L.A. meet in June, Kobe Bryant — the league’s best postseason player — and two-time champ Pau Gasol can expect to win their postseason matchups against Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, respectively, and Ron Artest can neutralize some of LeBron James’ strengths. That leaves center Andrew Bynum (if healthy, a yet unrealized if) to make the same kind of difference he made in the early games of the Finals against Boston, when he joined with Gasol to become a maniacal shot-blocker and efficient scorer.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: By one measure at least, he’s the country’s most popular. A new Harris Interactive shows Kobe Bryant has caught Tiger Woods as America’s most popular athlete. Granted, Woods’ recent history brought him back to the field in a big way, but it doesn’t change the basic reality: The “love me or hate me” thing with Bryant is dead, and has been for a while now. Love won.