Don’t break your computer monitor or gouge your eyes out just yet and hear me out.
Back in the 2007-08 season, the Celtics were a newly constructed team that was supposed to compete for the championship. They had a franchise stalwart (Pierce), two young players who were homegrown in their system (Rondo and Perkins), and had executed two trades to acquire two elite veterans that would solidify their line up with leadership and high-level play (Garnett and Allen). As Lakers fans know all too well, this group ended up doing exactly what they were formed to do by winning the title that season in a six-game playoff series. Their “big three plus one” model got them the championship they sought. They came together quickly, experienced some rocky moments along the way, but finished strong.
Fast forward to today.
Since the trade deadline, the Lakers have been a team remade. The addition of Ramon Sessions has given the Lakers a dimension they sorely lacked – a playmaking point guard whose multifaceted game can fill in the gaps on offense. He can score, he can assist, and – most importantly – he can control the flow of the game as a true floor general. The Lakers no longer have to rely solely on the abilities of Kobe Bryant as a wing operator to dictate how the offense plays out. Sessions can now operate with the ball in his hands during any part of the shot clock and ensure that a quality look at the basket is created.
He pushes the pace when need be and slows it down when nothing is there. He organizes the offense and picks apart defenses by finding teammates in positions where they can succeed. He can make his opponent pay by getting baskets of his own and does a lot of his damage in the paint when the D pays too much attention to his more celebrated teammates.
Teammates like Kobe, Pau, and Bynum. Guys that have been all-stars and all-NBA many times over. Guys that franchises are built around. Guys that still put up elite numbers and are two-way threats. Together, these players now have their own “big three plus one.” The question is, how far can they take it?
The answer will be entirely dependent on two factors: how they can mesh together and how seriously they play defense.
Wednesday’s game against the Spurs offers hints at the latter. San Antonio possesses the 2nd most efficient offense in the league, but the Lakers held them to 15 points fewer than their normal output (per 100 possessions). In other words, last night the Lakers defense made the Spurs offense look like the Bobcats’. Andrew Bynum controlled the paint by contesting shots and grabbing nearly every available rebound. Ron Artest played physical and opportunistic defense on the wing. Pau offered a second 7-footer to contest shots and rebound, while Barnes, Blake, and Sessions did above average jobs on the Spurs’ wing threats. The Lakers played hard, smart defense. They dug a hole and proceeded to bury the Spurs in it.
How this team meshes is another matter. Being cobbled together in the manner that they have been reminds me more of the 2008 Lakers than the C’s. While it’s difficult to equate Sessions’ impact to Gasol’s, the Lakers have added – at a relatively late part of the season – a key piece at a position of need that has elevated their play on offense. With that addition, roles are shifting and players are being asked to fit together and perform in ways that they aren’t yet fully comfortable.
But the chemistry is budding. Connections are being made. It’s seen when a mistake occurs and players exchange ideas and knowingly nod in agreement about what should have happened. It’s seen when adjustments are mapped out in the huddle, then executed on the fly on the next possession. It’s seen when players vouch for each other after games in interviews with the media or, on the flip side, provide critique of a performance that will need to be adjusted moving forward. This team is growing together.
The pieces, positions, and personalities may not be the same. The Venn diagram of skill sets and approach may not show as much overlap as it could. But when I look at the 2012 Lakers, I see a bit of the 2008 Celtics and while it makes me a bit nauseous, it’s also a bit exciting. That Celtic team showed that by playing together they could simultaneously harness their individual talent and maximize team success. They showed that by playing for each other on both sides of the floor they could get the stops they needed, while scoring the baskets that were required to win. They traveled a rocky path to the Finals, but once there showed they had the extra gear that every champion needs.
This Lakers team has those same ingredients. Can they find the chemistry? Can they play the defense? Can they overcome their weaknesses, maximize their strengths, and play for each other? Only time will tell, but with the talent, experience, and burgeoning abilities of key players I wouldn’t count them out yet.