Lakers: Emerging Contender

J.M. Poulard —  April 19, 2012

Coming into this season, many openly wondered if the Los Angeles Lakers would even manage to qualify for the seventh spot in the Western Conference. The argument was that given their lack of athleticism, the loss of Lamar Odom as well as the departure of Phil Jackson that the team would take a huge step back.

What had been a cohesive unit for three straight Finals appearances, would suddenly forget how to play together without the triangle offense as their foundation. In addition, judging from his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers where he essentially allowed LeBron James to monopolize the offense, Mike Brown was far from an offensive genius.

With that said, his defenses always looked above average, and there was no reason to expect any different in Los Angeles, especially with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol there to anchor the paint. Mind you, the defense would take time to bring up to speed given the condensed schedule.

And if that wasn’t enough, if Mike Brown was powerless in front of LeBron, there was no way he would be able to hold Kobe Bryant accountable.

Those were some of the concerns coming into the season for Lakers fans; and detractors took it a step further and stated that the team would fall off a cliff given these “facts”.

These issues were obviously warranted but they were a little overblown. Let’s be honest here, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum helped the Lakers win three Western Conference crowns and two NBA titles. These guys weren’t scrubs.

And yet, the popular opinion was that the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers could not compete for a title.

Oh and this just in: the Los Angeles Lakers lead the Pacific division and own the third best record in the conference.

They defeated the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks without their superstar guard and in the process saw Andrew Bynum not only dominate for stretches, but play the part of a franchise player.

Indeed, the big man has used the additional touches to put up more points and has also displayed great effort and energy on the boards.

The end result?

The Lakers are a far more dangerous team these days with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines. It’s not so much that the team is better off without him, but rather that Bean has had the chance to watch the big man tag team work together and see just how productive and effective they can be when given a more than adequate amount of touches; especially Bynum.

This may come as a shocker, but this installment of the Lakers may be a remix of the 2001 squad.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant spent the bulk of the 2000-01 season wrestling over control of the team and then Kobe went down with an injury towards the end of the regular season and had a chance to watch the team gel and display good team chemistry. By the time he finally reinserted the lineup, he played perfectly in concert with Shaq and the rest of his teammates, picking his spots and understanding when to assert himself offensively.

The circumstances and the roster may be different, but the situation is relatively similar. Bryant has spent the season leading the league in scoring, usage rate — the percentage of possessions of the team that a player uses — and field goal attempts despite having two stud big men as teammates.

Granted, it’s nearly impossible to predict whether the Lakers all time leading scorer will curtail his game even a little to feed the interior more; but given what he has seen from his teammates as of late, he may in fact choose to go that route and ride them as much as possible and then assert himself when the offense demands for him to breath some life into it.

The book on Bryant is that he has always wanted to win on his own terms, but chasing that sixth championship might just prove to be enough motivation to take a step back and then only take a few steps forward when the situation calls for it.

Fans of opposing teams have been terrified of Kobe and his scoring explosions, but the scariest thing for them is the Bean that can go back and forth between playmaker and cold-blooded assassin.

One can only wait with great anticipation for the guard to return to the team and to see how he incorporates himself back into the fold. The same Bryant may help the team get to the second round or possibly the conference finals, but a slightly different Kobe may help the Lakers win the whole thing.

The emergence of Bynum this season has made the Lakers a serious contender, but let’s not forget that it all starts and ends with the purple and gold’s leading scorer.

To KoBe or not to KoBe, that is the question at hand…

J.M. Poulard