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World Championships Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  September 6, 2010

Brazil's Tyson Chandler (R) drives past USA's Lamar Odom in the first quarter during their FIBA Basketball World Championship game in Istanbul, August 30, 2010. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

The FIBA World Championships may have started over a week ago, but really the tournament is just beginning.  The group stage is now over and the teams have started the NCAA style win or go home portion of the championships.  We’re now at the point where any slip up will mean an early return flight.  And for Team USA, it’s time to really prove if they have what it takes to compete at the highest level even though many have labeled them underdogs and the “B” team.  A few thoughts on the road ahead for this particular group.

*Today’s match up versus Angola really shouldn’t be a test at all.  With memories of the original 1992 Dream Team floating in my head, I recall what Charles Barkley said when that juggernaut faced the west African nation – “I don’t know anything about Angola, but I know they’re in trouble”.  In the past 18 years, not much will have changed.  The US will field an infinitely more talented team with advantages all over the court.  The US will surely use their pressure defense to create turnovers and generate open court offense.  We’ll likely see plenty of dunks from Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durnat, and every other Team USA player (save Billups and Curry as I’m not sure they can dunk).  I expect a 25+ point win and that will be that.

*But beating an overmatched Angola team isn’t really what this tournament is about.  Despite the US coming in as an underdog to Spain, it’s about winning the entire thing.  And in order to accomplish that, Team USA will have a tricky road to navigate.  While the match ups aren’t set in stone, the U.S. will likely face Russia in the next round and if they advance into the semi-finals a rematch with Brazil or a date with long time foe Argentina awaits (neither of which would be a cake walk).  In the Finals either Spain or host nation Turkey will be waiting for whoever comes of out the bracket the U.S. hopes to control.  Basically, if Team USA wins this tournament, they will have earned it against some very strong competition.

*Speaking of strong competition, the team that looks the best right now is probably Turkey.  Kurt explains over at Pro Basketball Talk:

The USA may prefer Spain right now. For two reasons.

One is Turkey has proven to have the best front line in the tournament. They start Omer Asik (coming to the Chicago Bulls), Ersan Ilyasova (Milwaukee Bucks) and Hedo Turkoglu (Phoenix Suns). Then they bring in soon-to-be Celtic Semih Erden.

Turkoglu had not impressed through the group stage of the tournament but broke out in a big way against France scoring a game high 20 and hitting 4 of 7 from deep. Basically 2009 in Orlando Turkoglu showed up. If he does that will be hard for everyone else to stop. Meanwhile Ilyasova has averaged 15 points and 8.2 rebounds a game through the tournament and is hitting 56 percent of his threes.

Basically the undersized USA would have to take on a long, skilled front line — Turkey’s strength is the USA’s weakness.

I know depending on a consistent Turkoglu isn’t exactly money in the bank, but Turkey is the host nation and will have all the fan support they’ll need to put on a major run to win this thing.  And with every other major contender missing some of their best players (besides a watered down U.S. team, Nene, Pau, Ginobili, and several other NBA players are missing from their respective teams), Turkey may just put it all together.

*In one of these games Lamar Odom is going to need to put on one of his classic performances to put the U.S. team over the top.  It won’t be needed against Angola and probably not even Russia.  But it would be nice if LO gave one of his vintage “wow, this guy really is good” performances against either Brazil or Argentina or in the Finals (should Team USA advance that far).  This tournament has been mixed bag for Odom as he’s shown flashes of his all court game but never quite put together a complete performance.  Lakers fans know better than most that he’s got it in him to do something special.  Will he show the rest of the world?  I think we’re all hoping to see it.

*Lastly, I’ve not seen as much of these championships as I would have hoped.  I DVR the games and watch the U.S. team, but I have not gotten to see as much of the other countries as I’d like.  However, as with the regular season there are some great writers and sites doing some fantastic work covering the tournament.  Go check out what The Painted Area is doing on a daily basis.  Visit NBA Playbook for break downs on plays, offensive and defensive sets, and individual players.  Follow the updates from John Schuhmann on his twitter page with everything that he’s writing about this tourney.  Really, you can’t go wrong following these folks.

USA's Derrick Rose shoots during his team's FIBA Basketball World Championship game against Croatia in Istanbul August 28, 2010.   REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (TURKEY - Tags: SPORT SPORT BASKETBALL)

After Team USA’s recent win over Brazil, it was hard to remain optimistic about their chances to bring home the gold. The Brazilians were able to expose Team USA during long stretches on both sides of the basketball before dropping a game for the first time in these FIBA World Championships.

Both teams got out to hot starts with Team USA scoring 18 points on 12 possessions in the first 6:40 and Brazil scoring 17 points on 13 possessions in the same time. We expected the US National team to be this efficient on the offensive end with their athleticism, but they’ve been winning their games because of their defensive prowess, and haven’t allowed opposing offenses to be as efficient as the Brazilians were on the whole first quarter and the better part of the second half. The Brazilians – namely Marcelo Huertas – lived in the paint in the first half. Brazil’s first five field goal attempts, all good, were in the paint. Their sixth field goal attempt was a wide-open three pointer after a penetration and kick out. Their next six field goal attempts after the three-pointer were in the paint. Of Brazil’s first 12 field goal attempts, 11 were in the paint, and one made three-pointer because the point guard got in the paint. To end the first quarter, Brazil hit three straight three pointers and Tiago Splitter was found for a wide-open dunk.

Brazil was able to pick Team USA apart for most of the first half, scoring 46 points on 43 possessions, giving them an offensive efficiency rating of 106.97 for the half. Brazil ran a plethora of screen and roll sets and back screens off of the ball, allowing Huertas to run amok the American defense, living in the paint and finishing with six points and five assists in the first half. Huertas’ propensity to get into the paint at will didn’t just propel their offense, but it helped slow down Team USA’s offense. The Brazilians certainly didn’t score on every possession, but a lot of their misses came in the paint, reducing the amount of long rebounds that get Team USA in their coveted transition game. When Brazil did take shots behind the arch, they hit them at a 63 percent clip. Team USA had to play a large portion of the game in the half court.

While Team USA did have some very good stretches of offensive basketball (a 150 Ortg for the starters in the first quarter), they struggled mightily in the second half. Team USA was able to stymie the Brazilian offense by trapping hard on their high screen and roll sets, but weren’t really able to put a good offensive stretch in the second half. Of their 42 second half possessions, 11 ended in turnovers and nine more ended in missed shots around the rim, 20 wasted possessions. Team USA had ball movement problems, recording only eight assists for the game (compared to 15 for Brazil). Kevin Durant was able to score effectively, but the rest of the team struggled for most of the second half – especially the second unit. With at least two reserves on the floor, Team USA had an offensive efficiency rating of 76.92 compared to an offensive efficiency rating of 100 when at least four starters were on the floor (these number aren’t counting an absolutely awful fourth quarter for both teams, which forced me to tweet, “4th Q numbers: 18 pts, 9TOs, 9 missed layups/tips, 10 missed 3s and 10 minutes of Lamar Odom looking lost” – and yes, those were the numbers for both teams combined).

What the Brazil game taught us is that Team USA can be beat by their opponent repeatedly getting into the lane, limiting their time in transition, and shooting a high clip from behind the arch. Brazil played Team USA perfectly in the first half, and went into the break with a 46-43 lead. And as bad as they played in the second half, they were able to turn Team USA over enough to finish the game only one possession away from a victory. The US National team is going to have to move the ball much better than they did against Brazil. There were too many possessions where shots were taken off of one or fewer passes. Also, Team USA’s second unit leaves much to be desired. Russell Westbrook has had shaky confidence entering games, and has had to gain that confidence as the game progressed. Turnover problems start with the point guard, and if Westbrook can’t hold onto the ball, it’s going to continue to be rough for Team USA to keep their play consistent for 40 minutes – which they’re going to need to do when the Worlds begin the elimination rounds. Team USA has today off, but plays again Wednesday against Iran.

Odom the Olympian

Jeff Skibiski —  August 25, 2010

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USA Basketball finalized its 12-man roster for the 2010 FIBA World Championships yesterday afternoon and as expected, the Lakers’ Lamar Odom was selected as one of its representatives. Odom will be joined by Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Rudy Gay, Chauncey Billups, Danny Granger, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler and Andre Iguodala. The 12 players who will compete this summer will join a narrowing pool of players with which USA Basketball will choose from when filling out its 2012 Olympic roster.

“We play professional basketball for a living,” said Odom, summing up his decision to play for Team USA this summer in a great feature from ESPN LA. “We come out and we represent our country with pride. This is something we do just for pride. We playing for the names on the front of our jerseys.”

Odom’s willingness to slap on the Team USA jersey, after three consecutive grueling trips to the NBA Finals, offers a great deal of insight into his character and motivation as a basketball player. To some, the chance to play for your country on one of the world’s largest stages is a no-brainer, yet several of the league’s top players chose to remain on the sidelines for this summer’s World Championships. Some had legitimate injury reasons (Kobe), while a lack of commitment by others was more confounding (Dwight Howard). The Lakers forward could have looked at this offseason as a time to rest up for the Lakers’ historic three-peat bid, saving himself from potential burnout or injury. Instead, Lamar jumped onboard without the slightest hint of hesitation, eager to to take the first step toward redeeming Team USA’s loss in the 2004 Olympics—a team on which his solid play received almost universal acclaim. Odom has been criticized in the past for his wavering motivation, but his dedication to Team USA has never been questioned.

As previously noted by Darius in last week’s Mailbag, Lamar’s selection has potential implications for both the forward and the Lakers this season, as well as for the 11-year veteran’s legacy. On a U.S. team seriously lacking in the size department, Odom was used as the team’s starting center against Spain earlier this week. Though that’s not a role he’ll be asked to fill in L.A. (barring catastrophic injuries to the Lakers’ entire front line), the experience should prepare Odom well for when the forum blue and gold will need him to join Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the court for Coach Jackson’s seldom-used “bigs” lineup.

That works both ways too, as Team USA’s reliance on Lamar to provide desperately needed muscle inside could open the door for Phil to use him in a dramatically smaller lineup against run-and-gun teams like the Suns and maybe more urgently, the Thunder. Neither of these possible roles are anything new for the Lakers’ versatile assassin or the Lakers, but the opportunity to observe Odom in a different context as part of Team USA is nevertheless an interesting one.

More than anything, I think that Odom will benefit the most from his more symbolic role with this year’s Team USA squad. As the de facto veteran sage, Lamar will be entrusted to do something he’s struggled with at times during his L.A. tenure—lead. Though Team USA has up-and-coming stars like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose to take on the scoring burden during crunch time, it is the Lakers forward who has been through it all before as a starter on the 2004 Olympic squad. As such, he’ll be relied upon to help the set tone for Team USA in a tournament where most experts are actually picking them to place second or worse. The early returns have been mostly good for Team USA too, as Lamar produced a 12-point, 9-rebound performance against Spain earlier this week. He followed it up with a less than stellar game today in 18 minutes of playing time (zero points on one field goal), but his team still managed to blowout Greece, 87-59.

Overall, the experience should prove invaluable for Odom as he’ll not only be asked to serve as a locker room presence, but also as a consistent leader on the court too. While Lamar willingly accepted a new role as sixth man prior to the 2008-09 season, he hasn’t always shown himself as a reliable force off the bench, night in and night out. Against increased competition from teams like Spain and Greece, he’ll have to be consistent if Team USA hopes to prevail. As is the case with the Lakers, Odom is indisputably a key X-factor for Team USA, even in this differing role. With a replenished bench that now includes newcomers Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, the Lakers will similarly need Lamar to serve as a steadying force. Whether or not the forward can pull from this newfound leadership mentality and apply it toward next season is certainly one of the Lakers’ more intriguing plot lines heading into the 2010-11 season.

“We want him because of his versatility,” said Jerry Colangelo, about why he coveted Lamar’s presence. “He can be effective playing five minutes or playing 25 minutes. It’s not about 12 superstar players. It’s about finding the right components to make up a team. He fits the bill. He was valuable to us. We didn’t just pick him because how he plays, but because of who he is.”

After 11 NBA seasons, Lamar has still never been selected as an NBA All-Star, but now owns two NBA rings that I’m guessing hold a lot more weight for the Queens native. Next up: Olympic Gold Medal.

“I would love to go back and be able to redeem myself and win a gold medal, but more, I would love to go back just to play for USA again,” said Odom.

Looking ahead to what promises to be a challenging World Championship tournament, it is clear that Lamar’s priorities as a basketball player have shifted. While there is no guarantee that he’ll be an Olympian when the team carves out its 2012 Olympic roster, Lamar’s selflessness and commitment to Team USA’s endeavors prove that he’s worthy of the title either way.

Forward Thinking

Darius Soriano —  August 20, 2010

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In recent weeks, the topic of the “positional revolution” has become a hot topic amongst basketball thinkers.  It started with a thought provoking post by Drew Cannon at Basketball Prospectus and has been expanded upon by more thought provoking entriesby Rob Mahoney at The Two Man game.  The concept is a simple one (at least my cliff notes version is): as basketball players become more skilled and are able to perform multiple (and varied) tasks on the basketball court, the confines of traditional positional labeling is becoming too constraining.  And as players evolve, so does the game they play and thus conventional thinking about players’ position(s) can then become obsolete.  A perfect example of this is Dirk Nowitzki as he’s a sharp shooting, ball handling big man that is called a Power Forward but really performs (offensive) tasks on the court that are quite similar to what we traditionally see from Shooting Guards or Small Forwards.  The Mavs run the offense through Dirk at the high post and use him as a ball handler in P&R situations.  However, on defense he falls into a more traditional role as he defends big men and rebounds at a very good rate.  Obviously, Dirk is an extreme example, but he’s not alone in his diversity as a player and his break from traditional roles typically assigned to a player that is labeled a specific position.

And this brings me to our Lakers as others have chimed in on the evolution of the game that we all love – including Kobe Bryant.  During a media session at the World Basketball Festival at Rucker Park in New York, Kobe spoke about the evolution of the game and the influence of international players on the NBA.  An excerpt from an Austin Burton’s entry at Dime Magazine:

Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceivably play any position on the floor.

“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.

This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near.  The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hybrids begin to take over the game.

Over at FanHouse, Matt Moore has been following the conversation started by Cannon and expanded by Mahoney and also picked up on what Kobe was saying, adding this:

It’s not surprising that Bryant would lean towards this kind of approach. After all, he himself is not only willing, but voracious in approaching any position on the floor. You could tell Kobe “go guard Nene with one arm” and he’d make a go of it (and Nene would likely walk away wincing a bit, even if he won the war). But the meaning is very relevant. This is one of the greatest basketball players and minds on the planet saying that essentially, the goal should be not only for us to get away from traditional positions, but eventually to homogenize personnel to be able to play within any construct we have. It’s a bold idea, since all of our previous constructs are devoutly built on the idea that a player is defined by what he can and can’t do. Removing limitations from the equations leads us to a new kind of basketball nirvana, where Andrea Bargnaniis not a problem because he’s not a 5, and Tyreke Evans is simply regarded as being of the “awesome position.”

And over at TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz is also exploring Kobe’s comments and adds that one reason Kobe (and other members of the Lakers) may be more open to this line of thinking and flashing multi-faceted skills is because of the system that they run:

There’s a reason the Lakers have “a lot of versatile talent that evades convention.” It’s because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher — the nominal point guard — acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.

Kevin takes the words right out of my mouth (though he said them much better, of course).  When you look at the Lakers’ roster, there are several players that defy classic models of “positions” in basketball.  Whether we’re talking about Kobe or Fisher, Odom or Gasol, the Lakers have a roster of players that are expected to perform roles within a system that don’t always cleanly match up with the roles of their labeled position.  As Arnovitz points out, Fisher is not a “point guard” in the classic sense as he’s not necessarily a primary ball handler or initiator of offense (though he does perform these roles).  For a more extreme example, look at Lamar Odom.  When LO is in the game, he’s often used as a facilitator of offense and a primary ball handler – all as a “power forward”.  And while he does find himself in the post on occasion, he’s used much more frequently as a creator of offense in isolation sets from the top of the key or as a slasher off the ball that slides into open space when others (Kobe, Pau) draw the opponents defensive attention.  None of these acts are ones that are usually assigned to a team’s power foward.

Even on defense, the Lakers don’t often stick to traditional roles.  For example, as the WCF against the Phoenix Suns progressed, the Lakers started to switch the Amare/Nash P&R where Gasol (or Odom or Bynum) then got matched up on Nash for long stretches of Phoenix’s offensive possessions.  The Lakers’ big men then became defenders of one of the best PG’s in the game and were expected to keep him out of the paint and contest his shots in space.  Meanwhile, Nash’s original defender either rotated to the diving big man or switched to another player on the wing as the Lakers’ rotations took hold and every player was expected to show enough versatility to potentially guard any player on the court.  Other examples of the Lakers defying positional labels on defense are Kobe being switched onto PG’s like Rondo and Westbrook while Fisher guarded SG’s like Ray Allen and Thabo Sefalosha.  Even during the regular season when Kobe sat out injured against the Blazers, rather than starting Shannon Brown (as would typically occur), Phil Jackson decided to start Lamar Odom (with Fisher, Artest, Bynum, and Gasol) so that LO could match up with Andre Miller (a PG that excels at posting up).

There are countless other examples of the Lakers’ philosophies on offense and defense promoting the concept of a position-less team – Kobe as a primary post up player, Gasol as a wing player making entry passes, Ron Artest guarding PG’s, etc – but the overall point is that this is a concept that bears watching in the coming years.  Players are becoming more diverse and we may indeed see that players are filling “roles” on teams (creator, rebounder, etc) rather than being expected to perform the duties typically associated with a specific position on the floor.  And if this does indeed occur, I do believe the Lakers – at least as currently constructed – will be a team that will excel in this type of classification of players as they’re already implementing these concepts into their everyday style.

More Mailbag!

Darius Soriano —  August 17, 2010

Lamar Odom tries to shoot around a reporter's microphone while being interviewed at a U.S. national basketball team practice in Las Vegas, Nevada July 21, 2010. REUTERS/Laura Rauch (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

It’s time for another installment of the FB&G mailbag.  If you’d like to submit a question, click here and fire away.  Thanks again to everyone that has sent in questions.  Here we go…

When Phil Jackson retires, does that mean the end of the Lakers’ championship window? After all, the all-powerful team has been struck down a notch and the HEAT has garnered a year of experience for themselves. As a Laker fan, it is the season after this that has me most worried.

-Anonymous

I think losing Phil Jackson will be a blow to the Lakers.  However, I would not say that the Lakers championship window would “close” based solely off the fact that Phil would no longer be the coach.  Because, while extremely important, there are many other factors that go into winning a championship besides coaching.

At the top of that list is talent and, even without Phil as the head man, the Lakers will still have one of the best rosters in the league when Phil departs.  Just when looking at the Lakers top 5 players – Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Odom, and Artest – you have the makings of a championship roster, even if we’re talking 3 years from now.  And this only references talent that is in house and on the court.  When you look at Mitch Kupchak’s recent ability to build a championship team by drafting well and winning trades, it’s easy to forecast the Lakers continuing to build a strong roster even as the team ages – especially when considering the market advantages the Lakers possess by being based in Los Angeles and the brand advantage they have of being one of the most storied organizations in all of sports.

And while I agree that there are fast rising teams around the league (Miami, OKC) and traditional powers from the past few seasons (Orlando, Boston, Spurs) it’s still unknown how those teams will develop and grow over the next few years.  Will the new collective bargaining agreement be an impediment to building upon their already impressive rosters?  Will the Heat and Thunder respond to heightened expectations and beat back the pressure in a manner that leads to them dominating the league?  I don’t pretend to know the answers to the these questions nor do I want to cast doubt on either of these teams.  But in the end, I believe the Lakers will be right there battling for the title for seasons to come.  And as a fan, that’s really all I can ask for.

Do you think that with the recent additions of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake that the Lakers get into the top 10 in 3 point shooting?  I know these past few years the Lakers have not been a great perimeter shooting team (for example, when facing the zone defense vs. Phoenix in WCF).

-Daniel

Considering the Lakers tied for 23rd in the NBA in 3 point FG% last season, if next year’s Lakers were to jump into the top 10 would seem like a miracle.  However, it’s actually not that far fetched.  Consider the following:  last season the Lakers shot 34.1% from behind the arc, making 532 of their 1,562 attempts.  As I mentioned, that ranked them 23rd in the NBA in 3 pt. FG% (tied with Minnesota).   Denver was the 10th ranked team in the NBA, shooting 35.9% on their long ball attempts.  Using this past year as a template, the Lakers would have only needed to hit 33 more three pointers on the same number of attempts to raise their percentage to 36.2% – a percentage which would have ranked them 9th in the NBA right above the Hawks.

Now also consider that this past season both Kobe and Derek Fisher shot below their career averages by shooting 32.9% and 34.8% respectively (compared to 34% and 37.3%) and were well below their averages from the season before (35.1% and 39.7% respectively).  So, if Kobe and Fisher revert anywhere close to their career averages, the Lakers should be a better three point shooting team next season overall considering that combined, Kobe and Fish took about one-third of the Lakers attempts from deep.  Then, when you replace Farmar with Steve Blake and consider the possibility that Ron Artest will be more consistent from three point land next season and you have the ingredients for a major jump in three point shooting accuracy.

This isn’t to say that I’d call this particular Lakers’ team a great shooting team.  Nor am I guaranteeing that all the things I mentioned earlier are sure to happen or are even likely (I could see Kobe struggling from deep again and/or Fisher continuing his regression as a shooter), but the potential for a big jump in three point accuracy is there for this team.  And in the end, I do believe that the Lakers will shoot better to the point that if they aren’t in the top 10, they’ll be right on the cusp.

I understand that Shannon and Sasha have different weaknesses and strengths.  But why did Sasha fall out of favor with Phil and the coaching staff and not get any burn last year while Shannon got a lot despite a regression in his game?  Is it a personality issue?  Is it because Sasha got almost the entire 09 regular season to show what he had and Phil finally lost patience? 

If that was the case, was last year’s regular season the same principle applied to Shannon?  He had a great 09 playoff run so coaches gave him the entire 10 season to work through his game like they did with Sasha in 09. 

Will Shannon be on a tighter rope this year and the coaches looking at him and Sasha equally?  Or does Sasha’s personality bother the staff so much that he’ll be glued to the bench unless there’s a huge separation between him and Shannon.

-Jason/Chownoir

Not being in the locker room or in the practices, I can’t speak to any potential personality issues that exist between Sasha and the coaches.  And while Sasha did have that spat with Brian Shaw that earned him an extended stay in Phil’s doghouse, Sasha’s minutes were sporadic at best to that point in the season.  So, I believe that Sasha’s shorter leash has been based off his experience in the league and specifically his tenure on the Lakers and in the Triangle offense.  Essentially, Sasha should been better tuned into how the coaches wanted him to play and acted accordingly.  The fact that he still made the same mistakes that he’s been making for several seasons all while not bringing the consistency as a shooter that earned him time in 2008 led to a diminished role and a lower tolerance of his mistakes.

Meanwhile, this past year was Shannon’s first full year with the team.  To be fair, he was still learning his role and was still feeling out the Lakers’ sets.  And while Shannon made plenty of mistakes too, those could easily be explained away by his relative inexperience in the Triangle at a time when the Lakers coaches were (seemingly) imploring him to explore more facets of his game.  Personally, I was frustrated at times with Shannon’s decision making, but along the same lines, players do not improve if you don’t give them room to fail and then learn from those mistakes.

All that said, I do believe this season will be the litmus test for Shannon and that there will be greater expectations on him to perform well and do so within the confines of his role.  I think the coaches will be less patient with him and that he may too find himself glued to the pine if he doesn’t “play the right way” by making the correct reads and moving the ball in the manner that every player is expected to do.  Remember too that Shannon saw his minutes greatly reduced in the Finals when he made several defensive mistakes against Ray Allen while struggling on offense himself.  Phil then turned to Sasha as a defensive presence against Allen and the Machine performed well in his limited minutes.  So next season, even though Shannon just got re-signed and Sasha is reportedly on the trading block, I believe this competition may be more open than a first glance suggests.  I think that Shannon definitely has the upper hand as he’s the more athletic player, seemingly takes coaching better, and has more upside as a contributor on both ends of the floor.  But, that doesn’t mean that Sasha can’t/won’t have a role if he’s on the roster and next season may prove to be the year that the Machine makes his way back into the rotation.

For the last 3 years the top of the West has been in a constant state of flux. We’ve faced 3 different teams in the WCF, and the first 2 (San Antonio and Denver) have both failed to win a playoff series the following year. That trend looks likely to continue with Phoenix losing Amar’e.  With all that said, who do you see emerging as the main threat to the Lakers’ conference supremacy in 2010/11? I think Portland and Houston will be very dangerous IF their big men are healthy. What’s your take?

-Joel

I think the easy choice in who will truly challenge the Lakers are the Thunder.  The argument is easily made that, besides the Celtics, OKC gave the Lakers the stiffest challenge of any competitor and that with the experience they’ve gained and the continued growth of Durant and Westbrook that they’ll make a major leap next season and be a team that makes the conference finals.

However, the team that I’m probably most high on is the Houston Rockets.  In a recent post at TrueHoop, I mentioned why I believe Houston has a chance to step up and challenge for the #2 spot behind the Lakers and I’m not wavering in that belief.  Yes, a lot will depend on the health of Yao and Kevin Martin.  And as I mention in TH piece, I’m skeptical about the individual defense of Aaron Brooks, Scola, and Brad Miller.  However, when it’s all said and done I think their combination of top notch talent (I truly respect Yao Ming and think he has a tremendous impact on both ends of the floor), role players, and coaching will take them a long way this season.  Plus, I really like the acquisition of Courtney Lee in the Ariza trade.  While I love Trevor and think he’s getting a bit of a raw deal in the analysis of how he played last year, I think Lee is a great combo guard that will bring some of the guard skills that Ariza lacked.  I also think he’s a versatile enough defender that he can play some PG against the CP3/Deron/Paker/Nash/Westbrook’s of the world that Houston doesn’t always need to close the game with Brooks or Lowry while also being able to play next to either of those guys if the line ups dictate it.  Mind you, I don’t think Lee is some sort of star, but he’s another very good role player that will compliment the games of Martin and Yao very well.

(With Lamar Odom joining Team USA for the World Championships this Summer) Do you think the wear and tear will affect Odom come the season? Will he get the training camp jitters out now or will he be bringing in a new sense of discipline this year?

-Travis

There’s always the concern that playing for Team USA will wear Odom down.  He’s not the most durable player to begin with (though he’s been much better in recent seasons) and there’s surely a chance that he could end up suffering during the season from tired legs or just feel the affects of playing summer ball at the World Championships.

All that said, I think this is a great thing for Odom and will serve him well in preparing for the upcoming season.  Based off his tenure in the league, Odom will be a leader on this team and that will require a focus and discipline that should help him when the Lakers pursue their third straight championship.  I also think playing some Center in the international game is a good prep for his role on the Lakers as it will require that LO rebound and defend the paint while also moving well off the ball when teamed with explosive guards and wings.  Plus, just as with the Lakers, Odom will come off the bench for Team USA so there will not be a big change in his current role in LA.  Really, outside of the injury/fatigue risk, this should really help Odom in getting ready for the upcoming season and I’m really happy that he’s getting the opportunity to play.  I’m a firm believer that nothing get’s you ready for a season quite like playing with other excellent players and Odom will get that chance with this group.  And while the most talented guys won’t be on this particular U.S. team, this should still be a beneficial experience for LO and one that helps the Lakers.