If the playoffs were to start today, the Lakers would face Portland in the first round. And if the first round held its form with the higher seeds winning the series and advancing to the next round, the Lakers would then face Dallas. If we extrapolate this same line of thinking to the Conference Finals, the Lakers would face Denver and then in the Finals the Lakers would face the Cavs. It just so happens that three of those four teams pulled off trades in the past week that were aimed at strenghthening their roster for the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs. So, at this point, I think it’s wise to look at the trades that those three teams made and how they affect their roster (and a matchup with the Lakers). We’ll start in the first round and then move forward.
Portland: Portland traded Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw for Marcus Camby. This was a natural move for the Blazers as it relieved them of players that were crowding their rotations at both PG and SF (Blake at PG and Outlaw at SF) and opened up time for players that they are quite high on in Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster, and Nic Batum. When you combine that with the injury status of Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla and the chance to acquire Marcus Camby, this deal becomes a no brainer. Camby is still a very effective player that rebounds well, plays very good team defense, and is a capable offensive player that does not force shots nor need the ball very often to be effective on that end of the floor.
In a match up with the Lakers, an addition of Camby means that the Blazers have more than Juwan Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge to throw at a front line of Odom/Pau/Bynum. As you can imagine, slowing down the Lakers frontline is key to any series with the defending champs. Yes, Kobe is the engine of this team; he is the unquestioned leader and the player that every teams defensive schemes revolve around. But, as the Lakers showed against Utah, San Antonio, and Orlando, if you can not contain the Lakers frontline you do not have a chance at victory. Only Denver came close to taking the Lakers bigs out of their game(s), but even they eventually succumb to them as Kobe’ brilliance caused double teams that the Lakers’ bigs exploited again and again with cuts to the middle of the floor where they either got easy buckets or moved the ball to an open shooter on the weakside. If Portland is going to slow the Lakers big and turn Kobe into a volume scorer with little help from his mates, Camby’s presence is definitely needed as the Blazers stable of big men would not be nearly enough to battle LO, Pau, and ‘Drew over a seven game series.
My prognosis? I don’t think Camby gives them enough over the course of a series. Though he is a very good defensive center whose rebounding skills would limit the Lakers second chance points, I still think he lacks the girth to battle Bynum underneath and would not have the endurance to go from ‘Drew to Pau as the Lakers work their substitutions over the course of a game and a series. Plus, Camby does not have the offensive game to put the Lakers bigs in foul trouble and though his 18 foot jumper and high post passing are very strong, bigs that primarily rely on jumpshots rarely help lead playoff upsets against teams with strong post play. This is not to say that the Blazers don’t have other weapons to take down the Lakers – we all know that Portland is, historically, a very tough match up for the Lakers. Miller, Aldridge, and especially Roy all cause different issues on offense and both Webster and Batum can give Kobe problems on defense. But, in the end, I don’t think this trade has improved the Blazers enough to truly contend in the post season and win a series against the Lakers.
Dallas: You can find my thoughts on the Dallas trade here. As for how they match up with the Lakers, I think this trade helps them a great deal. Haywood is a really strong defensive center and I do think he could limit Andrew in a one on one matchup. Completely stop him? No, but he could make his life difficult on that end while also providing good help defense on any dribble penetration or post ups from our other players. I also think Butler is a player that must be respected by Artest and that even though Ron could contain Caron, I also think that Butler is a good enough player to make Artest work hard and burn energy over the course of a game and a series. You add in Dirk (who is fantastic), Kidd, and notorious Laker killer Jason Terry, and I think you have a team that matches up with the Lakers quite well up front.
That said, they don’t have anyone that can really slow Kobe. And an effective Kobe compromises everything you want to do on defense as he finds ways to beat you by scoring and then (as shown against Denver last season) he shifts his game to exploit your changing schemes by using his teammates to hammer you into submission. Then, on the flip side of that superstar coin, you have Pau and (especially) Lamar (and, potentially, even Artest) that have the ability to play Dirk one on one and I think Dallas has an issue with matchups against the Lakers.
My prognosis? I think it would be a hard fought series, but that ultimately Dallas would not have enough on both ends of the court to beat the Lakers. Dirk may be too good to hold down for an entire series, but I think our array of defenders slow him in enough contests to make the Mavs’ lives difficult on offense. You add the Lakers front line depth and the lack of depth (behind Haywood and Dirk) that have the size to compete with the Lakers bigs and I think our post presence wears them down over the course of a series. Throw in the Kobe factor and you have a real advantage for the defending champs. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dallas is close. But I don’t think they get enough from Marion (who has traditionally struggled with Phil Jackson’s schemes and Lamar Odom) and I also think their back court is a bit too thin on defensive players to match up with Kobe (or even the quickness of Farmar on the second unit). I think it would be a great series to watch though.
Cleveland: Ahh, the Cavs. If both teams are good (and lucky) enough to make it this far, fans and media alike would be drooling at the prospect of seeing these two teams battle for the championship. This is only more true with the addition of Jamison. Antawn gives the Cavs what they’ve sorely been missing the past several seasons – a reliable scorer in the front court that complements Lebron’s game. Jamison is a player that is just as comfortable as a spot up shooter as he is a slasher as he is a post up player. A member of the “I don’t really know how his game is that effective” club, Jamison is a guy that keeps plugging along with an arsenal of deep jumpshots, driving runners, and post up flip shots that make old guys at the Y smile. Jamison is also a good rebounder and a solid defender. Most important of all, Jamison is a real team player and a pro’s pro that will work hard to fit into the team concept of the Cavs and will not rock the boat. There is no diva in Antawn.
However, when it comes to matching up with the Lakers, an addition of Jamison is not a slam dunk for the Cavs. While Jamison may be a guy that has the size and style to match up with Rashard Lewis or even Josh Smith, facing off against Pau Gasol is a different story. As we saw in the Finals last season, when an undersize PF matches up with Gasol it often leads to a double team that can be exposed by our Spaniard’s slick passing skills. This is a defensive matchup that is not in the Cavs favor. Now, Jamison could make up for it on the other end of the court with his versatile offensive game, but as we’ve all seen Pau is an underrated defender whose length and reach often bothers shooters more than they anticipate. Obviously though, a match up with the Cavs is not only about Jamison. They have Shaq as well. Oh, yeah, and that Lebron guy too. These are players that create match up issues for the Lakers defense. So far this season, battling Shaq on the block has not worked out too well for Bynum and Gasol. And even though Artest is an elite defender, Lebron makes even the best of the best look slow footed and lacking in strength. Throw in the possible return of Z, Andy Varejao’s crafty defense, and the shooting of Mo’ Williams/West/Parker and you have a team with a tremendous amount of talent and diversity to their potential attack.
My prognosis? This may sound like a cop out, but I really don’t know how this series would turn out. There are too many variables could break in either direction that lead a victory for either side. Do the Cavs have enough size and defense in their back court to contain Kobe? Does Z return to the Cavs to complete their rotations at Center? Can Artest (and the rest of the Lakers help D) slow Lebron enough that the other Cavs are forced to make the key shots in a game? Does Lamar play like he has for the last 5 games and the way that he did in last year’s playoffs from the Denver series on? Do our guards make shots? Can Bynum outduel Shaq? Does Mike Brown make the right adjustments to the wrinkles that Phil is bound to incorporate into a gameplan? I could go on and on. These are obviously the best two teams in the league and I think we’d all be lucky just to see this matchup occur.
In the end, understand that the countdown is now on to the playoffs. Rosters are pretty much set (save for a random addition due to a buyout or, tragically, potential injury) and teams will be looking to gel and peak as they enter the second season. Yes the Lakers stood pat. And yes some of their chief rivals did everything they could to compete. Were these moves enough? How will it turn out? Let me know what you all think about these moves (or any of the ones not mentioned – Kevin Martin to the Rockets for example) and what they mean in relation to the Lakers.