NBA Finals Pick: Los Angeles Lakers...and Miami Heat
Even as what would amount to a 51 win team (prorated over a 82 game season), the Lakers were still very middling last year. They needed to get vastly better on both ends of the court if they wanted to compete for a Western Conference Finals berth, much less a NBA title shot...which they very well may have done.
Defensively, I expect the Lakers to improve leaps and bounds immediately with Dwight Howard on the court. As I detailed yesterday in MAMBINO's Defensive Player of the Year prediction, D12's impact on the team should be stark. In his few games of preseason action, there was such a canyon-like difference on his activity versus Andrew Bynum's that, paired with how much better he made mediocre defensive players in Orlando, it's easy to think that LA's defense will be suffocating. Offensively, the team could take months to adjust to one another with a new system and point guard, but over that stretch I can see the defense making up for the confusion on the scoring end.
The key for the Lakers was getting to the Finals; Oklahoma City was the most troublesome matchup for LA, especially with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins able to give Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard the most one-on-one trouble as any duo in the league. However, with the Harden trade, I feel like the Lakers are much better suited not only offensively without his defense on Kobe, but also defensively in regards to staying in front of only two of the best 20 players in the league, rather than three. It's not a forgone conclusion that the Lakers can get past OKC--how can you underestimate Durant and Westbrook?--but the prospects just got a lot better.
Moving onto the NBA Finals, the Lakers should have an advantage against both of their prospective Eastern Conference counterparts, Miami and Boston. Against the Celtics, the Lakers should have the upper hand, as the Lakers front line should be able to punish Boston's down low. Boston's athleticism is nearly on par with the 30-something Lakers, and like the LA teams since their 2008 Finals loss, this is a physical squad that isn't going to get muscled about. While Rajon Rondo will be uncontainable in front of Steve Nash, I suspect the massive advantages the Lakers have in the paint will over power whatever Boston can throw regarding a potentially jumper-happy team.
Against Miami, the advantages aren't so cut and dry. On one hand, the Lakers will be able to slow the game down and pound the Heat with a half-court offense that, if the Show is able to get that far, they'll surely have mastered. Gasol, Howard and Kobe, some of the best high post-low post players in the league, are a handful against any defense, especially with the bevy of cutters and newly-minted shooter the Lakers have. Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony are Miami's big men, so on paper it is quite academic. The Lakers should dominate.
But the confetti paper under Miami's rafter from last June speaks volumes. The Heat's swarming half court defense showed that Erik Spoelstra's squad is full of versatile, athletic and intelligent defenders who hedge at the right times and know exactly where to cut off passing lanes. In the Finals, the Heat forced Oklahoma City into a series of isolation plays and low-percentage jump shots by packing the paint and on the strength of the each individual's solo man defense. Luckily for the Thunder, Russ Westbrook was able to break through and score over 40 in a spectacular shooting exposition, but looking at the finals result, Miami's strategy was spot-on. Bosh, Haslem and Anthony all have their faults, but those three just have to worry about LA's center. LeBron, as evidenced in Miami's two games against the Lakers last year, can front the 7-foot Gasol by himself.
The Heat aren't as at a disadvantage as everyone thinks. Similarly, Jordan and Pippen's Chicago teams looked overmatched several times during their six title runs, but won on the basis of a swarming, clever defense and behind the play of far and away the best player on the planet. Fast forward to 2012 and make no mistake, LeBron James is far and away the best player on the planet. Even as the Lakers can try to slow the game down and keep the Heat from an unstoppable transition offense led by Wade, James and Mario Chalmers, Miami has learned how to play halfcourt basketball as well as anyone in the NBA. LeBron's willingness to operate on the low block is a terrifying prospect for any Lakers fan, especially as Pat Riley seemed to stock up on shooters even further this offseason.
On paper, like the MAMBINO crew picks, I'd say the advantage is even. The Lakers have more talent and less injury risk than a Miami team with Ray Allen (ankle), Dwyane Wade (knee) and Mike Miller (everything), but at the same time, there's no metric that could actually describe how a player of LeBron's talent level and confidence influences the Heat's title chances. It's not going to come down to desire, that's for sure. James and Wade are more aware than ever that titles cement their place in history, and now know the winning formula to get themselves another one together. On LA's end, in addition Kobe's insatiable competitiveness, they've added Nash, another psychotic competitor, and Howard, who knows the stink of his "Dwight-marish" offseason will only be washed away with the gleaming gold of a title. This team has a tremendous amount to prove--from the coaching staff downwards--which will only add fuel to the fire.
You can't go wrong picking either way, but if Miami can at least contain Howard and force the Lakers into a jump shooting type of game, the Heat are going to repeat. If the Lakers can gain an advantage inside by pounding the ball into Howard, all while also getting Kobe to the foul line, LA could take their 17th.
This is Christmas. I love contorting my brain and trying to find ways for teams to beat each other in imaginary circumstances in a game I can't play myself. Welcome back, friends. I'm fired up.
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