Who will the Mavericks have to go through in order to make their goal of being NBA Champion? Well the list must begin with none other than 2008-09 defending champion LosAngeles Lakers. So we got together with Brian Kamenetzky at the LA Times Lakers Blog, to see what we can expect from the Lakers in 2009-10.
We also answered some questions from them on the Mavericks so please head over there and check out our answers.
- The Western conference for years now has been the strongest conference, and by a pretty steep margin. With all the changes to the top tier teams in the east, do the Lakers still feel that the team most likely to stand in their way for another championship lives in the west?
They'll never say it, but I think the Lakers believe they're still the best team in the West, and in basketball for that matter. Conference be damned. It's a reasonable position to take, too, since they just won a title. But I also believe they have a very healthy and appropriate respect for the other elite teams in the NBA, including a couple teams on this side of the Mississippi, Portland and San Antonio being the most likely to threaten them over the course of the season. LA is too smart to ignore the Spurs, especially given the depth San Antonio added, and understand that last season a healthy Spurs squad would have been far closer to the top of the conference. As for the Blazers, the Lakers have struggled mightily in Portland over the last few seasons, which really drives the point home. In my opinion (for whatever it's worth) they match up better against the Lakers than any team in the league.
Do they think the E.C. teams are a greater threat? Hard to say. One benefit to adding Ron Artest is that he matches up well against LeBron, something most forwards obviously can't. I'm not saying that's why they made the deal, but I'm sure someone mentioned it when formulating the plan. I'm sure they'd love to get another crack at Boston, too. Certainly they know those teams are good, but the flip side is that it's harder to anticipate who they might see in the playoffs.
- The Lakers this off season basically traded Trevor Ariza to Houston for Ron Artest. Some say that the Rockets got the better end of the deal, what is the perception among Lakers fans?
Initially, there were a lot of fans who worried about the changes. Ariza was extremely popular, and had some very important moments in the playoff run. And he doesn't have any of the baggage Artest brings. (Did you hear? Artest has something of a history...) A healthy portion of the populace, fans and media alike, wondered why the Lakers would screw with a good thing. Since then, most have warmed up to the idea. Some of that is almost certainly because fans tend to rally around the guys who are actually on the team. Ariza is gone, Artest is here. Root for the guy in the Lakers jersey. Also, the way Ariza left, with some unnecessarily contentious contract negotiations, didn't help his case. People blame his agent, for sure, and that David Lee made it adversarial from the beginning gave the Lakers some cover to make the move. I believe the Lakers when they say the first choice was to bring Trevor back, but interest in Artest goes back a long way, so it was a very viable Plan B, and one they were very willing to go with quickly.
Finally, Artest's attitude has won over a lot of fans. He's been incredibly honest and forthcoming about previous mistakes and character flaws, talking about how he was a bad teammate earlier in his career, displaying a high level of deference and admiration for Kobe (always a solid strategy for getting on the good side of fans), and displaying a strong and genuine obsession with winning a ring. If he plays well and the team is successful, it'll be fine. He'll end up very popular.
- How have things changed for Kobe this year after finally kicking the stigma that he could not win without Shaq? Did that perception ever really bother him?
I think it did. He's not necessarily been explicit about it, but will often make reference to that knock on him, that he couldn't lead a team, that O'Neal was the reason he won, and all that. That kind of thing ticks him off, no question. I don't think it was a fair criticism, either. Sure, those Lakers teams had a dominant Shaq, but Shaq doesn't win either without Kobe (or a dominant D-Wade a few years later). No star wins without a great team around him. That's just not how the world works. A lot was written on this point after the Lakers won, but I haven't been able to really sense a big shift in how Kobe is perceived. I think we'll get some of that this year, where the coverage of the team and his leadership will be different. It may end up being pretty subtle, but I think it'll be there. Hopefully the Kobe vs. The World/Selfish Kobe vs. Team Kobe storylines can die off. They're fairly tired at this point.
- Is there one team in the league that causes a little shake in the Lakers shoes? Why?
I mentioned the Blazers above, and think they're that team. Portland is one of the few groups that can go toe to toe with LA and help neutralize their advantages. They're long and athletic, with the frontcourt defenders to combat guys like Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. Przybilla and Oden are both strong defensively and can rebound. The whole team is strong on the glass, for that matter. On the other end, between Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, plus guys like Batum, Webster, and now Andre Miller, Portland has a ton of weapons that can, like the Lakers, can be put to work in a variety of ways. They may not play fast, but the Blazers are still a strong offensive unit.
Add in a history of defeat up in the Rose Garden- I don't remember exactly, but I don't think the Lakers have won more than once up there over the past five or six seasons- and the Blazers definitely become a threat. Given how the career arcs of guys like Roy, Aldridge, Outlaw, and Oden point to continued improvement, it was reasonable to think the Blazers would be better, even before they added Miller. Since they were already a tough matchup for the Lakers, that only makes them tougher.
- Are there any concerns in LA with Ron Artest being too comfortable in LA and going back to his old ways?
In terms of behavior, not really. I don't think it's something the organization is concerned about. Some question whether or not he's a little too wrapped up in social media (or media generally). He was a Twitter sensation over the summer, did an interview with practically every outlet under the sun, basically became his own YouTube franchise, and so on. Since the season started, though, he's kept a lower profile, which is a good thing. There's always the prospect of him doing something goofy, going off the rails and damaging team chemistry, but the fear is overstated by the media. I've maintained since they signed him that the biggest questions are how he'll fit on the court. Will he shoot too much? Will the ball stick and disrupt the offense? Did they lose too much speed on the wing? That sort of thing.
Early returns say they won't be a problem- Artest has racked up assists and if anything hasn't been assertive enough offensively in the preseason- but the idea that he'll come unglued and start another brawl? I don't see it. The Lakers have a strong coach, leadership in Kobe Bryant that Artest deeply respects, a friend of Artest's going back to their days in New York in Lamar Odom, a great chance to win titles, and so on. It's ideal of him. I think it'll help the Lakers, as well, assuming Artest understands his role. In the end, he's a better player than Ariza. That matters.