|Jameer Nelson||PG||Derek Fisher|
|Maurice Evans||SG||Kobe Bryant|
|Hedo Turkoglu||SF||V. Radmanovic|
|Rashard Lewis||PF||Lamar Odom|
|Dwight Howard||C||Pau Gasol|
Our game-day feature is a bit of Lakers Q-and-A with Kurt of the web's premier Laker-fan resource, Forum Blue & Gold. You may remember him from the insight he gave us when the Lakers and the Magic engaged in a three-player trade last November. Kurt took the time to answer some of our questions, just as I answered some of his.
3QC: It's been nearly three months since the Magic traded Trevor Ariza to the Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans. How has that deal worked for the Lakers? Does Ariza, who can opt-out of his contract this summer, fit in to their future plans?
Kurt: The deal has been viewed as a great move for the Lakers. Until he got his foot stomped on by Derek Fisher in practice (Ariza is out a few more weeks with a broken bone in his foot), he had become a key player at the small forward, splitting time with Luke Walton. He is far more athletic than Luke and a much better defender, so depending on the matchup he or Luke got the start and the majority of minutes that night (Ariza started three games and was playing about 18 minutes a game, up from 10 in Orlando). It was his defense that was winning him fans, it gave the Lakers a second very good perimeter defender to take some pressure off Kobe at that end. And the move even helped Ariza's offense - the first half of the year in Orlando he shot 45.2% and had a PER of 12.9, in LA that jumped to 52.4% and a PER of 17.3. Plus, he had a monster dunk on Christmas Day over Grant Hill.
It's going to be interesting with the Gasol trade - Odom will start at the three and the Lakers are now pretty crowded at forward (Radmanovic can play there as well in a tall lineup). Still, Ariza's defense will get him minutes. I'd be surprised if Ariza opts out at the end of the year. I think the Lakers would like to keep him around as part of a young core that can compete for a title for the next few years, so long as it can be done at a reasonable price.
3QC: Los Angeles made a much bigger trade last week by acquiring All-Star forward Pau Gasol, which sparked plenty of championship talk among Lakers fans and NBA commentators alike. Given the formidable playoff lineup of Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Gasol, and Andrew Bynum, is there any team in the league which the Lakers would stand no chance of defeating in a seven-game series?
Kurt: One of the best parts of the Gasol trade (other than just getting rid of Kwame) and the way the Lakers roster is built is the flexibility it gives Phil Jackson. Want to go small, put in a lineup of Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Kobe, Ariza and Lamar Odom. Want to go very big, put in Kobe, Ariza, Odom (or Vladamir Radmanovic), Gasol and Bynum. Need just a few stops, put in a defensive-focused lineup of Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Ronny Turiaf and Bynum. And those lists go on. In the crazy-deep Western Conference matchups in the playoffs are going to be key, you're going to see a different kind of team each round and you need to be able to counteract that style (just ask the Mavericks). The Lakers are in a better position now than any other team in the West to do that. But we'll see how that translates into wins when it matters.
3QC: Bynum, the Lakers' young (franchise?) center, has improved dramatically this season. What's been the key to his success?
Kurt: No need to put that question mark after franchise. He is part of the core of this team for the next decade and beyond, even after Kobe hangs it up.
The biggest change this season has been Bynum's conditioning. His first two years in the league he spent a lot of time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (which you probably noticed because every time Bynum scored in a national broadcast the television cameras cut to Kareem). Kareem taught Bynum a lot about how to play the low post, proper footwork, using his body and length to get rebounds, etc. Last season, forced into extended minutes because of injuries, Bynum was learning how to apply those lessons in games, but his body kept betraying him. He got tired quickly, wasn't strong enough to do what he wanted at times. This past summer he spent a lot of time putting on muscle and getting in NBA condition (he's no Howard but he's not bad). The results have been phenomenal - and as he does something well his confidence grows, and then he feels comfortable trying different things he'd been working on. That's a great upward spiral for a young player.
3QC: Which Laker, besides Bynum, has been the most pleasantly surprising this season?
Kurt: Jordan Farmar has been the other key. Clearly the guy had leadership skills - he took UCLA to the NCAA title game, and in that game was the only Bruin to play worth a damn, scoring 18. He fits with the Lakers style in that he's got a great basketball IQ. And, he's a gym rat. The quintessential story about Farmar is this: On draft night last year the Lakers took the now-traded Javaris Crittenton in the first round, another young point guard. As the Lakers front office staff at the LA team headquarters were leaving the building that night, Jordan Farmar came in and started working on his shot. Nobody was going to take his spot. This season his shooting has improved - overall from 42.2% last season to 47.5% this year, and from three he's now shooting 38.9%, up from 32% last year. He's splitting time and learning from Derek Fisher, something that has the added benefit of keeping the not-so-young legs of Fisher fresh for the playoffs.
3QC: Which Magic player poses the toughest matchup for the Lakers? Conversely, which Laker poses the toughest matchup for the Magic?
Kurt: Um, have you seen Dwight Howard play? Does anyone have someone to matchup with him? He is going to be a big challenge with Bynum out, Pau Gasol is tall but not a great post defender. You may see a bunch of DJ Mbenga (a 10-day contract guy). The other guys who could have a big night are Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. One of the problems for the Lakers defense this year, particularly since Bynum and his presence in the paint went down, is that defenders are quick to sag off guys at the three-point line to defend the paint. Since the Magic have so many guys who can shoot the three, that can be a problem for the Lakers.
On the flip side, nobody really has a matchup for Kobe. The only thing slowing him down right now is he dislocated the little finger on his shooting hand against the Nets and that impacted his shooting against the Hawks Wednesday night. We'll see what happens tonight, but he is a force unlike any other. I'm curious how the Magic will defend the high pick and roll with Kobe as the ball handler and Gasol setting the pick (he has the skills to roll to the basket if you trap Kobe, or if you sit back on him he can slide out and hit the 18 footer). Also, depending on which Lamar Odom shows up, he can be almost unstoppable. He is the one that stops himself most nights.
We'd like to thank Kurt once again for his thoughtful responses to our questions. Once again, be sure to check out the game preview at Forum Blue & Gold to see how I responded to Kurt's questions.