With the NBA Finals matchup starting up tomorrow, I decided to gather some of the brightest minds in the APBRmetrics community, the NBA blogosphere, and gather their various inputs on the series between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers. As is custom, I like to thank each of the participants beforehand for taking the time to answer my questions. Their opinions are highly respected and valued.
Let's reveal the new "challengers" ...
- Zach McCann, Orlando Magic Daily
- Bethlehem Shoals, FreeDarko
.. and let's reveal the "returning champions".
- Jon Nichols, Basketball-Statistics
- Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus
- Sandy Weil, Sportsmetricians Consulting
Dwight has been able to take his game to another level during the postseason for the Orlando Magic. Will the Lakers' contingent of big men be able to neutralize Howard a bit? It should be noted that Dwight Howard played well in the regular season against Los Angeles. Will he be able to continue his success in the Finals?
Bethlehem Shoals: Don't I wish I knew. That's one of the major riddles plaguing these Finals, and also the thing that makes them most compelling to me. I am fully convinced that, at this point, Dwight's effectiveness is all about him getting the ball in a way that allows him to maximize his strength and/or athleticism. Forget this "post moves" crap. Can the Lakers match either of these attributes? No, but Bynum is big and bouncy, and Gasol and Odom are just rangy enough that they could trouble his movement through the paint. There's no question that Howard will do damage, but with the challenges posed by LA, he might have to become himself even more than ever before.
Zach McCann: Howard went for 25 and 20 last time these teams met, and it’s hard to believe the Lakers can hold Howard under 25 if they don’t double. Andrew Bynum has had trouble defending the pick-and-roll, and as you probably know, the 3-5 pick-and-roll is Orlando’s favorite set. Pau Gasol isn’t strong enough to consistently slow down Howard. There are a variety of ways Howard can hurt the Lakers, and I see him having a huge series. There’s no Kendrick Perkins on the Lakers — that’s probably the key to this series.
Jon Nichols: The Lakers did have Bynum in both games, so there are no excuses on L.A.'s part for Howard's performances. Howard was especially good with his 20-20 in the second game, although that number is a bit misleading because Howard did not shoot an extremely high percentage and he turned the ball over six times. In my opinion, Gasol will struggle mightily against Howard. Bynum has the potential to do a good job if he plays to his potential. He has the strength to push Howard away from the basket in the same fashion as Kendrick Perkins. Overall, I see Howard performing better than he did against Boston but not as well as he did against Cleveland.
Kevin Pelton: One of the really interesting questions to be answered in this series is whether Dwight Howard has really taken his game to the next level or whether he just had a great series thanks in part to a favorable matchup. I've argued that the Magic going to the pick-and-roll with Howard more frequently (as you guys suggested on 3QC) was the key to his improved performance, but what we saw from him in Game 6 against Cleveland and at other times in the series was an ability to score straight up in the post I think we've only seen in flashes before. If he can keep that up, a double-team will be the only answer.
Sandy Weil: I think that he will. The Lakers will probably put him at the line a lot and he'll have to make some (or a lot of) free throws. But his having a big series will not mean victory, necessarily. Remember that LeBron put up big numbers in the last series, but the Cavs lost anyway. I think that he'll put up big numbers. The question is: how will the rest of the team do?
Derek Fisher has struggled mightily in the postseason. If he is unable to step his game up against Orlando, how much of a problem will that be for Los Angeles? One would presumably see more of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, if that occurs. If so, does that help the Lakers? What does that mean for the Magic?
BS: Fisher is like that uncle you used to love seeing at family gatherings, but now just sits in the corner and periodically chimes in. But you love him anyway. Phil knows that Farmar and Brown are more than capable, if not quite playoff-tested/flush with backlogged leadership [...]. I expect him to use the younger guys more when it comes to countering (or answering) the Magic's offensive explosions, but when things get all half-court and brow-clenched, that's when Fisher needs to step in and do something wise. That's not to say that Farmar or more like, Brown, couldn't take that weight. But Fisher brings focus, The Triangle needs focus to really outwit opponents, and that's ultimately the key to LA winning close games here.
ZM: Rafer Alston could give L.A. some problems because of his ability to penetrate and get past the initial defender. The Lakers’ point guards are susceptible off the dribble, and Alston could really open things up if he’s able to get into the lane and draw help defense. On screens, the Lakers have gone underneath in the past — that’s a big reason why Jameer Nelson scored 55 points in two games this season. Alston’s mediocre in shooting off the dribble, but if he can hit enough shots to make the Lakers respect his shot, things will really open up for Orlando.
And I wouldn’t expect to see anyone but Fisher out there in the important minutes. He brings experience and leadership, and he’s always capable of hitting a big shot. I’d say he’s a very rich man’s Anthony Johnson. It’s not like Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are anything extraordinary, anyway.
JN: It shouldn't be a huge problem for L.A. if Fisher struggles. It's not like they rely on him much, and as you said, Farmar and Brown are more than capable of taking his minutes and performing well. The question is whether or not Phil Jackson is willing to ditch the familiar veteran. I think if push comes to shove, Jackson is a good enough coach to make that difficult decision. The more Farmar and Brown play, the better that is for the Lakers. All in all though, I don't see the point guard battles swinging any of the games. With all due respect to Rafer Alstron, I think point guard will be a forgotten position in this series.
KP: The ideal scenario for the Lakers, naturally, is for Fisher to get going. Not only does that mean a sure-handed veteran at the point, but Phil Jackson clearly wants to play Fisher heavy minutes unless he really feels forced to go to the bench. If Fisher isn't hitting, it's much easier for the Magic to bring help with Pau Gasol in the post or against Kobe Bryant. Shannon Brown's size defensively will become more important if Jameer Nelson does end up playing, and playing well. It's worth noting that during the two regular-season matchups, Brown was still in Charlotte and Jordan Farmar was injured, so Jackson did not have any other options when Nelson was going off.
SW: They've gotten this far in spite of his struggles, so I suspect that they can do it without his stepping up. But, I'm sure they'd like to see him get out of his slump. As long as he struggles, the Magic will have the option to double off of him.
Farmar hasn't been all that much better than Fisher, in terms of points per shot. Brown's been better. But I've seen Phil Jackson win a lot of titles with some older shooters (John Paxson, Ron Harper, Craig Hodges, Brian Shaw). I suspect he'll stick with Fisher for a while yet.
How do you see Orlando stacking up against Los Angeles? Could you describe some of the matchup problems both teams may have to deal with in the series?
BS: Given how important Turkoglu and Lewis have become to this team's identity, LA needs to find a way to contend with all they offer. Ariza seems like a good match for Turkoglu. And the liberty to put Gasol on Lewis, maybe, that requires Bynum being up to the ask of, for the most part, sticking Howard. Odom could in theory guard either guy. That all sounds good on paper, and bizarrely minimizes Kobe's defensive importance. But, naturally, it all comes down to the superstars. The Lakers have no definite answer for Howard, and while Pietrus is solid, no one's messing with Kobe in the Finals (unless it's an entire team). So while the new era "mismatches" won't figure so prominently here, it's more a question of each team just having one guy who can't be stopped, from which all things will flow.
ZM: Pau Gasol is my biggest worry for the Magic. He’s the best post scorer in the NBA, and stopping him isn’t as simple as putting Dwight Howard on him — Gasol is smart, crafty and can hit from a variety of lengths and angles. And it’s incredibly difficult to double-team Gasol because he’s such a good passer. It’s funny, and maybe I’m way off, but I’m more worried about Gasol than I am Kobe Bryant.
Bryant, of course, will cause problems. He’s no LeBron when it comes to athleticism and physical stature, but he’s able to score in so many ways that it could give Courtney Lee (a rookie) and Mickael Pietrus (a relatively undisciplined defender) some major problems. Well, not could… Will.
That said, when this Magic offense is clicking, it can’t be stopped. We all know that.
JN: The power forward spot will be an interesting position to watch. Will the Lakers stay big with Gasol and Bynum? If so, both teams will struggle defensively. Lewis is both too small but also too quick for either one of those two. If the Lakers go big, we could see some interesting defensive strategies. Besides that, Orlando matches up pretty darn well with the Lakers. L.A.'s size will be negated by Howard and the Magic have a flood of defenders to throw at Kobe. Even Odom's versatility can be minimized if he's matched up against Lewis. This is an interesting series because each team's best defensive players match up with the other team's stars: Lee and Pietrus on Kobe, Howard on Gasol/Bynum, Ariza on Turkoglu, Odom on Lewis.
With that being said, this sounds like good news for Orlando. The Lakers rely a lot more on one-on-one play and in a series with tough matchups for every star, it's going to come down to team play.
KP: The most interesting matchup problem has got to be when Pau Gasol and Rashard Lewis play each other at power forward. Both figure to have the advantage on offense, though Gasol did not have a strong regular-season series against Orlando. We'll see if Gasol can do enough on offense to make up for what he gives up trying to chase Lewis around the perimeter. If not, Jackson's hand will be forced in terms of going small wtih Gasol and Lamar Odom up front.
SW: If Howard plays solid defense against Gasol, he can stay out of foul trouble and wreak havoc on the glass and in the post. Gasol will probably need only a mediocre series to have done his share. Odom and Lewis is a pretty good matchup; I don't see any big favorites there. Turkoglu against Arize is a favorable matchup for the Magic, but obviously, Kobe will get his and then some against Pietrus and Lee. But the Magic will probably try to mimic their success from the Cavs series for the Lakers: let Kobe get his but to limit the effectiveness of the others. Alston and Fisher are not producing much offense. Neither needs to, but I suspect that the Magic will try to make sure that Fisher doesn't get comfortable.
It seems that when Lamar Odom goes, so go the Lakers and they become an extremely difficult team to beat. How much of an impact do you see Odom having for Los Angeles, and do you think Orlando will be able to neutralize him a bit?
BS: It's just so hard to say with Odom at this point. Like I said, when it comes to checking Turkoglu or Lewis, Odom's an important second defensive option. He could also provide more size for the Magic to contend with, as well as the ability to stretch the floor and throw a monkey wrench in their system—if he's consistent, which of course isn't going to happen. What do you want me to say? It's Lamar Odom. He could average a triple-double throughout and win three games by himself, or look no better than Josh Powell. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!! I will say this: The more of a factor Odom is, the more interesting this game becomes, seeing as I'm all for the most versatility/unorthodoxy going on in this series.
ZM: Well, the stats don’t lie — the Lakers tend to win when Odom plays well offensively. I have no doubt Rashard Lewis can neutralize Odom, as Lewis is invariably underrated on the defensive end. But I think Odom’s biggest impact will be when the Magic are on offense. There aren’t many players in the NBA suited to defend Rashard Lewis, as most forwards have trouble matching up with either his length or his quickness. Odom, however, is an exception. Lewis and Odom are the exact same size — 6-10, 230 pounds — and neither has a significant advantage in speed, strength or agility. Lewis has played an integral role in Orlando’s offense over the first three rounds, but on paper, the Lakers will be a very tough matchup for him (Gasol, too).
JN: As I mentioned earlier, Orlando is one of the few teams that can match Odom's speed and versatility at the 4-spot. Of course, Lewis isn't a spectacular defender. But he's the right type of player to guard Odom and can do a reasonable job. I'm sure Van Gundy is aware of Odom's importance and you can bet Lewis will be focused on stopping him when the matchup presents itself.
KP: My favorite development of the last week is the medically-approved notion that Odom's inconsistent play is caused by his candy addiction. What next -- are we going to find out Derrick McKey was pounding Snickers in the locker room before every game of his career? In this postseason, I think Odom has looked more up-and-down than he really has been because of his back injury. The Magic has a pair of guys who can match up with Odom in Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, so the matchups bode well there, but I also tend to think Odom's performance varies more on his own focus than the player on the other side.
SW: Odom had a pretty bad series against the Rockets and for the first four against the Nuggets, so I think that the Lakers will be able to do fine without his having a great series. Lewis is a different kind of matchup for him than he's seen the last two series. But the Magic play excellent team defense. I think that they will be able to limit the damage from all the non-Kobes.
Who do you have winning the series?
BS: Lakers in 6.
ZM: Give me the Magic in 7.
JN: Against Cleveland I wanted to pick Orlando (and therefore said it would be a very tough series) but I just couldn't get myself to pick against the favorite. I won't make the same mistake again. A lot of times basketball is all about talent and superstars triumphing, but some times it's just about who matches up the most favorably. That was the case in the Eastern Conference Finals and as I've mentioned, I think it will be the case again. Orlando is just one of those teams that excels against the league's finest. I say Magic in 7.
KP: I've got the Lakers in six (like seemingly everybody else). I think the matchups in this series are decent for Orlando, but nowhere near as favorable as in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Lakers have a level they can go to -- as seen in the last five quarters of the Western Conference Finals -- that nobody in the league can match.
SW: Lakers in seven is the most likely outcome, but the Magic are playing great team defense. So I have Orlando in six.
I like to thank Bethlehem, Zach, Jon, Kevin, and Sandy, each, for participating in this roundtable discussion. Their insight was excellent.