Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rainy Days, Silver Linings

Things are pretty dismal in Lakerland right now. After being at the top of the Western Conference, the Lakers have lost 4 of 5 and, in the tightly clustered standings, will have to fight just to make the playoffs.

However, I don't want to dwell on all that's gone wrong - I could whine about that for days. Instead, let's look at the silver linings. What's encouraging?

First and foremost has to be the change in Kobe's attitude. After today's loss to the Cavs (damn you Rakesh), Mark Heisler of the LA Times reports what Kobe said of Bynum and the team in post-game interviews:

"He developed into the player that I prayed about having on my team for years," said Bryant after the game, in his most lyrical praise of Bynum yet.

"You know one, he was going to get you at least 10 rebounds, he was going to get you about three blocks and he was going to get you 20 points.

"And the second thing, it was much harder for teams to match up. Teams couldn't double me as easily, and if they did, I could throw it over the top and he could complete at the basket [score].

"That being said, he's not out for the season, so it's important for these guys not to get discouraged. Just continue to play and understand, we're going to continue to struggle a little bit, but the important thing is not to get down, to continue to play hard and then when we get those guys back, get ready for the playoffs."

That sounds like a Kobe who will be here for the long run, making at least one or two more legitimate title runs in his prime. While LeBron probably has taken over the title of best player in the league (or soon will, if his defense improves and his killer instinct continues to grow), a motivated Kobe makes any team many times better. This season has been a testament to that, as a collection of limited players has really become effective.

There are other encouraging signs too. Even without Bynum and Ariza, the Lakers showed this week that they can compete with San Antonio and Dallas, even on the road. The Lakers outplayed the Spurs for two quarters, played one even quarter, and got destroyed in one. Against Dallas, the Lakers played 3 quarters even, and got destroyed in one. Both bad quarters were third quarters. In both games, it was clear that SA and Dallas were better teams, but not by much. If the Lakers were full-strength and playing as they have this season, I actually think both games are easy wins. The fact that we are this competitive bodes well.

The reason why we are still competitive is fairly simple, and is perhaps the biggest silver lining of all other than Kobe's attitude change. Simply put, the upgrade from Smush Parker to any other NBA point guard alive is the same as upgrading from Kwame Brown to new-and-improved Andrew Bynum. Derek Fisher is a limited player who works hard, shoots fairly well and isn't fast enough to guard elite PGs. Smush Parker is a horrible player who gives up on plays, pouts when he isn't given minutes and shoots about as well as I do. The single best thing about this season, other than the fact that my team was legitimately awesome for 40 games, was not having to watch Smush drag his lazy ass around the floor looking like he'd never before seen a screen.

Just thinking about Smush fighting with some parking valet in Miami makes me smile. Even if that was the only change, it's been a good year.

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