The Lakers won the Western Conference today, a result that seemed unfathomable after those two bad losses to Charlotte and Memphis in March. The rest of the playoff picture isn't set, and there really are no easy matchups. I'm terrified of Utah and Phoenix, and don't really want to play San Antonio either (though they are looking old and vulnerable), but I can wait one more day to figure out what the path to the Finals will look like. I'll find out if I can win my fantasy league too. However things shape up, this should be one of the best NBA playoffs ever.
For the past few months, ever since the Laker injuries started piling up, I've been trying to distance myself from this team and not get too invested in this year. After all, there is a real possibility that Bynum may be done for the season, and Ariza is probably not coming back. Kobe is playing with 4 fingers on his shooting hand and his accuracy from the perimeter has noticeably tanked. Fisher has a torn tendon in his foot. And we still have Luke Walton. There's no sense getting too caught up in this year when the next few years will really show us what this team can do.
How good can the Lakers be next year? Even if Bynum never returns as he was this year, a very real possibility given the sorry Lakers medical staff, his floor is something like Andris Biedrins. Add a Biedrins to this squad to toughen up the post defense and the defensive rebounding, and you are looking at a 60 win team. Add back in Ariza - who has a history of foot problems, so might not be able to recover his athleticism, but is still a significant upgrade over Luke Walton - and I think this team could win 62-65 games.
Now, what if the Lakers sign Kwame Brown as a free agent this offseason for 2 years, $4.5M, a cake to throw at Rony Turiaf, and a guarantee that his coach won't meow at him anymore? I think Kwame can be had for that price because the rest of the league thinks he sucks. But he knows the Lakers system, has good chemistry here, and is an underrated post defender and rebounder. Matched up against second-string centers, he can be extremely effective (and was playing very well last season before his injuries). Plus, Kwame is always good to liven up the locker room, even if he likes practical jokes more than basketball.
Let's look at best-case scenario, then. What if Bynum returns and is healthy and explosive, like this year? What if we hire the Phoenix medical staff to fix Ariza's foot, and he is rejuvenated like Grant Hill? What if the Lakers sign a healthy Kwame Brown, an unquestionable upgrade over DJ Mbenga? Here is the Lakers roster:
Starters: Derek Fisher (maybe Jordan Farmar by next year), Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Reserves: Farmar/Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Kwame Brown, Trevor Ariza, Rony Turiaf, Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton
That is a team that goes 12 deep, with a phenomenal first unit AND second unit, with an excellent backup at every position. Against a big team like San Antonio, the Lakers can go big with Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Kwame, Turiaf. Against a smaller team, the Lakers can bring in Ariza to shadow the perimeter guys and Sasha/Vlad for extra shooting. That is TWELVE guys who can play (okay, 11 if you take out Luke Walton). Most guys on the bench can play several positions, adding quite a bit of versatility.
The quality of the bench is what excites me the most. Even in the Kobe-Shaq era, the Lakers were rarely a deep team. Turiaf has joined the ranks of Millsap, Maxiell, and Bass as reserve energy PFs who can really play, and Sasha has evolved into the guy I trust most to shoot the ball from deep. Ariza is a defensive stopper and brings much-needed athleticism. Farmar/Fisher is a solid backup PG. Kwame would toughen up this team immediately. We don't even have to play Luke Walton AT ALL!
How good can this team really be? Anytime the 57-win champion of the most competitive conference in recent history is saying "Just wait 'til next year," it could be a very special team indeed.