By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The Los Angeles Lakers are the defending NBA Champions. They are the most talented team in the West and the only thing that may prevent them from winning the championship again is themselves. The Lakers did what they were supposed to do this year by winning the west, grabbing home court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. They did this while they had a big bull’s-eye on their back. It is true that the Lakers are not playing particularly well as they enter the playoffs and in the matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder they will be running into one of the youngest and hungriest teams in the NBA.
Everyone around the NBA will be pulling for Kevin Durant and the Thunder to pull a first-round upset. So if the Lakers are going to win it again they must get Andrew Bynum back healthy, get Ron Artest playing at a high level, and get back to playing as a team without the interpersonal problems that seem to be sucking the fun and production out of the team.
There is not a team in the West that can match the talent of Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Bynum. The Lakers are one of the most talented and deep teams in the NBA. If and when Bynum is healthy and back in the starting lineup, then Odom becomes the best sixth man in the league. Kobe is the best offensive player in the NBA. He can score from anywhere, against anyone, and take over any game at anytime. Gasol provides a reliable inside post up player. In fact the Lakers are a much better team when they throw the ball in Pau, he gets a high number of touches and they get points down in the paint. Artest is the wild card. Will he perform at a high level in the playoffs or will he self destruct. Trevor Ariza was a big part of the Lakers success in the playoffs last year and the Lakers need Artest to get his job done for them to repeat. With Kobe and Pau as the two go-to guys the rest of the Lakers need to do two things: make shots and defend. Teams will need to help and possibly double Kobe or Pau and when this occurs Derek Fisher, Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and company must knock down open shots.
The Lakers need to improve their team chemistry quickly as the playoffs begin. They look a bit tired of their star player, their coach and all of the drama that goes with playing for the Lakers. Kobe puts a lot of pressure on his teammates with his mere presence and the constant prodding that he delivers every night. If they can get on a roll in the first round or two and get everyone back on the same page the Lakers will be hard to beat. However if anything goes wrong, and the Thunder can pull off a win or two do not be surprised to see the Lakers blow up internally.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have become the darlings of the NBA. They have the youngest roster in the league, this year’s scoring champion and brightest future star in Kevin Durant. The Thunder have been a work in progress from the time the team was moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City. They traded away their older players and went with the youth movement several years ago and it is starting to pay dividends. Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager has made some cold and calculated decisions since he took over three years ago it is one of the main reasons that they find themselves in the playoffs. One of the decisions that Presti made was to hire Scott Brooks as the coach in late December of 2008 to replace P.J. Carlesimo. Brooks took over last year, learned on the job, brought some stability to the franchise and has flourished this season. In fact, Brooks is in position to win Coach of the Year honors for the job he has done with this young and talented roster.
The Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the past three years. Add Nenad Kristic who they picked up in a steal a year ago and the Thunder have gotten good very quick. Durant is the real deal. He will be the youngest player to ever lead the NBA in scoring this season. He is currently only 21 years old, yet he is a big-time NBA scorer. Durant has guard skills in his 6-foot 10 body and has been torturing opponents on a nightly basis.
The big question as the Thunder approach the Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs is if they have enough experience and resolve to defeat the NBA Champions. They have the youth, athleticism and scoring to match the Lakers but when the games get into the fourth quarter and it is time to defend and get stops or make big baskets down the stretch of games will the young Thunder team falter? The Lakers and Thunder have played four games this season and the Lakers won the series 3-1. However in two of the Thunder losses, both games were decided by three points and one was in overtime.
A key to this series may not be Kevin Durant, but the UCLA product Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has given the Lakers fits in the season series. He has averaged 17.5 ppg, on 47 field goal percentage. In addition, Westbrook has averaged 8.3 apg and 5.3 rpg versus the Lakers. The Lakers do not truly have someone to match the speed and athleticism of Westbrook and if he gets wherever he wants with the ball during this series he could make things interesting for the Thunder.
Point guard matchup
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher is one of the most respected players in the NBA. This guy flat out knows exactly what it takes to win. Fisher, a veteran point guard, has had a lengthy career because during his time in the league he has been extremely durable, dependable and the consummate team player. Fisher is as solid as they come. He can run a team, both on the break or in half court, he is a deadly shooter and he really works hard on the defensive end of the floor. Fisher is a tremendous leader, and is really liked by his teammates.
Fisher, one of the brightest point guards in the NBA has been extremely effective for Phil Jackson playing out of the triangle offense. He is not your prototype point guard, and does not have the same responsibilities at the point guard position offensively because others on the Lakers can handle and initiate their offense. Fisher scores primarily as a spot up shooter. A high percentage of the shots he takes are 3 pointers. However, Fisher can also shoot off the dribble and he will pull the 3 ball in transition and also when he is running pick and rolls. He has one of the sweetest left handed jumpers. It is sound, smooth and consistent. Derek is also a very good mid-range shooter and will beat close outs, or take his man off the dribble one-on-one into a 15 to 17-foot pull up.
Fiscer is a big time defender due to strong athletic body combined with tremendous desire. He gets up into point guards and really makes them work. He uses his physical presence and never backs down guarding screens or pick and rolls. He always gets over and never dies on them. Fisher has tremendously quick and strong hands. He is a big deflection and strip down guy who is not afraid to mix it up. He will put his body on the line and take charges on anyone.
The Thunder drafted Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick in the draft two years ago and he is exactly what they thought, a special player. Westbrook is a big time talent, and although he was not a true point guard in college at UCLA he has all the tools to be a great NBA player. He is a freak athlete. He is tremendous in the open court where he is nearly impossible to stay in front of and he gets wherever he wants with the ball. He has good size and strength for a NBA point guard. Westbrook has an unstoppable first step, is fearless attacking the rim and can rise over anyone at the rim.
The Thunder love to rebound and get out on the break and with Westbrook advancing the ball they are extremely dangerous. On the break he gets to the rim at will. He has a very good handle. He is capable of making spectacular plays in the lane and at the rim. He is an incredible leaper.
In the half court, Westbrook can blow by people at will. He is always in attack mode with the ball in his hands. He is pretty good running pick and rolls, but he is not a particularly great shooter and it limits his effectiveness. He needs to constantly improve his skills to run a team, especially in the half court. He needs to keep improving his decision making. Westbrook is a very unselfish player who always looks for teammates and will put it on his hands if open. His Achilles heel right now is his shooting. He is an average shooter. He needs time and repetition to develop a consistent jump shot. He needs that to be a great pick and roll player. He must improve his mid-range jump shot off the bounce. He can shoot the 3 point shot, but not with the consistency needed to be effective in the NBA.
What makes Westbrook so intriguing is how good a defender he is. He has the size, length, and athleticism to defend NBA point guards. He is wiry strong. He has the lateral quickness and speed to keep anyone in front of him. He has strong, quick hands. He gets his hands on a lot of balls, deflections and steals due to the activity of his hands and feet.
Shooting guard matchup
Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant is considered by many to be the best player in the NBA. He has an incredible combination of skill and athleticism. But it is his killer instinct that really separates him from the rest of the pack. He has perfected his game and become an unstoppable offensive player. Bryant does not just beat you but he dominates you. He knows when and how to take over a game. In addition to his tremendous offensive skills, Kobe is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
Kobe can score in every way possible. His scoring numbers are scary. He is terrific in transition where he aggressively attacks any opening he can find. He is the best one-on-one player in the NBA and in transition where he can pull up from the 3-point line or get to the rim at will, He is unstoppable unless you have enough men back on defense. In the half court Kobe can score out of the triangle offense either in the post or on the perimeter. He can iso from anywhere, post on either block or run pick and rolls. When he posts he loves to shoot the turnaround or fallaway jumper. He can shoot off the catch or dribble. He is incredibly strong and can elevate into his jumper from anywhere on the court with tremendous consistency. He loves to catch and iso his opponent one-on-one off elbows or at the top of key. He will face and jab opponent to get them off balance. Can shoot the 3-point shot or use explosive first step. Has one of the best first steps in basketball. Bryant can beat anyone in the league off the dribble and finishes at the rim. Has the ability to hang, change his body in mid air and score. He gets fouled a lot and he is a very good free throw shooter. He has tremendous ball skills and is a great passer. Because of his one-on-one skills, he gets wherever he wants and puts pressure on the defense to double or help and he gets open shots for his teammates.
Kobe can be a lock-down defender when he wants. It is hard to be the leading scorer on your team and stop the opponents best perimeter player for 82 games. You see what type of defender Kobe is in the fourth quarter with the game on the line or in the playoffs when the stakes get higher. He will get in his stance and guard the opponent’s best player. He is so athletic, strong and smart that he can lock up the best when called upon. He has great quickness with his feet and hands. He gets his hands on balls with deflections, steals and blocks. He contests opponent’s shots because of his length and athleticism. He cannot be posted and is an excellent rebounder from the guard position.
Thunder shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was a very good pickup by the Thunder. He is a unique player because he has the skills of the top flight European players combined with tremendous athleticism and explosiveness. He has a good first step to the basket, and can get to the rim and finish. Sefolosha is much more of a slasher and driver. He can create his own shot, but looks to take everything to the rim because he is a very average perimeter shooter.
Thabo has poor shot mechanics and it really limits his effectiveness and accuracy on the perimeter. He has no range on his jumper and he struggles to shoot off the dribble. He has a good handle for big player, and he has excellent vision and is a good passer.
Sefolosha can defend at high level because he is tough and aggressive. He has great length, and active hands. Gets his hands on balls for deflections and steals. Can guard one-on-one but also understands teams defensive concepts. He needs to gain more strength in his body which would help him handle stronger, more physical wing matchups.
Small forward matchup
The big question for the Lakers in the post season is which Ron Artest will show up? If the Ron Artest who has his head on straight shows up and will do whatever Phil Jackson asks him to do to help the Lakers win a back to back NBA Championship … then Kobe and Co. will be hard to beat. Artest can be the difference maker for the Lakers. He will be assigned to defend the opponents best offensive perimeter player and he has the capabilities to limit the best in the NBA.
When Ron Artest puts his mind to it, he is one of the most difficult matchups in the NBA. His size, strength, athleticism, and skill make him very tough to guard. If you cannot match up to him with the correct size and strength he will post/iso and overpower the matchup. If you go bigger to deal with his size and strength he has enough speed and ball handling to beat bigger forwards. Ron gets in trouble when he falls in love with his jump shot. Although he can make perimeter shots, that is not his forte. He is much better when he mixes in driving the ball to the rim, posting on the box, hitting the spot-up jump shot and attacking the offensive glass. When he does all of these things he can be a difference maker for the Lakers. With Kobe Bryant in the Lakers lineup and the attention teams pay to him Ron can wreak havoc on opponents.
Defensively Ron Artest can stop almost every perimeter player in the NBA. In fact, he may be the only player that can contain LeBron James if the Cavs and Lakers meet in the Finals. He has the body and mindset to intimidate and frustrate opponents and take them out of their comfort zone. In addition he is a big time rebounder for his size.
Thunder small forward Kevin Durant was the second pick of the 2007 draft right behind Greg Oden. The fans and ownership are glad that Durant calls Oklahoma City home. Durant is the youngest player to ever lead the NBA in scoring. He is currently averaging 30.1 ppg and he has had 72 games where he has scored 25 plus points in a game this season. Durant is special. He is an exceptional talent and a big time scorer. He has great offensive skills for a player who stands 6-feet 9. He can handle, pass, drive, create his own one-on-one opportunities and shoot. Durant has the ability to go right or left. When he gets by his opponent he has the length and creativity to make shots. Kevin gets to the free throw line at a high rate for a young player. If he can get there 9-10 times a game in the playoffs, he will really help his team. He is an excellent free throw shooter. Durant has worked to improve his shooting range.
Durant is a flat out scorer but he is unselfish and a creative passer. If he sees a teammate wide open he will get him the ball.
Durant is not a good defensive player at this point in his career but he tries. He has great length and wingspan. In addition he has very good and active hands. He can stay in front of some interesting guys in the league, using his long arms to give him some cushion and contesting their shots late. He will always have the weakest perimeter opponent. He has shot blocking capabilities. He will come from weakside to block shots. He bothers some guys you would think he could not guard and then gets torched by a lot of others. Has a tough time with the speedy, attacking wing players. He is a good defensive rebounder and will come back and get involved.
Power forward matchup
Because of Andrew Bynum’s injury, the Lakers have inserted Lamar Odom into the starting lineup. Lamar Odom is one of the biggest enigmas of the entire NBA. He is long, athletic and talented. He has the talent to be a star, but has never played hard enough or consistent enough to be a star. Odom is a skilled forward who can play the small and power forward positions. He is one of the most skilled and versatile forwards in the NBA because at 6-feet10 he has guard skills. He can play on the perimeter and handle, pass, and shoot. He is a perfect player for Phi Jackson and the triangle offense because of his skill set. If you are playing the Lakers he is a very difficult matchup. If you put a big on Odom, he will take him away from the hoop and drive by him. If you put a smaller forward on Odom, he can take him into the post and school him.
Odom can really run the floor and finish on the break. Odom can play fast break and half court basketball. He is a player who scores in a myriad of ways. You can post him low or iso him at the elbow or wing. He is excellent in the triangle because of his versatility. Odom is like having a 6-feet 10 guard in your offense. He is a great ball handler, has excellent vision, and is a very good passer. He has a nice, smooth left-handed jumper and can really stretch the defense with it. Can stick the 3 point jumper on occasion but cannot make a living at it. Odom is a very hard to keep off the glass. He is long and mobile and he gets his hands on a lot of balls.
Odom is a good defender although he could be even better. He has all the physical tools to be a defensive stopper but does not have the defensive mentality to be a stopper. His length is one of his biggest strengths. It allows him to guard bigger players. It allows him to give a step to quicker players and still defend them. It allows him to rotate, give help and alter and block shots. He is active and gets his hands on a lot of balls. He really attacks the glass and has big rebounding numbers.
Thunder power forward Jeff Green and Kevin Durant have given the Oklahoma City Thunder team two of the youngest and most talented players. Green’s calling card is that he is a talented and versatile forward. He can play some small and power forward. He is not slow but he is not overly quick either. Jeff Green is a very skilled 6-feet 10 player.
Green has improved a heck of a lot during his first three seasons. He has become a much more consistent shooter. He has worked hard to improve his range and consistency. Green loves to shoot 3-point shots out of the corner. His team likes to utilize him versus mismatches in the post. He has worked hard on his post up game and look for him to post certain opponents and mismatches in the playoffs. He does not shy away from contact. Can take a hit and is strong enough to finish down low. Overall, Green is an average ball handler. He is a good handler for a power forward but just average for a small forward. He is a good offensive rebounder.
Green came into the league as an average defender. However he has worked hard at improving his defensive abilities. He has the tools and savvy to be good but his trouble early in his career has been with the smaller and quicker. He is a good rebounder at the defensive end of the floor.
Lakers center Pau Gasol is one of the most talented European players to have ever played in the NBA. Gasol is a skilled big man who is extremely long, and has a very high basketball IQ. Gasol is a scorer and he can do it in many ways. He can score in the low post, he can score stepping away from the basket and knocking down the jumper, and he can score putting the ball down on the floor versus his opponent. He is tall, thin and agile. He is not a top flight athlete, but he is a very mobile big man that can run the floor and play inside-outside basketball.
He has all the skills to play in the triangle offense. He is cerebral, is a very good passer and can score in the low post or at the foul line. He has great hands and a great touch around the basket. Gasol has excellent fundamentals in the post. He has great footwork, and can use either hand around the basket. Pau has excellent post moves. He has the drop step off either block and his favorite move is the jump hook off either block. He is almost unstoppable when he gets into his jump hook. Gasol can step off the block, face up his man and take his time to measure up the defense. He can rip the ball, has a good first step for a 7-footer that helps him get to the rim. With his skill and agility he is a tough matchup for slower big men. Because of his ability to drive and his aggressive on the glass, Gasol gets fouled a lot. He is an excellent pick and roll or pop player, He can finish either way. He will stick the jumper on the pop. He can knock down the mid-range shot consistently or can roll, catch and finish at the rim. He is one of the better finishers around the rim in the NBA.
Gasol has an excellent defensive skill package. He has the height, length and mobility to guard a lot of big men in the league. He can move his feet and keep mobile bigs out of the lane. His length comes in handy because he can contest, alter and block shots. Gasol is an above average one-on-one defender. His struggles when he goes up against the bigger, stronger, more physical centers and power forwards. He is not a physical player and he tends to shy away from the more rugged play in the post.
The acquisition of Thunder center Nenad Krstic is another example of Sam Presti’s influence on the slow but sure building block process that has led the Oklahoma City Thunder into the playoffs. Krstic was an integral part of the N.J. Nets during the 2006-07 season averaging 16.4 ppg and 6.3 rpg. However after suffering an ACL he was never able to regain his prior form and his production suffered. However the Thunder took a gamble on this talented Serbian big man during the 2008-09 season and that gamble has paid off big time. Krstic is a young, talented player and he provides the Thunder with a low post presence both offensively and defensively. Krstic has a very good offensive skill set. He has good post moves, and understands the game. In addition he has a very good shooting touch and makes opponents pay when they leave him open on spot up opportunities or pick and pops. Krstic is a consummate team player. He does a lot of the intangibles that do not show up in the box score. He has really helped add to the chemistry of the Thunder team.
Krstic works on the defensive end of the floor. He has size and length but he struggles to move laterally. He can guard some of the centers in the league but will struggle with the top flight bigs. The Thunder will have to come with double teams on the Lakers big men.
Andrew Bynum is traditionally the starting center but because of his injury he may not be ready for the first round of the playoffs. He might come off the bench, however. Bynum is still a very young player and is just starting to develop. Bynum has the height, the length and body to be a top flight NBA center. It is unbelievable how good this kid could be. When the Lakers are able to put Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom on the court at the same time they have one of the best frontcourts in the NBA.
Although Bynum is still very raw he has learned quite rapidly during his short tenure in the NBA. He is extremely well coordinated. One of Andrew’s biggest assets is that he has good hands. He catches everything thrown to him, whether it is in the post, or on a pick and roll or lob to the rim. He does not have a well-developed low post game yet. He gets a lot of points off deep post ups and his activity around the hoop. Bynum is a tremendous offensive rebounder. With his length and explosive ability around the rim he is able to get balls and go back up and finish at a very high rate. Bynum is beginning to be able to use both hands in the post and shoot off either shoulder. He still struggles when he gets pushed away from the hoop by stronger opponents and he must exhibit a more polished post game.
When healthy Bynum can anchor the Lakers defense. He is alert and mobile at the defensive end. He knows how to help, rotate and block and change shots. With his length and mobility he has the potential to be one of the best big defenders in the league. Bynum can really rebound the ball. He goes and gets it off the glass. Bynum is still raw and foul prone times but is a major force for the Lakers defensively.
Nick Collison has been a significant contributor to the Oklahoma City frontcourt. He is a blue collar guy who plays with high energy. He is primarily a four man, but may be forced into playing center for the Thunder. Collison has never played big minutes for the Thunder but he has the potential to be a double-double player because of his abilities to score and rebound. He is ultra competitive in every thing he does.
Collison has been able to improve his offensive statistics every year in the league. In addition, he knows what a good shot is and shoots a very high percentage. Collison really runs the floor for a big man. He will get out and out-run and out-hustle other big men to the rim and the glass. He is relentless on the boards. He is a tremendous offensive rebounder. He must be boxed out or he will come up with big numbers on the offensive glass. He is an above average shooter, who has good shooting mechanics and can knock down the mid-range jump shot with good consistency. He does a good job of spacing the floor with his shooting abilities and giving room to Kevin Durant. He is a very good pick and pop player, but he does not have 3-point range and does not attempt 3s. Collison has good hands, can command the ball in the low post and score. He has some decent back to the basket move, the ability to flash up to the elbow or step off the box and play. He knows how to face up his opponent and be successful. He is a good passer and decision-maker for a big man.
Collison works hard on the defensive end of the floor. He is an above average one-on-one defender, however he will have a lot of difficulty guarding the Lakers bigs. If Gasol is the center he has a chance but if Bynum is back that will be a big problem. He is a little bit of a plodder and mechanical in his footwork. He is strong enough to guard most big men on the box, but he has trouble with mismatches away from the basket. Bigs with speed give him problems because of his lack of lateral quickness. Collison is a big-time rebounder.
Prediction: Lakers in six, but not easy. Thunder will win a couple of games and put the pressure on the Lakers to regroup and get their act together. The Lakers have the talent and experience to win this series.