How appropriate, the team that invented the Three-peat is in position to do it again. This off-season, while many top teams made a flurry of acquisitions, the Los Angeles Lakers made few moves: adding Matt Barnes and Steve Blake while losing Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar. If you're the defending two-time champion what's to fix? Sure, Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are all in their thirties and starting to leave the primes of their careers, but how big could the drop-off be in one season?
The answer: not much. Despite featuring one of the best scorers in league history, Kobe Bryant, the key to the Lakers' success seems to be defense, only giving up 95 points per game. This is a hallmark of Phil Jackson coached squads. The Lakers feature tenacious perimeter defenders in Bryant, Artest and Fisher, but they may be scariest because of the length they feature up front with Odom, Gasol and Andrew Bynum all reaching 6'10" or greater. They start two seven-footers and sometimes run the 6'10" Odom at "small" forward. The really impressive part is the skill of the Lakers' big men. They aren't sacrificing passing and ball movement by having multiple Bigs on the floor. Odom and Gasol are especially adept at passing and playmaking from the frontcourt. Thanks to the ability to keep such size on the floor, the Lakers are averaging 44 rebounds a game, good enough to be 4th in the league. So not only do they make it tough to get a good look at the basket, they rarely give you a second one.
For much of this season the Lakers have received criticism for sluggish play and a relatively unimpressive record, while seeming to idle well behind the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference standings. Future Hall of Fame coach Jackson hasn't seemed too worried: he keeps emphasizing that the Lakers priority is winning another championship and the regular season is just a time to gradually get his team ready to turn it on in the Playoffs. This is not an uncommon philosophy/practice for recent veteran-laden defending champions. The two previous NBA champions, the Boston Celtics and the Spurs, have seemed to slow roll through the regular season after winning championships in the prior season. The thinking seems to be if your team is older and injury prone and you already know that you have the talent to win a championship, why not conserve your key players during the regular season and have them be fresh for the post-season? Obviously this can come at the cost of play-off seeding and home court advantage, but perhaps having your veterans healthy and well rested is worth the trade off.
There seems to be an important component to this plan: the late season statement. If your championship caliber team seems to coast through most of the season and float behind the leaders in the standings, at some point you need to go on a run to let other teams know they still need to be intimidated by you. The Lakers seem to be in full statement mode right now. They've won seven in a row. Their most recent victory has provided the most dramatic statement: a 99-83 pasting of the Spurs that wasn't even as close as the score would suggest. The Spurs lead the Western Conference with an NBA best 51-12 record. Led by the same core of players that won the NBA title in 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Spurs seem to be returning to the apex of the NBA. However, the Lakers sent the Spurs and the rest of the league a clear message: until further notice they are still the champs.