It was precisely 228 days ago tonight when Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title and defeated the Magic in five games. As Bryant and his team celebrated the victory, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson watched from the sidelines to remember the feeling and inspire them to return to have their turn at celebrating a win in the final game of the season.
A lot of things have changed for both those teams since that day.
The Lakers more or less switched Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. And the Magic did a near complete make over in acquiring Vince Carter in the offseason and rebuilding their bench.
Not surprisingly (at least at this point), Los Angeles has been more successful with fewer changes to its championship roster while Orlando has struggled to integrate all the pieces. The Lakers hold the best record in the NBA at 31-9 while the Magic are fighting just to be first in their division at 26-14, a half game behind the Hawks.
But despite the seemingly different starts to their seasons, Los Angeles has had its own problems that have been very similar to its fellow finalist from last season.
Kurt Helin of TrueHoop blog Forum Blue and Gold expands on how the Lakers are going about defending their title:
The Lakers and the Magic are a little alike this season in that the record is good but there are questions if the teams are as good as those numbers suggest.
The Lakers have the best record in the league (31-9) and they have gotten that despite some some pretty serious injury problems. Pau Gasol has missed 17 games and they are 11-6 in those games, a reminder that they are good without him but not a championship team. Kobe Bryant is playing through a fracture on the index finger on his shooting hand, which has not caused him to miss time but has caused him to miss some shots. Luke Walton’s bad back — does that run in the family? — has caused him to miss games. Through it all it the Lakers have found ways to win, occasionally with very dramatic shots from Kobe Bryant.
But the Lakers team the Magic will see is not the same in style as the one that beat them in June. That Lakers team was a amazing offensive team that was pretty good at defense. This Lakers team is a very good defensive team (second in the league in points per possession surrendered) that has had a pretty pedestrian offense.
Two things have helped the defense. One is Ron Artest, who brings a physical strength and a real tenacity to the defense. He can lock down guys at the two, three or four, and he does it by using ball denial, by physically denying position, and by never relenting. That relentlessness has spread through the rest of the Lakers (most of the time).
The other thing is a healthy Andrew Bynum in the middle. I don’t think I need to explain to Magic fans just how much it means to have a shot-blocking threat in the paint and protecting the rim. The Bynum that was in the Finals last season was basically playing on one leg, and while he is no Howard he can do a lot of things in the paint.
The up-and-down offense is a little more perplexing. The talent is certainly there — Kobe, Gasol, Bynum is an efficient scorer, Artest, Odom and so on. The triangle offense has won 10 titles, so that’s not the issue. But this Lakers team has not used the motion in the offense as much as they did last year — Bynum and Kobe and Gasol (when he is in the lineup) want the ball in the post. But rather than cuts off that and passes out, the Lakers have gone a lot more isolation. When the Lakers have passed out, their three point shooting has been way off. Derek Fisher has started to look his age. The bench has been spotty.
There is a lot of season left, with Gasol back the hope is that things start to blend together and the Lakers start to return to the team that won the title last year.
I also asked Kurt to give me his thoughts as someone following the Western Conference’s prohibitive favorite on the Eastern Conference race, which has certainly started to heat up:
If (the Lakers) can get back, it will be interesting to see who can get there out of the East. If Jameer can start to look like himself and Orlando can return to form they are very good. If Boston can get and stay healthy they are very good. If Shaq can muster up the energy to defend the plethora of pick-and-rolls he will see in the playoffs the Cavs can be very good. And, honestly, can Atlanta play like the team they have been in January in June (I’m not sold, but if everyone else has not gotten back to form they have a shot).
Whatever happens, we’re not sure what Lakers team they would meet there (and if the Lakers don’t get the offense together, they may not get there at all).