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Vince Thomas

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Sure, they look good. But is the Lakers' bench good enough to win another title?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Worried? Pumped? Settle down, we'll set you straight


Posted Nov 4 2009 6:38PM

One of my favorite (but really least favorite) things about the NBA's opening week is how we (fans, journalists) like to jump to outrageous and often faulty conclusions based on a couple of measly games. Anything can happen in the first few games of a season, but it doesn't necessarily foreshadow a trend.

Danilo Gallinari drops 30 on Philly and, the next thing I know, I'm getting texts that read something like: "Yo, son. Gallinari is gonna be an All-Star, this season." Ummm ... no he won't. You're overreacting. Or, a known contender will drop a few head-scratcher games and the Doomsday folk come out in hordes. "Yo, son, Cleveland lost to Toronto? Lottery time!" Uhhh, no. You're overreacting.

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Or what about when Player X has a dreadful week or Team Y seems like it's hiding a potentially fatal flaw and we all ignore it because, you know, it's Player X or Team Y. You could say that, in these cases, we under-react. Then there are instances like last season, when Danny Granger bum-rushed the scene and we had a hunch that he had arrived as a big-timer. Well, guess what? He kept bum-rushing.

I try not to make any concrete assessments about players or teams until after the holiday season. But there's a lot of misguided doom-'n-gloom and Utopian euphoria out there right now. What kinda guy would I be if I didn't hand out a couple chill-pills to some and wake a few others up with some slaps to the head? I'd be a sucka -- that's what kind of guy I'd be.

Below are some sentiments that you've probably watched spouted on TV, heard at bar, read on Twitter or argued about at a barbershop.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... I know the Lakers are only six-deep, but they're fine."

Verdict: Under-reaction

Reason: There's a potential problem brewing in L.A. We keep expecting for Jordan Farmar to get back to that pre-injury "promising young point guard" that we saw the past couple years. And we keep waiting for Sasha Vujacic to get his stroke back. And we keep hoping that Luke Walton plays like a guy that deserved the $30 million contract he signed in 2007. But none of that is going to happen.

So here's what the Lakers have: Kobe, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher. That's six players, five of whom will be will be 30 years old by playoff time (well, Gasol turns 30 in July). In order for L.A. to be L.A. for a championship run, Phil needs to keep Fish's minutes around 30 and Kobe's around 36-38. Here's the thing -- with a bench that doesn't feature a competent backup PG or a wing player taller than 6-foot-5, the Lakers are looking at a bench where Odom (when Gasol returns) is the only player worthy of cracking the rotation. Did you see the way the L.A. bench nearly squandered a 24-point lead in Sunday night's game against the Hawks? It's atrocious. L.A. got away with this baloney last season, but the real-deal squads got realer this summer and Kupchak needs to be on the phone looking to fortify this bench.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Boston is the best squad in the league and it's kinda not even close, right now."

Verdict: Spot on

Reason: After strangling their first four opponents, holding them to an average of 81 ppg, let's just take a quick gander at the Cs rotation.

Rajon Rondo is the league's top rebounding point guard, probably the best defender at that position and is now one of the five best floor leaders and distributors. Ray Allen remains the league's best shooter, especially in the clutch. Paul Pierce is a top five big-game and crunch-time scorer. Kendrick Perkins is one of the last few enforcers stalking the hardwoods. Kevin Garnett has about about as much hops as a stale can of Genny Cream Ale these days, but, when he gets healthy, he'll team with Rasheed Wallace on defense to completely choke off a good quarter of the court and then go down on the other end and kill immobile and/or low-IQ teams on pick-'n-rolls with Boston's perimeter dudes.

Marquis Daniels gives them versatility off the bench. And when Big Baby Davis comes back from his knucklehead hand injury, that gives the Cs four starter-quality big men, which makes them essentially foul-trouble-proof. If Boston stays healthy -- which is a big "if" for a squad with four big-minute players over 32 years-old -- and L.A.'s Farmar-Vujacic-Walton trio sees more than a combined 20 mpg in the playoffs, then I'm exceptionally close to swapping my "Lakers over Celtics" preseason hunch.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Brandon Jennings? Rookie of the Year."

Verdict: Overreaction

Reason: Jennings is my man. Love his game, love his swag. He's going to be a star. But folks need to chill. NBA defenses will have something for him soon. That's what scouts do. When they cook up some kryptonite, watch the turnovers pile up even more. His current averages aren't going to hold up and Milwaukee is going to be a cellar-dweller, so the ROY talk is way too early.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Chris Paul is at a crossroads. His career could go either way."

Verdict: Spot on

Reason: This is his fifth year and the Hornets look as though they will again be a middle-rung Western squad (between 46-52 wins) even if they're healthy. I hope I'm wrong. I do know that this Hornets squad can't win a championship, they don't even seem capable of a first-round upset at this point. And they have some bulky contracts that don't seem likely to be going anywhere.

You know what that means? It means that the best point guard of the past 20 years could be headed for a career where he wastes his prime years on a team that will never be built for a championship run. I know it's early and all it'll take is a couple five-game winning streaks (though, looking at the Hornets' schedule, I don't see an easy five-game stretch coming anytime soon), but Paul doesn't even look like he's having fun out there. Sunday night in Boston, Paul got into a little end-of-game jawing with Rondo, one of his point guard rivals. After the game he called Rondo "lucky" to be able to play with the Big Three. That wasn't a Rondo-diss, that was despondent jealousy. The same night, Rondo had this to say: "He has to do a lot more than what I have to do." You ain't lying.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Marc Gasol? Meh ... he's alright."

Verdict: Under-reaction

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Kevin Martin is a BEAST!"

Verdict: Overreaction

Reasons: I watched both of these guys' teams play each other last night and it only reinforced what I thought about both. Martin put up a slapdash 48 points and Gasol finished with a subtle 16 and 11. Both performances reinforced what I already thought about each player -- Martin is overrated and Pau's little brother is a slept-on gem.

I'm not like those old curmudgeons that actually hate the league that they cover and on crusades against players they don't like. I don't have any personal issues with Martin. He seems like a nice dude and he's productive on the court. But his reputation -- especially among dimwitted fans -- is so outsized that it irks me. Martin is the best player on a bad team, a tragically, deplorably, eye-gougingly bad team. Take any of the top ten teams in the league and he's the third best player, at best (although he'd be a very dope third-banana). But because he puts up gaudy numbers (currently third in the league at 31 ppg) folks act like he's a All-NBA. Ummm, no he's not.

I'll never forget sitting in the Clippers locker room last season and overhearing the squad talk about a 30-point game Martin had against another squad the previous night. One of the guys said, "I bet about 14 of 'em were on leaks"... as in: about 28 of the 30 probably came on plays where, almost as soon as the shot left the opponent's hand, Martin was leaking (and streaking) down the court for a bucket. Think of it as sly basket-hanging. That was obviously an exaggeration, but it gives you an idea of the level of esteem accorded to him by his peers. Martin is a good young player, but let's not go too far. A Martin 25 is not a Melo 25.

Meanwhile, Gasol, in his second year, looks like a Foundation Player. There are a lot of big men in this game that lack that "feel for the game." Guys like Greg Oden look lost half of the time. Gasol always seems to know what's going on. From the little things, like the way he knowingly surveys the court when he gets the ball in the post, to big things, like a Kevin McHale drop-step that he'll whip out, this dude is a player's player. In a lot of ways, he's the Grizzlies' smartest basketball player not named Allen Iverson. I'm an O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay fan just like the next man, but coach Lionel Hollins needs to start running the offense through Gasol. Not some of the time -- all the time. Oh, and he's only 24.

Blabber: "Yo, son ... Cleveland lost to Toronto? Lottery time!"

Verdict: Overreaction

Reason: Thankfully, Cleveland got two quick wins to squelch the hysteria that met its 0-2 start. But don't let the two recent wins lull you to sleep. There should be a moderate level of concern because Cleveland's offense still moves with the fluidity of sludge and the Cavaliers still have two immobile centers that can't defend the pick-'n-roll.

Because Rashard Lewis remains suspended and Vince Carter has a gimpy ankle (Word, Vince? Already?), next Wednesday's rematch against Orlando won't be a proper litmus test. Cavs fans might have to wait until February, when Cleveland plays Orlando twice and has a game against Boston, before you can make a real assesment about this squad's title hopes.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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