Posted Feb 17 2010 3:52PM
Even if the Lakers aren't expected to make a deal this week, they will be a big deal this week. That's because any and all trades conducted by other contenders prior to Thursday's deadline will be done with one team in particular in mind.
As in: Does this make us better than the Lakers?
With a precarious eye toward the postseason and realizing a trip to the NBA Finals perhaps must pass through Los Angeles, a batch of championship dreamers are looking to Laker-proof themselves. Some teams will trade for bigs to counter Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Others will go for defense to throw at Kobe Bryant. Either directly or indirectly, this week is all about the contenders taking stock and figuring out what's needed in order to keep the Lakers' championship streak at one.
"I'm aware of that," said Kobe, during All-Star Weekend, before flashing a smile.
Consider it flattering. Kobe does, Phil Jackson does, the entire Laker organization does. The Lakers are doing their usual brisk walk through the regular season, showing few signs of cracks, except for the one in Kobe's damaged finger. Even with Kobe in a splint, the Lakers haven't suffered much. Besides, everyone's aware of what they're capable of doing once Kobe heals completely. So the arms race is on, with just a few days left before the bidding is closed and we get to see what everyone's taking into the postseason.
By getting Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from the Wizards, the Mavericks admitted their pre-trade team, in the edited words of owner Mark Cuban, "stunk." As a title contender, anyway. The Mavericks believe they can throw triple 7-footers (Dirk Nowitzki, Haywood and Erick Dampier) at the Lakers and even up the size issue. They like the idea of rotating Haywood and Dampier next to Nowitzki. You can understand why. Damp and Haywood can grab 10 rebounds each. They can block shots and use up fouls. And they can make it hard for Gasol and Bynum. Haywood is playing for cash this summer, too, so he has that little extra something going for him.
Here's the red flag, though: Haywood has never in his professional life been put in a position of real pressure. And the Mavericks are also the first team to count on him for anything special. Forget Gasol, for a moment; can Haywood deal with Tim Duncan? Kenyon Martin?
Butler brings a shooting touch, which is important because whomever guards Kobe needs to make Kobe work harder on the other end. Butler dropped 18 points on the Lakers recently and he's capable of forcing Kobe -- a great defender when he wants to be -- to spend precious energy as a stopper (unless Ron Artest checks Butler). But, here comes another red flag: Butler and Haywood have two months to mesh with new surroundings and prepare for April and beyond. Meanwhile, the core of the Lakers has been intact for nearly three seasons.
Who else? The Cavaliers are the hottest team in the league and still feel the need to load up. Obviously, the priority is to surround LeBron James with enough talent to make it tough for him to walk away this summer. But their talks with the Suns over Amar'e Stoudemire are also an attempt to throw another big in the direction of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett first and, if successful, have something for the Lakers should L.A. reach the Finals. The general feeling within the organization is this: LeBron can neutralize if not conquer any non-center in the Cavs' path. Adding a quality big man who can score could put them over the top.
Another red flag: Stoudemire is hardly known for his defense, and anyway, how's that going to work out with he and Shaquille O'Neal, given that it didn't when they teamed last year in Phoenix?
Nutshell, then: On the assumption that Kobe's body is finished betraying him for the season, the Lakers remain well equipped to deal with, if not defeat, the small handful of contenders trying to improve on the fly. The only true tender spot with the Lakers is the point guard position, where Derek Fisher, can we delicately say, looks better in a crisp suit as leader of the players union than starting point guard of the defending champs. And yet, given his history of clutchness, Fisher tends to save his best for last.
"We try not to worry about what other teams are doing," Kobe said. "We feel if we play the style of basketball we're accustomed to playing, then people have to adjust to us. Not the other way around."
What Kobe is saying to teams anxious to deal is this: Make your move. And make it a good one.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. 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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