By Travis Rodgers
Playoff Matchup: Round One
The Los Angeles Lakers claim the first seed in the West. As a reward, they face the Denver Nuggets, an underachieving team studded with potential. The Lakers won the season series 3-0 and are on a roll. They will not have Andrew Bynum, their young low post presence, who has missed most of the season. Swingman Trevor Ariza may return during the first round. Meanwhile the Nuggets have hit a small snag as Carmelo Anthony is forced to deal with some fairly serious legal charges that could be a bit of a distraction. Let's look at the tale of the tape:
LA Lakers 2007/08 stats Career Playoff Numbers
PG Derek Fisher 11.7 pts, 2.9 ast, 2.1 reb; 3472 mins, 8.6 pts, 2.6 ast, 2.4 reb
SG Kobe Bryant 28.3 pts, 5.4 ast, 6.3 reb; 5084 mins, 23.3 pts, 4.5 ast, 4.9 reb
SF Lamar Odom 14.2 pts, 3.6 ast, 10.2 reb; 1015 mins, 18.0 pts, 3.3 ast, 10.0 reb
PF Vlad Radmanovic 8.4 pts, 1.9 ast, 3.3 reb; 481 mins, 7.3 pts, 0.9 ast, 4.0 reb
C Pau Gasol 18.8 pts, 3.5 ast, 7.8 reb; 424 mins, 20.0 pts, 2.7 ast, 6.4 reb
6th Man Luke Walton 7.2 pts, 3.0 ast, 3.9 reb; 495 mins, 5.3 pts, 1.8 ast, 3.0 reb
Denver Nuggets 2007/08 stats Career Playoff Numbers
PG Anthony Carter 7.8 pts, 5.6 ast, 2.9 reb; 357 mins, 7.4 pts, 4.9 ast, 3.4 reb
SG Allen Iverson 26.5 pts, 7.2 ast, 3.0 reb; 3046 mins, 30.0 pts, 6.1 ast, 3.9 reb
SF Carmelo Anthony 25.8 pts, 3.4 ast, 7.4 reb; 725 mins, 20.8 pts, 2.2 ast, 7.2 reb
PF Kenyon Martin 12.4 pts, 1.2 ast, 6.4 reb; 2133 mins, 17.2 pts, 2.3 ast, 7.9 reb
C Marcus Camby 9.2 pts, 3.3 ast, 13.2 reb; 1773 mins, 8.6 pts, 1.0 ast, 9.0 reb
6th Man Linas Kleiza 11.1 pts, 1.2 ast, 4.2 reb; 79 mins, 1.8 pts, 0.5 ast, 1.5 reb
Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant have some history in the playoffs. Both have done some pretty amazing things and sometimes they did it against one another's team. Still, Bryant earns a sizeable edge over AI. Iverson has made some deep playoff runs, but only one of those has come since 2001. Even with Carmelo Anthony on his team and defensive stalwart Marcus Camby, Iverson has struggled with his shot and his teams have fared poorly in the playoffs. While Anthony Carter and Derek Fisher's numbers are comparable, Fisher's experience and uncanny ability to hit clutch shots give him the clear edge as well. Bryant and Fisher have already firmly established their playoff legacies. This year, they look to write new chapters, together again.
Kenyon Martin is not the same player he once was. Carmelo Anthony has had his defensive struggles against LA. And Marcus Camby cannot seem to anchor the Nuggets defensively for some reason. I think the problem is attitude because Iverson is a pesky defender, Anthony has the tools to be a good defender, and Martin once was very good. They just have not gelled for whatever reason. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom becomes a superstar in the playoffs. His 12 postseason games as a Laker have seen him average 19.3 points, 11.8 boards, and 3.8 assists. Factor in his torrid shooting since the all-star break (59% from the floor) and Denver is going to have their hands full. Pau Gasol is a 20 point per game scorer who has struggled to carry teams on his own, but as a second option, he is absolutely perfect in the triangle. Vlad Radmanovic is obviously the weak link, but after hitting 19 of 41 treys during the playoffs last season and hitting 41% this season, he is going to find himself in a position to knock down uncontested shots repeatedly. That is all he has to do offensively. It's something he excels at.
One of these teams has a bench that has entered a lot of conversations about "Who's the best bench?" One of these teams has a bench that hasn't been mentioned terribly much. Linas Kleiza, Yakhouba Diawara, and Eduardo Najera all have some experience, but only Kleiza in my opinion is someone to worry about. The Lakers have found themselves allowing shooters to shoot from the arc too frequently this season. Much like Radmanovic, that is where Kleiza can shine.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have a very experienced Luke Walton, himself no foreigner to postseason excellence, leading a pack of talented role players. Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar have had their moments to shine in the post season. Farmar has also had his moments where he has struggled to cover opposing Point Guards. Fortunately, he will face no one so skilled as Steve Nash. The remainder of the bench for LA is not terribly experienced in postseason play, but look for Ronny Turiaf to make a big impact on the series. His knack for getting to the line and blocking shots is often underestimated.
George Karl is a very good coach. His career win percent is a touch under 60%, and he has coached 141 career playoff games (winning 44%). He has never had a championship team and he has not led a team past the first round since 2001. No one will take anything away from Karl. His team will finish in the 8th seed despite posting 49 wins (or 50 depending upon the outcome of their game tonight). Typically, that is good enough for a middle seed. Denver is no slouch and they are going to be competitive in any series. Unfortunately for Karl, he faces Phil Jackson.
The Lakers came out of the gate slowly, winning 9 of their first 17. They closed the season by winning 48 of their final 65 games. This season actually lowered Phil Jackson's career win% during the regular season to 70%. He has coached 256 career playoff games, winning 70% of them, has led his team past the first round every year except last season, has won ten Conference Championships and nine NBA Championships. He is arguably the greatest playoff coach in NBA history. While the going will be a bit rougher than when he had Kobe and Shaq together, there is good reason to think that Jackson's 4-8 playoff record in his second stint with the Lakers will greatly improve.
Kobe Bryant will win his first MVP Trophy and then he will go in search of his first Finals MVP Trophy. That's a long way away, but he will do what it takes to get his team there. Derek Fisher's work at the arc, Odom's work on the glass, and Pau Gasol's work in the paint will be too much for Denver. The Lakers will begin at home and they will probably end at home, winning the series in five games.