Where do the Los Angeles Lakers go from here? After getting pounded by the Phoenix Suns 4-1 in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, L.A. faces a summer filled with questions to be answered and decisions to be made.
At one point this season, the Lakers were 26-13, having beaten San Antonio twice and Phoenix and Dallas once each. They actually looked like a good team. Andrew Bynum was growing by leaps and bounds and L.A. appeared to be a solid top-10 NBA club. But then the bottom dropped out, and the Lakers collapsed down the stretch before flaming out against Phoenix in the playoffs.
With Kobe Bryant in his prime and not a whole lot of help around him, L.A. won't project as a good team heading into next season unless dramatic changes are made. Mitch Kupchak has a lot of work ahead.
Lakers fans are upset that the team didn't make a stronger play for Jason Kidd at the trade deadline. The holdup in the deal was that L.A. didn't want to give up Bynum as part of the package. At the time, Bynum looked like an emerging star -- potentially one of the better centers the league will have over the next 10 years -- but he really tailed off and was a complete non-factor during the Lakers' late-season fade. Now it seems laughable that the Lakers wouldn't give him up to get Kidd.
Bynum is still a good prospect, but with his development slowing down (he played only three minutes in Wednesday's loss because he was unable to keep up with the speed of the game) it might take years before he's ready to blossom. And Kobe doesn't have years to wait.
The other factor facing Bynum is that the league has changed in the last few years with the addition of the zone defense. Teams are able to play small, quick lineups capable of harassing big men and beating them down the floor. Is Bynum going to be fast enough to keep up and play big minutes, or will he be a spot defensive player? Those are questions Kupchak will have to figure out because Bynum will be his biggest bargaining chip this summer.
Bynum, Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar are all assets that could be used in a trade, but Kupchak would like to hang onto all of them. That's why it's going to be interesting to see what the Lakers decide to do.
Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs promises to be a great series. Both clubs are healthy and playing well, and they're both deep. This is a series that Tim Duncan can dominate because he's too big and strong for Amare Stoudemire. Yes, Kurt Thomas does a great job on Duncan, but if Thomas is in the game then the Suns don't run well.
It's hard to imagine San Antonio allowing Phoenix to get into its running game very often in this series, and when the Spurs play at their pace, they're tough to beat. Ask the Nuggets: They never once scored 100 points in their series, despite being the NBA's third-highest scoring team.
What has gone unnoticed about the Suns, though, is that they can play defense themselves. The Spurs shot just 41 percent in three games against Phoenix this season, and the Suns are much more prepared to win a grind-it-out game than they had been the past couple of seasons.
If Stoudemire can put up a fight defensively against Duncan and then make him work at the other end, Phoenix has a great chance to win. San Antonio is one of the league's best at covering the three-point line, and the Spurs simply do not leave the Suns' perimeter shooters. That's one of the reasons Stoudemire averaged 37 points a game against Duncan and the Spurs two years ago in a playoff series. San Antonio is willing to allow him some space in order to not give up open threes. If that's the case, Stoudemire will have to be on top of his game for his team to prevail.
Ultimately, though, Phoenix is all about Steve Nash. He is so brilliant that he figures out defenses and devises ways to attack. Against the Spurs, he may have to be a bigger scorer than he normally is, but as we know, he's very capable of putting up points. Can't wait to watch that one.
The one everyone's waiting for, though, is Game 6 in Oakland on Thursday night. I'm interested to see how the Golden State Warriors come out of the gate. Can they put the Game 5 disappointment behind them? Can they regain the devil-may-care attitude that somehow eluded them in the final three minutes of the game in Dallas?
It seems to me the Warriors are starting to feel pressure for the first time in the series, and how they respond to that will be key. Of course, the Dallas Mavericks have to feel a ton of pressure as well, especially playing on Golden State's home floor. The Warriors fans will be going nuts, and Dallas will have to weather the storm early to try to negate the crowd some.
The Mavs will rely on their zone to slow the tempo again, along with some trapping of Baron Davis. But playing that way allows for a lot of open looks from three for the Warriors, who were 16-for-35 in Game 5. Stay tuned.
- San Antonio