Ball Don't Lie - NBA



Cleveland's been the best team in the NBA, and for most of the season, it hasn't been close. And nobody's been as consistent, because outside of a few hiccups in the first two weeks of the season, the Cavs have just been winnin' away while the Magic struggled early and the Lakers struggled late. Right?

Well, not quite. The Magic led the NBA with a +7.5 point differential this season, a full point ahead of the Cavaliers, and these things tend to hold up in the postseason. A year removed from a postseason, you're reminded, that saw the Magic hold up Cleveland's championship aspirations.

We're also nearly a year removed from the Lakers winning the whole thing, and as impressive as that cadre of 50-win teams is way out West, really, can anyone touch the Lakers at full strength?

I supposed we're about to find out. Sweet.

But before the playoffs tip off Saturday, it might be time for a little time capsule work (that is to say, bookmark this among the other previews as well, check back during the summer) for a post that gauges where, exactly, the Magic and Lakers are in mid-April. Not because I'm going to write any predictions that hold up, but just for a good taste of what's now. How we're feeling about them heading into the postseason, and how silly and/or prescient we'll look in late June.

The Magic, I'm sorry, still look stacked to me. Mainly because they are, and they've won 59 games despite a fair amount of injuries, and because of that whole point differential thing. Toss in what should still be the matchup advantages on Cleveland (until, as I've mentioned many times, the Cavs show us something right out of the gate in May against Orlando), and this should still be your favorite.

But the Magic have a massive Achilles heel, and though your typical snarky online scribe wants you to believe that Vince Carter(notes) (what a wuss!) is going to be this team's downfall, he isn't.

This league is full of sometimes-there wing players, and Carter's no exception. The Magic can survive a 3-for-7 shooting night from him, even if it's on the average, even against the best teams. It's because he's a shooting guard, and shooting guards aren't important unless they're your best player.

Who is important? The two guys that could have Orlando out way, way earlier than it needs to be. Rashard Lewis(notes) and Jameer Nelson(notes).

Rashard Lewis is important because his position — a stretch power forward — is important. And unless Lewis looks for his own shot and then connects on his own shot at a high rate, the Magic are in trouble. Why? Because Lewis contributes absolutely nothing else of value. Nothing. So-so defense, league-worst rebounding at his position, no real playmaking. He has to hit shots or he has to sit, quickly, for Ryan Anderson(notes).

Who, by the way, was a better all-around player this year than Lewis while making (come on, don't get haughty, you knew this was coming) nearly $17 million less than Rashard.

And Nelson? Sure, scoring point guards are everywhere. But scoring point guards put you over the top. They get you to the line, they keep the defense guessing ("what if he breaks the play and scores?"), and they make the screen-and-roll game so, so difficult to defend.

Nelson, at his best, is among the best at putting it in. He has to show up.

The problem is, too many times this year, both he and Lewis have been content to stay back. And the Magic don't stand a chance if these two aren't aggressive to start, and efficient in summation.

Los Angeles' issues have been well documented. They've been a mediocre team since the All-Star break, slipping toward the middle at a time when other "flip-the-switch" Laker teams have turned it around in time to get ready for the postseason.

The problem has been orthodoxy, when it is least earned. Or needed.

The Lakers became a pick-and-roll team this season at about the worst time. They leaned heavily on Kobe Bryant(notes) at a time when Bryant, playing through myriad injuries that would have sat most mortals, needed to lean on the system and his teammates.

As a result, with Kobe working at a less-efficient clip, but dominating the ball and the shot chart more and more, the Lakers' offense suffered as it more closely resembled the guy doing most of the work with it. From third in offense in 2008-09 to 11th this season, and though Ron Artest(notes) still has to be pointed (quite literally) in the same direction sometimes, the only personnel difference between this year and last year isn't at fault.

It's on Kobe falling apart physically (his per-minute stats, across the board, are down this season, while his shooting percentages have fallen quite a bit, as you'd expect from a guy with nine working fingers), and the Lakers still deciding to go through him way, way too much.

As a result, there's no five-man flow on a team that was built to take advantage of a five-man flow in a way no other team does. Not the Cavs, even with LeBron James(notes) looking to find everyone, and not the Magic. And because the unpredictability behind defending the Lakers went away, people just went under screens, and watched as Kobe and Derek Fisher(notes) shot away.

You can't defend the results, backers. From third to 11th. That's not on Ron Artest.

So how do the Lakers get back? Well, they enjoy the long first round. They get Andrew Bynum(notes) back, in some capacity. But most of all, they revisit the offensive principals that made them so hard to guard last year. Remember, that "third" designation takes into account all the minutes being sopped up by terrible bench players. At the team's best, offensively, it was the best. That's nowhere near the case this season.

If the Lakers don't turn it around offensively, to say nothing of the otherwise-stout defense that has fallen off over the last three weeks, they're out before their time as well.

Can the Lakers win it while still working this way? With these "give-a-man-a-fish" tendencies? Sure. And I don't think Orlando has that luxury, despite the team's depth and talent.

But it won't be easy, and it's certainly nothing to bank on. But it could happen.

Call me a sucker for defending champs, though. Until something changes, these two have to be your favorites. The Magic match up too well, the Lakers' potential is too great. And until something changes, this is the Finals pairing that I'll be expecting.

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