Over the course of the regular season I found the best way to learn about another team was to talk to someone who follows it regularly. Brilliant idea huh? But seriously as bloggers we have a tendency to focus so heavily on our teams that we simply can't offer the same level of analysis about other teams. So I jumped at the chance to exchange questions with Brian from SportsHubLA. You may recall SportsHubLA from the Roland Lazenby post I linked to last week. Meanwhile, did you know Lamar Odom has been playing out of his mind and the importance of Derek Fisher's relationship with Kobe Bryant? Learn more from Brian's answers below and check out what I said about the Celtics as well.
Green Bandwagon: Who was the most improved Laker this season?
SportsHubLA: Well, it depends on how you define improved, and from what point in the year. Initially, the answer was Andrew Bynum, hands down. His improvement was the reason, after a moderately slow start, the Lakers were so good over the first half of the season. In December, he averaged 13.9/9.1, with 3.3 blocks a night, numbers which rose to 17.3/12.2 before his injury in January. He gave the Lakers a real inside presence, and penalized teams for overplaying Kobe, who became very fond of lofting the ball up near the hoop and letting the kid go get it. Once Bynum got hurt and the Lakers stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies, you can argue that Lamar Odom became their most improved player. Unburdened from having to be a consistent scorer behind Kobe, Odom became (ironically) a consistent scorer. He attacked the basket offensively and on the glass. In short, he's been awesome since Gasol arrived. If you want to look big picture at the supporting cast over the entire year, I'd go with Sasha Vujacic. He's always been an amazing 11:30 shooter (you can watch after practice as he drills three pointer after three pointer) but borderline useless at 7:30. This season, he's become a very reliable offensive weapon, has improved his defense, and now regularly is part of the fourth quarter lineup Phil Jackson often uses to close games.
Green Bandwagon: Who is the most underrated Laker?
SportsHubLA: It's not like he's flown entirely under the radar, but between the emergence of Bynum, the Gasol trade, Odom's increased productivity, and Ronny Turiaf Dance Cam, the contribution of Derek Fisher's return has been soft shoed a little. He's averaged almost 12 points a night playing under 28 minutes, shot over 40 percent from three point range, and (this will be a shock to you, I'm sure) constituted a monumental improvement over Smush Parker. But beyond that, so much of what Kobe's been able to accomplish as a leader is linked to Fish's presence in the locker room. Bryant's personality is so strong that he needs a balance, someone who can say things to his teammates, and to him, that otherwise might not be said. I think As Kobe has learned to "give," Fish has taught his teammates to "take." During training camp, he told me that with Bryant, it can be difficult to protect your space as a basketball player, so dominant is his skill and temperament. Not everyone on the team knew how to do that. Fisher did, and between that and Kobe meeting them halfway, what you get is a really high quality team game.
Green Bandwagon: Charles Barkley famously said this was Kobe Bryant's best team during the Lakers/Jazz series before backtracking a bit. Where does this squad rank in comparison with LA's teams from 2000-2004?
SportsHubLA: I always struggle to compare teams from different eras, even recent ones. I think the combination of Bryant and an in-his-prime Shaq is probably better top shelf talent than what the Lakers have now- how could it not be?- but at the same time, this squad has more balance, and probably moves the ball better. They still have an inside presence, albeit a decidedly different style, that allows them to operate from the paint to the perimeter, and amazing versatility. They can play and win in a lot of different ways. It's hard to say they're better than a team that won three straight titles and made another Finals, seeing as this is only the first trip for this group. But the potential, especially if Bynum comes back healthy next season, to have a run that's as good as the Threepeat teams, and are less likely to blow up under the weight of personalities and ego. Fair to say it's an exciting time to be a Lakers fan.
Green Bandwagon: Great stuff. Look for more from SportsHubLA as the Finals approach. And I'm a huge fan of labeling someone an "amazing 11:30 shooter". It reminds me of Lenny Dykstra calling Pete Incaviglia the "best five-o’clock hitter in baseball history" in that epic New Yorker article.