December 12—Lakers at Utah
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I thought the outcome of the Utah game was predictable. I won’t dwell on that. But I will ask a question that I’ve often wondered about, and that we got somewhat of an answer to in Salt Lake City.
Would the Lakers be a title contender without Kobe?
In Utah, Kobe was both injured and sick. He was one day removed from fracturing his right index finger, and then came down with the stomach flu. He tried to play—but that might as well have been me out there. He wasn’t close to himself, making just seven of 24 shots, including one of nine from behind the three-point line. It was only the fourth time all season he was held under 20 points, and the Lakers now stand 1-3 in those games.
So let’s consider the question. Without Kobe. the Lakers would still have Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest. That’s a great team. On the bench, you’d have Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell, DJ Mbenga, and Adam Morrison. Not a great bench, but not the worst either.
Gasol would be the leading scorer, with Bynum a close second. Odom would have to score more than he does now, but that probably wouldn’t be a problem. Artest would move up to the third or fourth option, which he’s been his whole career anyway. Fisher is a stabilizing influence, and in many ways, a coach on the floor. You wouldn’t play most of the bench guys, although Brown, Farmar and Mbenga would probably have to play every game.
On paper, that’s probably a 50 win team. Remember that in the first year after Phil Jackson lost Michael Jordan to baseball in the 90’s, he led the Bulls to 55 wins without him. If the “no Kobe” Lakers win 50, they’re in the playoffs, probably as a four or five seed.
In the West, that means they would have teams like Denver, San Antonio, Portland and maybe Utah or Dallas standing in the way. Again, on paper, that looks like no big deal.
But I would argue that they’d never get out the West because they wouldn’t have the guy.
Every great championship team has that one guy who puts the team on his back when the game is on the line. Normally a first-team all-star or hall of fame caliber player that just delivers. Look at that list of teams again. Denver has Carmelo, San Antonio has Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, Portland has Brandon Roy and Dallas has Dirk. You might find one team over the past twenty years (I’m thinking the ’04 Pistons) that does it by committee, but I would argue that you need Superman when the game needs to be saved.
Kobe is that guy. As good as the rest of the Lakers look on paper, I’ve seen too many games to believe that Kobe can be replaced. He sets the tone on defense, is arguably the most clutch player in the league today, and most of all, he’s a leader.
As the famous proverb says: “You know what they call a leader with no followers? A guy taking a walk.”
Without Kobe, I don’t think the Lakers get out of the second round. With him, they are the absolute favorite to win the title again. As good as the rest of the team looks, he’s the difference between a great season, and a championship one.
Next up: game two of the road trip in Chicago on Tuesday night.