One passionate Lakers fan I know, my buddy Harry, sees the league-best talent, the pedigree, and, hey, the team has Kobe Bryant, and so for him, even if LeBron James and the Cavaliers do genuinely scare him, winning the 2010 NBA title is still almost as simple as cueing Chick Hearn.
Another friend of mine, a displaced New Yorker and closeted Bryant critic named Warren, drinks the Hater-Aid, saying the Lakers’ uppity sense of entitlement, lack of urgency and sporadic rock-star work ethic will get the team thrown off the stage in the Western Finals.
These two disparate points of view make my friends bipolar opposites. It’s why they get along so well.
Truth is, this Laker team, with all its precocious gifts, leaves too many unanswered questions for anyone to know what’s going to happen once the playoffs start at the end of next month.
Trust me, I bet even Yoda himself, Coach Phil Jackson, isn’t sure which way this thing is gonna go.
Myself, I don’t have a clue.
This list of questions is as long as Lamar Odom’s and Khloe Kardashian’s receiving line at the wedding. Take a look at just five:
1. The Big One, the one no one dares talk about or ever brings up: Are you seeing things game in and game out now where Bryant is starting to really show his NBA age, the 14 long years of mileage? Nine turnovers here, getting his shot blocked finally, having trouble breaking guys down as easily as he once did … or maybe the Mamba just dials it up for postseason.
2. Will Pau Gasol hold up physically? He played year round and his hamstrings balked, both of them weakening during two separate injury timeouts this season. The Lakers are hoping, of course, but no one knows how much the Big Spaniard really has left in the tank right now.
3. Can Andrew Bynum be a factor? The Lakers are too big, too long and too much for everyone else (except maybe Cleveland) with Bynum active and healthy, but that Achilles strain is a worrisome injury. Your season, in Bynum’s case, teetering on one thin, little tendon in the back of your foot staying in one piece for nearly two months while you’re putting 290 pounds of G-force on it playing NBA basketball. A productive Bynum could make an enormous difference in May and June, but that Achilles scares me to death -- and no doubt the Lakers too.
4. Is Odom’s half-frozen, injured shoulder (another taboo topic in Lakerland) going to inhibit the Walking Mismatch from having the kind of massive effect he had in the late rounds a year ago? If L.O. is limited, so are the Lakers.
5. And when push comes to shove, which it always invariably does in the playoffs, can Ron Artest at least half-control Carmelo Anthony, if Denver gets through, and then gear up again for James, if the Cavs can get by Orlando? Don’t kid yourself, Anthony and James are the reasons -- and really the only reasons -- why the Lakers picked Artest over Trevor Ariza.
And so if there's a split among Laker hierarchy over whether Artest/Ariza was the right move to make, as has been reported, we may find out which front-office faction was right concerning the biggest off-season decision the Lakers made.
Bottom line: Having watched and covered every one of the Lakers’ 10 championships in Los Angeles, I’m leaning toward thinking they’ll get through the West, but I’m nowhere near convinced that LeBron James and a hungrier Cavs team won’t get them in the Finals.
For sure, if you’re a realistic Lakers fan somewhere between my friends Harry and Warren, you’re going into this postseason with more uncertainty, more questions and a greater sense of dread and mystery than you did a year ago when the stars were aligned, the team wanted it badly, and the championship somehow seemed almost preordained.
-- Ted Green
Green formerly covered the Lakers for the Los Angeles Times. He is currently senior sports producer for KTLA Prime News.
Photo: Kobe Bryant. Credit: Derick E. Hingle / US Presswire.