For Lakers’ fans paying attention in this lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign the early returns have been a mixed bag. The team’s 4-3 start is hard to quantify in some ways since the absence of Andrew Bynum for the first four games via suspension may have cost them a win or two. But surely even the most casual fans can recognize some of the missteps thus far. The turnovers, the inconsistent three point shooting, the all too familiar Kobe Bryant stubbornness.
It appears, however, that the group is slowly coming around, and that as the season plays out this is going to be a very good team. Yet what fans may be wondering is, will the team be good enough to be championship worthy? I believe the answer to that question is yes, and I also believe there is a perfect model already laid out for the Lakers to follow in their quest for a title. This model comes in the form of the 1999 San Antonio Spurs.
When comparing the Spurs of ’99 with the Lakers of today the obvious place to start is with the lockout. The condensed schedule was difficult for San Antonio at first as they sputtered to a 6-8 start. But as the season wore on they found their identity and finished the regular season winning 31 of their last 36 games. In the playoffs they peaked as a unit, storming to the NBA Finals and losing only two games en route to the title. The Lakers hope to plot a similar course.
Then there is the coach and his philosophy. Mike Brown wasn’t on the San Antonio staff for the ’99 title run but he did sit on the sidelines with Greg Popovich and company from 2000 to 2003, and was part of a championship club during his final season there. Being a Pop disciple it’s no surprise that Brown is heavy on defense, hustle and teamwork. This renewed commitment to the grittier aspects of basketball is a welcome change for a Lakers squad that has a history of blowing leads and looking disinterested at the most inopportune times.
Yet more than just the coach and the lockout, there is a striking similarity in how these two rosters are built.
Just as San Antonio once did with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, the Lakers will rely on a pair of twin towers to anchor the middle of their defense and create a lethal one-two punch in the post on offense. In Bynum’s first three games back he has shown that, when healthy, he and Pau Gasol form perhaps the most dynamic 4-5 combo in the league. But beyond the two bigs there is also a similar collection of veteran role players on the bench (Kersey, Kerr, Perdue, Rose vs. Blake, World Peace, Murphy, McRoberts) and even an aging lefty point guard in the starting lineup, that everyone always seems to underestimate (Avery Johnson vs. Derek Fisher). Moreover, the similarity in construction of the two rosters also suggests a corresponding style of play.
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By all accounts both neither of these squads, either the past Spurs or current Lakers, were built to run. In 1999 San Antonio was a rather mediocre eleventh in offensive efficiency. They only had three players average double figure points and shot an underwhelming .330 from the three point line. Yet it was their defense, ranked first in the league, that carried them through. Likewise, that’s where the strength of this 2012 Lakers team will reside.
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