Some are framing last night’s decisive Lakers win over the Thunder as a Jordan-versus-the-Pistons type of moment. That’s unfair, I think—these Lakers have a much better legacy than the Pistons will ever have, and it’s unlikely the Thunder will ever get to Bulls-esque heights.
Still: one thing that’s true is that the Lakers are in decline, whatever the oscillations of a few regular season games tell you (a month ago they were very down; they’ve stabilized now).
The trouble is Kobe Bryant, or should I say the trouble will be Kobe Bryant: the broadcasters revealed that Kobe’s knee is now nearly bone-on-bone and passed over onto other matters as if Kobe had just revealed he had tweaked his hamstring or something similarly minor. Serious NBA fans will recognize the “nearly bone-on-bone” formulation from such hits as “Brandon Roy’s double knee surgery” and “Chris Paul’s scary knee brace” and “Yao Ming, injuries of.” Once you start getting that involved, it’s really only a matter of time—sure, it’s a matter of time for everyone, but more. Add in such matters as his arthritic finger and it’s clear Kobe’s commitment to the game has written checks his body won’t be able to cash in the future. But how far in the future? Last spring he was undeniably weak and ineffective, particularly in the beginning of the Thunder series—this is the part of history people forget—only to become super-effective by summertime. It’s not a stretch to think Kobe might succumb by the end of the season, and with the Lakers still leaning on Kobe for fairly substantial minutes and production (33 minutes; compare to the Spurs’ stunning success—first in the league with Duncan playing a leisurely 28 minutes), you might see it by the end of the season.
Or it might not matter: Russell Westbrook was burning Kobe as crisp as anyone I’ve ever seen. Kobe’s defensive reputation has always been a little overstated—rather than the great defender proponents accuse him of being Kobe’s been an above average-to-good one, depending on his focus and coaching—but Westbrook’s comprehensive destruction (32 pts, 12 assists) should be an ominous warning for the Lakers: they’ve been able to get away with the slightly mobile corpse that is Derek Fisher on defense because of Kobe; if Kobe isn’t able to bring it, then backcourts—period—will shred the Lakers.
I’m not sure the Thunder are the team to do it, though: their previously-vaunted depth has come down to Serge Ibaka, and that’s about it. Ibaka is wonderfully untutored and enthusiastic—he bites on shotblock fakes so often that you’d think it’s an error, except his second jump is so fast and high that he often gets guys anyway, which makes his initial seemingly erroneous jump seem like sound theory.
The starting lineup has a few seriously?ies in there: like, seriously?, Nenad Krstic is going to be involved in a 50+ win team? Seriously, Jeff Green? Seriously, Thabo Sefalosha? The team probably needs a bit of a makeover—start with a shooting guard that can shoot (the team desperately needs a shooter), and I’m not sure if the Thunder have the willingness or the assets to get it done.
That leaves us with the Thunder’s big two guys—Durant is Durant, but Ron Artest currently own’s Durant’s title, deed and mortgage and is not about to relinquish it. Westbrook has been the most curious maturation of any player I’ve seen in a long while—as of the beginning of this year Westbrook was still making outrageously bad decisions that make me wonder how someone associated with the Thunder hasn’t tried to fight him or something. Westbrook before combined will with an outsized self-regard on the court, which led him to bull into the lane, confronted not by the china shop he expected but rather clever opposition. Oops. So Westbrook refashioned himself—as if by a sheer act of will—into obsessive, probing drives rather than just straight-to-the-basket assaults which were occasionally effective but usually frustrating. If Westbrook continues to grow—the Thunder might have something there.