I am about to step into the realm of NBA blogger redundancy. Over the next few days, every armchair expert in the blogosphere will be detailing his/her failproof assessment of how the Finals will be won and lost. Nevertheless, I'll add to the e-pile of meaningless analyses by giving my own two cents. Here goes, position by position (Note: with the way the NBA is played today in terms of zone defenses & double-teams, position-by-position analysis is kind of silly but it still provides the best basis for player comparisons)...
Point Guard: Rafer Alston/Anthony Johnson vs. Derek Fisher/Shannon Brown/Jordan Farmar
Neither group is among the NBA elite, which begs the question: does a team really need an upper-echelon point guard to win a championship? I did some research, and the answer is often times "no." In fact, the league's three best true point guards haven't won a title yet (CP3, Nash, & Deron Williams). What a championship team does need is a serviceable point guard who knows his role and doesn't make dumb mistakes (see all Bulls point guards of the 90's and Laker point guards earlier this decade).
The Lakers and Magic both have role players for point guards, but Alston is the only one in this group who has proven that he can score 20+ any given game in these playoffs. The Lakers' most visible weakness during these playoffs has been their defense at the point of attack and have been burned perpetually by quick (or savvy in the case of Billups) point guards. Sure, Derek Fisher has the experience and will knock down a couple of momentum-changing shots and should have an easier time chasing around Rafer Alston (or, rather, monitoring him on the three point line) than he did Williams, Brooks, or Billups. However, the Magic have a decisive advantage at the point guard spot in my opinion.
Advantage: Magic by a decent margin.
Shooting Guard: Courtney Lee/Mikael Pietrus vs. Kobe Bryant/Sasha Vujacic
Lee has to be the best player in the NBA with a girl's first name. I love the way he plays and has been the x-factor in a few games during these playoffs. Pietrus did a terrific job of holding Lebron James to 38.5 ppg in the Eastern Conference Finals (sorry, I had to throw that in after the TNT crew consistently pointed out how tough he was making things on King James). In all seriousness, both of these players bring athleticism, three-point shooting, and defensive toughness to the Magic's backcourt. They are perfect role players for a championship-caliber team.
I'll limit the superlatives in describing Bryant and take a plain vanilla, fact-based approach. Kobe is the best shooting guard in the world. He has already played in four NBA Finals and won three championships. He is the most competitive man playing this sport, and the most feared late-game shooter on the planet. Vujacic and his other backups are terrible, but that doesn't matter since Kobe will be playing 40+ minutes per game this series.Somewhere, Dahntay Jones is smiling
Advantage: Lakers in a landslide.
Small Forward: Hedo Turkoglu/Mikael Pietrus vs. Trevor Ariza/Luke Walton/Lamar Odom
Turkoglu has been nails in the fourth quarter during the regular season and in the playoffs. In late-game situations, he seems to always come up with a big bucket or assist. In fact, he averaged more assists/game than Alston against Cleveland in the playoffs as a whole. Turkoglu created mismatches against Cleveland when Lebron wasn't guarding him, using his rare combination of size (6'10), outside shooting (1.5 threes/game), and vision (6.7 apg) to score or set up teammates. Pietrus was mentioned earlier in the shooting guard analysis, but with the Magic's lack of depth (8-man rotation), he gets many minutes at the three. He's Orlando's best spark off the bench and a versatile defender. I'm expecting big minutes out of him to match up with Kobe or Ariza.
Trevor Ariza has been a media darling this postseason. Adding a three-point shot to his already-imposing defensive presence and athleticism, he has been the perfect complement to Bryant (namely because Kobe doesn't have to expend as much energy on the defensive end as in years past). Odom is one of the biggest enigmas in the league, no-showing one night and looking like the most talented player on the court the next. His back problems have been well-chronicled, but a little cortizone should do the trick this series. After all, it is the NBA Finals. A lot will be discovered about Odom's heart and competitiveness in this series, and I see him doing a better job on Turkoglu/Lewis than Cleveland did. Luke Walton will get limited (but valuable) minutes in this series with his headiness coming at a premium in crucial junctures of the games.
Advantage: Toss-up. I like L.A.'s depth, but Turkoglu has been the most consistent player in this group.
Power Forward: Rashard Lewis vs. Pau Gasol
There is nothing "power"-ful about Rashard Lewis, but he could create some problems in this series. He has been lights-out in the clutch, upstaging Lebron with his late-game heroics in game 1 and game 4. The Lakers will be forced out of their traditional gameplan that includes heavy minutes with Bynum and Gasol on the court at the same time. Neither of these Laker bigs can stay with Lewis on the perimeter, and I'm guessing Jackson will have to adjust his strategy after Lewis drains a few uncontested threes. This should be the most intriguing chess match of the series, as Lewis also won't be able to match up with Gasol or Bynum down low.
Gasol is the league's most skilled 7-footer outside of Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. He is adept around the basket with either hand, can put the ball on the floor, shoots the 15-footer efficiently, and is an excellent passer. For what he lacks in brawn, he makes up for in skill and finesse. If the Magic put Dwight Howard on him, Howard is sure to get in early foul trouble. If the Magic put Lewis on him, Gasol will score at ease in the post. If Gortat guards him, all of the above apply. The Lakers would be foolish if they avoid Gasol in the post like they did for much of the Denver series as the Magic clearly have nobody (outside of Howard, who the Magic will be protecting from foul trouble) that can even pretend to guard him. This is probably the biggest matchup nightmare for either team in the series.
Center: Dwight Howard/Marcin Gortat vs. Andrew Bynum/DJ Mbenga/Josh Powell
Howard is an absolute beast. He drove, elbowed, and dunked his way to forty points in the series-clinching victory agains the Cavs. Illgauskas looked like Robert Swift trying to guard him. I listed three Laker centers, including two who rarely see the court, because Bynum will be in foul trouble early in the first quarter of every game. Phil will be forced to dig deep into his bench and play hack-a-Dwight during parts of this series. While the Lakers may be the best-equipped team (aside from Boston) to guard Howard, there is no stopping him. In fact, there probably isn't even slowing him down. The only hope the Lakers have here is that Van Gundy and his band of perimeter shooters will forget about their stud in the middle. That, or he'll be watching the game from the bench with foul trouble.
Andrew Bynum hasn't looked very good this postseason, on or off the court. He has showed little desire to block out or play sound defense, opting instead to wait in the paint for rebounds and chase blocked shots. He will look terrible in this series. If Bynum continues to watch rebounds instead of blocking out (which I think he will), Howard will eat him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the Nuggets could dominate the offensive glass against L.A., what will Howard do? Scary thought for Laker fans. The Lakers can take some comfort in knowing that their bench is loaded with big bodies to foul Dwight. A foul-fest is exactly what I foresee in this series, and the Lakers should hope that it results in early foul trouble for Howard.
Advantage: Magic by a mile.
Keys to Winning -- Orlando:
The Magic's keys to winning are quite simple & obvious. For Orlando to win, it must keep Dwight Howard out of foul trouble. That means keeping him on Bynum and in position to challenge shots without fouling. The Magic's weakside help defenders (other than Howard) must do a better job than they did against Cleveland, because L.A. has more than one player that must be defended.
The Magic also have to knock down the three-point shot with regularity. They have lived & died by the three all season, and this series will be no different. If Orlando can hit three-point shots with consistency, the Lakers will be forced to play honest defense and leave Howard in one-on-one situations in the post. Nobody on the Lakers (or in the league for that matter) is strong enough to keep Howard out of the paint by himself. Howard needs to have a few 20-20 games for the Magic to win this series.
Keys to Winning -- Los Angeles:
The Lakers' keys to winning are also quite simple, and they revolve around Dwight Howard. L.A. must get Howard into early foul trouble. If they can do this, the Magic will become one-dimensional with the three-point shot as their only source of scoring. The Lakers have the quickness & depth to play the Magic on the three-point line if they aren't forced to double-team Howard.
The Lakers also must be disciplined on the defensive glass. Denver's offensive rebounding is what made the Western Conference Finals a series. Possession after possession, the Lakers' bigs turned their heads and watched the ball coming off the rim instead of blocking out. This same mistake cannot be made against Orlando, as Howard feasts on putback opportunities. If the Lakers are smart, they will put two guys on Howard's body on every shot attempt.
Lastly, the Lakers have to keep the tempo up. The Magic only play 8 guys, while the Lakers prefer a 10- or 11-man rotation. L.A. must push the ball at every opportunity and get easy fast break buckets. They should trap and apply full-court pressure for the entire game, as Alston is sometimes turnover-prone and Anthony Johnson doesn't have his wheels anymore. Six guys will be playing 30+ minutes for the Magic, and 7-8 (Johnson and Gortat) will be used sparingly. A fast-paced game will tire out the Magic and play into the Lakers' favor.
This should be a very interesting series. One of these teams is going to have to change their strategy, as the Magic like to put Dwight down low and play four-wide and the Lakers prefer power-ball with two seven-footers on the court. If the Magic can make their threes, the Lakers will have to respond by subbing on of the seven-footers. If the Magic miss their threes, the Magic will have to insert size into their lineup, an area that is a glaring weakness outside of Howard.
Cleveland lost to Orlando because nobody outside of James (who was asked to do everything on both ends of the floor) could cover Turkoglu or Lewis. While Howard's box scores stood out, those two guys were the difference-makers in the series. L.A. is much better equipped to match up with Turkoglu & Lewis. Between Kobe, Ariza, Odom, and to a certain extent Walton & Vujacic, the Lakers have the range and athleticism to give Lewis & Turkoglu fits.
On the other side of the ball, the Magic have a trio of defenders that will be charged with covering Kobe. Pietrus, Lee, and Turkoglu all offer distinct defensive skillsets to slow Bryant down. Lee has more quickness than anyone who guarded Bryant against Denver. Pietrus is your classic athletic defender a la Trevor Ariza. Turkoglu is too slow to keep in front of Bryant, but can use his body and length to alter some shots. At the end of the day, Kobe will be Kobe and probably average close to thirty in the series. If he chooses to absorb double teams and be a passer as he did in games five & six versus Denver, the Lakers will benefit greatly. If he chooses to be the hero and forces difficult shots, it could be a long series for L.A.
The Lakers have too much depth and versatility for the Magic to make this a seven-game series. I foresee Orlando winning two games: one by virtue of a dominant performance by Howard and one by virtue of a barrage of three-point shots by the Magic's perimeter players. As discussed above, the Lakers have a wide range of weapons that can be deployed and have peaked at the right time during these playoffs. Although L.A. has shown a tendency to become complacent, I think they'll come out with a fire as they try to avenge their 2008 Finals defeat. If by some miracle this series does go seven games, I like the Lakers' chances in Staples Center and with all their big-game experience. Lakers in six.