Miami Heat forward LeBron James backs down on the Lakers' Kobe Bryant… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
With the Lakers' roster changes pretty much finalized, it's safe now to envision how the team will fare heading into the 2012-13 season. Sure, the Lakers will have to narrow their 14-man roster during training camp, and no one knows what deals leading into the trade deadline could change the NBA landscape. But in the spirit of seeing how things have evolved for the Lakers since the 2012 NBA playoffs ended, this is one in a series breaking down potentially troublesome opponents.
Team: Miami Heat
Lakers' record vs. Heat: 1-1 in the regular season
How the Heat fared last season: Finished second in the Eastern Conference behind the Chicago Bulls with a 46-20 record. Beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals, 4-1.
Why the Lakers are a threat to Miami: Nearly every individual match-up favors the Lakers. Steve Nash's pick-and-roll offense and outside shooting trumps any three-point bombs Mario Chalmers makes. Udonis Haslem absolutely has no chance in defending Dwight Howard in the post. Pau Gasol wins the match-up against Chris Bosh because he will be featured more in the Princeton offense, both off pick-and-rolls and off-ball cuts.
Sure, the Heat features the two best players on the floor in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They will score their points. But Kobe Bryant will be able to minimize Wade's production with his own scoring and occasionally stopping Wade on defense. Meanwhile, I saw Metta World Peace work out one day this summer and he looks to be in great shape. James will get his points, but he'll have to work for them.
The Lakers may have issues with Miami's small-ball lineup, but they boast so much offensive talent they can easily compensate for that. Howard's athleticism will allow him to stay on the floor should Miami go small. The Lakers can mitigate such transition opportunities because they have more reliable three-point shooters in Nash and Jodie Meeks. Miami may push the pace up and down, but the Lakers have more reliable bench options in Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks, ensuring the starters stay fresh.
Why the Heat is a threat to the Lakers: The Heat found out the hard way that constructing a star-studded lineup doesn't automatically result in a championship. So did the 2004 Lakers, though the circumstances remain drastically different. Still, as much as this season's Lakers are equipped to win a title, there are plenty of changes that could leave them vulnerable. It's easy to overstate the case, considering how intelligent Howard, Nash, Bryant and Gasol are, but the Heat's continuity could make a difference. Miami's Big Three have reached a comfort level, while the Lakers could still be figuring out how to set everyone up in their sweet spots and figuring out late-game execution.
Outside of Howard, Miami has a huge speed advantage that could wear the Lakers down in a seven-game championship series. By that point, the Lakers could be too tired and injured to fight off the Heat's disciplined half-court defense and ability to stretch the floor. Meanwhile, Miami has more reliable outside shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chalmers that could make it hard for the Lakers to shrink the floor.
Verdict: Although Miami's small-ball lineup could pose challenges, the Lakers' quest to win a title hinges on whether they fall into the trap that thinking the process will be easy.
Circumstances suggest that won't happen. Bryant and Gasol know their opportunities to win more titles are dwindling. Nash has yet to win a title. Howard wants to overcome his poor reputation stemming from his yearlong trade demands.
The Lakers recognize they have a short window of opportunity to win a title with this group, and will make sure they maximize such a talented roster. That should prove enough, even against Miami.
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