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After the deadline: The challenges ahead

Thursday afternoon's NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and the Lakers have officially settled on the 13 players they hope will bring the franchise a second straight championship. If they seem familiar, it's because they're the same 13 guys management was banking on Wednesday afternoon, too.

To paraphrase the great Norman Dale, their team is on the floor.

The Lakers, though, are hardly playing four-on-five. At 42-13, they're six games ahead of Denver for the top seed in the Western Conference, are very much in the fight with Cleveland for the best record in basketball, and remain a favorite to win another title.

But with things more or less finalized (save an unlikely free agent signing) from a personnel standpoint, it's a good time to look and see where the weak spots exist.

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

Washington's fire sale has changed the landscape for the Lakers.

Dallas is better with Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler, and more importantly, the Cavs were able to get Antawn Jamison for (once Zydrunas Ilgauskas is bought out by Washington) virtually nothing of value. And while Jamison may not have the same marquee value of Amar'e Stoudemire, there is also far less chance he'll screw with Cleveland's successful formula.

Dallas likely still isn't good enough to beat L.A. in a seven game series, but Cleveland already has knocked off the Lakers twice this year, and seems to match up well. Meanwhile, Denver didn't make a move, but has shown the ability to knock off the champs, beating them soundly in the first two meetings of the season. In short, the road to repeat isn't going to be easy. I'm not sure who said it would be, but it won't.

So should the Lakers have done something?

No, or at least not because the opposition did. The worst trade is generally the knee-jerk reaction to another team's deal (see O'Neal, Shaquille to Phoenix). It is much easier to make an elite team worse than to improve it with a high-profile deal. The Lakers had more wants than needs at the deadline, and the needs would have been tough to fill without risking damage to the core of the roster. Cleveland's acquisition of Jamison might make it harder for the Lakers to beat them. So be it. That can't be a reason to make a trade.

INJURIES

Save one very high profile exception, the Lakers were (as most title teams are) very healthy last year.

This season, not so much.

Kobe Bryant missed Thursday's one-point loss to the Celtics at Staples, his fifth straight game in street clothes. The problem doesn't seem simply to be with his left ankle, but also tendons and muscles in the leg as well. And there is always the avulsion fracture of his right index finger to consider. Pau Gasol has battled the hamstring monster all year. Ron Artest's feet have periodically flared up. Lamar Odom has a bad right hand. And there is the situation with Andrew Bynum's hip. Should any of these problems get worse or again flare up in the playoffs, the Lakers would have serious problems.

Nor are problems limited to the top of the rotation. Luke Walton has been shut down indefinitely, and Thursday night Sasha Vujacic suffered a Grade-1 sprain of his right shoulder. With Kobe out, the Lakers are down to Artest and improvisation/Adam Morrison at small forward.

Earlier in the week we talked to former Laker Ronny Turiaf, now with injury-riddled Golden State, who noted that when guys go down, it often forces healthier players to play bigger minutes than they may be accustomed to, or to run at positions they don't normally play, both of which increase the risk of more dings and dents.

Injury, Turiaf says, can beget more injury.

Health is always the great wild card, and generally can't be planned for. There is no such thing as "Kobe insurance," no player out on the market the Lakers could acquire "just in case." The closest thing is to assemble the best supporting cast possible around the star, and hope for the best.

By any reasonable standard, the Lakers have done that. Now it's up to an alchemy of Gary Vitti and luck.

DEPTH

Ask Odom about the weather, and he'll tell you the strength of the Lakers is their depth. He's been saying it all year, particularly in the four games since Kobe went down. I've heard plenty of people say the Lakers are the deepest team in the league. I don't agree.

What the Lakers have is incredible front-end talent and flexibility. Their top five -- Kobe, Gasol, Artest, Odom, and Bynum -- are the best in the league and give Phil Jackson almost unlimited options. That's versatility, not depth.

For all intents and purposes, the Lakers now run eight deep when everyone's healthy, and three of the eight (Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and Shannon Brown) still make many fans nervous. I mentioned some of the problems at small forward. The bigger bench bigs, Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga, are handy insurance policies but shouldn't be expected to thrive in big minutes. Morrison hasn't played a truly meaningful minute of basketball since entering the NBA.

In terms of true depth -- not frontline talent but real down-the-roster depth with useful back-end players -- the Cavs are better equipped, especially in the wake of the Jamison trade (and particularly if they bring back Z).

The equation definitely changes if Farmar and Brown continue to develop or if Vujacic heals/teleports back to '07-'08 to reclaim his mojo, but also highlights the importance of health.

POINT GUARDS

Earlier in the week I opined at length on the issue. The C.W. says it's L.A.'s Achilles heel, a position needing the aid of a Kirk Hinrich-type to shore up. Fair to say I disagree.

It's a relative weakness having less impact on the bigger picture than the media narratives suggest. Not the same thing.

Still, while the demands placed on their point guards are unique relative to the rest of the league, by most measures Fish is no longer a high-quality NBA starter. Effective for this team, maybe (not often enough this season, but the man does have a track record), but not up to the league-wide standard. Behind him, although both have looked very promising at different times over the last six weeks, Farmar and Brown are rightly considered works in progress. When the playoffs roll around, opponents will undoubtedly try to put pressure on L.A.'s PG's in part because they're vulnerable, but also because the other options aren't appealing. Attack with Artest's man? Kobe's? Try to combat the team's length near the basket?

SHOOTING

The Lakers are 15th in the NBA in 3-point shooting at 34.8%, but 11th in the percentage of field goals used on triples (22.4%).

In the playoffs, good defensive teams will do everything they can to muck up the paint and force the Lakers to shoot over them to open up space. Hitting those floor-spreading shots will be vital, particularly since the Lakers don't generate all that many free throws. (The team's free throw rate -- the percentage of freebies earned per field goal attempted -- is fifth-worst in the league at 27.8%)

Not many shooters changed addresses this week, but there shouldn't have been an issue more on Mitch Kupchak's front burner than this one. I don't know where they could have solved the problem, though. Sometimes the "fix" just isn't available.

One ray of hope: Farmar. The man has always considered himself a good shooter, though a 35.6% career average from downtown suggested a high degree of ordinariness. But after a terrible start to the year, solid work in January and February has upped his mark to 37.1% from beyond the arc. If that's more trend than mirage, the Lakers could catch a break.

CONCLUSION

So there you have it. A few of the bigger flaws, pitfalls, and danger signs facing this Lakers team. They are real, and any could become potholes in the road to repeat.

But in every city with a contending team there is someone making a similar list. No group is perfect. I get a sense the big media narrative locally (at least in some corners) has the Lakers dominating en route to the title as if it's theirs to keep, or give away.

I've never seen it that way. They're not, and never have been, '95-'96 Bulls-good. Most teams (all of 'em, save the '95-'96 Bulls, actually) aren't. Thankfully, being the greatest team of all time isn't a prerequisite for winning a championship.

So today's Lakers may be the same as yesterday's, while on paper other teams seem to have improved.

Fine.

Yesterday's Lakers were seriously good, remember. Good enough, in fact, to win rings.