The Los Angeles Lakers have breezed through the early portion of their regular-season schedule, racking up a 12-2 record but have yet to face the best that the Eastern Conference has to offer. On Tuesday the Central Division-leading Chicago Bulls come into Staples Center with the most promising team they've had since Phil Jackson was roaming the sidelines at the United Center. ESPNLosAngeles.com Lakers beat reporter Dave McMenamin and ESPNChicago.com Bulls beat reporter Nick Friedell had the following e-mail exchange in advance of this 1991 NBA Finals rematch.
McMenamin: The Bulls are 2-1 on this seven-game circus trip of theirs so far and 7-4 overall. Are they good enough to beat the Lakers?
Friedell: No. The Bulls are a lot better than they were last season, but they don't have enough talent to beat the Lakers right now. Nobody does. The Lakers are the best team in the league and I think they are going to win another title this season. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are good -- Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are better. Unless the Bulls hit 22 3-pointers like the Suns (which they aren't going to do), they aren't going to win.
OK, forget the regular season for a second. I know it's early, but from what you've seen do you think any team can beat the Lakers in a seven-game series?
McMenamin: The Boston Celtics came five minutes away from doing it last season and that was before Rajon Rondo morphed into an MVP candidate and Boston had Shelden Williams as a reserve big man instead of the O'Neals in Shaquille and Jermaine. The Lakers are playing near-perfect basketball right now, but they still haven't played Boston, Miami, Orlando, New Orelans, San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City or Utah yet. There are plenty of teams that could give them trouble.
OK, since you neglected to actually talk about the team you cover in the first question I asked, I'll make you talk about them on this one. How do the Bulls plan to defend Kobe?
Friedell: Luol Deng is the guy for the Bulls. He isn't the best defender in the world, but he isn't exactly the worst, either. He'll be able to stay in front of Kobe and you can bet that Tom Thibodeau will devise a plan that has defenders constantly rotating toward him. As Thibodeau mentioned after Sunday's practice, though, one of Kobe's best assets is that you can defend him perfectly sometimes and he will still hit a shot. The Bulls are just hoping that they can make him work for every one of his points and that he slows down toward the end of the game. Obviously, it's not likely -- but stranger things have happened.
How do the Lakers plan on slowing down Rose?
McMenamin: Thanks to you, we know a little bit more about how well Thibodeau and the Bulls know Bryant's game. Shannon Brown told me that their defense is predicated on tempting guards to drive into lanes that look perceivably open until the D collapses on the offensive player as soon as he sets foot inside the paint.
The Lakers have former Defensive Player of the Year, Ron Artest, who did a bang-up job against another quick, scoring guard in Monta Ellis on Sunday. They'll have Ron chase Rose around. If the Bulls start going to their pick-and-roll, the Lakers will rely on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to step up and wall off the lane whenever Rose turns the corner. They will also need to be cognizant of taking bad shots that lead to long defensive rebounds for Chicago because that's an easy way for Rose to break out in transition where he's a beast to defend.
What do you think about Thibodeau, anyway? Are the guys buying into his system?
Friedell: They love him. Absolutely love him. There's always a honeymoon period with new coaches, but this one appears as though it will last a little longer. The players trust that Thibodeau will put them in the right position to win games. I'm not sure they always felt the same about Vinny Del Negro. They know Thibodeau has been a coach in this league for well more than two decades and they seem convinced that he can lead them to the top. The players love him because he breaks things down with them individually and seems to have built a relationship with each one. Both Rose and Noah joked this summer that they couldn't ever get away from him because he was always in the gym, helping them work out. They respect him -- and it's obvious in the way they've been playing lately.
What about Phil? I know he's won titles, but do the players still listen to him now more than ever?
McMenamin: Just two games ago, Phil or "P.J." as they all call him, managed to chastise Lamar Odom (crediting him with helping Kevin Love make the USA Basketball team this summer by playing so poorly against him in practice) and Pau Gasol (saying that Darko Milicic was the true best European center in the NBA). This was after a game in which Odom had 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocks to Love's zero points and seven boards and Gasol finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in the 17-point win. That stuff they listen to and even though they roll their eyes when they hear it, it's kind of what makes an 82-game grind interesting. Especially when the guy hurling the grenades has 11 rings.
Hey, Thibs isn't even free from Jackson's jabs. He was asked about Thibodeau's defensive schemes at practice on Monday and said, "He's on the damn court half the time playing defense himself. Get back, sit down on the bench and let the team go to work. He doesn't have to help play defense, jeez."
So, back to Rose, he gets all the publicity after winning rookie of the year and being in those ad campaigns with the dude from "The Hangover," but who is the true Bulls' MVP? Seems to me that Noah is what makes them click.
Friedell: Absolutely. Anyone who watches the Bulls closely knows that Noah is the heart and soul of the team. Rose is the best player, but Noah is the one who gets everyone on that team going. They get their emotional cues from him. The difference now is that Noah isn't just the emotional leader, he's a guy who can go out and get the Bulls 15 points and 13 rebounds a night. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be back here for the All-Star game in a few months. He has worked hard on his game in the past two summers and he's in the best shape of his life. He may not ever become the type of offensive force the Bulls want him to be, but he's going to try. You could easily make the argument that Noah is just as valuable to the Bulls as Rose is. Like Rose, when Noah doesn't play well, or is out of the lineup, the Bulls don't have much of a chance to win.
Speaking of valuable teammates, Pau Gasol is always going to get overlooked in Kobe Bryant's shadow, but just how important has he been to the team's success over the past couple of seasons?
McMenamin: He's the second-best player Kobe's ever played with, after Shaquille O'Neal, but Kobe is a much better teammate to Pau than he was to Shaq, making the Spaniard all the more valuable. He has done some downright silly things already this season for a big man -- the 10-for-10 game comes to mind and his triple-double that included assists instead of blocks -- and the fourth All-Star selection of his career is sure to ensue. There is also a groundswell of support for Pau coming from players, coaches, executives and media members around the league. It would not surprise me if Kobe and Pau are taken out of the MVP running by splitting each others' votes.
While we're on the subject of All-Stars, when is Carlos Boozer going to make his Bulls debut and how will he fit in with what they have going on?
Friedell: I thought Boozer's return would be the first week of December, but now I doubt that's going to happen. Thibodeau says he still hasn't been cleared for contact in practice and he says it will take him at least another week or two after that to get in shape and be ready to go. At this point, I would guess he would return around Dec. 10. That just so happens to be the night the Lakers come to the United Center to play the Bulls ...
As for how he fits in, nobody is exactly sure. He'll instantly become the back-to-the-basket scorer the Bulls haven't had in years. But, what will that do to Rose and Noah? Rose already knows his point total will drop because he won't get as many shots with Boozer on the floor. He's excited about having him back, though. Rose knows that Boozer's presence will open up the floor for everybody, and Boozer and Noah should work well as a high-low duo in the paint. The only real bad part for the Bulls is that Boozer's arrival means Taj Gibson's minutes will be cut. He's played great and is beloved by teammates, but will his presence on the bench give that unit a boost?
How about Andrew Bynum? He has a track record full of injuries in the past few seasons. When is he going to come back and how will that change the Lakers?
McMenamin: Funny you should say Dec. 10 as a target date for Boozer. That so happens to be the exact date that Jackson has suggested for Bynum's comeback. Bynum has a MRI scheduled before the Bulls game Tuesday. If it comes back clean, there's a good chance he can actually be ready for that Windy City comeback game.
Bynum coming back means that Lamar Odom goes to the bench and the already deep Lakers become maybe the deepest they've ever been.