With the Los Angeles Lakers looking for playoff redemption, we assembled an assortment of observers and asked them five questions on the postseason possibilities for the purple and gold.
1. Which Laker above all others can make or break their playoff prospects?
J.A. Adande, ESPN columnist: Andrew Bynum. He has never gone into the postseason as option No. 1 or 1A. The Lakers have been at their best when he's been dominant. But as we saw Sunday, he doesn't bring top intensity every night. One night like that in the playoffs can turn the course of a series.
Andy Kamenetzky, ESPNLA Land O'Lakers writer: Bynum by a country mile. Drew's presence on the defensive end and glass is the difference between the Lakers controlling games and merely keeping up. Examples of this include the 17-1 run after last season's All-Star break and this season's Kobe-less win in San Antonio. However, when Bynum's not engaged, the Lakers are vulnerable to any team, much less the West's best. How badly he wants to alter games will coincide with how far the Lakers go.
Brian Kamenetzky, ESPNLA Land O'Lakers writer: Bynum. He easily has the greatest leverage over their chances, because a fully engaged Bynum gives the Lakers the ability to play elite-level defense. Without him, it's a lot tougher. It can happen (witness Q4/OT vs. OKC), but that's the hard way. Unfortunately, Bynum's effort level hasn't been nearly consistent enough over the last few weeks. The Lakers can't afford that in the postseason.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA Lakers writer: Metta World Peace. He's in the hot seat for two reasons: One, he might have already put a serious dent in the Lakers' playoff chances with a his seven-game suspension because of his hit on James Harden and two, who's to say World Peace will be able to recapture the personal momentum he was playing with the last several weeks? He may have already gone from being the Lakers' advantage to becoming the team's albatross.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLA writer: This team goes as Bynum, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol go, but I don't think it goes very far in the playoffs unless newly acquired point guard Ramon Sessions makes an impact. Sessions has shown flashes of brilliance since coming over in a trade with Cleveland last month. He's also shown, or not shown up, in several key games. Most notably in the Lakers' last few big games against the Spurs and Thunder. There are too many elite point guards in the Western Conference for the Lakers to go into the playoffs with a question mark at the position. It's why they went out and got Sessions, and while he's closed the talent gap, he hasn't proven he can hang with that upper echelon just yet.
2. Do the Lakers have enough firepower off the bench to make a deep run?
Adande: With World Peace suspended for the first seven playoff games and Matt Barnes limping into the playoffs with a sprained ankle, the Lakers are thin up front. Don't look for too many double-doubles from Jordan Hill now that the element of surprise is gone. Anything the Lakers get from their reserves is a bonus.
Andy Kamenetzky: Barnes (health assumed) has been mostly good all season, but the rest of the reserves are a crapshoot. Recent uptick acknowledged, points from Steve Blake are difficult to depend on. Devin Ebanks and Hill are unproven players, much less postseason contributors. I don't expect any of these guys to morph into James Harden, but tangible production is necessary on a semi-regular basis. Otherwise, too big a burden is placed on the starters.
Brian Kamenetzky: Certainly the Oklahoma City Thunder game gives a little optimism in that regard. Barnes has been a consistent, positive force for most of the season. Blake seems to be rounding into a better form (still not great, but no longer a liability), and Sunday, Ebanks and Hill showed an ability to contribute. It won't be a strength, but maybe the bench can deliver juuuuuuuust enough.
McMenamin: Their bench is shoddy and will be even more depleted with Barnes likely moving to the starting lineup while World Peace is suspended. There's no getting around that. But, to take a glass half full approach: Blake has played well in April, Hill could end up being a contributor after his surprise double-double against Oklahoma City, Ebanks and Josh McRoberts give the team some athletic options and Troy Murphy is a veteran shooter. That said, the best argument for why the Lakers bench shouldn't hurt them too much is bringing up the Lakers' starters because they just might be the best first five in the NBA.
Shelburne: With the Lakers' bench, it's actually pretty simple: If they make perimeter shots, the offensive spacing is good and everything runs fine. If they don't, things fall apart in a hurry. Blake, Barnes and Murphy all have career 3-point shooting percentages that suggest they can make enough outside shots to turn this unit into a positive for the Lakers. It just needs to happen, and happen more often than it did in the regular season.
3. Assuming the Lakers win their first-round matchup, a date with San Antonio or OKC is likely inevitable. Which team scares you more?
Adande: The Lakers should be more afraid of Oklahoma City. The Thunder are more athletic than the Spurs, and those are the type of teams that give the Lakers the biggest problems -- and keep in mind the Lakers' experience gap over the Thunder is not as great as it used to be with Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom gone.
Andy Kamenetzky: "More" is a relative term, since I don't think the Lakers can beat either. But with both rosters offering on-court matchup issues, I'll let the coaches break the tie. With all sincere respect to Scott Brooks, whom I consider one of the NBA's best, Gregg Popovich is probably the NBA's actual best. Mike Brown may have learned a lot under Pop as a Spurs assistant, but I imagine the coach who once considered a military career in counter-intelligence kept a few tricks permanently up his sleeve.
Brian Kamenetzky: It really doesn't matter. OKC's athleticism is a major issue for the Lakers, as is its ability to do damage in transition. On the other hand, the Spurs are an excellent transition team, too, and make fewer mistakes with the ball. Both teams are capable of better defense than their season numbers suggest. Both would be favored against the Lakers, and rightly so.
McMenamin: OKC. I just quite simply think the Thunder are the best team in the West this season. Plus, after losing to the eventual NBA champion two years in a row (the Lakers in 2010 and the Mavericks in 2011) I just feel like this is the year they get over the hump. Nothing against the best coach in the game (Gregg Popovich) and San Antonio's Hall of Fame core (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker), but I just think that Kevin Durant & Co. are better and also, with their young legs, are a worse matchup for the Lakers.
Shelburne: Both teams are probably better, deeper and more explosive than the Lakers so really both are scary. The Lakers would be underdogs against both. But they'd probably have an easier time controlling the pace against the Spurs than the Thunder, so by a slight nod, Oklahoma City is the least desirable matchup.
4. How concerning is it that Ramon Sessions has never been to the playoffs before?
Adande: That's an issue, especially because point guard is such an important position. But don't you get the feeling Kobe will have the ball in his hands more during the playoffs anyway? It would help the Lakers if Kobe doesn't have to bring the ball up, but it's an option if Sessions freezes in the lights.
Andy Kamenetzky: It's concerning, in that playoff introductions can be eye-opening. However, I'm far more concerned about how Sessions looks heading into the playoffs. Offensively, his production and impact have notably slipped, while his defense has been downright problematic at times. Whether this is the result of teams familiarizing themselves with Sessions as a Laker, his injured left shoulder, or nerves tightening as the postseason nears, it's imperative the point guard pick up his game on both sides of the ball.
Brian Kamenetzky: I'm less concerned about the lack of experience, and more concerned about how his play has tapered off of late. He's still had some good moments, but defensively his shortcomings have become more noticeable, while at the other end teams are adjusting to him and the amount of pick and roll he has added to L.A.'s O. The Lakers can't have Sessions be average. He needs to be something more.
McMenamin: Not very. He'd never been a consistent starter in a city like Los Angeles before, either, and he seemed to handle that pretty well. I don't worry about Sessions getting blinded by the bright lights of the postseason, but what does give me pause is the murderer's row of point guards he'll have to match up against, starting potentially with Denver's Ty Lawson in the first round and continuing on with Parker and perhaps the Thunder's Russell Westbrook (even though he'll get some help from Bryant on defense in that matchup) and even Chicago's Derrick Rose or Boston's Rajon Rondo if that's how the Finals shake out. That's a lot of tough, physical basketball for a guy who has a slight frame and has already shown some signs of his body breaking down.
Shelburne: The lack of playoff experience is not what concerns me about Sessions. He wasn't awed by the spotlight when he came to the Lakers -- which is a pretty big step up in the world from backing up Kyrie Irving in Cleveland -- and he hasn't seemed pressured or uncomfortable since. What's concerning is that as big of an upgrade as he has been for the Lakers, I'm not sure it's big enough to make a real difference against the likes of Parker, Westbrook or Chris Paul.
5. Based on what we've seen this season, how confident are you that Mike Brown can make the necessary adjustments over the course of a series?
Adande: Similar to the answer to the third question: If Mike Brown's X's and O's aren't getting it done, Kobe can always take over. We saw him do it during the Lakers game.
Andy Kamenetzky: On a scale of 1-10, I'd say my confidence is about 6. The offense often remains predictable, and the defense was recently shredded twice in part because of what I personally considered an ineffective/non-aggressive approach towards Tony Parker. Then again, Sunday's decision to insert Hill against OKC worked out brilliantly. Overall, I haven't been sold on Brown's ability to react decisively. The playoffs, however, offer a brand new stage to prove me wrong.
Brian Kamenetzky: Failure to adjust through a series certainly was a major complaint of Cavs fans. How Brown coaches in the postseason is among the most fascinating storylines. He's said he doesn't believe in chasing matchups, or making drastic alterations to what got you to the proverbial dance, but with this roster he has little margin for error. Adjustments will have to come quickly and decisively.
McMenamin: Brown might not be the most seasoned head coach, but one thing he does very well is trust his assistant coaching staff. John Kuester has been in the game for decades and is a great offensive mind. Chuck Person takes command of the defense and is familiar with just about any scheme the Lakers would go up against from his long career as a player plus is various assistant coaching stops. Ettore Messina, Brown's coaching consultant, has won championships in Europe and is a calming influence over the whole operation. I don't think the Lakers will win or lose a series based on Brown's coaching decisions.
Shelburne: This might be the most important question of all. I know Brown went to the Finals with Cleveland, but this is a team used to taking its cue from a man who won 11 titles. That alone gave them confidence that what Phil Jackson was telling them would put them on the right path. Nothing Brown has done or not done during the regular season can change that. Whatever he does this next month or two defines this season for both him and the Lakers going forward. That, or Coach Kobe grabs a clipboard.