By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, February 14, 2010; D04
It's difficult to imagine the two best teams in basketball being any more clearly identifiable at the all-star break than they are right now. We can try to make a case, since it would make a better story between now and April, for the Denver Nuggets in the West, for the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks in the East, maybe even the Boston Celtics if all the old codgers stay healthy or if they swindle some club just before the trade deadline.
There is, I suppose, the possibility that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James could get hurt between now and the playoffs, the way Bill Walton did 32 years ago when his Portland Trail Blazers were rolling along with a record of 50-10.
But if we keep the discussion to basketball, to strengths and weaknesses and matchups, what happens after the all-star break is going to pretty much match what happened before it.
Nobody is going to beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference. Nobody is going to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. This time the NBA will get the championship matchup it didn't get last spring: Kobe vs. LeBron.
The pressure on LeBron is much greater because the Lakers can win playoff games even when Kobe has an off night, while the Cavaliers cannot. LeBron has to have a B+ game in order for his team to win. The Lakers, as we've seen during their three-game winning streak without Kobe, can win with him having a C- game or two in a series, of if he's in foul trouble or is bothered temporarily by a minor injury.
The Cavaliers, even though they've won 13 straight, are more vulnerable because as great a season as LeBron is having -- and he looks now like the MVP -- he's not invincible. Atlanta and Orlando have players who are athletic enough to, in combination, wear him down over the course of a seven-game series. LeBron, at the break, is having the best individual season the NBA has seen from a non-low-post player since Michael Jordan was in his prime. LeBron's minutes are down, but his field goal percentage (relative to his career number) is up, his free throw percentage is up, his three-point percentage is up, his rebounds are up, his assists are up, his blocked shots are up, his scoring is up. In fact, LeBron is on pace to record career highs in scoring, assists and rebounds. In short, LeBron James is having the greatest season of his career. He's unstoppable in regular season terms, and is going to be damned difficult to handle in the playoffs.
What makes the Lakers a better team, and therefore the favorite, is that they're not nearly as dependent on Kobe. Besides Tim Duncan, the Lakers' Pau Gasol is probably the most skilled and versatile big man in the game. If the Lakers needed him to average 25 points and a dozen rebounds a game, he would. Gasol and Lamar Odom are both better than any Cavaliers big men. Shannon Brown, the Lakers' sixth man who brings a new explosion off the bench, is likely a better player than any Cleveland guard.
Winning last year seems to have removed all pressure from the Lakers this season. The Cavaliers have no such luxury, and they could be playing for the rest of the season for the privilege of keeping LeBron. Even so, there's nobody in the Eastern Conference who looks up to the task of knocking off Cleveland. The Celtics, unless GM Danny Ainge fortifies this team through a trade, are too old, too vulnerable. Expecting Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to stay healthy from now until June, while playing their best, is expecting too much. The Celtics almost have to trade Allen to get a younger player or two who won't have stage fright in such high-stakes games.
Orlando, some nights, looks just as potent as last year when the Magic went all the way to the NBA Finals. But it's hard for some of us to believe that Vince Carter, who has never been great in high-pressure games, will do for Orlando what Hedo Turkoglu did last year, which is to say be the primary playmaker and the closer as well. Atlanta, with all its youthful athleticism, can beat the daylights out of the Celtics but is clueless against Orlando and against LeBron, who seems to think circles around the Hawks.
But because LeBron's supporting cast, even with the addition of Shaquille O'Neal, is simply okay it means Cleveland is unlikely to rampage through the playoffs as it has the month of February.
The Lakers, especially if Kobe is rested and healthy, could overpower their playoff opponents. Portland, due to injuries, is without anything resembling a low-post threat. Utah seems to be less than the sum of the parts, at least when it comes to playing the Lakers. The Suns might benefit from a deal that could leave them with Andre Iguodala and Sam Dalembert (for Amare Stoudemire) but not to the point of putting together a team in such a short time that can challenge the Lakers. The Spurs are the Western version of the Celtics. Denver is a more advanced version of the Hawks, but still a team certain to sabotage itself at some point in a series with the Lakers.
With fewer than 30 games remaining, the NBA season is now a sprint for most of the league's teams, whether it's trying to finish in the top four of either conference to sew up home-court advantage for the first round or simply making the top eight to qualify for the playoffs. But the Lakers and Cavaliers go back to work after the all-star party in Dallas knowing they've got the best teams in the NBA, the inside track on playing for a championship. Any other development would be a stunner.