To see the Lakers, Suns, Celtics and Magic still alive in the NBA playoffs is to see the league’s formula for success at work. Each one of these teams possess star power, team chemistry and a collective commitment to playing defense.
Yes, even Phoenix.
However, one distinct difference amongst the four has been the approach to constructing the teams. Each team has been built around their star’s unique strengths and have used the draft and free agency in a variety of different ways. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and the “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are the undeniable headliners on their respective teams, but are all utilized in very team-specific ways.
The Lakers, as a franchise, have always had a star-driven identity, including Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and, of course, Kobe Bryant. In their current incarnation, the team has successfully complemented him with a steady, pass-first point guard and several players capable of playing the low post.
In Derek Fisher, Los Angeles has a reliable veteran who knows his role with the team and whom Bryant respects.
Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom can pass and command attention down low, while Pau Gasol has cemented himself as the key final piece to the championship puzzle since coming over in the infamous 2008 deadline deal with Memphis (which doesn’t look so bad for Chris Wallace now that their haul has turned into Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur and two more first rounders).
Even the Ron Artest signing, which looked like a mistake during the regular season, has bore fruit in the postseason with the unbalanced veteran looking revitalized and focused.
The Lakers find themselves embroiled in a 2-2 series with the run-and-gun Suns, who are being buoyed by a terrific bench unit consisting largely of players performing above expectations. True, the Suns, led by GM Steve Kerr, have made some questionable personnel decisions in recent years that include the Shaquille O’Neal trade and money-conscious moves that have cost them first round draft choices that turned into Rajon Rondo, Rudy Fernandez and Serge Ibaka. But Kerr quietly put together a contender with the Jason Richardson/Jared Dudley trade that was unpopular at the time and under-the-radar pickups like Channing Frye and Goran Dragic.
Of course, the drafting of Amar’e Stoudemire and signings of Nash and Grant Hill have also helped.
For the Celtics, it was all about the summer of 2007. After a disastrous 24-58 campaign and rumours that Pierce wanted out, GM Danny Ainge spearheaded an aggressive off-season approach to bring the franchise back to respectability. Armed with assets like a young Al Jefferson and the No. 5 pick, Ainge went the veteran route and surrounded Pierce with Allen (for the No. 5 selection that became Jeff Green and Delonte West) and Garnett (for a package headlined by Jefferson).
The pay-off was immediate, with a title coming the following season, but there were questions about the long-term viability of the group, especially when knee issues kept Garnett out of the 2009 postseason. However, Rondo had been steadily improving since being acquired by Boston from Phoenix following the 2006 draft and re-energized the team with his star turn earlier this season.
Ironically, this season’s veteran reinforcements, such as Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels, have largely not worked out, putting more emphasis on what is now the Big Four to perform.
Orlando, meanwhile, may not be long for the postseason given their current 3-1 hole against the Celtics, but their unique structure paid off in a big way last season and still looked good through two rounds this year.
The Magic’s rise began the traditional way, as they earned the first over-all pick in the 2004 draft and opted for the risky high school pick in Howard over the sure-fire college prospect in Emeka Okafor. It’s ironic, then, that Howard shot straight to stardom while Okafor has toiled in mediocrity for average teams and has never reached the playoffs.
A dominant inside presence like Howard requires outside shooters to spread the floor and open up space in the paint, and GM Otis Smith has obliged. In that same 2004 draft, the Magic acquired Jameer Nelson from Denver in exchange for a future first rounder. As Howard and Nelson continued to grow as teammates, the team added key supporting pieces like Rashard Lewis (via free agency), Ryan Anderson (trade with New Jersey), J.J. Reddick (2006 draft) and Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus (free agency).
Most recently, the Magic picked up Vince Carter in an off-season trade with the Nets to replace the departed Hedo Turkoglu. While the move was seen in some circles as an upgrade on the sharpshooting Turkoglu, the Magic appear to be missing his versatility and tendency to create match-up problems.
It just goes to show how tough it is to find that perfect, winning formula in the NBA.