Last year I said that there were three teams that could beat the Lakers in a seven game series - Cleveland, Orlando, and Dallas. Fortunately, the Lakers faced none of those teams and wound up winning a second-straight title.
Basketball is a game of matchups. The best team doesn't necessarily win the NBA title. Instead it's the team with the most favorable matchups in four consecutive series. So with that in mind, it's worth asking who can beat the Lakers in the playoffs this year.
The Lakers match up first with New Orleans, the Western Conference team they probably match up with best. The Lakers swept the Hornets in the regular season, and it wasn't really close. Additionally, without injured forward David West, I'm not sure if New Orleans can even win a game.
If the Lakers move on to the second round, then they would face either Dallas or Portland. While Dallas is the higher seed of the two, they really don't scare me. The Lakers beat them convincingly twice towards the end of the season when there were real stakes on the line. Without Caron Butler, the Mavericks are missing an important cog on offense and arguably their best defensive player. The Mavs lack youth and speed and they really struggled down the stretch. The Lakers should beat them in five or six games.
Many are picking Portland to upset Dallas and they do pose problems for the Lakers. For one, the Lakers never play well in Portland. But the Trail Blazers are also deep and play great team basketball, and are a tricky team to stop. Still, the Lakers have more talent, and they should win a series over the Blazers, even if it goes seven games.
If the Lakers advance to the Western Conference Finals, then they would face either San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or Denver. First off, Denver is the biggest wild card in the playoffs. After trading Carmelo Anthony for half the Knicks, the Nuggets are basically two-deep at every position. They were one of the best teams in the NBA after the trade and actually beat the Lakers at STAPLES Center when both teams were basically at full strength. Still, the playoffs usually come down to the play of superstars, and I think Denver's lack of a go-to person will hurt them. I don't even see them getting by Oklahoma City.
San Antonio doesn't particularly scare me either. Despite having the NBA's best record, the Spurs struggled down the stretch. They're still old and they're not as strong as the Lakers inside. I think teams are figuring out how to play against the Spurs' new system, and the Lakers beat them convincingly at full strength in San Antonio after the All-Star break.
That leaves Oklahoma City as the Lakers' greatest threat in the West. If the Thunder get by the Spurs (no sure thing), then they match up very well with the Lakers. They have an elite scorer in Kevin Durant, speed and athleticism at the point in Russell Westbrook, and they finally have toughness inside with Kendrick Perkins. They also have some quality role players in James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, and Serge Ibaka. Last year, the Lakers needed a Pau Gasol tip-in to avoid a Game 7. I'd expect a Lakers-Thunder series to go seven games this year. Ultimately, I see the Lakers prevailing on their home floor, but this series could really go either way.
If the Lakers move on to the NBA Finals, then I could only see them facing one of four teams from the Eastern Conference. The least likely of them is Orlando, which is still figuring out how to play with an entirely new group around Dwight Howard. But they really don't have enough to beat the Lakers, and I'm convinced a series with the Magic wouldn't last more than five games.
I really like how the Lakers match up with the Celtics without Kendrick Perkins. Last year, the Celtics probably would have won Game 7 of the NBA Finals with a healthy Perkins (but only because Andrew Bynum was out too). Without Perkins, the Celtics lose toughness inside that an aging Shaquille O'Neal can no longer supply. And the Lakers would probably win a series in six games. Having home court advantage would be important too.
Against Chicago or Miami, the Lakers would not have home court advantage. The Heat do pose problems for the Lakers, having swept them in the regular season. I'm really not sure if the Heat can get out of the East considering the circus that has surrounded that franchise since they got "the big three." They don't look ready for prime time, and I'm not convinced that Erik Spoelstra can coach. Still, the Heat do play great defense, and the Lakers have no answer for LeBron James on either end of the floor. On the other hand, the Heat have no answer for the combination of Bynum and Gasol down low, even if Chris Bosh plays the best basketball of his life. A Lakers-Heat series would be extremely competitive, and it may come down to home court advantage. If the Heat don't beat themselves, then yes, I think they could beat the Lakers.
I'm not someone who likes to play up experience too much, but I do think it would make a difference in a Lakers-Bulls series. Also, the Lakers front court with Bynum and Gasol would outplay Chicago's duo of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Ron Artest or Lamar Odom could contain Luol Deng. And the Bulls have no way of defending Kobe Bryant. The Lakers don't really have an answer for Derrick Rose, but he may not have anyone open to pass to. I actually think the Lakers could beat the Bulls in as little as five games.
I should note, all of this is predicated on the health of Andrew Bynum. Without a healthy Bynum, the Lakers might not make it out of the second round. Also, I'm mildly concerned about Kobe Bryant expending too much energy on the defensive end, as he'll likely be asked to guard quick players at the point like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, or Derrick Rose. He'll need to hold up. And I think the Lakers' biggest concern may actually be their occasional lack of focus, which has become a problem even in playoff games in the past. Ultimately, the team with the best chance of beating the Lakers, may be the Lakers.