Ever since the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol midway through the 2007-2008 season, they have been a shoo-in to win the Western Conference. Every year. No really, ask any sportswriter, they'll tell you at any point of the year that no other team can even pretend to have a chance. The same could be said for Lebron James' Cavs in the Eastern Conference, although a funny thing has happened to the Cavs on their way to multiple titles... they lost to lesser hyped teams (Magic in 2009, Celtics in 2010???) who took advantage of good matchups and rode hot players to victory. Could the same happen to the invincible Lakers against the Suns?
LA's strength of late has been their height, not the lights out scoring of Kobe Bryant. Unlike Lebron, Kobe has figured out how to use his teammates to relieve some of the pressure on him and unlike Lebron, he can win without doing all the work. Although I guess Kobe's focus (Winning another Title) helps him more than Lebron's (Summer of 2010/Surpassing MJ). They destroyed a solid but injury plagued Utah team in the second round because they were just too big on the inside, smothering anything that even sniffed the rim and rebounding so well that commentators said it looked liked they were playing volleyball. With a front line of 7 footers Gasol and Andrew Bynum, 6'10" backup Lamar Odom and still-taller-than-anybody-you-know Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest, the Lakers will once again sport a noticeable height advantage. The Suns however are a bit longer than the Jazz and have more healthy bodies. The Suns play 10 players (whereas the Lakers only play 7-8) and they are much more energetic running after makes, misses and employing a quicker offense. In addition to their deadly pick 'n roll, the Suns are one of the best 3 point shooting teams in NBA history and typically spread the floor with 4 players who can knock down a deep ball which has given teams fits defensively. But for a better idea of where the strengths and weaknesses lie, let's look at the series position-by-position.
Center: The Suns are looking to get Robin Lopez back in the lineup after around 3 months of missed time but aren't expecting much out of him. "The cavalry isn't coming in" Coach Alvin Gentry said, although he might be understating how big (literally as well as figuratively) Lopez is. At 7'0" 255, Lopez is as big as any of the Lakers frontline and arguably a better defender than any of them and although he's not a huge threat to score the second-year pro developed nicely over the course of the year playing alongside Amar'e Stoudemire and catching passes from Steve Nash. And he'll be a huge upgrade over token starter Jarron Collins who coincidentally also went to Stanford at the same time as his twin brother (Jason) just like Lopez did more recently with his twin brother (Brook). Oh and just for fun, Blake Griffin's brother Taylor is also on the Suns roster although he never plays. The only Suns big man who doesn't have a brother in the NBA is de facto starter Channing Frye, who presents the biggest matchup problem for the Lakers. After making just 20 3 pointers in his first 4 season in the league, Frye has connected on an astounding 192 deep balls up to this point in the 2009-2010 season, shooting a lights-out 44%. Because of this, a Laker big, who is used to guarding the paint will have to run around after Frye on the perimeter and you're kidding yourself if you think clumsy, balky-kneed Andrew Bynum is up to the task. Lamar Odom could do the job, but he's 2-3 inches shorter than Frye and would give up size in the post when Frye isn't looking to nail threes. That leaves Gasol, who's tall but still nimble enough to keep up with Frye. I think. I've never really seen him play defense on the perimeter but on paper it looks doable from LA's perspective.
Power Forward: Both teams have a big advantage of offense here. Gasol is one of the most skilled big men in the game today and has incredible footwork. Stoudemire struggles with positioning on defense and isn't a phenomenal rebounder so Gasol might have some big games in the series. On the flip side though, since we have Gasol guarding Frye, Andrew Bynum will have to guard Stoudemire and I think his knees/overall lack of dexterity are a huge liability against the quick pick 'n roll action that Nash and Stoudemire run to death. Gasol could do a better job but then who would guard Frye? You see the Lakers dilemma, as does Phil Jackson. Bynum gives them a great rebounder and shot blocker in the lane and against Utah's stagnant big guys and penetrating PG he was a big asset but against Phoenix's quick big guys and outside shooters, he's a defensive liability. I may be missing something but I don't think the Lakers will be able to play him more than a few minutes a game because his defense will be exploited no matter where LA chooses to put him and the Suns offense is among the most efficient in NBA history. A front line of Gasol and Odom is still big, but Odom replacing Bynum, there's a marginal, if any advantage for LA. The Suns will either play one of their small forwards here when Stoudemire is out, or Lou Amundson, although he has seen his playing time decrease as of late.
Small Forward: The Suns will play Jared Dudley and Grant Hill, two ACC players of the year on opposite ends of their careers pretty equally and both of them will make a much bigger impact than Ron Artest who was put on this earth for one reason: to guard mobile scoring forwards like Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, etc. The Suns have no one like that as Dudley and Hill rarely have plays called for them but find their shots more in the flow of the offense. Hill and Dudley will also be called upon to guard Kobe Bryant which might not be as bad for the Suns as you might imagine. Grant Hill is old, but he's healthy now and so fundamentally sound that Kobe will have to work for his shots. And Dudley is becoming a lockdown defender. The old Kobe could will himself to score but this Kobe may just defer to his big guys for the bulk of the Lakers scoring.
Shooting Guard: It'll really be interesting to see which Kobe shows up but I think you can safely predict what he's going to bring to the table. The more interesting facet here is what the Suns shooting guards, Jason Richardson and Leandro Barbosa, can provide. Richardson was inconsistent for a while but found his stroke around the time the Suns starting scorching the West and then obliterated the Blazers in Round 1. Barbosa missed a good chunk of time during the season but has regained most the form that made him 6th man of the year in 2007 (I say "most" because his ball handling is scary. And I don't mean scary good I mean scary like you're at the top of a roller coaster and realize that your seatbelt is broken.) Every time Barbosa dribbles, the ball moves at about 50 miles per hour and he just tries to hold on for dear life. It's hard for defenders to keep up with him but it's also hard for Barbosa to keep up with himself so if he's being defended closely by Bryant or Artest, any time he spends dribbling the ball could be dangerous for Phoenix.
Point Guard: Offensively, the Suns win this matchup the way Mike Tyson won most of his matches in the late 80's. Derek Fisher just has no chance to guard Nash's shot, drive or passes and the Lakers may end up having to stick Ron Artest on him although I don't know if Artest is quick enough to stay with Nash. Nash has actually put up numbers pretty similar to his MVP years of 2005 and 2006 but you wouldn't know it because no one talks about him anymore. The irony is that despite being 35 and battling a chronic back issue, Nash is better than ever and shot 90/50/40 FT%/FG%/3PT% for the fourth time this season. Really the only way to slow Nash down is to make him guard you... and after having All-Star caliber guys like Tony Parker and Andre Miller to deal with early in the playoffs, Derek Fisher is going to be a welcome sight. Not that Nash didn't destroy Parker with one eye swollen shut. Or Miller with a badly bruised hip. Or the entire Harlem Globetrotters team while in a wheelchair (OK, I made one of those up). Oh and let's not forget about Goran Dragic who scored 23 points on 9-11 shooting in one quarter against the Spurs in Game 3. Not a bad option to bring in when your future hall of famer is resting. Steve Nash is going to dominate and unless the Lakers find a way to slow him down, they may find their dreams of a repeat title evaporated by a Sun rising from the east. (See what I did there? Even works out geographically!)
So isn't it ironic that in the Era of Lebron, the NBA's most unlikely superstar, a 6'0" scrawny Canadian soccer player born in South Africa looks to have a better shot to win the NBA's title than it's most likely superstar. (Google "Lebron" if you need any help painting a picture.) Try this on for size though... in the past 6 years, Lebron and Nash have combined to win 4 MVP's, about a million regular season/postseason games, 4 assist titles, 1 (almost 2) scoring titles and have made 5 conference finals. But neither of them has ever won a single NBA finals game. Try telling me that isn't a storyline to route for!