While Game 6 was relatively anti-climatic after the feverish and unpredictable pace of the first five games, it provided intrigue of a different variety. While 3-time champion and 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant did his part to ensure a Cavs-Lakers showdown in the Finals, the reigning MVP came up just short, which will undoubtedly emblazon the great Kobe-LeBron debate.
The Magic’s upset of Cleveland also brings to light several other interesting topics. First, how does Orlando match up with the Lakers, both in general and relative to the how the Cavs would have matched up with L.A.? Second, what kind of impact does the Magic’s playoff run have on Dwight Howard’s status and perception? And, finally, what affect will coming up just short again have on LeBron’s big decision next summer?
Personally, I think the Magic match up with the Lakers far better than the Cavaliers would have. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was manhandled by Dwight Howard almost every minute that the two were on the floor together, and while Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are no Dwight Howard, Big Z would have had just as tough of a time with both of them. Howard, on the other hand, will present a huge challenge to both Bynum and Gasol. Also, the Magic can guard Kobe with Mickael Pietrus, while Cleveland would probably have asked Delonte West to try to handle Kobe. West has had a strong showing in the playoffs, but he is at a huge disadvantage physically, whereas Pietrus can stretch the floor offensively and get physical with Kobe defensively.
In the end, I think that Kobe (as usual) is the difference maker. His ability to make shots in the clutch, along with the Lakers’ playoff experience should make them clear favorites in this series, though Howard’s physicality should make it interesting. I’ll pick the Lakers to win in 6 games.
With his performance in the Conference Finals, Dwight Howard removed all doubt that he is, in fact, the most imposing and intimidating interior force in the NBA. Shaq can quibble all day about which player is the real “Superman”, but the bottom line is Howard has proven himself worthy of the title. In his first couple of years in the League, Howard’s success and numbers were almost entirely due to his imposing physical stature. In the series against the Cavs, however, Howard showed ease in the low post- scoring with either hand, rebounding and altering shots. Even against James, the League’s most powerful and dominant playmaker, Superman showed poise and control. What was more surprising was Howard’s ability to make free throws when it mattered. For the series, Howard shot 70.1% from the line, including a very impressive 12-for-16 performance in the ultimate contest.
If Howard can continue to grow and improve, there’s no reason he can’t be every bit as successful as the original Superman, if not more so.
Without a 1-900 number and a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know what LeBron James will do in the summer of 2010. What we know for sure is that he will have any number of options available to him. Various teams are making no secret of their desire to lure James and his out-of-this-world talent to greener pastures next summer. The New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets have been the two most widely discussed destinations, but a European stop isn’t completely out of the question either.
This isn’t to say that staying in his home state isn’t a possibility. James grew up in Akron and was drafted by his hometown team, leading them to the NBA Finals in just his third season. After a 5th season in Cleveland, which saw the team win a franchise record 66 games (including a 39-2 mark at Quicken Loans Arena), James win an MVP award, and assert himself as the NBA’s most dominating player, he has still yet to achieve his ultimate goal- an NBA championship.
Many believe that winning a championship in Cleveland would be enough to keep LeBron in Ohio; at least through one more contract extension. Conversely, if LeBron fails to win a title next year, it would stand to reason that the NBA’s most coveted and competitive player would look for a more fruitful opportunity. After all, playing in Cleveland doesn’t allow LeBron to maximize his brand name the way playing in New York City might. Also, James’ talent by itself is enough to keep the Cavaliers in the playoffs consistently, leaving little chance for significant improvement through the draft.
I believe that all of these factors will push LeBron towards leaving Cleveland next summer, unless the Cavs win the title next year (which is not out of the question). There has to be some level of loyalty towards his hometown organization, but at the end of the day, the NBA is a business, and LeBron knows that better than most, so ultimately, I expect LeBron to do what’s best for LeBron, whatever that might be.