Can The Lakers Finish Above 12th?
Much is often made about preseason rankings or comparison lists of any kind, so it should come as no surprise that there was quite the uproar amongst Los Angeles Lakers fans following ESPN’s team rankings heading into the 2013-14 season. Ever-defiant Lakers star Kobe Bryant, prompted in the moment to publicly comment, responded with this tweet to ESPN’s rankings:
12th I see..
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 14, 2013
Following such an injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign, detractors and doubters can’t truly be faulted for having their reservations regarding the team’s chances for the upcoming season. Especially, when you consider that many of those responsible for this year’s rankings were the very same individuals that prematurely crowned last season’s team prior to possessing tangible evidence of how the pieces would meld and without seeing how much injuries and broken egos would play a role in the ultimate outcome.
No, that is far from a disrespect toward those highly-qualified panels of NBA experts and analysts, rather it is simply an acknowledgement of their understandable regression toward the mean when judging this year’s Lakers squad. After expectations and predictions were absolutely through the roof just one calendar year ago, one can certainly understand the hesitance. Especially since, on the surface level, they appear to be a similarly disjointed collection of players without their most physically promising player from just a season ago in Dwight Howard, who now plays for the Houston Rockets.
The reality is, while it is remarkably difficult to describe a team that loses a player with the potential magnitude of Howard as actually improved overall, in the short-term, that is my exact premise. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Lakers would have been better served, moving forward, to have been able to build around Howard as a pillar for their franchise. At the very least, you would have preferred to have him in tow as an asset to potentially move in the future if things didn’t eventually work out. Unfortunately, for Lakers brass, teammates and fans alike, at times during last season Howard seemed more like an “anchor” than an actual “pillar” for a team struggling through a series of injuries unparallelled by any Lakers team in recent history.
Whether you want to place blame on circumstance, on the shoulders of Howard, on Lakers coaches and management or even on Bryant, the union simply did not work out. For the first time in memory, this organization wasn’t able to retain a desired player, and an expected line of questions would follow. Having just reached the six-month anniversary of the passing of one of the most widely-respected and regarded patriarch’s in the history of professional sports in Dr. Jerry Buss, the aforementioned “hesitance” and “doubt” make total sense, especially from an outsider’s perspective.
For those closest to the organization, as strange as it sounds, things are actually starting to finally settle down. Perhaps for the first time in nearly a decade, these Lakers enter the season with only a moderate level of expectation. Head coach Mike D’Antoni, while still having one of the older backcourts the league has seen, has a roster far more fitting to the interchangeable and (at times) uptempo style he prefers to play. Much of the team’s success will be contingent upon the physical well-being of a soon-to-be-40 Nash and 35-year-old Bryant that is returning from an Achilles tear with over 54,000 combined regular and postseason minutes on his body.
The Lakers don’t need Bryant to be a high-flying, younger version of himself. In fact, although blasphemy to the eyes and ears of Lakers fans, they don’t even need Bryant to play to the incredible level he was able to play at during 2012-13 prior to the injury. What they will need is his leadership and guidance early on, and the peace of mind in knowing he is working himself back toward full strength as the season wears on.
The same is actually the case with Nash. Gone are the days of watching Nash routinely whirl and twirl his way around the lane seemingly at will over the course of 48 minutes of action. If Nash is able to simply play a steady hand in about 25-28 minutes of action while splitting time with whichever of Steve Blake or Jordan Farmar is playing more effectively, then the Lakers will be far better off and will actually have improved at the position over last year. Unlike in year’s past, this Lakers team seems fully prepared to not only limit the minutes played by Nash and Bryant, but also their overall workload and combined level of on-court responsibility – a point Bryant recently made during his hour-long interview with comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.
Additions like swingmen Nick Young and Wesley Johnson and point guard Jordan Farmar not only add some much-needed youth and athleticism to the mix, but also provide the Lakers with interchangeable parts that can serve as options at multiple positions throughout the season. The real question will be how well a combination of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and reserve center Chris Kaman will be able to operate in the pivot. At times, with Howard, the Lakers’ post scoring could be described as “anemic” at best. Statistically, they were only slightly better in terms of shooting percentage at the rim in 2012 as they were in 2011 by a comparison of .658 and .650 respectively. Conversely, the 2012 team was actually slightly worse than the previous season, although it should be noted that Howard was admittedly little more than a shell of himself throughout the first half of his lone injury-plagued season in Los Angeles.
The point of referencing the defensive stats wasn’t to be disparaging towards Howard, rather it is merely to say it isn’t beyond the realm of imagination to think Gasol and Kaman could provide league-average interior defense (which is about what the Lakers were in 2012) all while playing potentially more effectively, but certainly more fluidly out of the post on offense. What Gasol and Kaman lack in terms of Howard’s domineering physical presence, they will try to account for from a skills and chemistry perspective. Evidenced even more so by the 28-12 stretch the Lakers were able to close the season on with Howard, you can never underestimate the significance of connectivity in team sports.
Ultimately, more than ever before, this will be a one-year experience in La-La land. With the potential for up to a reported $50 million in cap space following the season, older players like Bryant and Gasol are playing out their contracts with the hopes of chasing down one more title before it is all said and done, and a strong desire to defy great odds and do it together. The newly acquired talent, such as Johnson, Kaman and Farmar each took less money than offered by other teams for the opportunity for this one-year showcase with these Lakers. D’Antoni is clearly not above criticism and perhaps possesses the highest level of individual expectations, as although he is technically under contract for another two seasons, D’Antoni seems to be operating under the guise of a single-season audition as well with the pending free agency rush looming along the horizon.
Even the front office, while unfairly judged at times by portions of the fan base, is far from above reproach with rumors continuing to swirl regarding potential splintering or (at the very least) a distance between executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and executive vice president of business operations Jeanie Buss. Generally, it is my practice to avoid discussing scandals or conflict from behind the scenes as we rarely are privy to the full or accurate story, and it is my preference to simply cover the on-court activity as much as possible. That said, if the Buss family wants to avoid subjects of this nature from being in the media, they could certainly do a better job of maintaining a united front when speaking publicly about the future of the organization.
Whether it is desired or not, everyone also must have a willingness to eventually speak about the elephant in the room and address Phil Jackson’s potential or future role within the organization as well. While my belief in this current roster’s ability to win somewhere between 44-47 games if even remotely healthy remains intact, if you’re the Lakers organization and you truly have aspirations as lofty as prying a LeBron James from South Beach or even Carmelo Anthony away from the Big Apple, then you’d have to imagine having a man with the basketball acumen and uncanny ability to motivate talent such as Jackson at your negotiating table would be a desired asset. As an adviser, executive or anything else, the level of respect Jackson garners from around the league alone demands his presence. If you’re the Lakers, you simply cannot afford to miss out on the next two free agent classes.
Some outlets may consider the Lakers as the “team of turmoil,” but a more accurate description probably resides along the lines of “transition” more than anything. Times have certainly changed, and the league is no different in having to adjust along with it. The Lakers, while adapting on the fly, have obviously run into a few road blocks throughout the process, but have generally figured out a way to pick themselves up after each stumble. They’ve always been great at re-tooling and re-stocking talent, but it was the late, great Dr. Buss that was always credited for coming through when the biggest names were in question. In his absence, and having just missed out on one of those “big names” it is now left upon the entire organization to collective prove itself amidst doubt and understandable disdain from a league that has been victim to it’s perennial success.
It’s time to see what this team is truly made of, and determine whether this heralded franchise can once again find a way to rise above the rest or whether they’ll be mired in mediocrity for the foreseeable future.