Last year’s Lakers were full of bad fits even before they suffered a slew of injuries:
- Two back-to-the-basket centers who need the ball in the low post (Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol).
- Two ageing, ball-dominant guards allergic to playing defense (Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash).
- A designated outside shooter and perimeter defender who has shot 39% from the field over the last three years and can no longer run or jump (Metta World Peace).
- A slow, un-athletic bench to back up an ageing starting lineup (Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks).
- A run-and-gun coach to coach them all (Mike D’Antoni).
Alas, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were able to put together a “super team” but lacked the foresight to manufacture a contending team, much less a championship team.
They then lost their so-called future “face of the franchise” for nothing, as Dwight bolted for Houston. What now? Most predictions are grim, with many expecting the 2013/14 Lakers to miss the playoffs and one columnist even claiming that a 37-45 record would be too generous a prediction.
Au contraire! This season’s Lakers will exceed expectations, win at least 45 games, and be much more fun to watch and root for.
The Lakers have made it clear their aim is to win games this season. Though tanking to get a higher pick in the best draft in years may be the better move for the long-term health of the franchise, that is not the path they have chosen. And in Bryant, Gasol, and Nash, they have a trio too old, too proud, and too good to sign off on any Riggin’ for Wiggins shenanigans.
They will presumably be without Bryant due to his Achilles injury for at least the first few weeks of the season, but this will allow – nay, force – Nash and Gasol to be aggressive offensively and establish a strong chemistry. And when Bryant comes back, it is reasonable to expect he will still be one of the top five individual offensive forces in the NBA; he’s Kobe Bryant, after all.
Gasol returns to his natural center position where he will surely be much more productive; his best years are behind him, but he remains one of the better back-to-the-basket players in the game and an intelligent passer. He is also playing for his next payday: “It’s the last year of my contract, so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.”
With the return of Jordan Farmar and the additions of Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, and Nick Young’s sneaker closet, the Lakers get considerably younger and more athletic – a long overdue alteration. Meanwhile, Chris Kaman brings a solid offensive skillset, the ability to run the pick-and-pop with Nash, and excellent comedy value.
The improvement in team chemistry following Dwight’s exit will be enormous. This matters. The Lakers – particularly Pau, who was unselfish to a fault – bent over backwards at times to accommodate the waffling 6’11” center. And, as petulant, passive aggressive people tend to do, Dwight sapped the energy and happiness of those around him. Even Steve Nash, king of the high-five and by all accounts one of the best teammates in the history of basketball, got into a heated exchange with him on national TV.
Freed from the pressure of “super team” status and questions of Howard’s future, the Lakers should be able to thrive on an altogether different vibe: nobody believes in us! Robert Sacre is already onto it: “Nobody thinks we can do anything, we have a lot to prove, and we’re going to come out with guns blazing.” So is Nash: “I think everyone’s kind of counting us out, which is fine by me. I think it’s good for us to fly under the radar a little bit.”
As his Suns teams showed, when Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system is run by willing and able players, it can produce some highly entertaining and effective basketball. And with Howard (the elite pick-and-roll finisher who refused to run the pick-and-roll) gone, that is what we can expect. Nash, health permitting, will again be key to the offense’s success. As will his backup Farmar, who is salivating: “I dream of playing in (his) system, somewhere you can just be free and push the ball and make a lot of plays.”
The halcyon days of “seven seconds or less” may not be revisited – particularly with Bryant shooting 20 shots per game and a few of the ill-advised variety – but the points will stack up at a league-leading-or-thereabouts rate.
The other side of the ball is of course a trickier issue. The Lakers have far-below-average defensive personnel, and a coach known for not prioritizing that end of the floor. The D’Antoni Suns had similar shortcomings but were a middle-of-the-pack team defensively (ranking between 16th and 19th in defensive efficiency from ’06 to ‘08), and if the Lakers could equal that would it would be more than enough to guarantee them a playoff spot.
Those suggesting the Lakers won’t make the playoffs are banking on two or more teams from the Denver/Dallas/Portland/New Orleans/Minnesota mix being better than them. They are off-base, it says here:
- The Nuggets lost their best all-round player, starting center and head coach, and will be without Danilo Gallinari until Christmas.
- The Mavs’ second best player is Monta Ellis. Their third best player is… a 35-year-old Shawn Marion?
- The Blazers would need a monumental leap from the already-impressive Damian Lillard to be in the hunt.
- The Pelicans are relying on Anthony Davis making a similarly giant leap, Tyreke Evans becoming a winning player, and Eric Gordon staying healthy (yikes!).
- The Timberwolves are counting on an injury prone leader in Kevin Love who has not yet led them to a .400 record (let alone .500) and may or may not be planning his pending exit from Minneapolis.
The Lakers will be out to prove their doubters wrong, will embrace their roles and the offense, and, with Kobe’s return, will finally be healthy – these are not your Lakers of yesteryear. A rough early schedule may take its toll in the first couple of weeks, with five of L.A.’s first six games coming against playoff teams, but these things even out.
The Lakers will be competitive, and fun to watch. The NBA and its TV partners agree: L.A. will feature in a league-high 25 nationally televised games, and play host to the defending champion Heat in the prized 5 P.M. EST Christmas Day slot.
They will not contend for the title, but behind one of the best offenses in the league, they will post 45-47 wins in a crowded Western Conference – and may even win a game or two in the playoffs, which is more than last year’s group managed.