This year the TrueHoop Network has put together a book of NBA team previews, which you will hear more about soon. Due to book publishing deadlines, my first version of this was written in August, well before training camp opened, and had tight word counts to fit space.
What follows is a modified version of that printed preview — my views have evolved with what we have seen in training camp and preseason, and with your comments and the discussions here. Also, this is longer. Enjoy, then check out the list of other blogger previews for their teams below.
God, it is good to be hated again.
It’s an oddly comforting thing for Lakers fans when the entire world seems to be passionately wishing for your team to fail, hoping for an earthquake that will break off Los Angeles and dump it in the ocean so that they don’t have to hear about the Lakers again. When the Lakers are hated, you know they are good.
And they are good — very good. Not only did they win the NBA title, they brought back virtually every piece of that team, and made a move to bring in a unique talent (and personality) at another spot. On paper they should be a better team this year — Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are back to lead, with a more mature supporting cast.
But they also will be a different team.
Two things change the Lakers dynamic this year, meaning they will play at a little slower pace and likely be better on defense.
The first of those is Ron Artest, who will make the team different because he is, um, different. But forget the under/over on how many times Phil Jackson is asked a question that begins, “Ron Artest tweeted…” (the betting line is 225), he changes the Lakers on the court. He is a more physical defender, a guy who can slow down the big threes in the league like Paul Pierce or LeBron James (as much as anyone slows them). His offense within the triangle has been a pretty good fit through preseason, as Darius explains:
I’ve described Artest as a souped-up Walton and I believe that even more now. He’s barely looking to shoot and he’s focused almost entirely on making plays for his teammates whenever he touches the ball on offense. But because he’s still such an offensive threat and so strong, he’s able to occupy defenders in a way that has been effective so far and allowed him to be a playmaker from the perimeter that we don’t have outside of Kobe and Odom (who is not nearly as controlled as Ron has shown so far).
That said, Artest will shoot (and likely at some points this year more than we would like). Artest shoots the three better than Ariza and is a beast down low, a dangerous combination in the Lakers offense. But Reed adds this note about comparing Ariza and Artest:
Ariza proved that, more than perhaps anyone on last year’s team but Kobe and Fisher, he is a winner; he is not scared of the big moment; he asserts himself to change the game when everything is on the line. That’s a rare and special quality. He clearly had Horry and Cassell’s role player killer instinct…. And that’s what this team really needs after Kobe and Gasol — talented players who rise up in big moments. We’ll see if Artest has it in him. He’s never been tested like that before.
The other big change will be having a healthy Andrew Bynum. (*knocking on wood*). So far in the preseason, Bynum has moved well and he has been devastatingly good — he is running the floor, beating the other big down and getting deep position on the block. Reed adds to that point.
Bynum looks to have regained his explosiveness. I think he’s going to be a man on a mission to prove himself, resulting in big numbers and lots of ball hogging. I won’t care about the latter so long as he doesn’t pout about sitting at the end of games and can keep his selfish tendencies on hold for the playoffs (like Kobe was able to when young). But I think he’s going to give himself an Antoine Walker in Boston level green light and just fire away whenever he has the slightest opportunity.
There will be other things to watch during the regular season (besides the one time a game — at least — when Kobe just makes your jaw drop to the floor like you’re in an old Tex Avery cartoon). Point guard is going to be one thing to follow. Derek Fisher is the starter, the guy who hits the big shots, but he is almost old enough to start for the Celtics. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown will get the chance to supplant him, but the question remains if one of them can step up and do it. Brown may be the crowd favorite — he is certainly the YouTube favorite with his dunks — but Farmar may have had the better overall preseason.
That said, what Ty Lawson did to the Lakers PGs (all three of them) in the last game is a reminder that this is a lurking issue. Somehow the Lakers need to find a way to defend quick point guards, or that will come back to bite them this season.
The ultimate keys to the Lakers are: 1) Kobe; 2) A front line that is long and versatile. Reed chimes in with this
The obvious strength of this team is its frontcourt size, skill, and quickness. No other team can match up with Gasol, Bynum, and Odom up front when they are all healthy and playing well. I don’t know if we’ve seen a front line with this much potential since the 86 Celtics…. I do hope that our closing offense in tight games is much less spreading the court for Kobe the last 3 minutes, and much more throwing the ball inside and reserving the Kobe clear out until the last play or two.
With that front line, expect a lot of post-up play and a slower pace from our starting unit. Zephid talks about that:
On offense, the starters are pretty much a post-up unit. Kobe, Artest, Pau, Andrew, they’re all at their best when posting up, so we could be in for a ton of grinding first quarters. Heck, even Fisher posts up smaller guards from time to time. I really like Artest’s “post game,” even if it consists mostly of bull rushes to the hoop and no actual back-to-the-basket moves. Man, but when he gets his shoulders around his defender, he’s pretty much unstoppable, with a couple of really nice assists coming off these bull-rushes.
On defense, things will be a little different this year. With Artest as another strong wing defender to go with Kobe (when he wants to be a good one on one defender), the Lakers now have a healthy Bynum in the paint. The Lakers moved away somewhat from the strong side zone in this preseason, but worked hard to force penetration to the baseline and get the help there early. The Lakers will still trap and try to force turnovers, something else we saw with the team near the end of the preseason. Particularly with the second unit, which is more likely to run on the turnovers they create.
The unenviable challenge for other teams is to match up with the versatility of the Lakers — want to go big and the Lakers can stack three guys 6’10 or taller along the front line for you. Want to go small and the Lakers can move Kobe Bryant to the three, Ron Artest to the four (or Odom) and have one of the better running/passing true seven footers in Gasol in the middle (plus Bynum can run the floor).
No matter what you want to do, the Lakers can match up with better players. That just makes everybody hate them. Which is a good thing.
Predicted Win total: 64. One less than last year, the West is deep and the Lakers will have an adjustment period with Artest, but in the end they are still the class of the conference. (The crystal ball of the rest of the TrueHoop Network said 62 Lakers wins.)
Why they will fail (Thoughts from the rest of the network on why the Lakers will fall short): Because one day Derek Fisher will stop saving Kobe’s teams. (Ryan Schwan)
I paid a voodoo priestess to curse them. I even let her use some of my blood and my lucky chicken’s foot. I’m sure that should do it. (Matt McHale)
Best Tweet of the Team: “Stop me if you can opponents. Then I will just pass to Kobe. Or maybe Kobe might pass to me. Or maybe Gasol might pass to Bynum. Your F*&#ed”
From Ron Artest, who is so pumped to be a Laker he is even willing to give up the rock and was a good playmaker in preseason (readers in Sacramento and Houston just involuntarily said “we’ll see about that”).
The People’s Player (besides Kobe): Lakers fans love them some DJ Mbenga. He sparked more of that love this preseason with a seven-block game. Last season one section of Staples Center all had made “Banging with Mbenga” T-shirts. When he comes in during mop up time, the elbows are out and Lakers fans will be begging him to shoot. And with this Lakers team, he should get lots of mop up chances.
The play the Lakers run if down one point with the ball and :09 left on the clock: Lamar Odom inbounds the ball to Derek Fisher, who quickly gets the ball to Pau Gasol in the high post. He has a plethora of options: There is Andrew Bynum looking for the backdoor lob, Ron Artest has set himself at the three-point line and his man is coming to double Gasol; and there is Lamar Odom making a sharp cut toward the basket. Gasol surveys the situations and…
Who are we kidding? It’s a clear out for Kobe.
Legalese (the contract stuff): The question is how you keep the team at its peak through a championship window without having an Isiah Thomas level payroll (Gasol is a free agent in 2011). If the Lakers can make a trade to save money and get a decent player this season (as they did sending Vladimir Radmanovic away), they may well take it.
Kobe Bryant has been working with Lakers brass on a five-year extension. If he wants at the end of this year he can opt out of his current deal then turn around and sign a new max five year deal with the Lakers. It will mean a short-term savings of a few dollars, but some issues near the end of that contract.
The other coming contract (and on the court) issue is the point guard situation — Derek Fisher’s contract is up after this season, Shannon Brown has a player’s option for next season (he makes $2 million if he stays) and the Lakers chose not to extend a qualifying offer to Jordan Farmar, who will become a restricted free agent at the end of the year (the Lakers could match any offer to him). With Adam Morrison’s $5.2 million coming off the books after this season, look for the Lakers to spend some money on a point guard of the future next summer. The question is who will that be?
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