The Emmys may have invaded Los Angeles two weekends ago, but everyone in this town knows that it’s the Lakers who take home best drama every year. With that said, Forum Blue & Gold takes a look at 12 intriguing plot lines for the upcoming season—in honor of Phil Jackson’s bid for a record 12 NBA championships. Chime in below to share your own thoughts on what stories you think will fuel the press this season.
12. How much burn will the rookies get? - Second-round picks Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks showed a lot of promise this summer, but will it translate to success in the NBA? Both players will most likely only see small glimpses of the court during trash time, but Luke Walton’s ongoing injury woes could creak the window open a little. Caracter’s conditioning is also an issue, as the team only partially guaranteed his salary for the upcoming season, contingent on a weight check-up next week.
11. Does Pau take another step? – Pau Gasol’s image and stature around the league has undergone somewhat of a rapid metamorphosis in his two-plus seasons as a Laker. When he first arrived in L.A., Gasol was widely regarded as a soft, willowy big man—a strong offensive threat, adept passer, but a black hole on defense and largely incapable of serving as option 1.A. on a contending team. Nearly three years later, Gasol has improved to the point where he is considered by many to be one of the top three or four big men in the entire league. Last season, Pau upped his rebounding average to a career-high 11 per game, while also holding his own in the playoffs against the likes of Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire and Kevin Garnett. With an offensive game as polished as any big man in the NBA, Pau’s ascent toward becoming an All-NBA second or first team selection will primarily depend on his growth on the defensive end.
10. Artest’s sophomore year – Ron proved his longtime naysayers wrong and was a key cog in the Lakers second consecutive championship. His irreplaceable defense and magnificent performance in Game 7 against Boston (both during and after the game) transformed the always entertaining forward into folk hero status in Tinseltown. Now that the proverbial monkey is off his back and he’s proven himself as a winner, what happens next? Does Artest come out with the same burning desire to win what would be his second title in a row? The addition of Barnes, along with the incumbent Bryant, means the Lakers have an enviable three premiere defenders at the wing spot, which should help with any fatigue issues after Ron played the longest season of his life.
9. Who backs up Bryant? - While the Lakers have all kinds of options on the wing with the addition of Barnes, the newly resigned Shannon Brown will still be relied upon to fill the lion’s share of minutes at the two behind Bryant. The Lakers need both Shannon and Sasha Vujacic—who figures to serve as a third string guard—to provide consistent support if they want to limit Kobe’s minutes during the regular season. Both players are coming off subpar regular seasons and playoff runs, but the hope is that Shannon’s second full year with the team and the confidence gained by Sasha after nailing two pivotal free throws in Game 7 will bode well for both guards.
8. Lamar Odom, post-World Championships – If you factor in the Lakers’ deep playoff runs over the past two seasons, Odom has been playing basketball for nearly two years straight. At a certain point, the 11-year forward has to start showing signs of fatigue, right? Even Lamar himself admitted that he wasn’t in tip-top shape when Team U.S.A. first took to the practice floor last month. Depending on how deep his team goes in the now single-elimination round of the FIBA World Championships, Odom could be looking at little to no time off between the end of the tournament and the start of training camp with the Lakers. The team’s improved bench should help some in this regard though, along with his experience as one of the de facto leaders of Team U.S.A.
7. Return of the bench mob? – If all goes as planned, the Lakers bench should be much-improved when the team heads to training camp in a short few weeks. With the additions of trusty veterans like Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, the Lakers bolstered one of their lone weak spots from the past season—and did so with players who should fit in well with the team too. As with any new additions though, there’s no telling how seamless that integration will be until they actually step foot on the court. Steve Blake, in particular, should help shore up the Lakers’ longstanding weakness at point guard, while also spelling the aging Derek Fisher.
6. The importance of home court advantage - Conventional wisdom says that a group as seasoned as this Lakers squad is past the point of needing home court—even in a potential Game 7 situation against the likes of Boston, Orlando and Miami. Throw conventional wisdom out the door when discussing home court advantage, though; as much as players claim that it doesn’t matter, it clearly paid off in Game 7 against the Celtics. The race for home court throughout the playoffs figures to be a tough one too this year with Heat added to the fold. Where do the Lakers’ priorities lie at the end of the season if the team is banged up and it might make more sense to rest the starters?
5. Phil’s last stand? – It’s Phil’s last season. Again. There has been a lot of talk this offseason about motivation for this year’s team and near or at the top of that list has to be the quest to send Coach Jackson off into the sunset with a mindboggling fourth three-peat. For a man who practices Zen, winning a title this season would certainly represent a great deal of symmetry in what has been an amazing career. Then, there is the other camp who believes that Jackson wouldn’t turn down another chance to coach a potential four-peat team, especially considering there’s a decent chance the following season would be condensed due to a lockout.
4. Can Bynum finally stay healthy? – Is this the year when we finally get to see what Andew Bynum is made of for all 82 games…or at least something close to that figure? If you could describe the center’s career at this point with one phrase, it might be stop-and-go. How Andrew responds to yet another knee injury will go a long way in determining the Lakers three-peat fate. Even on one leg for most of the playoffs, #17 still provided a huge boost, particularly on the defensive end. If the resolve he displayed during the NBA Finals is any indication, Bynum’s head is in the right place and he could be on his way to a big season.
3. Kobe continues to build his legacy - For the first time in years, Kobe took the summer off to rest his battle-worn body—a body that many pundits claimed was beginning its steady decline last season. The All-NBA veteran had a few injuries to recuperate too, starting with a troublesome knee and mangled finger. Assuming both have healed to the point where they won’t be an issue for Bryant this season, all signs point to a monster year. With five NBA titles under his belt, Kobe is officially in “legacy mode,” only one championship away from tying His Airness and one away from his team tying the Celtics. Not that motivation has ever been an issue for him.
2. Battling the injury bug – The Lakers won their second consecutive championship last season in spite of a myriad of injuries that affected everyone in the starting lineup not named Derek Fisher. One year older, will the team be able to replicate their success if the injury bug bites once again? An improved bench should help this cause, but injuries on an aging team will again be a wild card as the team looks to cement its place in the history books.
1. Where’s the motivation? - Top to bottom, the Lakers are, by and large, a well-disciplined, focused team. After winning back-to-back NBA titles and most of the team basking in the glory from their seven-game duel with Boston, the Lakers will still have to resist the urge to take their foot off the pedal this season. Kobe Bryant will make sure they stay on course though, as he prepares to fight for his second career three-peat. Moreover, the emergence of the Heat as a new league superpower should have the Forum Blue and Gold ready to go to battle from day one of training camp.