The season that was nearly lost to labor strife is finally here, but based off the chatter amongst a large sect of Laker fans you’d wonder if that’s actually a good thing. Uncertainty is in the air and fans are stirring in their chairs like their parents just sat them down to confront them about the box of “stuff” they found under the bed. Now is not a time of comfort for the Lakers nor those that root for them.
Gone is Phil Jackson, his calming zen approach, and his championship pedigree. When Phil Jackson
paces sits in his high chair on your sideline, every potential negative has a duller edge. A suspect rotation? Phil will sort that out. A tough to manage star player? Phil can reach him. Marginal players that may not have a full NBA skill set? Phil will find a way to maximize their talent. Plus, he’d deal with the media masterfully and make even the most dire situation feel manageable.
Gone too is the calming presence and swiss army skill set of Lamar Odom. To a man, every player in the Laker locker room has a deep respect for Odom. His life challenges have been more than many would face in five lifetimes yet he almost always wore a smile and carried a demeanor that invited playful interaction that could bring the most diverse group together. When on the hardwood, he was able to provide nearly any skill that was needed on any given night. He was the guy that could fill all the gaps – no matter how wide – or step back and play the simple role all in a single game. Few players have the mental or physical ability to be that player, but Odom was for the Lakers.
Plus, Jerry Buss continues his slow drift to the background while his son, Jim, takes a more prominent role in every decision made. I might be biased, but Dr. Buss has been the best owner in sports for the entirety of his tenure as top man of the Lakers and his stepping back has many feeling uneasy. Will Jim have the same golden touch of his father? Will he be able to relate to people with the same common man touch? Will he be willing to make the hard decision or gamble at the right time and come out on top as often as his father did? Many wonder if any of those questions can be answered in the affirmative and that uncertainty has many on the verge of panic.
Yet, the season will go on and the Lakers must be ready to play despite all this change.
The roster the Lakers bring into the season is both enviable and full of question marks at the same time. Any general manager would love to have a foundation of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum as this year’s Lakers do. Despite the incredible mileage on his legs, Kobe still checks in as one of the elite wing players in the game. He offers fantastic post and mid-range skill on offense and can still provide elite level defense when called upon. His game may based more on craft and cunning than on outright explosiveness with crossovers replaced by up fakes and catch and go’s replaced by an amazing triple threat arsenal, but through the evolution of his game, the effectiveness remains due to smarts and sheer hard work. And the Gasol/Bynum duo represent fourteen feet of diverse, inside-outside skill that can control the interior on both ends of the floor.
Beyond these three, though, the Lakers bring an assortment of role players that leave me wondering if they can be consistently good enough every night. At point guard the Lakers still harbor the same issues that plagued them last year. Fisher is aged and his legs make it so he can no longer be the consistent performer that helped the Lakers earn titles in ’09 and ’10. His hard-nosed defense can still be effective in compact areas and he can still do well in a team scheme funneling his man where he’s supposed to. However, he’s a liability in space (save for as the last man back on a fast break) and is blown by too often, leaving his big men scrambling behind him to cover up for his deficiencies. Steve Blake is younger and brings more energy on both ends, but the decline he showed last season was real and until he can consistently show that it was a fluke, the questions about his ability to play 25-30 minutes a night for a championship contender are legitimate. That said, the hope is that a new scheme where he’s asked to do more than stand in the corner on offense will keep him engaged for longer stretches and inspire the bounce back year that’s needed.
On the wing the Lakers have a glut of players, all of them with holes in their game that will need to be pasted over with smart substituting and situational play.
Ron Artest Metta World Peace will be looked at to be an offensive spark for a second unit that sorely needs another scorer and his defense will be needed both on that unit and in the closing minutes against the league’s elite wings. Barnes was expected to replace MWP in the starting group, but he too will play a bench role, likely providing spot minutes at both SF and SG in relief of Kobe. Both will be relied upon to play strong wing D and give a veteran toughness to a unit that, last season, surrendered too many leads with inconsistent effort on both ends of the floor. Jason Kapono has been added as a three point specialist but the limitations in the rest of his game mean he’ll need to be hidden a lot on defense and provide little more than his shooting and floor spacing on the other end.
The big concerns coming into the season were shooting and foot speed and while the Lakers have hopefully sufficiently addressed the former with the addition of Kapono, Troy Murphy, and a resurgent Steve Blake, the latter remains a real issue. The pre-season showed that the Lakers will have issues covering backside rotations to corner shooters when the ball was reversed quickly. Their big men will also be tested in their new hard hedge/recover technique when covering the pick and roll as they’ll be asked to cover a lot of ground when stepping out on ball handlers 25 feet from the hoop and then sprinting back to the paint to protect the rim. This approach to covering the P&R will also stretch the Lakers’ perimeter defense as wings will need to dip down to the paint to help the helper and then recover back to the perimeter to close out on shooters spotting up behind the arc. Will guys like Kapono, MWP, and Barnes have enough juice in their legs to perform these duties?
Where the Lakers have tried to address these issues of speed and athleticism is in the addition of Josh McRoberts and the promotion of second year forward Devin Ebanks to the starting lineup. Both players have a bounce in their step, an attacking nature on offense, and a willingness to go hard every minute they’re on the floor. Experience is definitely an issue with these two and relying on them for too much could prove to be costly in any given game as youthful mistakes can turn the tide of a contest. However, I remember thinking the same thing about Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic in 2009 and 2010 but they both made key hustle plays in those runs that more experienced players with their older legs may not have been able to make.
And this is where the balance for the Lakers will be this year. This team will have to smarter than ever before as their talent level is no longer so superior to other teams that they can simply outclass teams via the strength of their roster. They’ll need to outthink opponents, execute better, and be sharper than in season’s past. However, they’ll also need their younger players to make some key plays that the mostly veteran group of last season were physically unable to make. A key loose ball will need to be grabbed; a long rebound will need to be gobbled up and it will be the Lakers that have to get them if they hope to win and advance further than last year.
And all of this will need to happen under the guidance of a new head coach with new schemes that will be learned on the fly. Brown’s schemes are not the most complex, but they do require patience and teamwork. They’ll also require hard work and accountability. Luckily for the Lakers, these are traits these players are used to from the previous regime. The key will be, as always, if the Lakers can stay healthy and come together as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Last season, the Lakers fell woefully short in this area and that, as much as anything else, was the reason their year ended in the embarrassing fashion it did. The expectations and the talent were in place, but the togetherness was not. This year, the talent has been lessened some, but the potential for this team to come together and outpace what last team’s group achieved is certainly possible. But it will take a comfort level with each other and with their coach; it will take everyone being on the same page and striving for the same thing. And, of course, it will take some luck.
In the end, though, this is why they play the games and why we watch them. As much as we’d like to prognosticate who will do what, it will all be decided on the court and I’m going be following every second of the way to see what this team can do. Through all the ups and downs with all the wins and losses. This Laker team is changed from the ones we’ve been used to the last few seasons, but, that may end up being a very good thing. Only time will tell.