A popular thing to do right now is to openly question why the Lakers won’t win. Just ask Mark Cuban. And while I don’t agree with Cuban’s grasping-at-straws question of players “not wanting to be there”, I do understand that nothing is set in stone for a team that’s yet to practice together, much less play a game. Handing the Lakers any title beyond “one of the most talented teams” is a reach in its own right as there are still things that can go wrong with questions that need to be answered and sorted out.
So, while many are rightfully high on this group of Lakers it doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns when looking at the team. Below are X things that are at the front of my mind when taking a critical look at this roster:
- Can Kobe and Steve Nash’s minutes be kept down? I’m not as concerned about how “old” these guys are as much as I’m concerned about making sure they don’t play heavy minutes. Last season Mike Brown showed a penchant for leaning on his best players for heavy minutes in the pursuit of wins that, in the end, didn’t matter as much as the freshness of his player’s legs.
We’ve already talked about Nash in the context of improving the players around him, but if we’re being honest we must also account for the fact that he can’t play 48 minutes to help every player at all times. His optimal minutes per game will likely hover around 30 per contest and Brown will need to find ways to maximize Nash (and the players he shares the floor with) in those minutes in order to not him down.
As for Kobe, Jodie Meeks will aid in cutting Kobe’s minutes at shooting guard. However, with the Lakers’ small forward depth chart currently consisting of Ron-Ron and Devin Ebanks, there may be a need to slide Kobe up to SF to soak up some of those minutes if either player isn’t performing up to standard (or if injury strikes *knocks on wood*). Managing Kobe’s minutes and making sure he’s not over extended will be key to how well this team plays late in the year. Getting a handle on this from the outset of the season is important.
- Building on the question about Nash’s minutes, who will win the back up point guard job? Steve Blake is the incumbent and Brown clearly trusts him. Down the stretch of last season, Brown closed games with Blake over Sessions and at times even went to a small backcourt with Blake at SG rather than play Ebanks or Barnes in that spot. However, Chris Duhon came over in the Dwight Howard trade and Darius Morris showed signs of improvement in Summer League and is said to be working on his game a great deal in the lead up to this season.
One of these three players will need to seize the job because Nash will need his rest. None of them are perfect solutions as all possess severe flaws in their game that can make them liabilities when playing too much. However, (and this is a point I”ll make again later) it’s important that Brown decide who’s going to be his main guy and not jerk players’ minutes around. Last season Brown couldn’t decide on a small forward rotation early in the season and the uncertainty didn’t do any of those players any favors. Ebanks went from starting to never playing, Barnes went from not playing to starting to being the steady back up, and Ron went from second unit leader to first unit 5th option. Having a similar role reversal play out in the fight for back up PG minutes needs to be avoided.
- How will the big man rotation shake out? Last season Mike Brown tried to play a four man rotation with his big men and admittedly struggled with it. At the start of the season he commented that both Murphy and McRoberts had earned the chance to play and he tried to get both on the floor in various combinations with Bynum and Gasol. Ultimately, this approach failed — for a variety of reasons I should add — and it wasn’t until Jordan Hill cracked the rotation that Brown settled on a three man shuffle that he didn’t waver from.
Next season, Brown again will enter the campaign with a group of 4 bigs that will all deserve minutes. Jamison will offer sorely needed scoring punch as a stretch PF while Hill’s defense and rebounding will fit nicely in a variety of lineups. However, Brown only has 96 PF/C minutes to dole out each night and finding the right balance will take a lot of thought and discipline. Brown may find some reprieve from this challenge while Howard is unavailable, but once he returns roles will need to be sussed out and stuck to. The jerking around of minutes can’t continue but players that can contribute positively must also find a way onto the floor to help the team and keep the players’ minutes manageable.
While the list above is heavy on questions regarding Mike Brown, the reserves, and his rotations, these aren’t the only open questions. Dealing with injuries — both known (Dwight Howard) and unknown (will the Lakers stay healthy?) loom large. How quickly the players pick up new schemes, integrating Howard once he returns, and finding the right balance between structure and freelancing on offense will also need to be sorted out.
As it stands, the Lakers are a finished product on paper but a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces in terms of actual on court play. Time will tell how quickly and to what extent (if at all) they put it together.