I wanted to do something different with my season preview this year. With the Lakers being the team from Hollywood, I wanted to take some inspiration from my television screen. I chose one of my favorite shows on right now, Boardwalk Empire. What follows are quotes from what’s been one of my favorite episodes this season, Spaghetti & Coffee. Hope you like it…
Gyp Rosetti: “What’s that? A gun? I gotta gun. I gotta gun, he gotta gun, he gotta gun…everybody got guns!”
If there’s a moment that defined last season for me, it was watching Mitch Kupchak in the stands in Oklahoma City standing there stone faced as the clock ticked down towards the Lakers’ getting eliminated. Kupchak looked…well…like a man who knew his team was not good enough and that he would need to do something about it.
Fast-forward to today and Mitch Kupchak is a man that is no longer outgunned. In acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard without giving up — outside of Andrew Bynum — any players of substance, Kupchak pulled off a pretty remarkable feat. He rebuilt the Lakers on the fly and positioned them to contend this season and for several more to come (should Howard re-sign at the end of the year).
And it wasn’t just the big names that he hauled in. He inked Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks as free agents at bargain prices. He retained Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill to bring back two younger players who still have promise and can grow. These four players should all be contributors in a revamped rotation that, while not sexy and still lacking a spark plug in the classic sense, is much better than the group of reserves that was trotted out last season.
This is not a perfect group of guys. The top of the roster is aged and the bottom still has some dead weight, but ultimately Mitch Kupchak reloaded this roster in a way that puts them right in the mix for a championship. I’m shaking my head at the notion as I type. He really did it.
Mickey Doyle: “You what’s goofy? Cash business like this? At the end of the day, I still have empty pockets.”
But in assembling such a high profile roster, the Lakers are paying a pretty penny in payroll. This season’s commitment is $100 million before a cent of luxury tax payments or revenue sharing goes to the league. Next year, the payroll has the potential to go down in terms of what the players make but overall spending will only go up due to the increase in luxury tax rates implemented in the new collective bargaining agreement.
There is relief down the road when Kobe, Pau, Ron, and Blake’s contracts come off the books all at the same time. But those contracts expiring only swap financial pressures for those associated with building a new roster that may be without one Kobe Bean Bryant (as well as Pau and Ron who, by any measure, will be vital to this team’s success).
Long story short, the Lakers have an open window to compete but it’s being propped open by a large wad of cash. At some point, that money — even with a ridiculously rich television contract — will not be enough and the strategy of spending to get where this team needs to go will be reevaluated. So, enjoy the splurging while you can. This is a super-team in the truest sense with talent other franchises could only dream of. But it’s being held together by the pocketbook of the Buss family and that will not last indefinitely.
Eli Thompson: “Turns out they let you go if you ask polite.”
Staying on topic of the roster, we can’t ignore that the one of the main reasons the Lakers even got Nash and Howard was because they wanted out. Nash certainly did ask nicely to leave and was granted his wish of coming to the Lakers — where he could remain close to his Phoenix based children — because of the emotional pleas with an owner that would not have otherwise accommodated. Call it a parting gift for a man that had given so much to the organization.
Dwight, on the other hand…well, he’s another story entirely. In what was a soap opera that made LeBron’s ‘Decision’ look somewhat tame, Dwight forced his way out of Orlando. With twists and turns, declarations and changed minds, and too many leaks to the media to count, Howard found a way to sully an image that was one of the league’s best.
And that is the backdrop to Howard’s inaugural season in Los Angeles. On the surface it may seem like people have forgotten but they have not. Dwight will not only need to play well but he’ll need to be on his best behavior while doing so before fans around the league return to cheer him on. Whether he’s prepared for this remains to be seen but it will be coming. There will be boos at opposing arenas and there will be more bad press coming even though the entire ordeal is in the rearview mirror. He has the talent and the charisma to overcome it, but like so many other aspects to this Lakers’ season it will take time.
Gyp Rosetti: “One inch = 10 miles.”
Gas station attendant: “The scale.”
Rosetti: “How’s that?”
GSA: “The scale, of the map.”
Rosetti: “That’s what it’s called?”
Rosetti: “Sometimes it’s not called that?
GSA: “No…pretty much always the scale.”
When looking at roadmap to this Lakers’ season the hope is that the destination is a Final’s berth and, ultimately, a parade down Figueroa.
But, there are no short cuts to get to this destination. Just because the Lakers have amassed a surreal amount of talent doesn’t mean the distance to where they want to go is any shorter than it would be for any other team. There’s a reason that Dwight Howard is preaching patience, that Steve Nash mentions the word “process” during every media sit down, and why a guy like Pau Gasol doesn’t even care about the OKC trade as much as he cares about what’s going on in his own locker room.
The Lakers look at the map in front of them and do not mistake one inch for ten miles. The path they’re about to embark on is a long and arduous one.
Chalky White:“How ‘bout you doctor me?”
Samuel Crawford: “Is something bothering you?”
Chalky: “I don’t know. I ain’t a doctor am I?”
Forget catchphrases like chemistry or story-lines that focus on the mixing of such high profile talents for a moment. If there are two issues that should really concern the Lakers this year it’s the collective age of some of their key players and the question of whether or not they’ll be healthy enough to achieve their goals.
Kobe Bryant is entering his 17th season and is officially a game time decision for the season opener with a strained right foot. Pau Gasol is completely healthy, but is entering his 12th campaign, has played heavy minutes for most of his career and has dealt with nagging hamstring issues in the past few seasons. Steve Nash, like Kobe, is a product of the 1996 draft and has been forced into playing less minutes for several seasons due to a creaky back. And then, of course, there’s Dwight Howard and his own recovery from off-season back surgery.
Those are the Lakers’ four best players and the keys to them winning a championship this season. If there’s one thing that needs to go right for them this year it’s that they make it through the regular season relatively unscathed and ready to do the heavy lifting that will be required of them come May and June. If they are, this team will be alright. We don’t want to even consider the alternative.
Gaston Means: “It has the twin virtues of simplicity and mystery.”
Outside of the Nash and Howard acquisitions, there’s no bigger change to this year’s team than the implementation of the Princeton offense. Last season offered too many stagnant offensive sets and too many empty possessions. Seeking to rectify that has led to the Princeton being adapted.
The Lakers promise to run a version of the offense that will play to their players’ strengths. We can expect to see things like pick and roll initiations from Nash and Howard to begin offensive sets and Pau Gasol doing a lot of work at the pinch post. We can expect dribble hand-off sequences with Kobe and Howard and straight post up sets for Dwight, Pau, Kobe, and Ron to be built into the offensive design.
That said, what looks to be a simple transition will not be so easy. While multiple Lakers have experience in read and react systems the players will need to learn how to play together within the construct of this specific offense. The result, especially at the beginning, will be the Lakers looking as confused and flat-footed in running the sets as they want their opponents to be when trying to defend them. There will be many times where we’ll be able to see the players thinking about what they should do next rather than reacting to what the defense is doing and simply executing.
By the end of the year, the hope is that the Lakers will be able to counter what the defense is doing on any specific possession while also taking advantage of the individual offensive talent to create mismatches they can go to. Whether or not they are on the right path to get to that point will be something we’re analyzing constantly.
Gyp Rossetti: “Okay. Thank you. We’ll have spaghetti and coffee.”
Speaking of the Princeton Offense, if there’s one concern about implementing the system it has to do with the trigger man of the entire show, Steve Nash. Like the quote above, Nash and this specific offense don’t necessarily seem like a great match.
Of course, Nash is such an offensive genius he can fit into any offense well. He’ll bring shooting, playmaking, and his ability to control the pace of the game to any system and will execute the design just fine. That said, Nash is also a player that’s thrived in offenses that give him freedom and the Princeton, while allowing for decision making at every stage of a possession, is more structured than not.
Nash can begin possessions any way he wants — be it a pick and roll or a pass to any teammate he chooses — but there will be pressures to work within the confines of the Princeton if for no other reason that he will be sharing the court with so many other highly capable offensive players. Not only will Nash not need to carry the load on offense, but for the first time in a long time it likely won’t be the plan for him to.
How this combination goes will be one of the more important things to watch this season. I believe the transition will take time but will ultimately go well. Nash is too smart, too skilled, and too good a player to not make it work. But there will be times where we all wonder aloud if having Nash run this system with this team — especially with Howard offering the perfect pick and roll partner — is the right choice.
Gaston Means: “Consider me an admirer Mr. Thompson. Ordinary men avoid trouble. Extraordinary ones turn it to their advantage.”
The person who decided on that offense is also the person who has the most to gain from this season: Mike Brown. Last season there’s a strong argument to be made that he was not put into the best position to succeed. The lockout curtailed his training camp. The veto of the Chris Paul trade and subsequent trading of Lamar Odom (as well as the persistent rumors of Pau Gasol being on the block) only served as further distractions to an already difficult lead up to the season. Add in a bench of below average quality and Brown simply didn’t have the appropriate tools to work with considering the expectations placed upon him.
This year, though, that is different. Brown has a much improved roster to work with. He has also had a full training camp to implement his schemes on both sides of the ball. And while injuries to key players can not be overlooked as variables he’ll have to overcome in order for the team to reach its goals, where he stands now is a far cry above where he was at this same stage last season.
Brown now has a chance to flip the narrative of who he is as a head coach upside down.
When he was hired there were all but outright protests. People questioned if he was the right man and openly pointed to who they preferred. The fact that he didn’t win last season while also showing some of the ghosts of his Cleveland failures only made it more convenient for his detractors.
He can erase nearly all of that with a championship this year. He can start down the path that Eric Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, and Doc Rivers have all traveled in recent years. He can become the guy that won it all and has that championship pedigree all fans look for when evaluating a head coach. This season, he has the tools but it’s up to him to get it done.
Nucky Thompson: “If you were trying to be obvious, you wouldn’t be that obvious.”
I wanted to talk about Pau Gasol here. How his understated game and value to the team don’t always match up in the eyes of those providing the harshest critiques. But I was beat to the punch. (Spectacularly, I might add.)
So, instead, let’s flip this idea on its head and look at a player who has a game that stands out but isn’t always looked at as the one who can make the biggest difference: Metta World Peace.
The man I still call Ron has done everything he can to be ready to contribute this season. He’s slimmed down and regained some of the quickness and athleticism that was missing last season. He’s worked on his outside shot to be more of a threat from the perimeter. And, most noticeable, is the dogged determination he’s showing when on the floor.
All of this couldn’t be better for the Lakers. Last season was a collective failure for the group and there’s not a single player that deserves any more blame than his teammates. But with that in mind, Ron has seemingly taken the steps to ensure that he will not repeat the same mistakes that were made last season.
Nucky Thompson: “Know what I’d like more than anything else? For people to be honest about what they want. No matter what.”
This quote is for a Kobe Bryant that is now more unfiltered than ever. This Kobe talks openly about when he may retire and what he wants to accomplish before he does so. He talks of mentoring Dwight Howard and wanting to get him prepared for when the Lakers are “his team”. The surliness is still there, but the window into what he’s thinking about any given topic is now nearly completely clear for all to see and understand.
But what Kobe seemingly wants most is not anything new. He wants to win championships. His sixth title as a player is the goal that sits above the rest like a capstone on the pyramid that has been a career for the ages. People will point to where he sits on the all-time scoring list and what records may fall as he maneuvers through his 17th season, but ultimately the thing that comes out of his mouth first when talking about what he wants for this year is the first ring for his other hand and another banner to go up in Staples Center. He understands how legacies are really built and he’s not shy about telling us about it.
Especially when the end of his career really is around the corner.
Margaret Thompson: “Well, it’s never as bad as the worst.”
This last quote is another reminder to us fans. Sometimes when we look at a team as talented as the Lakers it will be easy to be frustrated when they don’t look very good. It will be easy to complain about them losing to an opponent they shouldn’t lose to, that the coach isn’t doing a good job, that player X needs to find his game/pass the ball more/shoot the ball more/quit doing the thing we hate less. And believe me, I get it. I really do.
But, when you’re in one of those moods, just try to remember that it’s never as bad as the worst. I’ve no clue if the Lakers are going to win it all. I’ve no clue if, when it all comes right down to it, they’ll come through in the end. There are questions about this team that will need to be figured out on the floor, in the pressure moments that can’t be predicted before a single game (that counts) has been played.
What I do know is that this team is good enough to be considered one of the few teams that can win. And that, for now, will need to be enough. And if it’s not, remember that you could always be an Orlando fan.
Nucky Thompson: “I want everything to run all by itself.”
If there’s a character who’s name has not been uttered as loudly or with as much disdain of late if the prodigal son, Jim Buss. Go back nine months from today and the younger Buss would have been one of the first names off the tongue of your average Laker fan, and it wouldn’t have been in a positive way. Many wanted him to not be involved at all; for the team to run itself, or at least for the basketball people to make decisions and for Jim to simply cut the checks with his father.
Things have changed, though. The doubts about whether Jim would pony up the cash for an elite roster are now an afterthought. He’s signed off on a payroll nearly double what the Kings will shell out this season. He’s used every available resource to allow Kupchak to build this team and not spared a single dime. He is, now, the owner fans are more than happy with. To get to that point so quickly after being the subject of sports talk radio banter for so long is telling. The fans love a winner and, even more so, an owner that paves the path to build one. In that respect, Jim Buss is a new man. Or maybe he’s still the same one as before just seen through a new lens. Either way, no one fusses over how much he’s involved anymore.
Mickey Doyle: “Arnold Rothstein expects to get what he pays for.”
Owen Sleater: “He won’t be getting it tonight.”
One last note to the fans: this is a season for the ages. The talent assembled is as strong as we’ve seen in, probably, a decade. And with this team there will be expectations for how they should play, who they should beat, and what the final outcome of the season should be.
However, we won’t know how it’s going to end up until we’re so close to the end that we can almost start see the credits scrolling down the screen. My advice is to enjoy the journey that this season will be. It’s a rare thing to have a team that can compete for a title. Maybe not for Lakers fans, but go to twenty-five other cities across the league and they’ll tell you how often it occurs.
This is a team to be enjoyed over the long haul of a marathon season. The chase should be savored. If healthy, they have a shot to achieve whatever goals are place in front of them. Try to take it all in along the way.