Much of how this team is viewed revolves around what they aren’t and what they’ve lost rather than what they are and what they’ve gained. This is the natural byproduct of examining a team coming off the season it just had and dealing with the circumstances the Lakers are. A quick inventory of the baggage this team is carrying reveals why expectations aren’t just low for the 2013-14 Lakers, but why they position this team as one of the lesser groups in the league:
*They lost Dwight Howard in free agency to a conference rival.
*Kobe Bryant is coming off what is typically considered the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer.
*Their starting point guard, Steve Nash, is going on 40 and had several debilitating injuries last season and continues to suffer through minor nicks and dings this exhibition season that have hampered him physically and affected his performance.
*Their best big man, Pau Gasol, also suffered injuries last year and there are still major questions about whether he can remain healthy and, even if he does, whether he can still perform up to his past standards.
*Capped out, they were only able to add low priced veterans and reclamation projects who either have poor reputations or haven’t sniffed the success they were slated to have when entering the league.
*Their defensive talent is suspect at best and they just happen to have a head coach in Mike D’Antoni who doesn’t have the best reputation in terms of teaching defense or installing the types of schemes that cover up player weaknesses on that side of the ball.
I could go on and on, but you get my point. The questions about the Lakers don’t just inspire doubt, they overshadow what we really know about them and with the stench of underachievement still wafting around them like dirt particles around Pig-Pen in a Peanuts cartoon, there are valid reasons to be down on this group of Lakers.
And down on them is exactly what most people are. A panel of over 200 analysts pegged them to be 12th in the western conference. One of the most respected basketball writers on the planet calls them just plain bad. Many smart people think they’re much more likely to earn a top 10 pick in the lottery than make the playoffs and predict a struggle to reach 35 wins, much less the 45 or so they’d need to make the postseason.
There is a flip-side, though.
While the team lost Howard (and Metta World Peace), Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss did add some serviceable players to bolster the roster and add depth. The return of Jordan Farmar adds athleticism and playmaking to the point guard spot. Chris Kaman adds a skilled big man who can play next to Pau Gasol or in place of him. Nick Young offers scoring punch and shot creation that was sorely needed. Shawne Williams has good size, can hopefully provide quality outside shooting, and has a strong competitive streak. Throw in former lottery picks Wes Johnson and Xavier Henry, both of whom add positional versatility and athleticism to a roster that is shifted closer to one you’d expect to play for Mike D’Antoni.
And, really, that’s a major key for this season. If there was one thing, beyond the injuries and resulting lack of cohesiveness, that plagued last year’s Lakers it was the lack of total buy in from the full roster of players combined with a lack of true fit between the roster and the coach. These two things went hand in hand, of course, but it can’t be overstated how the team and the coach never fully seemed to mesh and find a path that they could walk down, together, in the hope of building the success many pegged for them. The end of the season run to make the playoffs was great, but if you look at sets the team was running it didn’t resemble anything you’d really seen D’Antoni run for any extended stretch over the course of is career.
This year, that should be different. The roster assembled has more pieces that fit the style the coach would prefer to play. Stretch forwards flank big men who can play pick and roll, pick and pop, and provide straight post up games. There’s more than one ball handling point guard who can create shots for himself or others out of the pick and roll or when isolating. There are capable shooters at every position and with the right tweaking of personnel groupings combined with a relatively stable rotation, this roster has the chance to sport a more consistent offensive attack that can display diversity while still having an identity.
This doesn’t ease all concerns, though. D’Antoni still has to show a commitment to personnel groupings and not lose faith in players as easily as he did last season. We can talk about buy-in from players and pin some of the disgruntled-ness on the players just having poor attitudes or personal agendas, but some of that must also be attributed to the coach not establishing nor sticking to roles for his players and/or moving them in and out of the lineup as he searched for solutions. This season, that must change and considering that the year will start without Kobe in the lineup and Nash already dealing with nagging ailments, the head coach will need to have a steady hand in how he deals with players, communicate well, and follow through on what he wants the same way we expect the players to.
This isn’t just true on offense, but on defense as well. Adding Kurt Rambis to his staff was a nice move and through the preseason, we’re already seeing more organization on that side of the ball with an easily identifiable plan being executed (or at least trying to be executed) nightly. Considering some of the defensive issues this group of players have as individuals, a scheme that can become the foundation for how they play on that side is as important as ever. These players will need help when isolated on an island or when fighting through high screens and it will be up to the rest of the players on the floor to be there to show the needed support. If this isn’t happening nightly, there’s no way this team sniffs a defensive ranking that is in the middle of the pack — a goal that they will need to reach if they hope to advance to the post-season.
And, ultimately, that is the goal this season. While there are calls for this team to tank heading into a draft with potential superstars at the top of the lottery, the Lakers’ front office built this team to try and win as many games as possible. They’ve added better athletes at every position (except center where Kaman “replaced” Dwight Howard) which should help in creating more easy baskets in transition and in being able to make defensive rotations. They’ve also added shooting which should help in being able to spread the floor in a way that generates the points they’ll need in order to compensate for some of their defensive issues that can’t be solved simply because they have younger, fresher legs.
This is the balance this team will face this season; the balance they’ll need to get to tip in their favor. The Lakers, for all their name brand power (be it with the organization itself or their trio of stars at the top of the roster) are no longer the powerhouse team that they were projected to be just a year ago. Winning a championship may be a goal that Kobe and others inside the organization speak of, but the landscape of power in the West has changed, leaving the Lakers behind in the process. This year is more about finding ways to win more games than critics say they can, find growth in some of the individual players who may be part of the team’s future, and be as entertaining as possible while doing it.
Whether this ends up being enough for an organization (and a fan-base) that seems to always set its goals at the top of the mountain remains to be seen. But, ultimately, it will have to be. The ceiling for this team has been lowered dramatically from what it was last season (and in season’s past where they really were one of the elite rosters). This doesn’t mean they can’t surprise and be more competitive than many expect them to be — something that I, in fact, have predicted. But it does mean that we should all be prepared for a sizable variance in performance from what they can be when at the top of their game and what they could be should there be a repeat of the unfavorable luck that damaged their chances last year.
In a sense, these are uncharted waters for nearly every member of the team. The old guard are staring down the barrel at their basketball mortality, seeing if they can defy the odds and show onlookers that they can still, in fact, play at a level that resembles the ones they used to build their names. Meanwhile, the younger, new additions are looking to restore tarnished reputations by playing up to their respective skill levels and, ultimately, reestablish their values as contributors. The potential downside, of course, is that most (if not all) of these players can’t prove the naysayers wrong and the team ends up suffering in the process.
Which is very much a possibility this year. As is the opposite. This is part of what makes this year intriguing. Every season offers the chance for a roller coaster ride and this one will be no different. Here’s to being excited and not let down when we get to the end of the tracks.