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Last week, Byron Scott sat down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com and gave a wide ranging and insightful interview. Among the topics covered were his relationship with Kobe Bryant, views on Julius Randle, and who might fill out his coaching staff. You really should read the entire thing — Scott is honest and forthright, but also showed a confidence in what he wants to do and how he will go about doing it.

The part that interested me most, however, was when Trudell turned the conversation towards what the Lakers would do on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, as we all know, the Lakers were an awful defensive team. We don’t need to recount every issue, but they could neither contain the dribble nor protect the rim and when the ball was rotated around the perimeter after exploiting these issues the Lakers’ rotations were inconsistent.

Fixing this is Scott’s biggest priority and he hinted at how he will go about in doing just that:

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At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.

Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be. This idea is detailed wonderfully in this excellent longform piece by Chris Ballard that ran in this week’s Sports Illustrated. It is hard to argue with the results.

The piece linked above is well worth your time for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is a snapshot in time at where Kobe is now, staring at his mortality as his career winds down. There are no more magic fixes from diet adjustments or extra workouts to put in that can reverse the impact of father time. And while the work will be done as diligently and with as much focus as it always has been, the fact remains that there is only so much work that can be done when you have already done as much as this man has.

I am thinking about this more today than others because, as the title of this post states, today is Kobe’s birthday. He is now 36 years old, entering into his 19th NBA season after being drafted as a 17 year old. You can do the math and see that Kobe has been an NBA’er more than half his life now, all those years soldiering for the team I root for.

Today, then, is as much a celebration for Kobe as it is for fans. He has given so much to the game he loves and, in turn, to us, the fans. Even if you hate him as a player, you will miss him when he’s gone. That, really, may be the quintessential statement about Kobe. He didn’t always do it the way you wanted him to, but by doing it his way he always gave us something worth discussing; worth marveling over. He may not have earned your cheers, but he certainly earned your respect.

With that, I’ll close with one of my favorite highlight clips of Kobe. It is titled “The Clinic” and has over 5 million views on youtube and targets plays from the 2007-2009 seasons. I love this video for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it captures the many aspects of Kobe’s game that reflect the work he’s put in. Sure, you see the athleticism, but you also see the footwork, the smarts, and the unrelenting attack style that his career has been built on. The video shows his genius as an all court player. Mostly, it shows the Kobe that I’ll mostly remember — devastating, driven, and the guy I loved to watch every night. Happy Birthday, Kobe.

If you ask most basketball fans the question above, the answer will probably be skeptical at best and sarcastic laughter at worst. Kobe may have made a career out of turning doubters (either real or perceived) into believers, but this time it is different. A torn achilles and a broken bone in the knee while attempting to come back from said achilles injury will do that.

One report, though, is making it seem like those doubts may be miscast. From Lyle Spencer of Sports on Earth:

On the heels of an invisible 2013-14 campaign that clearly unhinged the Lakers, Kobe Bryant is back to being Kobe Bryant, from Kupchak’s observation point. And that is the best news in months for the faithful, whose trust in the purple and gold is being severely tested.

“My window overlooks the court, and he comes in to work out from time to time,” Kupchak said. “You would not know he’s in his mid-30s. You wouldn’t know he hurt his knee and had a torn Achilles. There’s no limp. He’s got a hop in his step. He’s working hard.”

And more from Kupchak:

“I’m not worried,” Kupchak said. “Kobe looks great. He’s had two rough years. The Achilles was a freak thing, and the knee — I’m not sure anybody can predict that kind of thing.

“He’s actually been healthy since May. He’s ready, motivated. And he’s engaged.”

First off, let me get the obligatory “what is he supposed to say?” comment out of the way.

Kupchak is the General Manager and, while he’s often more blunt and honest than others around the league who hold his title, it’s not in his best interest to say anything besides what he did. Not to mention the cynic in me remembers when Dwight Howard was coming back from back surgery and all you heard from Lakers’ practices was that Dwight was looking very good and surprising people with his progress. Then, when the season started, he was clearly still hampered and not performing anywhere near the level he’d shown in previous seasons.

The flip-side, of course, is that Mitch is just being his normal, straight shooting self. I have seen enough press conferences and interviews with the man to know that he can speak in riddles with the best of them, giving non-answer-answers while ducking and dodging questions like an agent in the Matrix. So, while acknowledging above that there’s no reason for Mitch to say something negative about Kobe’s progress, there’s also no need for him to be so positive either. If he wanted to, he could have just provided some bland, understated response and gone about his business.

That’s not what happened, however. And while I do not want to spend too much time dissecting and parsing his words, I do find it interesting that he spoke in the terms he did when he could have provided a much more vague update and gotten away with it easily.

Of course, what is said in a random interview given by the GM in August will matter much less than what happens on the court, from the player, come late October — or, better yet, in the middle of a 4 games in 6 nights stretch come February. Kobe, for whatever flaws fans and analysts want to point out, has made a career out of giving great effort most every night and turning those stretches of the season where other players start to coast into his personal proving ground of greatness.

How he manages those stretches this season and whether he is up to the challenge of being “Kobe” night-in and night-out, is what it will all come down to. And, when viewed through that prism, that skepticism mentioned at the top of this post will live on. With it being very real this time. It sure would be nice, though, if Kobe had one more “prove them wrong” run in him. Time will tell.

Within the next two months, the Lakers will begin training camp. While the team hopes to shock the league and critics alike by performing at a level that will see them compete for the playoffs, reality, as of today, is one of justified doubt. Most of that doubt, of course, centers on the roster construction of the team. After striking out in their chase for a major free agent this summer, the Lakers will field a team of mixed of hold-overs from last season’s disaster squad and new blood who has more questions than answers about how good they can perform next year*.

With that said, lets take a very early look the team’s depth chart, with a quick look at who should be slotted where in terms of starter vs bench and at what position:

Point Guards:

  1. Jeremy Lin
  2. Steve Nash
  3. Jordan Clarkson

Unless Nash makes some miraculous recovery and is held on a strict minutes restriction as a starter, I see no scenario where Lin isn’t the clear cut starter. The question is more likely to be whether the Lakers sign a 4th point guard as insurance against a Nash injury and/or to avoid having to rely on a 2nd round rookie Jordan Clarkson (who, for the time being is not yet even signed). We have talked about Lin some already, but to recap he offers a well rounded offensive game and a solid defensive background. On this team, he’s clearly the best point guard and should be treated as such.

Shooting Guards:

  1. Kobe Bryant
  2. Nick Young

Kobe at the top is obvious so lets leave any discussion about him for another day (or at least to the bottom of this post). The real question is if you see Young as the backup shooting guard or the starting small forward. Clearly, for me, it’s the former. While Young may fashion himself a starter, I still see him best suited as a reserve who offers scoring punch that can help prop up a second unit. I don’t have much doubt that Young can play next to Kobe in certain lineups, but I’d much prefer a better defender on the wing to serve as a better compliment to #24 on that end of the floor.

Small Forwards:

  1. Xavier Henry
  2. Wesley Johnson

Some might want to reverse this and to me that would be fine. Neither Henry nor Johnson are particularly strong players and both possess holes in their respective games. I choose Henry over Johnson, however, because he’s the more complete offensive player and when combined with what I see as only a marginal difference in defensive value, I’ll take the southpaw. In reality, though, this is easily the Lakers’ weakest position and I would not be surprised if Ryan Kelly ends up stealing some minutes at SF just because of the minute crunch that will exist at PF. The hope, though, is that Henry shows that some of the success he had last year was not a fluke and that he can continue to be an offensive player who can hit the three ball while getting to the paint to either finish or draw fouls to get to the FT line. That combination is the foundation for a useful offensive player and if he can learn to pass a bit better, he would be a nice complement in most lineups.

Power Forwards:

  1. Julius Randle
  2. Carlos Boozer
  3. Ryan Kelly

First of all, I would not be surprised if Boozer starts. He’s the veteran and his history of success will surely matter to Byron Scott and, to a certain extent, Kobe Bryant. I have Randle as the #1, though, because right now I think he offers more value and is actually the better pairing at PF with a lineup that features Kobe. For one, Randle’s quasi-perimeter oriented game should give Kobe more space to operate in the post and at the elbows offensively. Secondly, Randle’s ability to slash off the ball and make the catch to either finish or make the next pass will come in handy if/when Kobe draws extra defensive attention. Add in Randle’s superior athleticism to Boozer and how that can translate to better court coverage defensively and I’ll take the young pup over the old dog**. The other question, though, is how much will Ryan Kelly play in his more natural PF spot? With Boozer and Randle clearly in front of him, Kelly may struggle to see many (any?) minutes at PF. This will be a story worth watching as the season develops.

Centers:

  1. Jordan Hill
  2. Ed Davis
  3. Robert Sacre

This seems pretty straight forward to me, but who knows how Scott will see it. Maybe he envisions Davis as more of a PF (which, if that is the case, the minute crunch becomes nearly untenable at PF). Maybe Sacre’s hard work will elevate him to the #2 center. What is clear, however, is that Hill is a center in this league and he should be getting roughly 28-32 minutes a night at that spot while Davis/Sacre fight for the other 16-20. Hill’s workload will vary by circumstance — is he getting tired? is he in foul trouble? — but for the most part he should see a heavy increase in minutes from last year and should see his per game averages jump up into the solid double-double range (I’m thinking something like 13 points and 10 rebounds) nightly.

Barring something unforeseen, this is about how I see things playing out — at least by the time the season ends. You can quibble with Young’s slotting or with Henry vs. Johnson, but these are minor things. None of these guys are true difference makers (though, to be fair, Young can win you a game if he gets hot from the field) and getting too wrapped up in where any one of them ends up isn’t a strong use of your time. At some point I’d imagine all will get their chance to show that they belong in the rotation, although my gut tells me Scott will not be nearly as shifty in his lineups as his predecessor was.

When looking at this team, especially when it’s laid out in this manner, it’s easy to see why folks would be down on this roster. Right now they have serious questions on the perimeter and a log-jam at the big man spots. As it has been in season’s past, this roster looks to be severely imbalanced and I wonder how Scott will manage to put together capable lineups that mesh well enough to compete while not shortchanging players out of minutes they’ll probably deserve. We’ll see how Scott approaches things, but in my humble opinion, the above is likely about the best he can do.

*Kobe can fit into either the “holdover” or “newcomer with question marks” categories for this particular post. Though he’ll be entering his 19th season with the team and is clearly an institution, he also only appeared in 6 games last year and has more questions than any other player on the roster due to his health and recovery from significant injury. In some ways, then, I find it hard to even group him with last year’s team but he’s definitely a guy who no one can be completely sure about. So, go ahead and classify him however you want.

**It’s yet to be seen how well Randle can defend at the NBA level and there are serious doubts he will be a guy who protects the rim as a back-line defender in the pros. Add in the fact that rookies — especially big men — face a tremendously steep learning curve defensively and there are more reasons to doubt. That said, Randle’s mobility is worlds better than Boozer’s and I am betting that mobility will translate to better ability to defend in space while also being able make the needed rotations to the three point and back to the paint that are required of big men. Plus, when it’s all said and done, we know that Boozer can’t defend well so I’d rather let Randle try and maybe fail than Boozer try and surely fail.

When Byron Scott was named head coach of the Lakers, one of the major reasons he received instant backing from a healthy portion of the fan base was because of his history as a Laker. The bulk of his career was spent as a member of the Showtime era teams and his legacy is one of a key contributor to championship glory. This history has earned him a credibility that other candidates could not match. I mean when Magic, Silk, and the Captain show up to your introductory presser the goodwill transposed upon you is massive.

Scott will need more than goodwill to succeed, though. He has inherited a mismatched roster mixed with veterans possessing proud histories and young players looking to build their names and continue to progress on an upward trajectory. Managing this situation will not be easy and Scott will need to draw on all his experiences as a coach and as a member of those championship teams to find workable solutions.

If Scott looks back, though, he should find at least one comparison that could aid him in his success.

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