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Part deuce of our look at key stats for the upcoming season focuses on the bench corps. In case you missed it, check out our post on the starters too.

Lamar Odom: O/U 30 games as a starter
Fisher and Bryant are used to receiving props for their durability, but Odom proved that he belongs in the Lakers iron man conversation too after playing in all 82 games in 2009-2010. As the starting center on Team U.S.A. this summer, Lamar entered training camp this week with only a few weeks of rest. His load figures to be even heavier to start the season now that Bynum is out for at least the first few weeks, leaving Odom as the go-to starter. The Lakers have been able to weather his inconsistency as a sixth man the past two seasons, but will especially need Lamar to elevate his game while Andrew heals. Going off of Bynum’s own timeline, Odom is a virtual lock to start the first 15-20 games of the season. The Lakers can only hope it stays around that number and far away from the 38 games he started last season.

Sasha Vujacic: O/U 37% three-point shooting percentage
Sasha fell out of favor with Lakers coaches and unfortunately, back into the “practice player” label too as he only connected on 31% of his three-pointers during the regular season–down from his career average of 37%. Here’s hoping his much-improved performance in the final two rounds of the playoffs is more indicative of his play this season.

Luke Walton: O/U 70 games played
Luke was largely a forgotten man in last season’s championship run after appearing in only 29 games due to a pinched nerve in his back. Heading into 2009-2010, Walton’s troublesome back remains a bit of a ticking time bomb for the Lakers. Though they’ve proved that they can win without him, Luke’s expert knowledge of the offense is an undervalued commodity on a second unit that will be lacking triangle wherewithal. If his back holds up, it’d sure be nice to see him play close to a full season.

Matt Barnes: O/U 38% three-point shooting
The Lakers expect stellar defensive tenacity and intagibles out of Barnes, but they also need him to spread the floor from the three spot, similar to the player he’ll likely be subbing for the most—Artest. Matt shot 32% from beyond the arc during the regular season in 2009-2010, but improved to almost 38% during the playoffs—a trend that L.A. is hoping continues this season. Barnes proved himself a capable, if unspectacular offensive player during recent playoff runs with the Warriors and Magic, but finding consistency in his outside shooting will go a long way toward shoring up L.A.’s second unit this season.

Steve Blake: O/U 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio
Blake has been quietly dropping bombs from three point land for years now, hitting 40% of his treys last season (23rd in the league). However, equally important to the Lakers’ success this season will be his ability to lead the offense in a way that his predecessor Jordan Farmar never quite mastered. Blake ranked 13th in the league last season with a 2.97 assist-to-turnover ratio and could do a lot worse than replicating that number this season. Early reports out of training camp from Coach Jackson and Kobe indicate that Steve is already taking control of the team, which bodes well for next season.

Shannon Brown: O/U 2.5 assists
After a sub par regular season and playoff run for Shannon, his second full season with the Lakers is all about the other tricks in his bag. For starters, he can improve his nearly 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio—an ugly stat that is unfortunately mostly consistent with his inconsistent decision-making. When Brown first joined the forum blue and gold, there was preliminary talk about his ability to potentially supplant Fisher as the team’s starting point guard, thanks to his ball-handling and the strong potential he showed as a man-to-man defender. He obviously isn’t the answer the team is looking at the one spot anymore, but he remains a vital spark plug in the 20 minutes or so he plays off of the bench.

Theo Ratliff: O/U 1.5 blocks
Ratliff was a shot-blocking fiend during his prime and will be asked to recapture some of that magic as the Lakers’ third-string big man. With Andrew missing the first month of the season, Theo moves one rung up the ladder. At this stage of his career, Ratliff is a bit of a one trick pony, but his specialty—blocking shots—is something that L.A. despertaely needs from its second unit.

Derrick Caracter: O/U 275 lbs
So far, so good on the Derrick Caracter weight watch as the the versatile forward entered training camp in compliance with the team-mandated weight clause. The Lakers will certainly keep a close watch on his conditioning throughout the season, and if he sustains his motivation, he could get some quality burn even in Coach Jackson’s notoriously anti-rookie regime. The odds of this happening, of course, also depend on the collective health of Walton and Bynum.

Devin Ebanks: O/U 1.5 steals per 40 minutes
It’s difficult to pinpoint a stat for a player who isn’t expected to see much time on the floor this season, but I, along with the Lakers, view Ebanks as a potentially very strong defender in the same vein as Trevor Ariza. For that reason, it would be great to see him channel the former Lakers forward as a go-to defender on the wing, agile enough to guard some of the league’s larger point guards, but still sturdy enough to do battle with the NBA’s elite small forwards.

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Numbers don’t always tell the whole truth in basketball, but they can certainly offer valuable insight into player patterns, as well as some occasionally prescient nuggets about the future too. That said, we look at one or two important stats for each of the 14 expected roster players and eventually, some key numbers for the team as a whole. Part 1 of Lakers and the Numbers Game focuses on the starters (once Bynum is healthy). What stats from the starting unit pop out to you as the Lakers begin their title defense?

Derek Fisher
Key Stat: +/- 40% three-point percentage
Clutch playoff shots aside, Derek had one of the worst shooting seasons of his career in 2009-2010, connecting on only 38% of his shots from the field. More concerning than his overall field goal percentage was his sudden decline in three-point percentage last season—41% in 2007-2008, 40% in 2008-2009, 35% in 2009-2010. It’s hard to dog a guy who consistently comes through when it matters most, but his inability to knock down open shots was an impetus on the Lakers overall offensive scheme during the 2009-2010 regular season. In order to take advantage of their incredible length with Gasol, Bynum and Odom inside, they need Fisher to consistently knock down jumpers this year. On a side note, like Kobe, Derek is similarly chasing down the record books, currently sitting at sixth all-time in playoff three-point fields goals with 224. Barring injury, he’ll continue to creep up on Reggie Miller and the four others ahead of him this postseason.

Kobe Bryant
Key Stat: +/- 36 minutes per game
Kobe wound up playing three more minutes per game (39 total) than 2009-2010, while his usage rate of 29 was actually his lowest since the 2003-2004 season. In Bryant’s case, the numbers don’t lie as his productivity and decision-making has been on-point for several seasons now. As his scoring average gradually decreases, Kobes’s all-around game continues to shine—a point he emphatically hammered home with an underrated 15-rebound performance in Game 7 of the Finals. L.A. obviously doesn’t need to him to pull down 15 boards a night during the season, but they do need to keep his minutes down so he’ll be as spry as possible come April. Another number to look out for this season is Kobe’s ongoing climb up the NBA’s all-time scoring list. At 25,790 points, #24 is only 1,619 points away from passing Moses Malone for sixth all-time—a figure he should easily reach if he plays in about 60 games and maintains his 27 point-per-game average from 2009-2010.

Ron Artest
Key Stat: +/- 41% field goal percentage
Ron Ron connected on several prodigious shots during the playoffs, but struggled throughout the season with acclimating his offensive game to the ins and outs of the triangle. On a team as stacked as the Lakers, his 11-point output isn’t far off from where the team wants it, but his 41% shooting from the field leaves much room for improvement, even if his 42% shooting over the course of his career doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence for a sudden increase. More vital to the Lakers’ success than his shooting percentage, though, is Ron’s shot selection. During the Lakers’ last three-peat run, Rick Fox proved himself a strong outside shooter out of the small forward slot—and one that carefully chose his spots. Granted, the Lakers expect more offensively from Artest than they ever did Foxy, but Ron could do a lot worse than at least trying to emulate his fellow bruiser from a decision-making standpoint.

Pau Gasol
Key Stat: +/- 12 rebounds per game.
Buzz about Gasol’s quiet, but substantial improvement since linking up with Kobe and Coach Jackson seems to peak during playoff time, even if Lakers fans are privy to his continuing rise as an elite player year-round. Gasol showed up to camp in 2010 with a renewed sense of grit underneath the basket and focus on rebounding the ball. The results are hard to argue with as the Spaniard pulled down 11.3 rebounds per game last season. During the playoffs, those numbers increased to 12 against the Thunder, 15 against the Jazz and 12 against Boston. Granted, those boosted numbers came with a limited Andrew Bynum during the playoffs, but the possibility of Pau potentially leading the league in rebounding persists. With Bynum missing at least the first few weeks of the season, Gasol, along with Odom, will once again be asked to shoulder the bulk of the Lakers’ rebounding load.

Andrew Bynum:
Key Stat: +/- 60 games played.
35, 50, 65: the number of games Andrew has played over the past three seasons. With news breaking this week that the five-year veteran will be out at least two to three weeks according to Coach Jackson (possibly more if you go off of Bynum’s prognosis), there’s really no way of predicting how many games he’ll play this season. For the sake of coming up with a goal, let’s go with the assumption that Andrew misses the first 18 games of the season (includes all games up until the end of November) and doesn’t experience any lingering issues with his troublesome knee. If a similar scenario plays out, I think a solid number for Bynum to aspire to is somewhere around 60 games. In any case, it’s a figure that could very well define whether or not the Lakers are able to fend off hungry teams like Miami, Orlando and Boston for home court advantage throughout the playoffs.

NBA Coaches: Who Got Next?

Jeff Skibiski —  September 24, 2010

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With Don Nelson’s not all that surprising departure from the Warriors this week, the NBA’s list of true coaching relics became one less. Sure, the usual stalwarts—Larry Brown, Jerry Sloan, George Karl, Doc Rivers, Doug Collins, Greg Popovic, Rick Adelman, Pat Riley in a management capacity and of course, the Lakers own Phil Jackson—remain active in the league’s coaching circle. However, we’re approaching a time, in the not too distant future, when the latest influx of NBA coaching talent will be asked to lead this league, similar to the way Kobe Bryant will eventually pass the torch to Kevin Durant, LeBron James, etc.

For all the talk about the new-age athleticism of the post-Y2K generation of NBA players, the league has also experienced a golden age of coaching over the same time span. As the list of longtime, top-tier coaches continues to decrease, though, who eventually replaces the Zen Master? Not just in the sense of who replaces Jackson on the Lakers bench, but which coaches will live up to the dynamic personalities and multi-layered expertise of the Don Nelsons and Phil Jacksons of the league? Five coaches who are ready to attempt to fill that eventual void immediately come to mind for me:

Stan Van Gundy, while certainly a household name after helming the Heat in their first season after for trading for Shaq and leading the Magic to the 2008-2009 Finals, is still one of the more unheralded coaches in the league today, despite winning a league-leading 69% of the 246 games he’s coached. His Magic are also poised for another run at the title his year.

The newest coach of the New Jersey Nets, the always fiery Avery Johnson, has already taken a team to the Finals in 2006 and won the Coach of the Year Award, while becoming the fastest coach in NBA history to win 150 games. Now, he gets a chance to rebuild a team essentially from scratch—a challenge the Little General eagerly welcomes with the same steadfast confidence he showed while he was playing in the league.

Mike D’Antoni has amassed a series of accolades in less than seven full seasons as a head coach, including the implementation of his now infamous “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. While he’s currently mired in New York’s extended rebuilding, the offensive juggernaut he created while with the Suns still serves as a prominent offensive model today.

Nate McMillan remains almost a hidden treasure in Portland, quietly entering a maelstrom in the Northwest in 2005 and playing a prominent role in revitalizing the image of the entire franchise ever since. Moreover, McMillan has shown incredible aplomb in the face of all of Portland’s devastating injuries.

Scott Skiles steely on-court demeanor and commitment to the fundamentals of the game has carried over into his coaching, where he has quickly cemented his place as one of the league’s best defensive minds. His eye-opening work last season with an injury-ravaged Bucks squad has given basketball fans in Milwaukee every reason to be excited to see where he leads Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings and Co. this season.

Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls, Scott Brooks of the Thunder, Erik Spoelestra of the Heat and Alvin Gentry of the Suns are other rising stars who look well-prepared to join the NBA’s future coaching elite with a few more years in the incubator.

Which NBA coaches—whether currently a head coach or an assistant coach—are your picks to take the proverbial next step?

STAPLES Center Gets Makeover

Jeff Skibiski —  September 23, 2010


While the two-time defending champs underwent a mini makeover this summer by adding five new roster players, their home for the past 11 years—STAPLES Center—also made some much-needed cosmetic changes this past off-season. Today, the arena officially unveils their new, state-of-the-art 4HD jumbotron system, which should come as a welcome change for those of us who attend games and have been forced to watch replays on a low-quality screen not unlike the ancient TV at my grandma’s house.

The new scoreboard now has eight screens for you to watch Bynum dunking, Kobe fading away and Fisher draining dagger threes—a major improvement from the previous version. Sasha Vujacic and the Clippers’ Craig Smith were even on-hand to introduce a preview of the fancy new digs. For all the hoops fans out there who double as techies, you can read up on the specs in the official release.

I remember watching Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Kings on the jumbotron with about 19,000 other rabid fans and that was long before the days of 3D, HD and whatever else they’re coming up with now. As the premiere franchise in the NBA, the Lakers in-arena experience deserves to be the best too.

Watch as Sasha—in his typical dramatic fashion—presses the magic button to showcase the scoreboard in-action for the first time:

Lakers We Miss: Byron Scott

Jeff Skibiski —  September 19, 2010

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Developing a championship mentality isn’t an overnight process for teams or players, but instead an experiment in developing the right mix of ingredients, influences and experiences. Players like Byron Scott—a key catalyst on three Lakers championship teams from 1983-1993—are simply born winners.

As the starting guard on the Lakers title squads in 1985, 1987 and 1988, Scott’s persistent energy, long-range proficiency, tough-nosed D and will to win were integral pieces of the team’s championship puzzle. The anchor-like role that Derek Fisher serves on the current version of the Lakers is a role that was similarly perfected by the Inglewood native in the 1980’s.

Though Byron was a talented offensive player in his own right—averaging 14 points in 14 NBA seasons, including a career high 22 in 1987-1988—he was more than willing to give up the spotlight to Hall of Fame teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. In that vein, Scott was the perfect glue guy for those talented Showtime teams. His selflessness was again on display in the 1996-1997 season when he returned to L.A. to mentor a fledgling guard by the name of Kobe Bryant—a mentor/mentee relationship with which #24 still credits to this day for his rapid ascension in the league.

Scott’s value isn’t something that can be measured purely through on-court statistics though, as he has repeatedly proven himself as an impassioned leader in the locker room, both as a Lakers player and in his successful coaching career that has followed. Scott quickly moved up the NBA coaching ranks after starting out as an assistant in Sacramento, earning his first head coaching gig with the Nets and leading them to back-to-back NBA Finals earlier this decade (including a four-game sweep at the hands of the forum blue and gold in 2002).

Byron also nearly led an upstart Hornets team, still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina along with the rest of New Orleans, to within one game of facing the Lakers in the 2007-08 Western Conference Finals. His current task as coach of the now LeBron-less Cavaliers will provide yet another opportunity for Scott to show his rebuilding chops.

With Phil Jackson celebrating his 65th birthday this past week and Brian Shaw as a potential looming successor, Scott’s short—and long term—prospects of becoming head coach of the Lakers remains one of the team’s most divisive topics. Kevin Ding at the OC Register wrote a few weeks ago that Scott’s return to the team probably won’t coincide with an historic streak of championships as will likely be the case once Jackson steps down. Instead, he argues that Byron will once again eagerly swoop in during a moment of need—when his reclamation and leadership skills are best served. It’s a familiar role for Scott and one that has already earned him a slot in the pantheon of great Lakers role players.

Byron talks to Chick Hearn about his on-court success in this classic interview during the 1987-1988 season. What are your favorite memories from Scott’s days with the Lakers?

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Tomorrow marks the 65th birthday for venerable Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. With 13 rings as a player and coach already under his belt, the Hall of Famer has spent 20 percent of his life winning NBA titles. By now, we’re all familiar with his staggering career success rate—1,098 wins and a .705 winning percentage—so let’s instead celebrate some of Phil’s most memorable musings over the years, both from his books and via interviews. What are your favorite Jacksonisms?

“In basketball—as in life—true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way.”

“Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We.”

“Once you’ve done the mental work, there comes a point you have to throw yourself into the action and put your heart on the line. That means not only being brave, but being compassionate towards yourself, your teammates and your opponents.”

“Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable. It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it. The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart. When you do that, the game–and life—will take care of itself.”

“I think the most important thing about coaching is that you have to have a sense of confidence about what you’re doing. You have to be a salesman and you have to get your players, particularly your leaders, to believe in what you’re trying to accomplish on the basketball floor.”

“Red and I, I think, have a mutual admiration. That’s all I can say.”

“If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball”

“Despite their tremendous talent, (NBA players) are still, by and large, young adults, seeking validation from an authority figure, and there is no greater authority figure on a team than the coach. Needless to say, in today’s warped, self-indulgent climate, too many players couldn’t care less about appeasing the coach.”

“The best part of basketball, for those people on the inside, is the bus going to the airport after you’ve won a game on an opponent’s floor. It’s been a very tough battle. And preferably, in the playoffs. And that feeling that you have, together as a group, having gone to an opponent’s floor and won a very good victory, is as about as high as you can get.”

“Count me in. After a couple weeks of deliberation, it is time to get back to the challenge of putting together a team that can defend its title in the 2010-11 season. It’ll be the last stand for me, and I hope a grand one.”

As a bonus, check out the video below for an interview with Jackson, fresh after winning this year’s title.

Around the World (Wide Web)

Jeff Skibiski —  September 12, 2010

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From Chris Sheridan, I’ve picked the Americans to win, and I’m rooting for my pick. But I also hope this one comes down to the final seconds just like the second semifinal did, because witnessing one of these one-and-done games, on the road in a country where the home team and the home crowd are united as one, is to witness international basketball at its very, very best. Be sure to remember that if you find yourself deciding whether watching the second half of a Week 1 NFL game can compare to watching Durant and the rest of Team USA try to accomplish something that hasn’t happened in 16 years, in the toughest atmosphere imaginable.

From Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo Sports: Twenty-four hours earlier, Kevin Durant had scrunched his face, pursed his lips and played back the most arduous moments of the Los Angeles Lakers series. His accuracy stunning, his disposition downright dour, Durant ripped off a detailed list of the most minute transgressions that had cost the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had come to these world championships on a journey of self-discovery, on a rapid and resounding rise toward an MVP and an NBA championship…While LeBron James tried to decide this weekend whether he wanted to go to a college football game in the States, Durant had a decision of his own to make in the final seconds. Take an open shot for his 39th and 40th points, or drop the ball to Andre Igudoala for a dunk. Surprise, surprise: Durant flipped him the pass, Igudoala flushed the ball, and the Americans move into what promises to be a wild, raucous gold-medal game against host Turkey.

From Chris Olds, Page 2: But there was one thing that Robert Horry never did during his pro career — he never signed a basketball card featuring him in an NBA uniform for a trading card company. Despite all those clutch shots that helped the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs win it all — a few times — there weren’t any certified autographs (cards he was paid to sign that were then placed into packs) showing him in any of those uniforms. But all that has changed.

From Alex Kennedy, Hoopsworld: Devin Ebanks wasn’t supposed to be a second round pick. Three years ago, he was one of the top high school players in the nation and looked like a future lottery pick. He was putting up impressive numbers, dominating national tournaments and camps, and being recruited by the top college programs in the country. So how did the Los Angeles Lakers land Ebanks with the forty-third pick in this year’s draft? After two solid seasons at West Virginia, the twenty-year old forward was overlooked in a class that was loaded with wing players. Despite being one of the better athletes in the group and possessing the kind of potential not usually found in a second round selection, Ebanks sat in front of his television and watched as other players came off of the board in front of him. That’s when the defending champions finally grabbed him.

From Mike B., Bleacher Report: Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant. An NBA superstar of the past vs. an NBA superstar of today. Who’s better? Sometimes, younger fans give the nod to Bryant since they never watched Jordan play in his prime and feel that Jordan only dominated in the 1990s because the decade was watered down. On the other hand, older fans claim Jordan is the greatest hoops player ever and that Bryant isn’t even in the same galaxy because he played in a not-so-competitive era and served as a sidekick to Shaquille O’Neal for years. Fans’ opinions may differ on the subject, but everyone agrees that both players are all-time greats. So what if Jordan and Bryant swapped eras?

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The Emmys may have invaded Los Angeles two weekends ago, but everyone in this town knows that it’s the Lakers who take home best drama every year. With that said, Forum Blue & Gold takes a look at 12 intriguing plot lines for the upcoming season—in honor of Phil Jackson’s bid for a record 12 NBA championships. Chime in below to share your own thoughts on what stories you think will fuel the press this season.

12. How much burn will the rookies get? – Second-round picks Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks showed a lot of promise this summer, but will it translate to success in the NBA? Both players will most likely only see small glimpses of the court during trash time, but Luke Walton’s ongoing injury woes could creak the window open a little. Caracter’s conditioning is also an issue, as the team only partially guaranteed his salary for the upcoming season, contingent on a weight check-up next week.

11. Does Pau take another step? – Pau Gasol’s image and stature around the league has undergone somewhat of a rapid metamorphosis in his two-plus seasons as a Laker. When he first arrived in L.A., Gasol was widely regarded as a soft, willowy big man—a strong offensive threat, adept passer, but a black hole on defense and largely incapable of serving as option 1.A. on a contending team. Nearly three years later, Gasol has improved to the point where he is considered by many to be one of the top three or four big men in the entire league. Last season, Pau upped his rebounding average to a career-high 11 per game, while also holding his own in the playoffs against the likes of Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire and Kevin Garnett. With an offensive game as polished as any big man in the NBA, Pau’s ascent toward becoming an All-NBA second or first team selection will primarily depend on his growth on the defensive end.

10. Artest’s sophomore year – Ron proved his longtime naysayers wrong and was a key cog in the Lakers second consecutive championship. His irreplaceable defense and magnificent performance in Game 7 against Boston (both during and after the game) transformed the always entertaining forward into folk hero status in Tinseltown. Now that the proverbial monkey is off his back and he’s proven himself as a winner, what happens next? Does Artest come out with the same burning desire to win what would be his second title in a row? The addition of Barnes, along with the incumbent Bryant, means the Lakers have an enviable three premiere defenders at the wing spot, which should help with any fatigue issues after Ron played the longest season of his life.

9. Who backs up Bryant? – While the Lakers have all kinds of options on the wing with the addition of Barnes, the newly resigned Shannon Brown will still be relied upon to fill the lion’s share of minutes at the two behind Bryant. The Lakers need both Shannon and Sasha Vujacic—who figures to serve as a third string guard—to provide consistent support if they want to limit Kobe’s minutes during the regular season. Both players are coming off subpar regular seasons and playoff runs, but the hope is that Shannon’s second full year with the team and the confidence gained by Sasha after nailing two pivotal free throws in Game 7 will bode well for both guards.

8. Lamar Odom, post-World Championships – If you factor in the Lakers’ deep playoff runs over the past two seasons, Odom has been playing basketball for nearly two years straight. At a certain point, the 11-year forward has to start showing signs of fatigue, right? Even Lamar himself admitted that he wasn’t in tip-top shape when Team U.S.A. first took to the practice floor last month. Depending on how deep his team goes in the now single-elimination round of the FIBA World Championships, Odom could be looking at little to no time off between the end of the tournament and the start of training camp with the Lakers. The team’s improved bench should help some in this regard though, along with his experience as one of the de facto leaders of Team U.S.A.

7. Return of the bench mob? – If all goes as planned, the Lakers bench should be much-improved when the team heads to training camp in a short few weeks. With the additions of trusty veterans like Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, the Lakers bolstered one of their lone weak spots from the past season—and did so with players who should fit in well with the team too. As with any new additions though, there’s no telling how seamless that integration will be until they actually step foot on the court. Steve Blake, in particular, should help shore up the Lakers’ longstanding weakness at point guard, while also spelling the aging Derek Fisher.

6. The importance of home court advantage – Conventional wisdom says that a group as seasoned as this Lakers squad is past the point of needing home court—even in a potential Game 7 situation against the likes of Boston, Orlando and Miami. Throw conventional wisdom out the door when discussing home court advantage, though; as much as players claim that it doesn’t matter, it clearly paid off in Game 7 against the Celtics. The race for home court throughout the playoffs figures to be a tough one too this year with Heat added to the fold. Where do the Lakers’ priorities lie at the end of the season if the team is banged up and it might make more sense to rest the starters?

5. Phil’s last stand? – It’s Phil’s last season. Again. There has been a lot of talk this offseason about motivation for this year’s team and near or at the top of that list has to be the quest to send Coach Jackson off into the sunset with a mindboggling fourth three-peat. For a man who practices Zen, winning a title this season would certainly represent a great deal of symmetry in what has been an amazing career. Then, there is the other camp who believes that Jackson wouldn’t turn down another chance to coach a potential four-peat team, especially considering there’s a decent chance the following season would be condensed due to a lockout.

4. Can Bynum finally stay healthy? – Is this the year when we finally get to see what Andew Bynum is made of for all 82 games…or at least something close to that figure? If you could describe the center’s career at this point with one phrase, it might be stop-and-go. How Andrew responds to yet another knee injury will go a long way in determining the Lakers three-peat fate. Even on one leg for most of the playoffs, #17 still provided a huge boost, particularly on the defensive end. If the resolve he displayed during the NBA Finals is any indication, Bynum’s head is in the right place and he could be on his way to a big season.

3. Kobe continues to build his legacy – For the first time in years, Kobe took the summer off to rest his battle-worn body—a body that many pundits claimed was beginning its steady decline last season. The All-NBA veteran had a few injuries to recuperate too, starting with a troublesome knee and mangled finger. Assuming both have healed to the point where they won’t be an issue for Bryant this season, all signs point to a monster year. With five NBA titles under his belt, Kobe is officially in “legacy mode,” only one championship away from tying His Airness and one away from his team tying the Celtics. Not that motivation has ever been an issue for him.

2. Battling the injury bug – The Lakers won their second consecutive championship last season in spite of a myriad of injuries that affected everyone in the starting lineup not named Derek Fisher. One year older, will the team be able to replicate their success if the injury bug bites once again? An improved bench should help this cause, but injuries on an aging team will again be a wild card as the team looks to cement its place in the history books.

1. Where’s the motivation? – Top to bottom, the Lakers are, by and large, a well-disciplined, focused team. After winning back-to-back NBA titles and most of the team basking in the glory from their seven-game duel with Boston, the Lakers will still have to resist the urge to take their foot off the pedal this season. Kobe Bryant will make sure they stay on course though, as he prepares to fight for his second career three-peat. Moreover, the emergence of the Heat as a new league superpower should have the Forum Blue and Gold ready to go to battle from day one of training camp.