Archives For Season Preview

When I think about the 2015-16 Lakers, the word which keeps coming back to me is balance. And, more specifically, how do they manage the competing agendas based on the team assembled.

On a roster with a mix of young prospects who need development and capable veterans who play the same positions, how do they balance playing time? When trying to win as many games as possible, but also needing for young players to be able to play through mistakes to learn — sometimes at the expense of wins — how do they balance the different priorties? On a team with at least seven rotation players who do their best work with the ball in their hands, how do they balance touches?

This plays out with a team that is undoubtedly more talented than the 21-win outfit from last season or the 27-win one from two seasons ago. The gambles on former lottery picks who hadn’t lived up to their potential with other organizations have stopped. The roster filling veterans who didn’t quite fit what the coach at the time needed are no more. There are issues to sort through — especially on the defensive side of the ball — but, overall, it’s difficult to not see upgrades all over the roster.

Of course, talent is only one piece to the puzzle. The man tasked with shepherding these players forward and molding them into cohesive units must walk a fine line. Whatever you think of his X’s and O’s acumen or his ability as a leader, how Byron Scott handles the balancing acts mentioned above will be his biggest challenge. Can he keep the veterans happy, develop the young players, and win games all at the same time? Could any coach?

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Nate Duncan, host of the Dunc’d on Podcast at Real GM, was kind enough to have me on as a guest to talk Lakers’ basketball as part of his season preview series. Nate and I discussed Kobe, Byron Scott, the young core of Russell/Randle/Clarkson, and pretty much everything else Lakers’ related you can think of.

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The 2014-15 Lakers are something of a mystery to me. Not because I do not know what they are or what they are trying to do, but because when you strip them down to their individual pieces it is somewhat difficult to see a coherent plan. This is a team trying to walk a very narrow line. A line that is nearly impossible to navigate in today’s NBA; a line that offers such confined parameters to define success that most organizations would not even venture down this path.

On the one hand, there is a clear thought process being disseminated by the front office and newly installed head coach Byron Scott. This team is competing for something. If not a championship, then for a playoff berth. For relevancy. The message and logic is fairly easy to see and simple when stripped down: take Kobe Bryant, pair him with Steve Nash (though that has already not worked out) and Carlos Boozer, flank them with veterans like Jeremy Lin, Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Ronnie Price and Wes Johnson and give them a head coach like Byron Scott. This group will focus on defense and use an opportunistic but mostly methodical offensive approach and try to grind out wins.

On the other hand, however, this team has another vision entirely. A disastrous season last year led to lottery pick Julius Randle being snatched up. Jordan Clarkson was nabbed in the 2nd round to offer another promising talent who has the potential to be a nice contributor in time. Last year’s rookie Ryan Kelly was brought back after showing flashes of a well rounded offensive game and skill level not often present in a player his height. Free agency brought in Ed Davis — a former lottery pick in his own right who has always been a strong per-minute stat stuffer but has suffered for minutes on teams with more talent in front of him. This group of players are ones who need minutes and long leashes to develop through their mistakes.

Objectively speaking, these two groups of players really do not belong together. They are a hodge-podge of disparate talent with skills that do not entirely mesh nor fit together. In an ideal world, this team would travel in one of the aforementioned directions and sell out towards an achievable goal within that framework. If they wanted a veteran team, they could have built fully around Kobe, used their draft pick as leverage to try and acquire a more proven player, and pawned off any of their other younger assets to add more serviceable veteran pieces. If they wanted to skew younger, they could have let their own veteran free agents walk, chased some of the restricted and unrestricted free agents who have not yet reached their prime, and used those players to flank Kobe until his contract comes of the books.

Instead this front office tried to take a little from both sides and is likely to suffer from it. They are neither old nor young, neither experienced nor naive to the rigors of an NBA season. Finding success in this approach will be difficult considering the talent at their disposal and the coach leading the way. This isn’t about optimism or pessimism, these are the realities of the situation.

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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.

So the NBA schedule came out a couple of days ago. That’s great news. Of course, the bad news is that the NBA season doesn’t start until late October.

The Los Angeles Lakers schedule seems a little different than years past. They have 19 back-to-back games, which is a bit higher than what they’re used to. Also, the number of home/road games seem evened out until January when in the past, the Lakers start out the season by playing a ton of games at the Staples Center.

And while we did expect the Lakers to get a Christmas game, we all thought they would draw the Houston Rockets because it would pit Dwight Howard’s new team against Dwight Howard’s old team. Instead, the Lakers get the defending champs, the Miami Heat.

As far as the rest of the schedule, a few of us from FB&G put together a list of games we are looking forward to the most during the season. Check our lists out.

OCT. 29 v Los Angeles Clippers: Because I want to see Chris Kaman face his old mates. All kidding aside, I want to see the feud between the Los Angeles teams escalate. And what better way to resume this battle by making them an opening night game? Also, does Kobe Bryant miraculously play in this game? Intriguing drama, to say the least.

DEC. 25 v Miami Heat: For all we know, the Lakers could lose by 175 points in this game and we’ll all find lumps of coal in our stockings. Nevertheless, I just want to see if the Lakers can pull off the upset. And who doesn’t like a good underdog story (it’s funny to say that the Lakers are underdogs; I’m just not used to it)? If the Lakers do win, our Christmas would be that much better, right?

FEB. 19 v Houston Rockets: It’s Dwight Howard’s first game at Staples Center ever since he left the Lakers in Indecision 2013. It may be the loudest Staples Center will be all season due to all the booing. If the Laker fans at Staples Center throw foam fingers at Dwight, that’ll be the cherry on top of a delicious sundae drama. Let’s see if Dwight melts down when he receives all that jeering.

JAN. 17 @ Boston Celtics: It seems like for the first time in a long time, these two teams won’t be playing on a Thursday night on TNT, a Sunday afternoon on ABC, or on a holiday. Now, for the first time since 2008, a Lakers-Celtics game won’t be on national TV. So why am I excited to watch this game? It’s one of the only rivalries in sports that did NOT develop from geography, but through 12 meetings in the Finals. That’s what makes it so great every single time. It doesn’t matter that both teams are expected to have down years. Kobe still probably walks on the parquet floor at the TD Garden and remembers how Game 6 ended five years ago. That should provide enough fuel for him to put on a great show against a team that will probably have a losing record at this stage of the season, but will give it all they got against their hated rivals in front of the Boston Strong contingent.

JAN. 19 @ Toronto Raptors: Meteors are to prehistoric dinosaurs as Kobe Bryant is to the Toronto Raptors. Bryant has obliterated the NBA’s lone team north of the border throughout his career, averaging 31.1 points per game in 25 starts against the Raptors. This total is aided by 12 games in which he scored at least 30 points, including the historic 81 point game from 2006. Kobe won’t score 81 in this game, but he has recently showed some late game heroics against the Raptors, hitting two buzzer beaters in the last four years and going on a three point barrage in a comeback effort in last season’s home meeting. It seems like every time the Lakers play this team, Kobe wows us with something special. The Raptors are expected to be more competitive this season with a deep roster led by Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan so there’s a good chance the Lakers will look to Kobe to do something special again in a tight game.

APR. 6 @ Los Angeles Clippers: The last time the Lakers were swept by the Clippers in a season series, the Clippers weren’t even the Clippers – they were the Buffalo Braves. In fact, last year marked just the third time the Clippers franchise won a season series against the Lakers. The Clippers will once again be Western Conference contenders this year and the Lakers could really use a win or two against them to show that they can roll with the big boys of the West. So why the April 6 matchup over the other three? Because it’s late in the season, teams will be fighting for playoff positioning, and the Lakers will be looking at this game as a litmus test for the playoffs.

NOV. 27 @ Brooklyn Nets: The Lakers get their first look at the new-look Nets featuring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With the Boston Celtics now dismantled, this might be the closest thing to a rivalry the Lake Show shares with an Eastern Conference opponent.

JAN. 14 v Cleveland Cavaliers: The Los Angeles Lakers have never played against Andrew Bynum. He missed the entirety of the 2012-13 season due to injury but the Purple and Gold might finally get an opportunity to use their own scouting report against him.

JAN. 20 @ Chicago Bulls and JAN. 23 @ Miami Heat: The Purple and Gold face what projects to be the two best teams in the Eastern Conference in consecutive games. This is the toughest two-game road stretch of the season outside of the Western Conference. In March they get the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. Dare I say litmus test (yes I totally cheated by adding more teams!)?

NOV. 1 v San Antonio Spurs: This is the Lakers third game of the regular season, at home, on ESPN. Nobody knows what kind of shape Kobe will be by then. For that matter, we don’t know what kind of shape Nash and Pau will be in. Nonetheless, it’s a game against one of our oldest WC rivals, a team that had an amazing run last season and a heartbreaking end against the Heat. These are old warhorses on both sides, back at it for another season.

DEC. 25 v Miami Heat: Okay, this is almost a cheat it’s so cliched. I know not everybody likes to spend their holiday in an easy chair in front of the tube, crashing after a mid-day feast while listening to announcers yammer on about how great this is when they themselves don’t want to be there and in fact, the teams don’t either. I don’t care. It’s a tradition. Hope springs eternal. I want to see the champs go down on Christmas Day. It could happen,

FEB. 19 v Houston Rockets: The return of Dwight to Staples. The #StayD12 Staples, remember that one? It’s on ESPN and it comes after a six-day rest. I’ll take the liberty of mentioning Thursday, November 7 Houston on TNT which is the first match-up between the teams. But it’s the Staples game that should be the cake – I’m hoping for a joyous welcome for Dwight followed by a determined beat-down by a rested Lakers squad. I want to see Dwight sandwiched between sweaty Kaman and Gasol. I want to see Kobe showing him what this thing called leadership is all about. I want to see Dwight not smiling.

Agree or disagree with any of our lists? What games are you guys looking forward to? Let the countdown begin.

boardwalk empire

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.

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