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 like when the NFL preseason reaches its final game, the real dress rehearsals for the Lakers are behind them. So while tonight offers the last game action before the regular season begins on Tuesday, this contest won’t actually be treated as the lead-in to that night. As with the previous game, Kobe will sit out and I would expect there to be plenty of minutes available to the reserve group that features Julius Randle, Ed Davis, and Jeremy Lin.

In any event, there’s really no point in getting too deep into this specific game. I’ve no clue if the Kings are going to take this contest seriously or not, but I know the goal for both sides is to leave the game as healthy as they entered it so they can proceed with prepping towards their respective season openers. While there are always things to learn about your team with habits to form and trends to evaluate, this contest isn’t really about those things. No, get in and get out with a healthy team and move onto the real games.

With that, I leave it to you all in the comments to discuss whatever you see fit.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Maybe it was always going to end like this for Steve Nash. After years of having his back issues controlled and managed by the Suns training staff, maybe it was destiny that his career would end with him no longer able to manage physically and unable to stand the rigors of the game he gave so much to. Or maybe that collision with Damian Lillard really did change the course of these final moments of Steve Nash’s career, robbing him (and Lakers’ fans) of that last brilliance he had to offer. We’ll never really know, I guess. And that’s what makes today extra frustrating for everyone. For you, for me*, for the Lakers organization, and especially for Steve Nash.

I think it’s that last part that is often easiest to forget. While fans, many right here in the comments of this site, have blasted Steve Nash — cursing him for his injury, the draft picks the Lakers surrendered to acquire him, the fact he hung on trying to play rather than retiring after dealing with this issue for nearly two calendar years — it’s Nash who is probably most frustrated. For an entire career Nash was the player who took the limitations of his body and stretched them to seemingly impossible lengths to be one of the league’s best players. And now, for the past two seasons, he’s seen it all deteriorate; seen what he was always able to control and manipulate betray him in ways he probably never imagined. The amount of frustration that led to for us fans pales in comparison to what he experienced, I’m sure.

A great career is over now. And it ends not on the terms of the athlete, but on the terms of a bad back and malfunctioning nerve endings. Father time remains undefeated. I, for one, sympathize. Nash was always a player I loved to watch. What he brought to the floor offensively was poetry; it was art. His game was a derivative of Magic’s — it was cunning, passing, skill, and feel combined with an outward desire to simply win. It honestly makes me sad to discuss it all in the past tense.

But that is where we are now. We must all move on. In a way, this happening now, before the season, makes things easier for the Lakers. There will not be the “will he or won’t he play” question with Nash from night to night. There will be no waiting for him to return or relying on him to produce when he does. There is only adjusting to life without the player and slotting everyone into their roles under this new reality. The team has already gotten used to it this preseason so moving into the regular season it won’t be too much different.

We will see more Ronnie Price and Jordan Clarkson than expected a month ago. And Jeremy Lin will now move into the primary point guard role, even if (for now) he’s not the “starter”. Kobe will take up more ball handling responsibilities and will have to be both the “big” who posts and the wing who creates out of the pick and roll for himself and others. We will also (hopefully), over the course of the year, get to see more of Julius Randle the offensive creator who can operate as the fulcrum of an offense — even if only for limited stretches.

As for the other roster ramifications, unless Nash retires or the Lakers waive him he will retain a roster spot on the team. They currently have 15 players (not counting training camp roster invites who are strictly filler) and, thus, a full roster. Nash going down makes Ronnie Price a sure thing to make this team (if he wasn’t already), leaving only Wayne Ellington as a question mark**. The Lakers can file for an injured player exception which could net them up to $4.85 million to chase a player to help off-set their loss, but they will need a create a roster spot if they attempt to add a player with that newfound cash.

These are answers to be determined down the line, though. For now, this team will operate with what they have and determine what they need later.

*I know many fans will be bitter about Nash and I understand that perspective. The roots of the Nash acquisition were born from “the Veto” where Lamar Odom’s inclusion in the Chris Paul deal set off a domino effect that led to shoving him off to Dallas which created the trade exception used to absorb Nash’s salary. When losing Odom’s leadership is combined with draft picks the Lakers used to tempt the Suns to make the deal and the salary they paid him to only play 65 games over his 3 year contract, this trade will go down as one of the worst in Lakers’ history when judging it simply off of assets sent out versus the level of production Nash provided. I, however, will always look at the Nash trade as a perfect example of the process versus results argument. The results, of course, were awful. But the deal, at the time, was easily defensible and I was on board with it from the moment it was announced. Nash, though aged and with flaws defensively, was coming off an all-star campaign and another 20 PER and near 50/40/90 shooting season. He was not “prime” Steve Nash, but he was a productive player who would team with Kobe, Pau, and Dwight to form a short term super team that could compete for a title. Ten times out of ten any team in the Lakers’ situation makes that trade and I can’t use revisionist history to say they should not have done it. I wish it had gone differently, but I am not alone there.

**I don’t have a very good feel for whether Ellington will make the team — injuries to Nick Young and Xavier Henry leave the team thin on the wing, but Jordan Clarkson may be seen as a viable option until those guys return — and a final decision on him may simply come down to whether the front office and coaching staff want the extra body or the flexibility that comes from an open roster spot. Since his contract is not guaranteed, he may end up making the opening night roster only to be cut down the line when Young and/or Henry are ready to play. 

Tuesday night’s game against the Suns really was a fun contest. The Lakers, as they did against the Jazz a couple of nights earlier, made a very nice push in the 2nd half to seize the lead. They looked as though they would even pull out the win. But then Wes Johnson missed two free throws, the Lakers couldn’t secure an offensive rebound, Isaiah Thomas hit a shot to send the game into overtime, and a loss ensued.

Even with that loss, though, there were some good things on display. Jeremy Lin made his return and was a key contributor to that second half run that turned a deficit into a lead. At one point he scored seven straight points and remained aggressive for the entirety of his stint, looking confident and effective throughout.

And then, of course, there was Kobe.

After starting out slowly, Kobe caught fire in the 2nd half and, along with Lin, was a key player in the turnaround and a monster in the closing minutes. Kobe hit tying and go ahead shots down the stretch, each more difficult than the last. He showed a nice bounce to his step and good lift on his shot even though he was approaching and surpassing the 30 minute mark on the evening. When he subbed out with a couple of minutes remaining in the overtime, he still looked fresh enough to close out the game, but that wasn’t in the coach’s plans.

All in all, then, not a bad showing for a loss. After the game Byron Scott told his players and the assembled media that they “are close” to being the team he wants, with only a need to cut out some of the little mistakes they are making to get even better. While Scott is right — this team is playing better — we must also remember that these performances have come against team’s resting players down the stretch and in preseason games where game plans are simplified. You could counter that the Lakers are down players too and you’d be right. The overall point remains, though. The Lakers are making strides but other teams are still out ahead of them. No shame in that; this team is competing.

Which brings us to tonight. The Blazers are on the docket and bring with them an up and coming team who is gearing to build on last season’s success. Those Blazers surprised the masses by coming out of the gate on fire and then countering a (slight) second half fade to knock off the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge anchor this team, but Nic Batum and Wes Matthews also bring strong production to help buoy their all-star duo. With Robin Lopez anchoring the the defensive paint, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, and CJ McCollum bringing youth and energy, and former Lakers Chris Kaman and Steve Blake bringing some veteran reinforcements this team may have a deep run in them.

In other words, they will be a load for the Lakers tonight. Especially a Lakers’ team with tired legs playing in their first back to back this preseason. In saying that, here are a few things I will be interested in:

*How does Kobe do against Wes Matthews and Nic Batum? Matthews is a stout defender who does particularly well against post up guards. Batum is long, quick, and has good instincts and does well against nearly everyone. Kobe will have his hands full facing either of these two and it will be interesting to see if he can carry over his strong 2nd half versus the Suns to this game.

*How many minutes will Lin play? After the game, Byron Scott had some interesting comments to say about Lin’s playing time — notably that part of the reason he played so much down the stretch was to “give Ronnie (Price)” some rest while also stating that it would not be a given that Lin will close games. Tonight, Lin will once again start the game as the reserve point guard in favor of Price. At some point you’d have to imagine that Scott will play the better guy more minutes and actually let him start and finish games. Hopefully that point comes soon.

*More Beebop and Rocksteady, please. If you didn’t know, this is my nickname for the Randle/Davis frontcourt pairing. While it’s a small sample, these two seem to complement each other quite well on both sides of the floor. I also do not think it’s a coincidence that the team is making their 2nd half runs when this duo is on the court. I’d like to see them play more than they are. Tonight, against a very good front line would be a nice time to see if they can hold their own as the competition improves.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

With the real games coming in a week, the Lakers only have 3 games left in this preseason. This final stretch will bring shifts in the game plan and a start of some normalcy with the lineups and players getting back to the lineup. It begins tonight with Jeremy Lin returning from his sprained ankle and Kobe likely to see a bump in his minutes to something approximating a regular season load.

Tonight’s opponent is the Suns, a team the Lakers should be looking at closely as a model of sorts. Last year the Suns were targeted by nearly every analyst to be a bottom feeder in the West only to play well above that mark, barely missing the playoffs in the final week of the season. Their success in the face of dreary predictions shows how analysis can go awry, even when it is as informed as the Vegas oddsmakers or experts at one of the established networks.

The Lakers, of course, have a long way to go when trying to duplicate what the Suns did as their roster construction is not anywhere near what the Suns have on deck. And, in a way, this serves as the perfect lead-in to tonight’s game.

The Suns are a team on the rise, possessing several young quality players and veterans coming into their own. Their already vaunted back court of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe only got stronger with the addition of former King Isaiah Thomas. Those three will form a wonderfully talented three guard rotation who can play in any combination imaginable (don’t discount all of them playing together, either) to wreak havoc on defenses. Add to them the Morris twins, Gerald Green, and Miles Plumlee and the Suns have a nice group of skilled athletes who will push the pace, shoot threes, and get up in you defensively.

This is stark contrast to what the Lakers will try to do, which makes this game an interesting contrast in styles. The Lakers will try to slow down the pace and keep those explosive guards under wraps while trying to pummel the Suns inside with Kobe post ups, Hill and Davis board work, and Randle bully drives to the rim. With Lin back in the lineup, the Lakers can (hopefully) get more dribble penetration and open the floor up for more shots behind the arc and slashers cutting in the wake of the ball handler to get easy baskets from dump-off passes or offensive rebounds.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. The Suns use a combination of “pace and space” and standard pick and roll on offense, and dare teams to leave shooters behind the rim while helping on dribble penetration. The Suns losing Channing Frye to the Magic will hurt them some in this approach, but they hope a combo of the Morris twins and Anthony Tolliver can make up for that. The Lakers, then, must try to control the dribbler and recover back to the arc to not give up open threes. Against the Warriors they were not successful at this. We will see if they do any better against the Suns. Maybe the 2nd half of the most recent Jazz game will give them some confidence on that side of the ball.

Where you can watch: 7pm start time on TWC Sportsnet.