Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year’s Record: 57-25
Key Loss: Ronny Turiaf
Key Additions: Getting Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza healthy, Josh Powell
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season? There weren’t any earth-shaking ones — and there shouldn’t have been. Yes, Ronny Turiaf is now dancing in the Bay Area, and his energy will be missed. But, with the current Laker lineup, Turiaf would have been playing 12 to 15 minutes a game at best, and that is a role that Josh Powell can fill admirably (at a better price). Bottom line, this is a team that went to the finals last year without its starting center and a key defensive player off the bench, and still took a peaking Celtics team to six games. What this team needed was a summer to get healthy, then a preseason (and, really, a regular season) to get everyone on the same page. There was no need for a big move.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths? Depth, and the versatility that depth provides. This team is 10 deep with guys that could start a lot of places in the league — Lamar Odom is coming off the bench, name another team where that would happen?
That depth provides three advantages. One, the Lakers will win a lot of games because the second unit will outplay other team’s second unit. The Lakers “Bench Mob” led by Jordan Farmar, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza come in and change the pace, running and being aggressive on defense. Just like a baseball pitcher, that change of pace can be hard to handle. The Lakers are going to stretch a lot of leads out at the start of the first and fourth quarters.
Second, the depth means that when the inevitable injuries come (hopefully nothing as serious as last year), the Lakers are better positioned than most to weather that storm and keep winning. (Although, as last year showed, the Lakers need their key players ready for the playoffs.)
Third and finally, it allows Phil Jackson, the master of lineup tinkering (he so loves to do that, even in May), a lot of matchup options every night. For example, here’s clear example is that I expect to see a lot of: Looking at the tall and long starting lineup for the Lakers, other teams will try to counter by going small. Do that and Jackson can either just try to pound you inside with the size, or put in a lineup like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom (or Trevor Ariza) and Pau Gasol (or Andrew Bynum) and match the quickness using five guys that can run the floor with you and beat you that way. Jackson has a versatile roster that allows him to match and counter just about anything you throw at the Lakers.
Oh, I suppose I should throw Kobe Bryant in there as a big strength. In case you missed it, he’s pretty good. And Pau Gasol, who got moved to the four due to Bynum and showed that he can thrive in the spot, shooting 66.7% in the preseason and killing it from 15 to 18 feet out. He really opens up a high-low game with Bynum that is hard to defend.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? The thing about these Lakers are less that there are glaring weaknesses than there are questions that need to be answered. Depending on the answer, it could be a weakness, but you can make an argument that the weaknesses exposed last year have been solved.
One of the most talked about is the defense/toughness issue. The Celtics manhandled the Lakers in the Finals. Some thought the Lakers needed to shake up the roster and bring in an Artest-like player to match up with Paul Pierce. (Really? Because Artest has shown how well he plays within a team system?) The Lakers think that the return of a healthy Andrew Bynum patrolling the paint, along with Gasol as another seven footer, solves that problem. At the end of the preseason, even with the defensively questionable Vladimir Radmanovic in the starting lineup, the Lakers defense looked good, and tough. But the question is still there when the games matter.
The other potential weakness is how this team melds all that talent. Can Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol play together? Will Lamar Odom be happy as the sixth man in a contract year? The indications out of the preseason are yes to both questions. But the key here is Phil Jackson, he is better than any coach in history at getting players to figure out for themselves that fitting a certain role or mold is good for them. He got Dennis Rodman to play within the rules, because he got Rodman to realize for himself that was what was best. It was not old school force of will stuff, it was subtle. Phil will have to work his magic on a deep roster where players will want more minutes. But that’s why he gets paid what he does.
4. What are the goals for this team? After last season, there can be only one goal, an NBA title.
5. What do the Lakers have to do to achieve that goal? I have a simple statement for this team, which is fast becoming my mantra:
The Lakers will go as far as their defense will take them.
This team, regardless of how the player rotations shake out, is going to score a lot of points. It will be, if not the most efficient offense in the league, one of the top three. But that is only half the court. The Lakers do not need to be the 2004 Pistons on defense; they simply need to be in the top 10 in the league, they just have to be good. Not totally unlike the Phoenix Suns of a few years back, the offense will be plenty good but when it gets to the postseason can they stop teams enough? Early indications are the Lakers players get that. With a shot blocker in the paint behind them, you see them pressing more and jumping more passing lanes on the perimeter. This is a crazy long starting lineup with Bryant, Radmanovic, Gasol and Bynum (with the also long Ariza and Odom coming off the bench). They will disrupt a lot of shots with that length. Phil Jackson saw all that size and has actually played around with some strong-side zone in the preseason.
If you really want to know how good the Lakers will be this season, watch the defensive stats.
Projected Finish: 60-22, first in the division and first in the conference