The wait is over.
THE WAIT IS OVER.
On Monday the Lakers will open training camp, hosting their annual media day. The media masses will come (though fewer than normal, I’m sure) to listen to the players speak on expectations, what they hope to get out of the year, and how they’ve put on 15 pounds of muscle (or, in some cases, lost 15 pounds). They’ll gather to hear new coach Byron Scott talk in reserved, yet optimistic tones, about where he thinks this team will go and how he believes they can surprise people by defying expectations. Everyone — especially Kobe — will talk about the work to be done and growing as a team and we will soak it all in because we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity for basketball to come back.
In reality, though, this is the least interesting part of what is beginning. Most every player has been through this multiple times and knows the drill. Nothing — or at least very little — of substance will be said. The more important thing is that the work will begin and this team will take its first steps towards becoming…whatever it is they will become. We all have our opinions on that, of course, but even what I (or you or anyone else) predicts ends up being 100% accurate, it will all have to play out on the floor with the players trying to follow what the coaches tell them to do.
Even in saying all that, the story lines heading into camp are many and real. So, let’s look at 10 questions for this team at the dawn of this new campaign:
1. What is a realistic expectation for Kobe Bryant? I’ve been dodging this question all summer. In reality I do not think anyone can really answer this question with any authority. Before blowing out his achilles, Kobe was having one of his best seasons ever and doing it in year number 17 of a hall of fame career. He was, essentially, defying his age, the miles on his legs, and all the critics who thought he should be slowing down. If he returns as even 85 – 90% of that player, he will have a great year.
It is impossible to ignore the injuries, however. Even with the advances of modern medicine and the relentless training he’s done to come back, no one beats father time. Can Kobe average over 24 points a game? He hasn’t been below that number (not counting last season where he played in only 6 games) since his fourth year in the league. Will he average less than 32 minutes a night? He hasn’t been below that number since his second year in the league.
So much of what Kobe does this year will depend on answers to questions we do not have yet. If his body holds up and his athleticism is anywhere close to where it was pre-injury, there is no reason to expect a bad season from him. Those are two big ifs, however. We’ll just have to wait and see. (You notice I still have not answered the question.)
2. Does Steve Nash have one last contributing season in him? It is to the point that Nash has become a punchline amongst a large group of Lakers fans. A lof of them just want to forget he’s even on the team and, seemingly, a vocal portion of that group actually want him to not be on the team. Much like Kobe, however, Nash has had a full summer to train and reports have him looking good:
Consistent word from last several weeks has been how good Nash has looked in scrimmages. Really does change dynamic of LAL if he's healthy.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 23, 2014
What this means when the grind of the season takes hold remains to be seen. But, and, again like Kobe, in Nash’s last full season he too was defying his age and playing extraordinarily well. That was multiple seasons ago and it’s more than fair — in fact, it’s natural — to be skeptical of what he can do this season after the two seasons he’s spent battling injuries in Los Angeles. I, for one, am rooting for him though. Nash has long been one of the players I enjoy watching most and I’d like few things more than for him to go out on his own terms, playing the game he loves, and contributing positively to the team I root for.
3. What role with Julius Randle earn? If you listened to Mitch Kupchak speak to the press on Friday, one theme that came out of the sit down was that Randle will have to earn his time on the floor. Byron Scott has already said that he envisions Carlos Boozer starting the season as the top power forward and I have little doubt the preseason will augment his thoughts on that stance. That leaves Randle as a reserve, but in a crowded front court that has other contributing players — including veterans Jordan Hill and Ed Davis. Most teams find it hard to play more than 4 big men consistent minutes and Byron Scott hasn’t always been someone who leans on rookies heavily if he doesn’t have to.
Of course, I see Randle as talented enough to play at least 20 minutes a night and I’d be surprised if he’s not a key rotation player by the time the season ends. But, coaches can be funny sometimes. The mistakes that rookies make often get them pulled back to the bench while the ones that veterans make are not looked at as harshly. Said another way, if Randle and Boozer both miss the same defensive rotation, I’ve a sneaky feeling Scott might see that as Randle “not knowing where he’s supposed to be” while Boozer mostly skates because he will know but just wasn’t able to get there. Time will tell if my assumptions turn out true, but I will say this now for the record: I believe developing Randle is one of the bigger goals to accomplish this season. If, for any reason, that development looks to take a back seat to pleasing or kowtowing to veterans, I will not be happy about it.
4. Can this bench replicate some of what last year’s bench did? As noted earlier this summer, the pencilled in starters are Nash, Kobe, Wes Johnson, Boozer, and Hill. That leaves a 2nd unit of Jeremy Lin, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Randle, and Ed Davis. I don’t know about you, but that 2nd unit sounds like a fun group who will be able to put some points up on the board. One of the few ways last year’s team was successful was by having a reserve group who pushed the pace and took other team’s reserves by surprise by playing fast and loose and getting buckets in bunches. With Young, Lin, and Randle there is nice potential for this year’s bench to do similar things.
5. How long before I get the hashtag #FreeJordanClarkson to trend on twitter? One week? Two?
Let’s just say I’m going to want to see this kid play in actual games. #FreeJordanClarkson
6. Can Jeremy Lin become a part of the future? I probably have a higher opinion of Lin than a lot of other observers. I like his size, think he’s skilled, and think his reputation has been unnecessarily tarnished simply because, for a variety of reasons, Patrick Beverly was a better guard to pair with James Harden in the Rockets’ starting lineup. While Lin can definitely be viewed through the prism of being an expiring contract (and potential trade chip at the deadline), he can also be viewed as a quality, starting caliber point guard who is in his prime years while boasting a skill set needed in today’s NBA. He’s an attack style guard who can play on or off the ball, can shoot from range and get to the rim to finish. He’s not a perfect player, but he’ll be a contributor on someone’s team next year. I’d have to imagine if he plays well enough, that team just might be the Lakers.
7. Can the Lakers avoid being a bottom tiered defensive team? All the signs point clearly to “no”. They lack rim protection and the horses on the wing to keep players out of the paint consistently. If Kobe, Nash, and Boozer do see consistent minutes this year — especially together — they will surely struggle defensively. Byron Scott will preach defense and will work his guys hard. He might even pull the young players (sorry Randle) for making mistakes to set an example for the other guys. But, in reality, this team will need to show a super cohesion on that side of the ball to even be league average on defense. Maybe I’ll be wrong and they will come together wonderfully, but I don’t see it.
8. Can Nick Young make a run at 6th man of the year? Normally the year end awards go to players on winning teams. If the Lakers struggle the way that most analysts think they will, I doubt Young comes close to sniffing this award. That said, strange things happen in this league and Young has a few things going for him. First is that he can actually score the ball. This matters — just ask Jamal Crawford. Second, Young is a Laker. Playing in Los Angeles will give Young games on national TV and consistent exposure. Third, Young is quickly evolving into one of those guys that people love to root for. He’s always smiling and having a good time on the court and if his play remains at the level it was at last year, he’ll get some support. Again, the Lakers will need to win games, but if that happens (a big if) it will be a story to watch for.
9. Will the front office use any of their “flexibility” during this season? Here’s Mitch Kupchak from Friday’s presser:
I think our approach is going to be similar this season and this offseason as it was this past season. There’s only three ways to improve your team: You can make a trade; you can use your room to sign a free agent; or you can draft a player if you have a draft pick.
We did acquire a draft pick in the offseason. In fact, we acquired two. A second round pick, but we (also) got the first-round pick from Houston. So we have a pick this offseason, which is a valuable asset. We have flexibility with our (salary) cap. So we could look to improve the team during the offseason or during the season. So we feel that we have the flexibility and the assets necessary to approach this season as we did last season.
The Lakers are in position to make in-season moves this year should the opportunity arise. They have a draft pick, expiring contracts, and enough projected salary cap space next summer to make any type of deal they want should a trade they like present itself. In the past, Mitch has mostly made in-season trades to improve the current roster for the purpose of making a deeper playoff run. This year, though, he could be in a position to strengthen next year’s team by making this year’s team worse. It will be interesting to see if this is something the front office explores this year even though it is not something they have traditionally done.
10. How many games will the Lakers win? I’m not ready to answer this question yet (I do have a number in my head), but you can give me your thoughts in the comments.