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.
In a season like this, though, there is always the hope of salvation even if it will not come in the form of check marks in the victory column and a deep playoff run. Enter the two players at the opposite ends of the Lakers’ careers, Kobe Bryant and Julius Randle.
Kobe’s return to the court will be met with equal parts celebration and skepticism. After playing in only six games last season after tearing his achilles tendon the year before, the doubt that Kobe can be even a good NBA player is real. He will be asked to carry a heavy load this year and in doing so many expect him to fail. The argument is a simple one: a high usage Kobe on a low talent team will mean fewer opportunities to maximize what strengths he does have left. The injuries will change his game and, in turn, will lessen his effectiveness when he has no one else to shift the burden to.
I’d be lying if I didn’t believe some of this myself. Many point to how Kobe played before his ruptured achilles as evidence of just how good he was and how underestimating him is a mistake. Forget for a moment the injuries, though, and simply look back to that roster and understand that there is no Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard (even a limited one) or Steve Nash (ditto) to occupy defenders and balance the floor. Even if Kobe were to come back as Kobe, he’d still be surrounded by less talent than at any point in the last 10 years of his career. Defenses will swarm him and make him prove he is still able to perform at a high level. And if he can’t do it, the vultures will stop circling above and descend upon him.
In saying that, however, he is still Kobe Bryant. During the preseason he has flashed some of his trademark shot making to go along with savvy and a fantastic level of skill. If nothing else, Kobe will provide us with moments to lean on to support us in what will be a difficult season. Which is more than I can say about last year.
And then there is Randle. While he will begin the season as a reserve, he has already shown a more well rounded game than given credit for when he came out of Kentucky. His handle, court vision, and passing ability are all well beyond what I’d thought he possessed. When those traits are joined with the combination of quickness and power I did know about, my curiosity is piqued and I am all-in on Randle as a prospect. Time will tell if the other facets of his game evolve enough for these other skills to be optimized, but to have him on this team with a chance to learn, grow and show he can be an every day contributor is a reason to tune in every night.
Yes, there will be frustration. And I wonder if Scott will buy into Randle in a meaningful enough way to let the young man make the needed mistakes on the floor that are required to fully develop. You would think his talent stands out enough to lessen these concerns, but Scott has already used the preseason as a way to talk down his prized rookie. For me, though, Boozer may play in front of him and Hill/Davis may steal some of his minutes over the course of the long season, but Randle has enough to offer that he alone will salvage some nights from the unwatchable. He just needs enough time on the floor (something that, even with my concerns about a crowded front court, I think he will get).
There are other stories too, for sure. From Ed Davis to Nick Young to Jeremy Lin there are no shortage of guys who I will watch intently and with a keen eye on whether they can be part of the solution in coming seasons. On the flip side, there’s the question of whether Boozer’s sharp decline will plateau or continue, whether Byron Scott will really continue to troll the analytics movement with his approach to offense, and if Wes Johnson will show any growth in a game that has always been too reliant on athleticism and not enough on an understanding of how to play NBA level basketball successfully.
Make no mistake, though, none of this will make for a particularly good basketball team. Intriguing? Sure. Watchable? On most nights. A squad worth rooting for? Definitely. But the frustration will flow over on many evenings and, much like last season, I have a feeling the last part of the year will be more about figuring out the lottery odds and how good of a chance the team has at keeping their top five protected draft pick as any other storyline. In other words, get ready for a long season.