A humbling year to come: Los Angeles Lakers Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Steve Nash, SG Steve Blake, SF Nick Young, PF Shawne Williams, C Pau Gasol
Key Bench Players: PG Jordan Farmar, SG Jodie Meeks, G/F Xavier Henry, F Wesley Johnson, PF/C Jordan Hill, C Chris Kaman
Offseason Additions: Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Shawne Williams, PF Ryan Kelly (48th overall pick)
Offseason Subtractions: C Dwight Howard, SF Metta World Peace, PF Antawn Jamison, F Earl Clark, PG Darius Morris, PG Chris Duhon
FACT OR FICTION: The Lakers will have a bottom-10 defense.

FACT. And therein lies the keys to this upcoming Lakers season. Inescapably, we are about to witness what should be one of the very worst defenses in the NBA. Looking at this team up, down and sideways, there is almost no feasible way that this squad has a reliable method of stopping oppositions from scoring. Right there without further need for an explanation, is a perfectly legitimate reason why this Lakers team won’t be sniffing realistic playoff goals within the last two months of the regular season.
Need further convincing? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

If fully healthy, the Lakers are missing vital components to what could be considering a solid defense in the 21st century. Their starting backcourt will be Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the latter of which has never been considered a good defender–and in a shocking development, probably shouldn’t get better with hip, back and leg injuries that are threatening to eliminate him from the second night of back to back games. The former is a 35 year-old coming off of a serious injury that limits (specifically) lateral mobility, quickness and explosive burst speed. If that didn’t sound horrifying enough, he was also one of the team’s worst defenders the previous season. They’ll be complimented by a bench unit including Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake, who show effort on that end of the floor, but ultimately are undone by multiple screens and bigger 2-guards everywhere on the court. For case in point, please go back and watch a broken down Manu Ginobili late in the regular season last year, as he gave Meeks a sneak preview of “Orange is the New Black”, except on the basketball court.

Looking to the bigs, Pau Gasol is, when fully healthy (that damn word again!), a very good secondary help defender in the paint. However, as the main shot blocker and rim protector? He doesn’t nearly excel as he once did. Chris Kaman is slightly better in that sense, but gets toasted on what has become the league’s most used play, the pick and roll. Back-up Jordan Hill is better than both of those men, but despite his age is a walking medical chart. The swingmen are all young, long athletes who look like the perfect salve to the Lakers’ 2nd degree defense burns. But alas, Wes Johnson, Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams haven’t shown the ability to do so in all their previous stops–why, in Mike D’Antoni’s system, should they begin now? And this time, they won’t have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year to bail their asses out when a defender blows by them. They’ll have Robert Sacre. Oh boy.

It’s not just that the Lakers won’t show effort and energy on the defensive end of the floor. For many guys, especially those in a contract year, I expect that they’ll try. But it appears as though they simply do not have the ability. I’ve thought about this for months: I cannot even conceptualize a concrete, plausible manner that this team is good on defense. It just doesn’t even seem possible.

This all depends, of course, on whether or not the team can stay healthy this season. From the outset, this possibility looks as bleak as Smush Parker getting a signed pair of Kobe System shoes. Nash is already day-to-day with injuries. Bryant’s return has no timetable. Beyond that, guys like Hill, Kaman, Gasol and Blake haven’t exactly been the paragon of perfect health the previous several seasons. Like last year’s God forsaken edition of the Lake Show, I fear that this year’s will suffer simply from a lack of continuity. With so many guys with such a heavy injury history, the constant shuffling of players in and out of the line-up will not only disrupt the current chemistry on hand, but will make for difficult roster juggling for the coaching staff. Every time a man got healthy in 2012-13 and the Lakers established a rhythm, another man would either depart or return. Because of all the varying strengths and styles from the very different players last season, the team was constantly starting and stopping. How will that be any different this year…especially as the team tries to adjust with a Black Mamba trying to regain his groove?

This team will score; that we can bank on for certain. From opening night, it seems as Mike D’Antoni has openly suggested a “Fuck it, we’re just gonna shoot the shit out of the ball” approach with his starting of three-point specialist Shawne Williams, a two point guard line-up with Blake and Nash (both of which can shoot the three AND can move the ball every which way around the semi-circle), Young and Gasol. Hill and Kaman are on the bench in this scenario, leaving the Lakers without two shot blockers on the floor. The theory is that the bevy of long range shooters should be able to open up the floor for easy Pau Gasol hooks and slams. Again though, the problem will be the variable performances from Nash and Kobe, two key figures in their offense. If either man plays compromised, the offensive system could stall OR will remain half as potent.

It’s incredibly hard to predict just how good this team will be because of all the moving parts. How many games will Kobe play? How many games will Nash play? Can Pau show us that he’s still an elite big two years after he last demonstrated it? Can Young, Meeks, Henry and Johnson reliably hit from distance night after night? If this team hits a 5-game losing streak, will they be able to keep their composure amidst what will be numerous calls for D’Antoni’s head? Will the majority of guys playing in a contract year be a vehicle for good basketball, or a motivator to play selfishly and put up numbers?

There are simply too many questions to answer. Trying to map out exactly how this team will look on the court is extremely difficult, because when one riddle is solved, there’s another ten variables to throw off the perfect equation. Playing the odds, the only prognostication that seems to be a good bet is that this team will be at best, mediocre defensively, and at worst…well, the worst. But even there, we’re swinging wildly from 15th to 30th, and I couldn’t pretend that any of those ranks is a better guess than the other. To make an approximation, let’s look at it this way: if you think that this squad is (and this is generous) a wash in comparison with last season’s…then how will this team be better than 45 wins without the same Kobe Bryant for 20 games?

This veteran-laden Lakers team will play hard–there’s almost no doubt about that. However, there are just too many unknowns regarding players that are too important, as well as an extremely questionable defense to give them a shot at making even a low-seed in the postseason.

The Lakers are dangerously close, already, to missing the playoffs for just the sixth time in franchise history.

Best Case Scenario: As many things go right for the Lakers as went wrong last year. Despite early signs to the contrary, Nash, Gasol, Kaman, Hill and Blake go through the season relatively unscathed. Kobe Bryant returns in early December, looking every bit the elite player he was before his injury, though perhaps not in exactly the same ways. This team leads with one of the very best offenses the NBA has to offer, and their 15th-20th ranked defense is just good enough to keep them winning games. The Lakers shock the world and capture the 5th seed with 49 wins. It looks like they’re just one premium scorer at the small forward spot away from becoming title contenders again…

Absolute Apocalypse: The Lakers are just good enough to win 39 games, which leaves their selection outside the top-12 in the NBA Draft. Kobe Bryant looks like a shell of himself after his Achilles tendon injury, while Steve Nash just looks plain finished. The Lakers win enough games on the brilliance of their front court, each of which is a departing free agent. The Lakers have gobs of cap room next summer, but with no one to build around. The prospect of attracting LeBron looks bleak.

Expected Outcome: 3rd in the Pacific, 12th in the Western Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Central Division

Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers
Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers
Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks
Charlotte Bobcats

Miami Heat
Orlando Magic
Washington Wizards

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets
Minnesota Timberwolves
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trailblazers
Utah Jazz

Northwest Division

Dallas Mavericks
Houston Rockets
Memphis Grizzlies
New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics
Brooklyn Nets
New York Knicks
Philadelphia 76ers
Toronto Raptors

Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers
Phoenix Suns
Sacramento Kings

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