Can They Make it Work? — Los Angeles Lakers Season Preview

That’s some star power.

Starting Five: PG Steve Nash, SG Kobe Bryant, SF Metta World Peace, PF Pau Gasol, C Dwight Howard

Key Bench Players: PG Steve Blakers, PG Chris Duhon, SG Jodie Meeks, F Antawn Jamison, PF/C Jordan Hill
Notable offseason additions: Everyone good in the NBA, PG Steve Nash, PG Chris Duhon, SG Jodie Meeks, F Antawn Jamison, F Earl Clark, C Dwight Howard
Offseason subtractions: C Andrew Bynum, PG Ramon Sessions, G Christian Eyenga,  SF Matt Barnes, PF Josh McRoberts

Just writing the starting lineup gave me chills.

The 2012 season concluded with the following assertions as a near certainty: the re-signing of PG Ramon Sessions, the loss of F/C Jordan Hill to free agency, the amnesty cut of the underperforming Metta World Peace, an inevitable trade of the high-priced Pau Gasol and a high-priced extension of Andrew Bynum. It seemed that this era of Lakers basketball was over, and a new one, whatever trajectory it might take, was ready to begin its course.

None of that happened.

In a flurry of trades and signings over a month-long period, the Los Angeles Lakers went from the Kobe Bryant non-contending sideshow to a favorite for the NBA title. GM Mitch Kupchak and VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss saw every hole the Lakers had, and plugged them seemingly with options out of the fantasy basketball playbook. There’s little more the front office could have done for the team in any sort of pragmatic fashion. The adjective I most associate with LA’s offseason is…silly. All of this is just…silly. 

On paper, the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers are absolutely surreal. The team is carrying four top-20 players in their ranks, including arguably the best shooting guard in the game today, and unquestionably the top center working the hardwood. The bench has gone from one of the league’s worst to one of the league’s most capable. The team that every NBA fan loves to hate just got even better. I can’t imagine the venom coursing through the veins of all those who wish for nothing more than just a five year down period for the most consistently great franchise in American sports history. Sorry to disappoint everyone – this sentiment just makes me smile. Please come to the blog again.

The CDP and I, Co-Presidents of the Arrogants Lakers Fan Association, have obsessed over and examined the new-look Lake Show from every single angle possible. However, as the professionals that we are while representing such a fine blog like MAMBINO, we’ve put aside our blatant, oozing homerism to take a non-partisan look at the squad and determine what we feel are the two most important questions going into the 2012-2013 season. Let’s go!

Who do you think has a more important role on the team: Steve Nash as the new quarterback of the offense, or Dwight Howard as the new quarterback of the defense? And how easily do you see them harnessing these roles?

The CDP: Honestly, the Lakers success next year hinges on the successful integration of both superstars, but Steve Nash’s role is more important because of its broader implications. The success of Nash as the new quarterback of the offense means a lot of huge adjustments for the team (and for one Kobe Bean Bryant), beyond any system changes under the Princeton Offense. There’s no doubt that Dwight Howard will have to make some adjustments and is the key to having an elite defense again, but I’m just less concerned about it since this Lakers squad is used to funneling drivers into the middle for Andrew Bynum.

Let’s talk Steve Nash and the offense. First of all, it means that the Lakers will be running the pick and roll a lot more, which makes sense given that it is also a true strength of Dwight’s, who should be even deadlier playing with a 50-40-90 shooter/maestro in Nash and Gasol’s versatility inside and out. Don’t count Kobe out of the fun, especially with his incredible basketball IQ. The Lakers can run a Nash-Kobe pick and roll, which would be terrifying because both of them are such good shooters and any extra defensive attention is going to free up one of the bigs or a wide open corner three.

It also means that Kobe will be accepting a reduced role in terms of ballhandling and will certainly not lead the league in usage rate again this year. I’ve argued for years that Kobe needs to stop dominating the ball and starting getting the rock on his spots, particularly in the post or off of a Ray Allen-esque double screen at the elbow where he’ll have a step on his defender for an open 7-10 foot jumper. If Nash’s unselfishness is truly contagious, the Lakers will be able to use Kobe as a decoy and escape valve off, where he will be much more efficient and garner less defensive attention. As a Kobe apologist, I’m optimistic because Kobe has been the only one who could create his own shot on the perimeter the last few years and Ramon Sessions’ incredible shrink job last year only validated his fears. He is capable of being (and has been) a much more unselfish player than he was in 2011-2012. With these upgrades, he won’t have any excuses this year.

Beyond that, Nash can help ensure that the Laker offense consistently sends its shots to the best option. The triangle had deteriorated a bit before that, but last year’s offense was far from optimal in its distribution. People always mean that as Kobe took too many shots, and he was certainly guilty of over the top gunning last season, but that’s not the whole story. The fact is that Bynum was the only other truly assertive offensive player on the roster, with Gasol and Company deferring way too often, passing up on open shots, and tossing the ball to Kobe to bail them out. Kobe fed off this energy and tried to be the hero for 66 games and change, but this year there are far more quality options for the Lakers. Jodie Meeks and Nash are among the best outside shooters in the league and Antawn Jamison is a capable scorer as well. The philosophy of any offense should be to get the most efficient possible shots out of its squad. This team has so many weapons and it’s Nash’s job to ensure the shots go where they should. For instance, I don’t have any problems with Kobe taking 25 shots in a game if he’s open and they’re in his spots, but he better score 30+ points and I’m not happy if 15 of those are heavily contested.

Defensively, I worry more about Dwight Howard’s health than anything else. As I said, Dwight will be taking on the exact same role as Andrew last year, the shot blocker in the middle who has drivers funneled into him. Except Dwight is a better shot blocker, rebounder, and can be counted on for consistent effort. We’ll miss Andrew’s versatility on offense, but a healthy Dwight is heads and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to defensive playmaking. All the early reports are positive, so I’m optimistic that Dwight will be back to 100% before the new year. I don’t care if he’s back to start the season, I just want to make sure he’s healthy and ready to go in May and June when we need him.

If Dwight is in Defensive Player in the Year form, he’ll erase a lot of Lakers defensive mistakes. You have to love the Nash and Jamison signings, but they are old players who don’t play much defense anymore. Metta World Peace is still elite defensively and Kobe can be when he’s interested, but the Lakers need much more consistent team effort on the defensive end that reflects the intensity of a team with focused, championship intentions. Dwight needs to inspire that, hold other players accountable, and lead the team as a role model on defense, similar to how Nash will try to create a culture of unselfishness on offense. If he’s successful, the Lakers will have an elite defense to match what is sure to be an improved offense.

Aside from incorporating  two superstars in Nash/D-12, what are the biggest adjustments the Lakers have to make this year? Are they personnel driven or larger system changes like running the Princeton offense? What does Mike Brown have to do to be successful?

No more excuses, huh? (Gulp)

KOBEsh: Aside from incorporating those two superstars? That leaves a lot off the books. However, if you’re not counting those two All-NBA first teamers joining the Show, the biggest adjustment that the team faces is going to be driven largely by system-based changes. Namely? The fact that the entire coaching staff changed over the summer. Head coach Mike Brown still leads the charge, but an all new set of assistants have replaced three outgoing members, with only Darvin Ham and Chuck Person are all that remains of Brown’s 2011-2012 crew.

What’s so important about this? A few things. In the past 11 months, the Lakers have been through a great deal of turnover with the roster, seeing as Luke Walton, Derek Fisher, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill were all coming or going. While none of these men were All-Stars, quality rotation players or in Luke Walton’s case, anything but a salary-sucking succubus, there’s no doubt that such a massive overturn of personnel has an effect on how someone coaches a team and organizes his lineup. In my mind, without a real training camp and very few practices throughout the year, this isn’t a typical situation where the team has had a full year with the coach and knows exactly what they’re getting into. Mike Brown has some experience with this team, but definitely not enough to either crucify the man, nor qualify him as the coach of the future. Perhaps more importantly, the three new assistants that Brown hired are going to all have prominent roles on the team.

Eddie Jordan, former 76ers and Wizards head coach, now will helm the team’s offense, primarily using a Princeton-based system. Ben of MAMBINO affiliate Silver Screen and Roll explained the system pretty well in this post, but the cliff’s notes is that the scheme largely relies on a series of movement featuring screens and backdoor cuts, utilizing versatile players that can post up and space the floor no matter what position. In many ways, the system is similar to the triangle offense, which ex-head coach Phil Jackson famously rode to 11 titles, 5 of which where with the Lakers. Sadly for the Show, only three players remain from that the last Jackson team in 2010-2011, so any advantage the team has in quickly picking up the offense goes out the window. Luckily for the Lakers, the team is filled with the type of versatile players with high basketball IQ’s that should be able to easily adapt to the new systems.

However, that doesn’t mean that implementing a complex new offense will be easy at all. They’re essentially asking three guys that have been the focal point of their previous team’s offense to share the ball more than ever before, and for their bit players to take an even lesser roles than ever before. I don’t know how well each Laker will respond to changing their nightly game so dramatically in one season, or how long it will take. The early word out of camp is that Dwight Howard is practicing with the team and may even play in a few preseason games, so the team and coaching staff should be getting a leg up in terms of finding out how to work everyone in to what amounts to an all-new squad. The 2012-2013 Lakers are comprised mostly of veteran players, some of which taking big pay cuts to play with the team, with few combustible personalities outside of Metta World Peace. Even if the new systems are difficult to teach, I have very little concern about the team at least getting along and in practice accepting what they have to do going forward.

However, none of this matters if Mike Brown can’t get this team to listen to him. I wouldn’t say that his 2011-2012 campaign was entirely flawed–I’d argue that the team was far more limited than he was. Brown only had a facilitating point guard for less than half the season, and the one he got was a Ramon Sessions who shrank when the pressure was on. The team also had the weakest bench and three point shooting in the league, both of which didn’t help the high-low post, inside-out game he was trying to replicate from his days with the Spurs. In a nutshell, Brown inherited a mediocre Lakers team that was made to look much better than it was because of the individual play of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. To limit the team’s failures to personnel is a mistake however–the fact is that Brown couldn’t adjust enough to the talent he had and maximize what he had is very telling how how stubborn that big, black, shiny head of his really is. In order to succeed this year, Brown is going to have to be able to loosen the reigns a little and use Steve Nash to freelance a bit more outside of his usually rigid defensive and offensive plans. Maybe even more importantly, he’s going to have to get this team to truly defend. The 2011-2012 team was built on a foundation of statements about defensive intensity and how that is the road to a championship. The team didn’t entirely abandon their preseason plans for success, but certainly didn’t ride them the way they portrayed in the winter. The Lakers finished the year very middling in most defensive metrics, with Metta World Peace being the only effective perimeter defender out of the lot. Many of these problems are going to be erased just by Dwight Howard patrolling the paint, but overall the Lakers need to be a little more committed to playing intelligent help defense, not over-committing and most importantly playing hard more than 60% of the time. Nothing else will do.

Brown now has the most talented team he’s ever coached–in fact, he’ll have a squad of four potential All-Stars. In his career with the Cavaliers and Lakers, he’s only ever coached two teams with multiple All-Stars, one of which was last year’s team with Bynum and Kobe, and the other being the 2010 team that featured LeBron and…wait for it…Mo Williams. In short, this is far and away the most talented team Mike Brown has ever had, and there’s really no telling how he’ll be able to manage all the superstar egos that come with the talent he has on the team. I’d like to say that his gregarious personality and work ethic will win over the team, but this cast of characters came together for one reason: to win a title. If Brown doesn’t show he’s ready to do that, he’ll have a much harder time juggling the 2011-2012 Lakers than anyone thinks. 

Really guys, I’m cool running out of
fingers for rings on this hand.

Best-case scenario: The Lakers win 70 games, coming within a few multi-colored hairs of tying the 72-10 mark of the Jordan/Rodman/Pippen 1996 Bulls. The Lakers steamroll through the Western Conference, including a resounding victory over a thin Oklahoma City team that still wears the scars of last year’s Finals exit on their ABA-like jerseys. The Finals are a romp, with Dwight Howard destroying the feeble combination of Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh, on his way to a Finals MVP. The Lakers win their 17th title, tying the Boston Celtics, and seem poised to repeat. Howard is entirely happy in his first year in LA, making his intentions to re-sign well-known, as the Buss Family looks towards another near decade of prominence. It’s good to be a Lakers fan. 

Absolute Apocalypse: Dwight’s back looks fine…but only in comparison’s to Steve Nash’s who without the witch doctors in the Phoenix Suns trainer’s room, cannot stay on the floor. Kobe too shows his age, but compensates for his sharply declining athleticism by taking even more shots than usual, throwing off the entire offensive scheme. Mike Brown shows that, even with the most talented team he’s ever had, he simply isn’t a good in-game improvisor, nor is he able to satisfy the demands of his multiple All-Stars. The team makes the playoffs without home court advantage, gets to the second round based on sheer talent just like the last two years, but flames out with yet another second round exit. The Lakers are nothing more than an old team saddled with massive contracts and a blurry future. They are amongst, if not the most disappointing team in NBA history.

Expected Finish: 1st in Pacific Division, 1st in Western Conference

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