To say last year was a disappointment for the LA Lakers may be the NBA understatement of the year. A team that seemingly had the wares to conquer the West and challenge Miami for supremacy had its wheels come off almost immediately, barely limping into the playoffs before receiving a not-so-ceremonious exit in the first round. Loosing Kobe Bryant to a devastating knee injury didn’t help, but even when he was there, the Lakers just never came together.
Now, with Dwight Howard gone and Bryant on the mend, LA is in limbo before trying to strike it big again with a talented 2014 free agent class that the team hopes its lure and tradition can attract. These are still Bryant’s Lakers though, and as I profiled in an earlier story on the team, LA may not be as loaded as we’re used to seeing them, but they’re not taking a year off either.
Age, injuries, and changing systems conspired to make Steve Nash less effective than we’ve seen him in a long time. While the age won’t be getting any better, with health and coach Mike D’Antoni’s system now having a full training camp to take effect, expect Nash to look a little more like the Nash of old this year. Even closing in on 40, he’s still a top tier point guard in the league and his ability to run a fast-paced scheme will be on full display.
Steve Blake should continue to be Nash’s primary backup at the point. He isn’t very athletic, but his outside shooting is always effective and he runs a decent offense.
After a year overseas, Jordan Farmar returns to the Lakers and will be in the mix the point. Farmer is a natural scorer, but lacks the size to play the two on anything more than a limited basis. But as third options go at the point, Farmar is an asset.
The Lakers hopes this season will begin and end with the health of Kobe Bryant. In his mid-30s, coming back from a devastating knee injury to return to anything close to his previous form may sound like a pipe dream, but if any player in the NBA can, it’s Bryant. He’s spent over a decade being the most intense, prepared, and dedicated player in basketball and that tenacity will be needed more than ever now. It’s not wise to bet against him, and best to assume that even he isn’t and or in form at the start of the season, it won’t take him long to get there.
When that happens, the Lakers get one of the three or four most dominant players in the NBA back to lead them. And that’s why you shouldn’t count them out too fast.
The Lakers will be better armed; depth wise, behind Bryant than they were last year, but the first option off the bench should remain Jodie Meeks. Meeks is hot and cold as a shooter, but gives great energy off the bench.
Free agent addition Nick Young will see time on both wings. How much of that will at the two guard will depend upon Bryant’s health. Jordan Farmer could also see time if more depth is needed.
The release of Meta World Peace has left a big gap in the Lakers starting unit. Nick Young and Wesley Johnson will be in a battle for the starting job, and minutes in general, at small forward.
Young is the kind of streaky player that can drive coaches insane. He looks fantastic for stretches, and like it’s his first day in the league for others. Players like Young can thrive in D’Antoni’s system, and this could be a great opportunity for him to put up some hot numbers before heading back into free agency next year.
Johnson, formally a #4 overall draft pick hasn’t nearly lived up to his billing. But he’s a good athlete and solid defender on the wing that could fit well in the Lakers’ scheme. This could be Johnson’s best chance to prove he’s a NBA starter.
Pau Gasol could be the main beneficiary of the changes. After years of having to share the post with Howard, and Andrew Bynum before him, Gasol will be freed up to take command around the rim which will fit his multi-faceted offensive game well. Look for Gasol to take a central role in the game plans and see his numbers bounce back after a poor season.
Jordan Hill, a solid backup at the power positions should be healthy after an injury plagued run last season. Jordan is a tough, energy guy in the post who’s also a good defender and rebounder.
Howard may not have been the savior LA was hoping for last season, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be easy to replace, either. In D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, Gasol will get much heavier minutes at the five than he has in previous seasons. But he’ll continue to spend most of his time at power forward as the Lakers have brought in veteran Chris Kaman to fill their center gap.
Kaman is experienced and was productive as the Clippers center for several seasons. He isn’t particularly special in the defensive and rebounding departments, but he’s a legit seven footer who will give the team solid, if unspectacular results at the five.
Hill will get minutes here as well, as could second year man Robert Sacre.
Judging by last season, LA doesn’t look so good. But when you actually stop to take a look, the team still has Bryant, Gasol, and Nash leading a team that, even without Howard, shouldn’t be as disappointing as there performance last season showed. A tough Western Conference leaves no guarantees, but Los Angeles is still in the playoff hunt, if only on the lower tier. If they do make it in, they could be the team nobody wants to play.