Thursday, October 4, 2012

The NBA's 1% - Previewing The 2012-13 Lakers




Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year's Record: 41-25
Key Losses: Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes, Ramon Sessions
Key Additions: Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks


1. What significant moves were made during the off-season? Y’know. Just a couple of tweaks.

It’s funny, in recent summers, given the roster’s perennial, glaring shortfalls, bolstering the bench with an aging-and-inefficient-but-still-capable veteran scorer and a young(ish), moderately consistent perimeter threat would have sparked celebrations in the farthest reaches of Lakerland and further ratcheted up already-stratospheric expectations.

This year? Not so much.

I’ve frankly had spells during which I have forgotten entirely about Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. How, pray tell, on the heels of a season in which just two second-teamers – Matt Barnes (7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) and (generously) Steve Blake (5.2 points, 3.3 assists per) – took part in 50+ games and provided something bearing even a vague resemblance to consistent production, do Jamison (17.2 points per game last season, though just 40.3% from the field – Nash should help here) and Meeks (235 3-pointers made over the past two seasons, with a 38.3% success rate) find themselves as mere footnotes in the mind of even the most rabid fan?

Well…




2. What are the team’s biggest strengths? As it has been for some time, the strength of this Lakers squad is concentrated at the top of the roster. In last year’s preview, I not-so-controversially declared that, “Barring an unforeseen series of events, the 2011-12 Lakers top four [then Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom] will once again rank among the league’s very best.” The more things change, huh?

While the claim rings true today as it did a year ago, not even the most optimistic citizen of the Nation would have dared predict that in 2012, as summer turned to fall, the Lakers would manage to significantly upgrade the quartet atop the roster. However, by roundaboutly parlaying Odom into one of history’s great playmakers and perhaps its best-ever shooter, and soon after flipping the NBA’s second-best center in exchange for arguably the NBA’s second-best player (and, y’know, first-best center), Mitch Kupchak succeeded in doing just that.

More importantly, rather than simply accumulating a treasure trove of incongruous talents, Kupchak, patient yet aggressive, cherry-picked a pair of prized assets for whom collaboration with the incumbents should come fairly easily. Nash is a no-brainer – a hoops genius whose shot, playmaking and leadership have seldom been seen at the position. His execution on the pick and roll – if not flawless, not far off – is unlikely to suffer as a result of teaming up with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Additionally, no lead guard in the NBA is as effective at finding open shooters on the perimeter (Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, c’mon down!), which is helpful, given the frequency and incisiveness with which Nash infiltrates the paint.


Now, like Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard will occasionally displace Gasol from the post. While last season this did result in Pau’s worst as a Laker (a career-low 17.4 points per game, his worst TS% since 2003-04 and lowest PER since his rookie year), there is a case to be made that, given a lead guard with a basketball IQ on par with his own, with both the ability and willingness to deliver the ball at the proper time and place on the court, a bounceback season is in the cards for Pau.

And what of the aforementioned Howard? He should – thanks to Steve Nash being, well, Steve Nash, the defensive attention commanded by Kobe, Nash and Gasol, and post moves that, while hardly Hakeem-esque, are too often sold short – be in line for the most efficient offensive season of his career. Additionally, his work on the offensive glass (12.07% ORB Rate, 19th all-time) and incredible athleticism on the pick and roll, when paired with the penetrating and passing prowess of Nash should transform the Lakers into the NBA’s undisputed kings of the half court.

Oh yeah. And Kobe Bryant is still a thing too.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses? Though mitigated somewhat from years past, the Lakers’ greatest weakness lies, once again, in the second unit.

Thanks to Antawn Jamison (he won’t shoot 40% again, right??) and potential Steve Nash All Stars Jodie Meeks and Andrew Goudelock, the 2012-13 Lakers’ reserves should put up some points from the perimeter. Problems arise, however, when we look behind Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and discover that backing up the league’s most prolific interior duo we have offensively-challenged rebounder/spark plug Jordan Hill, potentially serviceable rookie Robert Sacre, Earl Clark and…

(Crickets)

In reality, the Lakers will spend the vast majority of their 2012-13 minutes with at least one of the their front line bigs on the floor. In the best of times the lack of frontcourt depth will likely not come into play.

HOWEVAH…

Like any deal that is priced for perfection, unforeseen circumstances (foul trouble and, far more importantly, injuries) have the potential to throw this crew for a loop. Not even the best prepared team could “replace” either of these singular talents, but to enter a season with your All-Universe center recovering from back surgery (though he is, by all accounts, progressing quite nicely) with nothing in the way of insurance beyond Hill, Sacre and Clark is something of a tightrope walk.

4. What are the goals for this team? ‘Round these parts, it’s quite simple. Championship or bust. The message has not changed, though it must be said that it’s delivered with far more sincerity this year than in the last couple.

5. How will Kobe Bryant fare as a member of an ensemble cast? Aside from injury, that’s the biggest pitfall here, right?

From the moment we learned that Steve Nash was to become a Laker, questions abounded:

Will Can Kobe subjugate his rock-monopolizing tendencies to accommodate an unimpeachable point guard whose lifeblood is a live dribble? How will Kobe react to once again teaming up – this time as a veteran of nearly two decades – with the league’s best big man, who happens to be firmly ensconced in the prime of his career? After years of vacillation between grudging half-reliance on and blatant distrust of teammates whose ability and desire chronically fell short of his lofty expectations, can Kobe find the capacity to genuinely trust not one, but two new superstar teammates whose respective bodies of work warrant nothing less?

In short… does Kobe want to win on terms that are not his own?

Be it Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Shaquille O’Neal or some other star with whom he’ll one day join forces, as long as Kobe Bryant occupies a spot in the NBA sandbox, both his willingness and ability to play nicely with others will be called into question. And not without reason. Few players in NBA history (young Mike? Larry Bird? Jerry West?) have so publicly combined monomaniacal competitiveness with blatant disregard for the opinion of all they encountered.

Thing is, however, Kobe Bean is no fool. He is, by all accounts, in fact a rather intelligent man. After what must feel like a lifetime of Smush Parker, Chucky Atkins, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and a rapidly declining Derek Fisherthe suggestion that Kobe would allow his ego to alienate Steve Nash a player that he himself recruited, whose approaches to conditioning, preparation and competition mirror Kobe's own discredits immensely Mamba's understanding of not only the finer points of the game itself, but the legacy he's taken such immense pains to construct.

Meanwhile, Kobe has thus refused to cede much of anything to Dwight Howard (and why exactly at this stage should he?). Again, however, make no mistake: Kobe remembers the Shaq era. As far into the rearview as those days have faded, memories of the dominance exerted by the NBA's best inside-outside combo working in concert, and the relative ease with which each facilitated the other's first three rings, remain vivid.

Given what we know of his personality and track record, to question Kobe Bryant's ability to thrive as part of a superstar cast the likes of which the Lakers now boast is only natural. However, to assume that the inherent selfishness that is almost universally ascribed to the man would preclude his ability to function as a part of this unit takes the pennywise-pound foolish image wrongly ascribed to Kobe to obscene heights. Anyone suggesting that Kobe would willfully sabotage a legitimate opportunity at ring #6 in favors of a few more dribbles and a couple of extra shots per game is himself willfully overlooking one rather significant point:

Kobe Bryant knows many things. On no topic is he more knowledgeable than the enduring legacy of Kobe Bryant.

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