AK's Season Preview: Can They Win Without Jim Jackson?
Throughout the offseason, BK and I have posted a series called "Know Thy Enemy," where we break down Western Conference teams and predict if they'll finish better or worse than the Lakers. We didn't realize, however, that the biggest "enemy" was actually the injury bug. The Lakers head into tomorrow's season opener against Phoenix hurting like Keith Closs after a club-hopping spree. How out of control have things gotten? Bad enough that we can break down patients into categories.
Guys who are definitely out come Halloween
Chris Mihm, whose recovery from ankle surgery has moved slower than a parked car.
Kwame Brown, with a shoulder injury that will likely sideline him until around mid-November.
Guys I'm not sure about, but could very well be out
Shammond Williams missed much of the preseason (and the opportunity to learn his new teammates and system) nursing an abdominal strain.
Aaron McKie's wife just had a baby — congrats to the family, by the way — and she still might be more of a lock to suit up than her husband.
Guys who may or may not be out, but could very well play like they're injured
Kobe's situation is redefining "game time decision." Either way, if the new Jack Bauer does dress (and I hope he's not risking future injury by coming back too soon), I would expect a little rust.
Guys who will be on the court, but could very well play like they're injured.
I don't everything about hoops, but generally speaking, guys shoot with their hands, the more important being the dominant hand. For players labeled "pure shooters," that hand's proficiency is even more crucial. So unless Vlad Radmanovic can chuck left handed or head the ball in from downtown, do you see where I'm going with this?
For those of y'all big on starting up various bandwagons, I wouldn't rule out "Gary Vitti has a nervous breakdown by mid-December" as a solid contender for an engine and wheels.
One can smile a bit, however, since the team actually looked decent during the preseason. Does that mean they can remain in the mix for an entire season with important players watching games in Armani? Hell, no. But I do think it's a credit to the team's improved depth that October wasn't an absolute train wreck. Plus, with the exception of Radmanovic, whose hand will probably bug all season, everyone important should be in the pink relatively soon. Thus, it's only fair to address best case scenarios as well. And there are legit reasons to be optimistic heading into the season.
The last 20 or so games of 2006 and the majority of the playoffs featured a squad clicking. Lamar Odom actually hit stride right after the All-Star break, playing at a level that might have landed him a roster spot for those festivities. But soon thereafter, enough bulbs went off inside the squad's collective heads — Luke Walton and Kwame Brown in particular — to light up Vegas. The breakthroughs were due in part to guys growing more comfortable. But the lion's share of credit, especially during the playoffs, goes to Kobe for making a conscious, continual decision to involve his supporting cast. Doling out unconditional opportunities, Kobe's vote of confidence brought out the best in everyone (including himself). Obviously, his cronies weren't metronome-steady (Game 7, anyone?), but the overall result was a snapshot of team that could be tough to beat if such efforts evolve into the norm.
In addition to the strong finish, the Lakers' chances were bolstered by some new blood, quality role players who address specific weaknesses. Radmanovic ain't much on the boards or bodying up, but he'll hit from distance in his sleep, a threat the Lakers sorely lacked. The bum paw may negate some prowess, but he's also underrated as a driver/cutter (in part because he doesn't do it enough), so he can still lessen Kobe's scoring burden. I believe the trade for Maurice Evans — who provides desperately needed athleticism and defense- will end up a serious steal. I'm not sold yet on Shammond Williams (I haven't seen enough recent action and his first NBA stint hardly blew minds), but Europe nonetheless treated him well. Jordan Farmar's biggest contributions are likely down the road- although he's not exactly trying to siphon minutes from a Nash/Paul/Kidd rotation, so nothing is impossible — but from day one, I've suspected he'll get some PT. All in all, the bench went from spotty (typified by new Mav Devean George's play) to versatile and potentially dependable.
Unfortunately, that depth is currently negated by injuries that prevent spring 2006 momentum from being immediately built upon. I'm particularly concerned about how Kwame's injury will affect him. He parlayed a nice finish into a training camp groove and I'd hate to see the time off stall (or worse, regress) any development and consistency. Plus, with Kwame and Mihm sidelined, you're looking at early games with Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf as the only true bigs. Not good. Bynum's final pair of preseason efforts were certainly strong, but I still expect a late '90's Robert Downey Jr to be less erratic by comparison. And while Turiaf, especially offensively, looks more polished, I still think he'd have trouble playing more than 25 minutes without fouling out (which wouldn't be a huge problem, except other biggish types Radmanovic and Brian Cook have both spent preseason as whistle magnets). But mostly, the injuries hurt because of L.A.'s home-heavy November schedule. 10 of 15 games, to be exact. The purple and gold really need to capitalize, which won't be easy without all barrels blazing. As for the outcome if this M.A.S.H. unit atmosphere continues, last year was a hard fought battle for seventh place with the majority of the roster healthy throughout. You can do the math from here.
Obviously, if we've learned one thing over the years, it's that you can't count out any team with Kobe Bryant. But we've also learned that you can't count on any team with Kobe Bryant doing everything. Even the NBA's most talented player needs help. His teammates have shown an ability to provide it, but never for an entire season. In particular, assistance must come from Odom, whom I've always felt is the "As he goes, so go the Lakers" fella. Consistency has never been an Odom trademark. And frankly, who'd blame Lamar if his thoughts are often elsewhere this season? But all sensitivity aside, the team will live and die off an ability to set their watch by LO. There are also reliability questions surrounding Kwame, Walton, Vlad...basically anyone not named Kobe Bean Bryant. Folks need to step up, especially if Kobe continues playing equal opportunity ball. And the onus falls on Kobe to continue resisting the urge to take over games before the time arrives. I'd also prefer better point guard options than five guys who'd come off the bench of every team in the league (save perhaps Houston or Cleveland). I don't think it will haunt the Lakers as badly this season — incumbent starter Smush Parker has a year under his belt, Sasha Vujacic looks improved, Farmar can contribute now, etc. — but I doubt we've bypassed "Achilles heel" status, either.
All in all, the 2006-2007 Lakers — when healthy — are better, deeper and more experienced than last year's version. Unfortunately, so is basically every team in the conference, including those already better than the Lakers (and should Houston remain in one piece, they could be a monster). Quite simply, the west is a bitch and the Lakers would have to make serious improvements to leapfrog those teams. I don't think they've made such strides (or I haven't seen evidence, if nothing else). But I do think they're moving forward. And like I said before, if March-May 2006 was more than an oasis, I'd want no part of Kobe and the crew. But as every reader knows, I'm a "gotta see it to believe it" kinda guy. Doesn't mean I'm not optimistic. Just means the optimism is more "cautious" than "unbridled, bacchanalian celebratory."
Official Prediction: 48-34. Third in the Pacific. Sixth in the Western Conference.
FYI: I'll answer my title's question with a reasonably certain "yes."