BK's Season Preview: Who's Bringing the Advil?
Coming off a season where many — OK, not necessarily you guys, but media types — wondered if the Lakers would win more games than they lost, the Lakers notched 45 victories and as you may remember, were one now infamous nonrebound from advancing to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The growth of Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, and Luke Walton conspired with a soft schedule down the stretch to push the Lakers to an 11-3 finish.
This offseason, L.A. added shooting in Vladamir Radmanovic, defense in Maurice Evans, a dude with a big noggin' (literally) coming off a nice season overseas in Shammond Williams, and they drafted their point guard of the future in Jordan Farmar. Andrew Bynum is a year older, L.O. has a year of the triangle under his belt, and Walton seems to be evolving into a poster child for Tex Winter's O. (Seriously, if the EPA covered basketball, they'd protect the triangle offense from extinction, because it's the natural habitat of Walton. If it goes, Luke might follow. He's the spotted owl of hoops.)
That's the good news.
Now the bad.
The Lakers achieved their 45 wins in a season where almost everything went well. Kobe was as monumental an offensive force as the league had seen since M.J. left the Bulls to try his hand in baseball (not his best choice). It's reasonable to wonder if he'll be able to reproduce at the same level. Hopefully, of course, he won't have to. More importantly, the Lakers lost very few man-games to injury in '05-'06. Kwame missed a handful at the beginning, Chris Mihm missed a bunch at the end. L.O. played 80 games, and Kobe would have played in all 82 had he not gone all WWE on Mike Miller. Bynum was out a few, and the Lakers lost out on a season of Aaron McKie (though we'll all remember where we were when he scored each of his seven points). That's basically it. Meaning L.A. was, relatively speaking, blissfully unaffected by the injury problems that can infect NBA teams the way computer viruses knock out Windows. I've said since the end of the year that scenario was unlikely to repeat itself.
Sometimes it sucks to be right. Not sure if you've noticed, but this year? Not starting so healthy. Kobe says he'll be ready for Tuesday, but missing the preseason makes him far more likely to break down once the real games start. It could be the knee, some other body part Kobe hurts while favoring it, or something that comes up from missing the chance to work himself into genuine game shape and get up to game speed in a more measured fashion.
Then there's the, um, let's call them "issues" in the frontcourt. Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm will both miss substantial time at the beginning of the year (just a hunch, but I think Mihm's injury will end up keeping him out a while). Bynum has played well in the preseason, but seriously, if you're excited about the prospect of entering the season with a combination of Bynum and Ronny Turiaf at the five, well, you are one rosy glasses wearin' fella. Toss in the bad hand that has slowed Vlad Rad's introduction to the triangle and seems destined to bug him all season (if foam pads on shooting hands were a good thing, everyone would wear them) and the funky abdomen of Williams, and the practice facility in El Segundo has been more hospital than hoops lab. The Lakers are more of a bruised purple than the regal shade we're used to. At least P.J. is looking spry these days.
The Lakers finished last season on an uptick and certainly didn't get worse over the offseason, adding Radmanovic and Evans, who I think will have a bigger impact, in terms of veteran imports, along with Williams and Farmar. A year of familiarity will help guys like Odom and Brown, and Walton's not the same guy he was a year ago, either. So last year's win total certainly seems, on its face, meetable and possibly beatable. But the general improvement of the Western Conference would have made it hard for the Lakers to get too far above that win total even before the injuries. There aren't nearly as many gimmies, and it should cut into everyone's win totals.
Six weeks ago, when Kobe and Mihm were expected to be back, while Kwame and Radmanovic were healthy, I figured the purple and gold were good for 47-49 wins. I think the damaged frontcourt could cost the Lakers a couple games early, so even if guys come back healthy, reaching that number will be tough and cracking 50 is a long shot. Obviously, if things don't get better on the injury front, things could get ugly, even to the point of missing the playoffs. The Lakers dodged a bullet last year. Can they do it again?
But back to optimistic thoughts. Should the team — and most importantly Kobe, then the frontcourt — heal up and play, the Lakers have a good chance to be playing some serious ball come postseason time. Why? A quick rundown of team strengths:
• Kobe. If you need me to explain this to you, you're on the wrong blog.
• Increased depth. The Lakers rotation ought to go a player or two deeper than last year, which will, if the plans go right, create a better second unit more capable of taking some of the load off Kobe's back. (There were times last season Bryant seemed to carry more dudes than K.G. in that Adidas commercial.)
• Increased versatility. L.O. is a Swiss Army knife. Walton can play multiple positions. Vlad Rad can fill in at a couple spots, as can (at least theoretically) Brown and Mihm. Smush and Sasha can and would likely succeed at the two if Farmar or Williams man the point and Kobe slides to the three. Basically, Jackson will have ample opportunity to force matchups or at least throw a wrench in the works of any playoff opponent. It never hurts to have a few extra cards to pull from the deck.
• Mo Evans. Outside Kobe, the Lakers didn't have a backcourt defender capable of consistently solid all-around perimeter defense (as opposed to Smush's tendency to overplay passing lanes or his man and get burned, or Sasha's tenacious defense often accompanied by fouls committed 35 feet from the hoop). Now they do. It'll come in handy.
Weaknesses? How about a rotation with some positionally challenged defenders in Walton, Radmanovic, Cook, and Parker/Vujacic. A frontcourt that will be seriously up against it while Mihm and Brown are out. Yeah, I know Bynum has looked good in the last couple games, but is he ready to be a plus player on either end once the real games begin? I doubt it. Maybe better than hoped, maybe pretty good for a (barely) 19-year-old, but not enough to adequately wallpaper over the post for a couple weeks. Same for Turiaf. Better than you'd have thought a year ago, but still not what they'll need, especially if Kobe isn't up to full speed. Hopefully the soft early season schedule will dampen the blow. Then there's the point guard spot. Farmar's not quite ready, Parker and Vujacic aren't quite good enough, and Williams hasn't been healthy. Fortunately, the triangle doesn't demand nearly as much from the spot as your average offense.
If everyone gets and stays healthy, Bynum and Vujacic improve considerably, Turiaf blooms, Radmanovic shoots, and Kwame thrives, a run to or just under 50 wins will be tough, but not impossible. That's a lot of ifs, and it's a best case scenario. More likely they'll be a better team, but finish closer to the 45 wins they had last year. And obviously, if a serious injury befalls Kobe or L.O., or the frontline can't get healthy, all bets are off.
As for playoff seeding, I don't think they have a realistic chance of cracking the top four in the West, but that fifth spot is golden because it'll likely mean a date with whoever wins the Northwest Division, probably either Utah or Denver. If the Lakers can get that slot, the second round is a real possibility. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll reach it (curse you, Clippers!). Sixth or seventh is more likely. And if that happens, I don't think the Lakers will beat any of the likely big three in San Antonio, Phoenix or Dallas. In theory, they'll have overcome any early season struggles and will be strong come playoff time. Similar to last season, I anticipate them being a tough team other squads would just as soon avoid in the postseason, but one that will get beaten in round one.
A better team? Yes. A better result?
Not this year. Sorry. 46-36, squeaking out the six spot before a first-round exit.