Will the 2010-2011 squad be the best Laker team under Jerry Buss?
Lakers owner Jerry Buss wasn't shy about setting the bar for the 2010-2011 season. "As of now, I feel there's a good chance this could be the best team we've ever had," he told reporters Tuesday. Fitting he made those comments at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, where he was hosting a charity poker tournament for the Lakers' youth foundation, because that just raises the stakes for the Lakers even more.
There are reasons why Buss feels so optimistic only days since being inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The Lakers are back-to-back champions. They have their main corps in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest locked into long-term contracts. Despite concerns over limiting spending this off-season because of luxury tax implications, Buss and the Lakers decided to spend anyway, re-signing Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, and upgraded their roster by snagging free agents Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff and two second-round picks -- Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter -- who some consider a steal. Add the fact that many of the injured players last season (Bryant, Bynum and Gasol) are abstaining from basketball this summer and there's plenty of reason why Buss should feel optimistic.
Still, Buss' proclamation is bold, considering the impressive teams that helped him win 10 championships since purchasing the team in 1979 and because Eastern Conference teams in Miami, Chicago, Boston and Orlando all seem to be gunning for the Lakers. In order for the 2010-2011 team to be considered the best under Buss' watch, at least statistically, the Lakers would obviously need to win a title, go undefeated in the postseason to eclipse the 15-1 mark the 2001 team set, and surpass the 65-17 regular season record the 1987 and 2009 Laker championship teams compiled.
Of course, numbers don't mean everything. For example, some Laker fans would value an NBA title over the Celtics (1985, 1987, 2010) more than, say, a championship against the Philadelphia 76ers (2001) or New Jersey Nets (2002). In order for the Lakers to boost their profile as the greatest in the Buss era, would they need to beat Miami to prove the Super team isn't all that super? Or would the Lakers have to win against Boston so the two franchises would be tied for total championships (17) and so Kobe Bryant can get one of his rings against Shaq?
Then there's the case of how the team on paper meshes in reality. Below the jump are the best and worst-case scenarios
Best-case scenario: In a way, the Lakers' road to a three-peat should be easier than in their quest last year to win a second consecutive title. With the Lakers upgrading their roster, the bench will live up to the Bench Mob name again and enable the starters to rest, making them even sharper for the playoffs. The Lakers' starting lineup will gladly welcome the reduced minutes, but they enter this season even sharper than before. Bryant and Gasol sat out of the 2010 FIBA World Championships, Bryant and Bynum had successful arthroscopic knee surgery, Odom fine-tuned his game with Team USA and Ron Artest now knows what winning a championship tastes like.
As much as I criticized the Lakers last season for their ... here it comes ... sense of urgency, some of it was rooted in the fact that players were hurt and that discontinuity in the rotation hurt the team's chemistry. As much as the Lakers turned it on in the playoffs, they crawled to the finish because their fatigue and injuries made it difficult to fight through. As much as Laker fans may not want to admit it, the Heat's off-season movement in re-signing Dwyane Wade and acquiring LeBron James and Chris Bosh and the Celtics' picking up Shaquille O'Neal may be the best thing that happens to the Lakers. It'll help keep them motivated in proving emphatically that they're still the best team in the league, and it'll give them something to play for during the dog days of the NBA regular season.
Worst-case scenario: The Lakers may not be as healthy as they'd hope to be. Bynum is expected to be limited during training camp, which starts Sept. 25, but is expected to be 100% once the regular season goes. But we all know how initial assessments regarding Bynum usually turn out to be wrong. It wouldn't be surprising to many if Bynum experiences setbacks with his knee (or has another injury, for that matter), making him less effective than he could be. That'll immediately put a strain on Gasol, Odom and Ratliff with increased minutes and increased responsibilities. As a result, Ebanks and Caracter may get some run to ease Gasol's and Odom's minutes, but they'll remain a work in progress.
Even though Bryant took it easy this past summer and had successful surgery on his knee, what about his index finger? It's not known whether he's having surgery, but Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak correctly remarked last month that "as the summer goes on, it’s less and less a possibility as you get closer and closer to training camp." That means if arthritis in his finger still exists, Bryant's shooting problems may persist, causing his shooting percentage to drop and forcing him to be more selective with his drives to the basket.
And then there are the new additions. Even if the Lakers have a more talented bench than last season, it's inevitably going to take time before the newcomers fully adjust. There are some potential problems that could happen. With Blake commanding most of the bench minutes at point guard, how will Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic respond? Will they feel less involved and inclined to either force the issue or just remain disengaged?
What about Matt Barnes? He's already slapped an opposing team's summer coach. Even if he has the checks and balances with Jackson, Bryant and Fisher, there might be instances where Barnes' emotion gets him a costly foul or technical that costs the Lakers a game or a playoff series.
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Photo: Lakers owner Jerry Buss talks on his cellphone following a press conference at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens on Tuesday. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.