Assessing whether the Lakers will win the 2012 NBA championship
Through every drama-filled and roller-coaster season, the only thing that matters is the ending.
Sluggish performances, numerous off-field distractions and never-ending doubts on whether a happy ending awaits only make the Lakers' season more tantalizing and exciting. But Laker fans will only embrace that recurring soap opera if confetti drops at Staples Center. The Lakers must douse each other in the locker room with champagne. And city officials must reroute traffic in downtown L.A. to make room for the championship parade.
Will that script play out in the 2011-2012 season? Las Vegas oddsmakers are already casting doubt on that, listing the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City with better odds than the Lakers. But as Jay Kornegay, director of the Las Vegas Hilton Race and Sports book, made clear to me earlier this week, the bookmaker's role entails predicting how the public will bet their money rather than actually assessing whether that prediction will pan out. The public right now still remembers the Lakers' four-game sweep in the Western Conference semifinals as if it happened yesterday.
But as Laker fans can attest, it has already been a long off-season. They've witnessed a coaching change from Phil Jackson to Mike Brown. They've had to watch the rest of the NBA playoffs with no rooting interest (with the exception of hoping the Heat would fail, of course). And they anticipate plenty of time to kill during a lockout that's only two weeks from becoming official. But don't worry. We'll still have plenty to talk about, with today marking one of those many days we debate the Lakers' chances of returning to that championship level. Below the jump I'll assess whether the Lakers will win next season's title (assuming there is one, of course).
Why the Lakers will win: Forget blowing this team up and forget following the advice of Magic Johnson, who tweeted that the Lakers need to call the Orlando Magic and then deleted that message moments later. Yes, the Lakers have personnel issues. Yes, there will be a transition period under the Mike Brown era. And yes, other teams around the league will continue improving. But one can't overstate the significance of what a long off-season will do for this team.
Think the Lakers lacked hunger last season? I doubt complacency will settle in after being humiliated in the playoffs. Think the Lakers' heavy basketball mileage caught up to them? A long off-season will help rest those weary legs. Think that still won't be enough? The Lakers' "core" didn't win two consecutive championships by accident.
Add all those factors up and the Lakers should look different even if their $91-million payroll from last season limits their off-season moves. Kobe Bryant and Matt Barnes will have time to strengthen their right knees. Pau Gasol will use the European championships to prove last year's playoffs were just an aberration. Andrew Bynum will build off last year's impressive campaign in both production and health. Lamar Odom will return to his regular-season consistency. And Derek FIsher, Ron Artest, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown will remain open to adjusting to their game.
Even if Brown's philosophy proves different than Jackson's, it won't take long for them to at least buy into the his defensive concepts, something that largely went into the Lakers' 17-1 start after the All-Star break and then collapsed against Dallas. For all the issues the Lakers will have to iron out on offense (more on that later), the Lakers' rightful approach in focusing on defense will instantly create offense anyway.
Why the Lakers will lose: The Lakers' playoff loss provided a clear sign that changes need to be made. Unfortunately for the Lakers, their team's resources, uncertain CBA and long-term contracts will likely prevent that from happening. It's conceivable the Lakers will appear more motivated and well rested, but that's not going to fundamentally change the reality of the Lakers' roster. Bryant will forever need to monitor his health and mileage. Artest and Fisher no longer have the same abilities they once had. And it's uncertain that the current bench will improve.
Then there's the whole issue of how the Lakers will adapt to Brown's presence.
Brown laid out a few principles on offense in his introductory press conference, including advancing the backcourt to the frontcourt in the first three to four seconds of the shot clock, reversing the ball with paint touches and having the proper spacing. He invoked the Spurs' offense when he was an assistant from 2000 to 2003 that featured the team giving Tim Duncan and David Robinson looks in the post through spacing, reads and ball movement. And Brown added that the Lakers remain Kobe Bryant's "team" and that the offense will ensure he finds shots in his "sweet spots."
But how will this play out on the court? Bynum has already indicated he wants more of an offensive role, while Bryant immediately countered he has to "fall in line." Fisher's role will surely change since the Lakers will only run a "sprinkling" of a triangle. But how will Brown convince Fisher of that change, particularly when he needs him to ensure a good relationship with Bryant. And even if the Lakers buy in right away for the sake of the team, will they feel as unified when adversity hits? Likely, some will immediately second guess whether Brown, who hasn't won a championship as a head coach, will have better answers than the players themselves.
Verdict: Cue the part in "Old School" where Vince Vaughn instructs his son to wear "earmuffs" so he can swear at will. I'll tell the same thing to Laker fans so I'm not pelted with vegetables and popcorn while being booed off the stage.
For the reasons I've already mentioned a few paragraphs above, the Lakers' 2011-2012 season won't end with the confetti falling, the Champagne popping and the parade rolling. It'll end with tangible evidence that the transition period from the Phil Jackson era won't be a joyful thing to watch.
-- Mark Medina
E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Kobe Bryant stands on the scorers' table at Staples Center after the Lakers defeated the Celtics to win the 2010 NBA title. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times