For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the potentially devastating Los Angeles Lakers.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The Los Angeles Lakers' current rotation has a chance to possibly sweep the entire 2013 postseason. I realize that this is ridiculous as an expectation, and potential trolling in replacement of analysis, but given a game-to-game outcome (and not the, "it's hard to beat a good or great team four games in a row"-fallback) that coin could land Los Angeles' way 16 times over a seven-week span.
Of course, the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers also have a chance to disappoint greatly from now until spring, to cost coach Mike Brown a job, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol another nick in terms of reputation, and Steve Nash possibly his best chance to win a ring while working as a significant contributor.
To put those respective fortunes in one person's hands is an exercise in foolishness. It's true that Kobe is going to have to learn to step back in a career that has seen him grow more and more stubborn each year he's played, with significantly diminishing personal and team-wide returns over the last two seasons. It's true that Gasol is going to have to quickly re-adapt to yet another front-court partner, and Nash is going to have to work within the confines of a modified Princeton-type system that will take the ball out of his hands far more than he was used to as a member of the Phoenix Suns. And it's important that Dwight Howard not sulk his way into a poor showing the first time Kobe gives him that look. The bench? A lot to prove, as Antawn Jamison attempts to hold on and Jodie Meeks has to immediately contribute from 25 feet away after sitting for 25 minutes of real time.
It's also important that Mike Brown stand up to each of them and hold this crew accountable for what truly are a series of mitigating factors. That said, Brown wouldn't stand up to LeBron James when James was at his most evasive as a pro; you think he's going to go eye to eye with Kobe?
Failing these potential failures is the possible springtime realization that our record projection could be terrifyingly low. And that the Los Angeles Lakers are about to embark on a run for the ages.
If this Princeton attempt has any legs — and during the Lakers' winless postseason it most certainly did not — it has the chance to turn the Lakers into something greater than the sum of their already-fearful parts. This is a star's league, both in the tilt and turnstile turnout, and a ridiculously effective and efficient possessions user will always have his team at least competing for wins in spite of a lesser supporting cast.
Teams that play with a shadow that moves beyond "Player A Production + Player B Production + Player C Production = How We'll End Up?" Those groups are rare. They're often coached by Phil Jackson, or Gregg Popovich; and as great as last season's Miami Heat were for the postseason's final few weeks and as good as coach Erik Spoelstra has become, they still relied on the equation listed above, as opposed to something you didn't see coming. If the Lakers can create an offense you don't see coming, as executed by Nash, Gasol, Howard and Bryant? Then the Miami Heat have no chance. None.
We've said that before about these Lakers, both during Jackson's last year and Brown's first campaign. Save for Gasol's attempts to reinstitute some parts of the triple post, when the Lakers deigned pass him the ball in places he could expertly work from, Kobe's team devolved into an obvious squad last season on offense, and a fading one defensively — falling from sixth during Jackson's frustrating last season to 13th in defensive efficiency under the supposedly "defensive-minded" Brown. Those failings were made even worse with the addition of Nash and Antawn Jamison as the squad's best bench helper, with all hopes and more riding on the earth-changing Dwight Howard to basically cover everyone's tracks with his defense and rebounding.
Astonishingly, he's fit for that challenge. The Lakers will field one of the slowest perimeter defensive groups we've seen in years — even Metta World Peace, though he's in fantastic shape, has a hard time staying in front of typical small forward scorers — and the bench gets even worse in that regard. And yet Dwight, if he can play 70 or so games at his typical effectiveness (and 80 or so overall) should vault this team back into the top 10 at the absolute worst. A remarkable achievement, considering what's around him.
What's around the Lakers this year is pressure, no matter how much Brown and Bryant attempt to play cool and shrug it off. Both in terms of payroll, potential, and the possibility for record-breaking runs the Lakers would be doing the game of basketball a disservice by failing to at the very least make the Finals in June. And it's from there, as they assess Kobe's knees and whatever Nash has left in his seemingly unending tank, that the Lakers go.
Baby steps for now. And by "now," we mean "mid-November, at latest."
Projected record: 62-20
Fear Itself with Dan Devine: Hurricane-Hastened Bullet-Point Edition
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
Because the world as Brooklyn knows it might be ending, he will try to do so more quickly.
What Makes You Scary: The most talented starting five in the NBA. It was either this or the Chris Duhon-Robert Sacre pick-and-roll, and this seemed like a better choice, because:
-- Remember those 1,800-plus point guard minutes that went to Derek Fisher and Ramon Sessions last regular season? Those now go to Steve Nash -- you know, the guy who averaged 12.2 assists per 36 minutes last year, the guy who shot 39 percent from 3-point range and 89.4 percent from the line in a "down" year, the guy who dragged a Phoenix Suns team relying heavily on Jared Dudley and Channing Frye to the eighth-best offense in the league last year. Pretty good upgrade.
(Also, remember how in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals, which the Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder by a measly two points, Sessions and Steve Blake combined to score seven points on 2-for-8 shooting, turning the ball over four times without a single assist in more than 51 total minutes of floor time? Well, let's just say it's unlikely that kind of PG performance happens with the Canadian around this postseason.)
-- When the Lakers ran pick-and-roll plays last season, their roll men only scored 0.85 points per possession (PPP) used, 27th among 30 NBA teams, according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-charting data. Newly imported center Dwight Howard's marks as the roll man over his final three years in Orlando: 1.49 PPP in '09-10, best in the NBA; 1.43 PPP in '10-11, best in the NBA; 1.36 PPP in '11-12, second best in the NBA. It's not like Andrew Bynum was a slouch in such situations -- he finished 47th, 18th and 27th, respectively -- but still: pretty good upgrade. (Especially considering Dwight's going to be paired with one of the best pick-and-roll orchestrators in league history.)
-- Picking up on that last point: Bynum has developed into an excellent player on both sides of the floor, a dominant low-post scorer who clears the glass, blocks shots and controls the paint. Still, Howard is a clear upgrade in virtually every area.
Even during a season in which Dwight often seemed to give less-than-his-best effort, he averaged more points per 36 minutes than Bynum (who, to be fair, created more points per possession, per Synergy), posted a higher field-goal percentage than Bynum and grabbed a higher share of available offensive rebounds than Bynum, all of which should help the Lakers improve upon last year's No. 10-ranked offense. He also stole the ball or blocked a shot on a higher percentage of opponents' possessions than Bynum, held opponents to fewer points per possession than Bynum, and is a more athletic and capable defender in space than Bynum is, all of which should help the Lakers improve upon last year's No. 13-ranked defense.
It's hard to upgrade at a position where you've got arguably the second-best player in the league; the Lakers did it by getting inarguably the best player at the position.
-- At times last season, and especially last postseason, Pau Gasol seemed tentative and uncomfortable in space, forced into a role as a high-post, pick-and-pop big man that didn't suit him particularly well, thanks in large part to pairing in the screen game with point guards ineffective at getting him the ball quickly in positions in which he could immediately go up with a shot or attack the basket. While the front-court pairing with Howard could present some of the same half-court spacing issues that at times reared their head last season, it seems much more likely that Nash's pick-and-roll instincts and quick delivery will help Gasol resume the brand of efficient, effective scoring that characterized his first four seasons in L.A.
-- Remember how the second halves, and specifically the fourth quarters, of those Oklahoma City playoff games tended to repeatedly feature Kobe handling the ball, some token ball movement and eventually Kobe taking a contested shot, which sometimes went in but often did not? All this offensive activation and the options it creates should mean that doesn't have to happen, because there should be opportunities just about anywhere they look in the half-court. (Should.)
Add it all up, and especially in the aftermath of the James Harden trade, the Lakers look like the scariest team in the West, bar none.
What Should Make You Scared: The prospect of the bench not being able to do enough to give the starters some breathing room, and the chance that Kobe disregards that last bullet. In theory, the second-unit math seems to go like this:
-- Steve Blake and Chris Duhon bring the ball up the floor and run the offense;
-- Antawn Jamison is your primary scoring option at the four, with ex-76ers shooting guard Jodie Meeks spacing the floor from beyond the arc;
-- Devin Ebanks defends scoring wings and gets out in transition;
-- Jordan Hill and rookie Robert Sacre body up opposing bigs and crash the glass.
And that all sounds great, except for the part where you're relying on the likes of Blake (a backup point guard who has ended a higher share of possessions with turnovers than assists over the past two seasons), Duhon (ditto, to an even more egregious degree), Meeks (who absolutely fell off a cliff after the All-Star break last season) and Sacre (who's looked like a second-round find in preseason, but remains a rookie big, with all the caveats about defensive acumen that come with it). There's a chance that this unit can perform effectively enough to give the old legs on that starting five enough rest to be fresh come the postseason, but I think we're going to have to see it consistently before we believe it. Especially, y'know, after giving up a 35-0 run to the mighty Golden State Warriors a couple of weeks back.
Also: As pleasant as it is to think that Kobe is going to look around, see the All-World talent that surrounds him and simply just start ceding shots, it's not like we can ignore that he's taken either the most or second-most field-goal attempts in the league in each of the past seven seasons. He's one of the sharpest basketball minds the game has ever seen and he knows what his teammates are capable of in this offense, but shooters shoot, and Kobe's instinctive tendency to call his own number, even when it might not be in his team's best interest, could prove dangerous should the Lakers again find themselves in tight situations late in a postseason matchup.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Lakers, despite their 0-8 preseason, are going to be really, really good this year. There is simply too much talent in their starting lineup for them not to qualify as one of the NBA's few teams with legitimate title aspirations, and there will be times this season where they go on the kind of dominant in-game runs that make Twitter users speak in tongues.
Yet, as we learned with the Miami Heat in 2010-11, talent must be attended by comfort and sense of purpose for a really good team to become a title winner. The Lakers, for all they might be, really don't know what they are yet.
On a very basic level, they're still Kobe Bryant's team, if only because he's the most popular Los Angeles athlete since Magic Johnson and the obvious face of the franchise. On the other hand, Kobe has gotten steadily less efficient and capable of breaking down defenses on his own as he's gotten older, all while seeming his usual stubborn self when it comes to playing a more restrained form of basketball. At first glance, though, the current roster is better suited to being organized around the pick-and-roll dominance of Steve Nash, Howard, and Gasol, all of whom rate among the best at the play in the league. To complicate things even more, head coach Mike Brown seems intent on running the Princeton offense, which seems ill-suited to his personnel.
The Lakers have time to figure out all these plans, because their margin of error can withstand 82 uneven regular-season games. But to win the championship that their fans expect, they'll need to form their identity sooner rather than later. How many shots does Kobe need? Can Pau and Howard play together for the majority of games against small-ball lineups? Will Nash be a glorified fourth option or the engine of the offense? Is the bench good enough to contribute in key postseason scenarios?
We can't answer these questions right now, and predicting the Lakers season is basically a bunch of guesswork until we have a sense of what they are. But that uncertainty also makes them fascinating, likely the best storyline in the NBA this season. I, for one, can't wait for the discovery.