Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Everything is in place for the Los Angeles Lakers to turn into a miserable failure in 2011-12. Everything.
Kobe Bryant's legs are shot. He was playing through terrible knee injuries last season, and didn't exactly take it easy during the extended offseason. His wrist injury, because it appears he'll play through it this season without any rest, should likely bother him the entire campaign. World Metta Peace is completely out of shape, and because these shortened seasons leave such little time for practice and/or personal workouts, he's likely to stay that way all year. Steve Blake and Derek Fisher will likely "stay that way" all year, if you catch my drift.
Andrew Bynum? He'll miss the first four games of the season, he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder and I'm not entirely convinced that's a good thing, because the guy has been dealing with trade rumors since he entered the NBA nearly seven (!) years ago. Nothing short of ripping out the still-beating heart of the first seven opposing power forwards he faces will convince ticked-off Laker fans that Pau Gasol is tough enough for their tastes, the group has no depth, Lamar Odom is gone for a trade exception that won't even be able to fit Hedo Turkoglu (in any deal for Dwight Howard) under, and Mike Brown is in place of Phil Jackson.
Mike Brown, you'll recall, is the anti-Phil Jackson. The last guy you want coaching a group of stars, if Cleveland is any indication. How does he react in Los Angeles? By acting over the top-tough with Kobe and the other eight-figure earners? Or by acting the pushover again?
This could, and possibly should, all die a miserable death that made last spring's unprofessional sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks seem like the halcyon days.
Or, they could finally get it right.
"Get it right," you ask? Wasn't this the team that made it to three straight Finals, winning two? Wasn't Kobe around for three rings and four Finals appearances before that? Isn't this the group with the best center/power forward tandems in the game, working alongside an absolute NBA giant in Kobe?
Well, sure. "Get it right."
Share the ball. Work with those bigs. Encourage Gasol, instead of setting him up for endless baseline jumpers that he's not comfortable with. Stop pretending that Kobe can do it all defensively. Stop pretending that Fisher can do anything defensively. Work on Bynum's attitude while you feed someone who often looks like the smoothest offensive center in the game repeatedly. Let Gasol create in spots that Kobe was unable or unwilling to last year. Listen to your coach. Spite Phil Jackson, even if he did nothing wrong last season.
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And at the risk of sounding like Jackson? Roll into late April with some karma on your side. Sportswriters might call it "momentum." I'd say it's something that falls in the middle of muscle memory and well-honed good habits. It might take a while, it will take a while, but this is a team that should have championship aspirations.
This is a championship-level team, and you don't have to be a Laker fan to drool over the prospects. A combination of Bynum and Gasol's potential brilliance, mixed with Kobe Bryant's smartest and Mike Brown's more-than-formidable basketball IQ? If the team stops acting as martyrs, stops moping and starts playing to its potential? They're going to whip up on the league.
Even with that awful bench. Even with those holes. Even with Kobe's knees, and Metta Peace's rear end. The Lakers have enough.
They just have to figure it out on their own. No sure thing, but certainly something we're eager to watch them attempt.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Los Angeles Lakers
I'm so excited for you!
I'm sorry to go chalk and I'm sorry if it's sappy, but mostly, I'm excited to see Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol play basketball together again. I spent a lot of years not enjoying Kobe for the same reasons a lot of other people probably don't enjoy Kobe, and I spent a lot of years not enjoying Pau because I didn't get a whole lot of Memphis Grizzlies games. Now that I feel a bit more comfortable separating The Real World from what happens on the court and that Pau's on a team that will play 29 of its 66 games for national audiences on ABC, ESPN, TNT or NBA TV this season, I am going to try to watch more actively, with softer eyes, and take more in.
I'm going to try to remember the look on Kobe's face when he hits one of those God Mode shots over three outstretched arms from 26 feet out, and to laugh at how angry he looks after he does it. To appreciate Pau taking the right first touch, making the right second step, keeping the ball high and making it look that easy. To watch two guys whose skills fit one another play together and appreciate what they can do when they've both got it going. Because it almost ended, if not for a pocket veto and some league-office strong-arming, and even though I've been watching, I feel like I kind of missed out. We should stop and smell the roses more often.
I'm so worried for you! + I don't know what to make of you!
Los Angeles teams of recent vintage have all been fairly top-heavy -- the late-model Lake Show was built around Bryant's genius at the two and the three-headed Gasol/Bynum/Odom monster playing volleyball in the frontcourt, with any remaining blanks were filled in by mid-level exception veterans, inexpensive rookies and varying flotsam that were ultimately of little consequence. The model worked because talent just about always wins out when it's transcendent enough, and over the last several years, few stars shone brighter that the ones in forum blue and gold.
Now, though, with Odom shipped out for a trade exception and suiting up for the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant working his way through a torn ligament in his right wrist and Bynum slated to miss the season's first four games as his penance for waylaying J.J. Barea in the waning stages of L.A.'s Game 4 meltdown against Dallas, Lakers fans are left to look at their squad's depth chart in search of solace and reinforcements.
They won't find much of either. Take a look: This is a thin, flawed roster.
With Bynum out, Gasol will slide to center for the first five games. That puts recent signee Josh McRoberts in the starting lineup as the Lakers' starting power forward, and even more recent signee Troy Murphy -- who went from Underappreciated Double-Double Four to Floppy-Haired Vestigial Organ in record time last season -- in the mix backing up. This sounds worse than it is -- McRoberts is young and athletic, he can pass, and he was a pretty productive per-minute player for the Indiana Pacers, and Murphy can be money if he shakes off that wasted year -- but this kind of turns the Dynamic Duo that the Lakers normally feature at the four-five into something more of a Dynamic 1.41 or something, right? Then, when Bynum's back, the Lakers will need McRoberts and Murphy to give them a reasonable approximation of what Odom did. I'm not sure they can.
Matt Barnes will start at the three, which sounds fine... except he was basically a production wash at the position last year and he hasn't hit at above the league-average rate on 3-pointers in five years. Metta World Peace will back up Barnes (and probably McRoberts/Murphy, too) in a role-reversal from last year's script, which sounds fine... except he was a net negative at both forward spots last year, he hasn't shot the ball well in three years, he's posted well-below-league-average Player Efficiency Ratings in two straight seasons and he showed up to camp out of shape.
For all Derek Fisher's savvy, institutional memory and 3-point accuracy, he's a 37-year-old defensive liability who missed about 63 percent of the shots he took inside the arc last year. A lot is riding on Steve Blake's hands steadying after the triangle turned him into a basket case; I'll believe they will when I see it. Young guys like Derrick Caracter (when he returns from injury) and Devin Ebanks (so hard not to type "Devine Banks") will be asked to contribute more than garbage-time minutes; I'll believe they will when I see it.
And all this roster uncertainty comes with the Lakers are still scrambling to get acclimated to a new coach's defensive principles and offensive system -- such as it is one, of course. (At The New York Times' Off the Dribble blog, Friend of BDL Rob Mahoney notes the sad irony that L.A.'s current roster would probably work pretty well in the triangle.)
All that said, it could still be fine. Bynum could come back from suspension looking like the kind of monster who represents as fair a value as you can get for Dwight Howard, Gasol could produce his typical brilliance and Kobe's wrist could be nothing to worry about. (Or it could be something any normal person would worry about, but not really matter, because he just decides to start draining off-balance lefty 3's.) It could all totally pan out, because they're that good.
But for the first time in a while, no matter how good they are, it might not. That feels weird, kind of jarring and, if you're a Lakers fan, probably pretty confusing and worrisome.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS: The Smashing Pumpkins, "Machina/The Machines of God"
In 2000, the Smashing Pumpkins released "Machina/The Machines of God," a supposed return to form after the terrible electronica of 1998's "Adore." The album didn't end up nearly as successful (both commercially and artistically) as intended, though, and the band broke up amid widespread dissension between the members. Their uneasy pace was broken. They played a four-hour farewell show in Chicago to close things out, but they left it without even saying goodbye to each other.
Most bands break up at the end of long journey from happiness to success to resentment. The Smashing Pumpkins stand out as a band that never really got along in the first place. Even at their best, like on their debut "Gish" and the landmark "Siamese Dream," the recording process was a mess, with leader Billy Corgan playing every non-drum track and alienating bandmates D'arcy Wretzky and James Iha in the process. "Machina" was simply the moment at which a lack of acclaim brought that discord to the forefront. If it'd been a better album, maybe things would have turned out differently.
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The Lakers' performance in the 2011 postseason was their "Adore," an embarrassing mess in which everything they previously did well seemed like a distant memory. With an aging roster, several key players from last year missing, and a new coach, this year could be LA's "Machina," an uninspiring attempt to reclaim past success when they're simply not up to the challenge.
It could also be the point at which the uneasy peace they've worked under for the last few seasons. Kobe Bryant, despite his greatness, has never been an easy person to get along with, even for great players like Pau Gasol. When they've gotten along, it's been because the team won. With a title looking like a tall order, this roster might be on the verge of falling apart.
The good news is that then Mitch Kupchak can trade for Dwight Howard and form a new supergroup. Because we all remember how well Zwan worked out.