EL SEGUNDO, CA - DECEMBER 11: Metta World Peace #15 receives instructions while being interviewed during Los Angeles Lakers Media Day at Toyota Sports Center on December 11, 2011 in El Segundo, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
As time continues to saunter on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Los Angeles Lakers are likely to start the truncated 2012 season with a roster that looks a lot like the one they have right now. There is plenty to like about said roster. Kobe Bryant remains one of the league's best players. Pau Gasol remains the most skilled of big men. And Andrew Bynum remains the league's top combination of the words youth and size outside of Dwight Howard. Trouble is, it's easy to forget about what's good about this year's Lakers roster in comparisons to other teams, teams like the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the OKC Thunder, even the LA Clippers.
Then there's the other team that makes it tough to remember that the Lakers still have a ton of talent. That would be the 2010-2011 Los Angeles Lakers. That team looked amazing, only to disappoint in the regular season and flat out embarrass (in a variety of ways) in the playoffs. This team is worse than that team. Josh McRoberts is a young kid with a decent stroke and plenty of athleticism, but he's a definite downgrade when stacked up against Lamar Odom. Shannon Brown won't be missed by too many around these parts, but Jason Kapono failed to get much run on a bad team last season, so it would be surprising to see him become an upgraded backup to Mr. Bryant. Even the coaching is, on paper, a downgrade. They went from the best coach in professional basketball history to a guy who couldn't lead two 60 win teams to the NBA Finals. The rest of the team is virtually unchanged, except that they are all a year older on a team in which very few people will benefit from that additional year.
Coming off of a disappointing year, the Lakers have had a (heretofore) disappointing off-season. The Lakers are now weaker than the team that ended up as nothing more than 2nd round fodder last season. How can we maintain any hope of the type of success and glory to which Lakers Nation is undoubtedly accustomed?
Simple. They can play better.
If paper were where things were decided, the Lakers might well be reigning champions of the league again this year. If not them, the Larry O'Brien trophy would probably be residing in Miami right now, or maybe Chicago. Instead, Dallas, a team that knew a thing or two about underachievement in the playoffs, finally got their glory run. When it comes to building a good team, to say nothing of a champion, paper matters. Ability matters. But performance also matters. Luck matters.
This year, the Lakers ability is weakened. Their margin for error, which has been HUGE over the past few seasons, is gone. A serious injury to any of their big three would be a virtual death knell. A lapse in effort like what was seen last year (and, if we're honest, the past few years, championships be damned) will ruin the Lakers playoff position and contender status. In previous years, the Lakers could deal with a season ending injury to Andrew Bynum, could handle losing 5 out of 10 games to scrubs in mid-March. That ability to cope, with injuries, with fatigue, with indifference, has always been the Lakers' ace in the hole. That ace is gone.
Along with it, something else is gone ... the Lakers' belief in their own invulnerability. Their entitlement. Their title as Defending Champion. The weight of outside expectations. To an extent, the target on their backs. Whatever was left of their overconfidence in the wake of last season's flame-out was shipped out when Lamar Odom was traded and the entire team, sans Kobe, was mercilessly shopped. Whatever apathy survived being swept out of the 2nd round of the playoffs has been destroyed by the casual dismissal of the team as a force in the league. Whatever loss of appetite caused the increasingly lethargic play of the past few seasons has been cured by the simple fact that they lost the last game that they played in.
The Lakers are weakened, lacking depth, and aging.
The Lakers are hungry, motivated, and forgotten.
Or at least, they should be. They better be, because it's the only hope we have.