LOS ANGELES, CA - FILE: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers holds up the Larry O'Brien trophy and the MVP trophy after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. According to reports on December 16, 2011, Vanessa Bryant has filed for divorce from her husband of over 10 years, Kobe Bryant. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
In one week, our long national nightmare will be over. Basketball, glorious, wonderful professional NBA basketball, will be back. Ridiculous dunks will be back. Dagger threes will be back. The most gifted, skilled athletes in the world will be back. The Los Angeles Lakers will be back.
But they won't be the same.
Truth be told, the craziness of the past 10 days made it seem like the Lakers would be truly unrecognizable when the season tips off. The Chris Paul thing happened. The Dwight Howard thing seemed likely to happen. In the end, nothing happened, except the Lamar Odom thing, something which looks pretty bad in the absence of some other Thing to go with it. So the players, the contributors don't look all that different. In fact, they don't look as different as we might have hoped. I say that not because I was in favor of massive roster upheaval, or taking the franchise in a completely different direction. Instead, the reason why the roster should have looked more different than it does is because the Lakers were exposed to have certain weaknesses in failing to achieve their goals last season. They were exposed as being old and slow. They were exposed as being not very good at outside shooting. They were exposed as being un-athletic.
They have responded to some of those weaknesses, filled some of those gaps. Jason Kapono has been brought on to provide outside sharp shooting. So, too, has Troy Murphy, a year removed from being quite a decent player, but a few months removed from being quite a terrible one. Josh McRoberts has been brought in to provide some youth and athleticism. They aren't flashy names, but the Lakers were never in need of more flashy names. They were in need of role players, and all of these guys fit the bill. I would have been thrilled with these acquisitions a year ago. But this is not a year ago. This is a new year, with a new coach, a new offensive and defensive system. Lamar Odom is gone, and while McRoberts is a decent enough player, he cannot provide the team with everything that Lamar could. And yet that is not of the greatest concern.
The greatest concern is which player on this team is going to create shots. Not take shots. The Lakers have plenty of shot-takers. But they only have one shot creator.
That one is no slouch. Even at the relatively advanced age of 33, he remains one of the league's best players. But that relatively advanced age provides some weaknesses. He isn't quite as able to free himself from his man as he once was, not quite as quick as the Kobe of old. And he doesn't play as much as he used to. He can play a ton of minutes, but we shouldn't want him to. But you can't help but wonder who, if not Kobe, is going to create shots for the team? Derek Fisher? I don't know that Derek has ever been a play-making point guard. He was, at times, serviceable as the lead guard in the Triangle offense, but the Triangle is gone now. Steve Blake? We can only hope that the transition to a more prototypical offense will suit Blake and allow him to provide something close to what was expected of him when he signed. I loved Blake's signing a year ago, but it ended up a failure on many levels. After them, there is no-one else, unless you legitimately believe that a 2nd round draft pick rookie (Darius Morris) can make a difference.
The lack of a second perimeter playmaker is, in my opinion, this team's greatest weakness, and the one they tried so very hard to address, by bringing in the world's best playmaker. We don't need to relive any further what happened with that situation, but strategically, the Lakers went all-in on bringing in a player who could allow them to re-structure their roster on the fly, and in the end, the move failed. It left the Lakers plans in shambles, but the roster itself is still appealing. They still have Kobe Bryant. They still have Pau Gasol, who is the most skilled big man in the game. They still have Andrew Bynum, a young man with all the potential in the world.
And they have a new coach. Most people look at Mike Brown and wonder how he can possibly do any better with an aging and entitled roster than Phil Jackson, The Best Coach Ever, could. Those people may very well be right. But the annals of time will tell you that fresh blood at the head of a team is usually a good thing. Mike Brown is a different kind of coach than Phil Jackson, and maybe, just maybe, a different message will have a better chance of getting these players to listen to it.
He's got a tough task though. Not because the players are unlikely to follow his lead, or listen to his direction, but because this is a team that did not measure up last season. By all accounts, the team that will take the Staples Center floor a week from today is not as good as the one that left the American Airlines Center in shame 7 months ago. But the team has the same expectations, the same idea that only a title at the end of the season will make this season successful. This is not a team that will take pride in a strong playoff showing. There are too many veterans, too many champions, too many players who remember what it was like to be the best in the world.
The roster has changed some. What the team will look like has changed quite a bit. But the goal, and the stakes, haven't changed at all. Championship or Bust.