Before the ink was even dry on the Dwight Howard trade paperwork, hoops observers set about finding reasons why the newly reloaded Lakers won't win an NBA title this year. Kobe Bryant is old. Steve Nash is even older. Dwight Howard's back underwent surgery in April (and you know how back injuries are... or you don't, in which case consider yourself fortunate). And making it all work, the man in charge of tending to locker-room chemistry and reconfiguring the offense and defense is... Mike Brown?
Legitimate concerns, all of them. Mitch Kupchak had an A+ offseason, but the team he's constructed will still enter training camp with enough question marks to make Frank Gorshin proud. There are a lot of ways this expensive, awesomely designed machine could break down.
As part of our offseason roundtable series, I asked SS&R's panel of wise men and crack analytical experts what worries them the most about this Lakers team. If the purple and gold fall short of championship this season, what single thing is most likely to be the proximate cause? After the jump read what people had to say, and of course let us know what you think in the comments.
The Great Mambino
As I ran down last week, you really can't consider the Lakers the clear favorites for the Western Conference because quite frankly, there are too many variables before this famed new starting five even hits the hardwood together. This team's potential is vast; not just as a regular season juggernaut, but as a historically unprecedented vehicle for postseason glory. Thus, my prediction for their current standings had nothing to do with what I think their ceiling is. Far from it, in fact.
Out of everything the SS&R crew discussed last week regarding the Lakers' potential deficiencies, the fanbase and critics are largely worried about how this team of former alpha dogs will all play together. The Lakers are facing a season of massive adjustments just in their starting five alone, from Steve Nash playing with the most talent he's ever had on a basketball court (all due respect to Marion, Amar'e and Joe Johnson, but we're talking about Kobe, Gasol and Howard here), to Dwight and Kobe getting fewer touches than they've ever gotten in their careers to Pau's role as a glorified Brad Miller type, facilitating and rebounding in the lane. However, Nash's ability to serve as a floor general and make the right decisions to keep everyone happy, as well as the reinvigorated championship hunger that all five starters have makes me think that these changes in on-court philosophy are miniscule compared to the task at hand.
Injury, not team chemistry or Mike Brown's coaching, is what concerns me the most about the 2012-2013 Lakers. Even scarier is that I'm not sure whether Dwight's back is the bigger issue, or the "34 and Up Club" of Kobe, Nash and potential Sixth Man of the Year Antawn Jamison. Kobe has been a walking MASH unit for years leading up to his miraculous blood-spinning procedure by Dr. Moreau last summer, but at age 34, is always ripe for another swath of maladies. As if Dwight's back weren't enough, many of us are forgetting that before he was reconstructed like a broken Lego pirate ship by the wondrous training staff in Phoenix, Nash's back was the biggest concern that Mark Cuban had when he didn't extend his point guard's contract in the summer of 2005.
A startling undercurrent here is that no one seems to be talking about Pau's spotty injury history the past few seasons. Gasol will be 32 when November rolls around and while he's been mostly healthy, he has been extremely susceptible to hamstring injuries ever since he became a Laker. Just like Kobe and Nash, it's not so much his recent medical chart that gives me pause, it's his birth certificate.
Oddly enough, after seven seasons of worrying year after year if Andrew Bynum's knees would be able to hold up to the stress of a brutal 82-game stretch, we've traded our favorite ambivalent superstar for a team littered with injury questions.
Health has to be the biggest risk factor for the Lakers entering the 2012-13 season. It may seem obvious as any team's season can be torn apart by injuries, but I think that speaks to how amazing a job Mitch Kupchak did this offseason. He erased virtually all other concerns. Worried about a stagnant offense? Trade for Steve Nash to reinvent the playbook and hire Eddie Jordan to add a Princeton flavor. Concerned about getting run off the floor by faster teams? Acquire the proprietor of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns and the most mobile center in the league, and perhaps ever, in Dwight Howard. Burdened by the thought of an aging defense with a slow-footed center protecting the rim? Go get a three-time defensive player of the year who just so happens to be equally capable of scoring on the block as his predecessor Andrew Bynum and even better in nearly every other facet of the game. Afraid the Lakers' rather old starting lineup won't make it to the postseason? Sign Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks and re-sign Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill to give the Lakers their first legit nine-man rotation in some time.
The Lakers can certainly fall short of a championship this year because another team is better than them, specifically the same team that eliminated them last season. But even in that case, I'm not sure the Thunder pose a bigger threat than injuries do. The Lakers enter the season with four injury concerns: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, otherwise known as their four best players. Nash has battled chronic back pain throughout his career and even though he's probably the most well conditioned athlete in the league (his diet is incredible), at the age of 38, that's certainly a concern. Kobe's injury issues are masked by the fact that he manically plays through them, but his knee problems are quietly a very serious concern, and it isn't known how long that German knee treatment will last before Bryant is back to battling Father Time with his knee caps being bone-on-bone. Gasol hasn't had a serious injury of late but hamstring problems have been somewhat chronic during his tenure as a Laker. And Superman is coming off of back surgery, and anybody with back problems will tell you how difficult back pain makes simple everyday tasks, much less keeping Kevin Durant out of the paint in the Western Conference Finals. Of course, Howard is one of the most incredible physical specimens to walk this earth and his condition isn't dire, but that doesn't mean any kind of tweak to that area of his body couldn't debilitate him for a chunk of the season (he's already likely to miss the start of the year).
Los Angeles has clearly put themselves in prime position to capture an NBA title this season and they should be able to do that should their best players be healthy when it matters.
Health and coaching, in that order. Quite simply, there is little hope of the Lakers progressing far in the playoffs without their core functioning at peak capacity, whether in terms of their physical health or their chemistry on the court. Of course, this is a concern we can level at practically every other contender: take, say, Manu Ginobili from San Antonio, Kevin Garnett from Boston, or Dwyane Wade away from Miami and all the aforementioned teams would find themselves in an equally deep hole. Part of the element of luck in sports is this right here, in that we more or less pray for good luck to break our way in this department. Still, it is a relevant issue since we are coming into the season with the principal concern being Dwight Howard's recovery from back surgery, always a worrisome prospect even if his prognosis appears to be entirely positive. Steve Nash, moreover, will have to prove that his back won't immediately disintegrate away from the fabled Phoenix medical staff, and even Kobe Bryant is feeling the effects of Father Time chipping away at his body's ability to keep up with his manic competitive nature.
All this noted, we do have reasons to be somewhat optimistic in this department. Nash and Kobe have taken fantastic care of their bodies despite progressing well into their thirties, and Howard was all but indestructible before he was derailed by his back injury. Courtesy of Mitch Kupchak's buttressing of the bench, the Lakers also have the means to survive early in the year if Howard is not ready to go on opening day, as a primary frontcourt rotation of Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill, and possibly Robert Sacre isn't chopped liver and Nash will still make that bunch an offensive powerhouse. There will be no hurry for Howard to return as a result, but come playoffs, the big four need to be in tip top shape if this team wants to capitalize on the opportunities available to them.
By that time, the Laker coaching staff needs to have successfully molded the team's respective parts into a cohesive whole. Through some hybrid of Princeton elements, the Spurs' twin tower offense, and a straightforward pick-and-roll attack, Mike Brown and co. will have to trot out an offensive attack that balances Nash's playmaking ability, Kobe's scoring talents, Pau's multifaceted game, and Dwight's insane athleticism around the rim. Now, we should remember that we are talking about maximized potential here. If Howard is ready to go on opening night, the Lakers are going to look really good on offense off the bat, as Nash can basically chose a pick-and-roll partner between Kobe, Pau, and Dwight at random every play and good things will happen. This team is that talented and a good chunk of the league will simply get overwhelmed any given night. What we want, however, is solid synergy between all the pillars of the offense: a good distribution of touches, fair tempo, and everyone on the same page. By the end of the season, this team should be an absolute juggernaut on offense and make it look effortless in the process.
It is incumbent on Eddie Jordan, John Kuester, and Brown to make that a reality, though, and figure out how this team best works together. We could say the same thing about the defensive end, but expectations are somewhat safer there given Howard's absurd dominance on that side of the floor and his perfect fit for Brown's aggressive hedge-and-recover system. As Howard has dragged squads filled with infinitely worse defenders to top five efficiency marks year after year, his ability to do so with this Laker team should be relatively unquestioned, as should Brown's ability to design a defensive scheme around him. In all, we should expect less of a ‘10-‘11 Miami adjustment than how the Celtics in ‘07-‘08 clicked around their main core, given that the pieces in L.A. have skillsets that mesh with each other better than those in the former example. As with any big paradigm shift a team undergoes, we need to see it on the floor to make a final judgment call, but the coaching staff should be seriously questioned if they can't create a dominant team out of this group.
The biggest risk factor to me is whether or not the pieces fit. It takes all the right pieces to complete the championship puzzle. The Lakers have pieces, boy do the Lakers have pieces! But are all these pieces part of the same puzzle, or do we instead have multiple pieces to multiple puzzles, with not a single one complete?
Certain combinations seem to work very well. For example, Howard is the perfect partner for Nash. He is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the game and Nash is probably the best at orchestrating this play. Howard is also the best eraser of defensive problems from teammates, which has been Nash's biggest fault. Together these guys could make two plus two equal five.
On the other hand, the duo of Howard and Gasol may not work as well in reality as one would think, given the talent. Gasol has played his best as a center in the post. Howard can't play anywhere but near the basket. Howard is an improved Andrew Bynum, but it wasn't a lack of talent on Bynum's part that resulted in the Lakers being worse in the playoffs when both Bynum and Gasol were together than when only one was in the game. It was a spacing issue that allowed the opposition to pack the paint In this case the sum of two plus two equaled only three. Will the Lakers find themselves with the same issues this season? Sure, Nash can help spread the floor, but Kobe isn't an elite three-point shooter and Metta World Peace has been respectable but not consistent. Kobe too likes to play in the post, a place where there won't be any room for with Howard and Gasol on the floor.
Nash has led past Suns teams to the top of the mountain in offensive efficiency. Now he has the best pick-and-roll partner he has ever played with in Howard along with the best wing player in Bryant. It can make one giddy to think what Nash could do with two other guys who could shoot close to 40% on threes keeping the defense spread to the max. I unfortunately have concerns that Gasol, as talented as he is, will turn that potentially high-powered attack into a struggle in the half court when the paint is packed and there are no driving lanes. Add in a coaching staff that is moving closer to a Princeton-style offense, which involves more team movement and everyone creating opportunities, and there is a chance that the ball will be often taken out of the hands of one of the best playmakers the game has ever seen.
If the Lakers can find a way of making the Gasol and Howard frontline work without spacing issues, then the Lakers would have to be favorites to win the championship. Just put me in the camp of one who is concerned that this may look better on paper than on the court. Just like the Bynum and Gasol duo that didn't make it past the second round when both played meaningful minutes together.
I think the biggest risk factor facing the Lakers in the upcoming season is the pressure to perform. With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in tow, the Lakers have the talent to vault into the upper echelon with Miami and Oklahoma City next year. But, in adding all of their additional pieces, there are still a ton of questions about how, exactly, the Lakers will go about their business. Take the offense, for example. Steve Nash is awesome, but he does the vast majority of his damage in the pick and roll, which is an offensive strategy the Lakers have used less than pretty much any other team over the last five years. In seasons past, the Triangle is what kept the Lakers from using much P&R and last year, it was their isolation- heavy (whether with Kobe on the perimeter or Bynum in the post) offense. Towards the end of the year, Ramon Sessions did use pick-and-roll a bit more, but it's not an offense in which the Lakers are particularly well-versed.
Which brings us to the next question: Is it even the offense the Lakers will want to use? Much has been made in recent weeks of the potential hire of Eddie Jordan as an assistant coach for next season, with Adrian Wojnarowski even going so far as to say that Kobe and the Lakers would be implementing the Princeton offense with Jordan as the guiding force. If true, this would signal a shift towards a more Triangle-like offense than towards a more traditional P&R-type set, in which case the entire team, including Steve Nash, will be out of their comfort zone.
The same type of questions exist on defense, where Dwight Howard changes everything about how the Lakers play D. Howard's mobility and game-changing ability on the defensive end give Mike Brown a new toy to scheme around, but every scheme must be learned and adapted to, all of which takes time. Unlike last season, the Lakers at least have a full training camp to get things down, but Howard's health puts his availability for that training camp in question.
Bottom line: with so many new pieces and new potential strategies, the Lakers have a lot to figure out in terms of how to be the most successful. But the national media and Lakers' fanbase are unlikely to accommodate the steep learning curve with the requisite patience. How will the team handle adversity if and when it comes? Will the veteran experience of Nash and Kobe be a galvanizing force that pulls the team through to brighter pastures? Or will the infantile relationships between the new and old stars and a coach that may not command enough respect allow the early pressure to destroy what will no doubt be a fragile early season chemistry? That pressure is my greatest concern for the Lakers upcoming season.