My favorite Los Angeles Lakers team of the last twenty years did not win a championship. Considering the success the Lakers have had during that time (five championships won since 2000), it might come as a surprise that the team I hold dear above all others did not win their final game. They did come close, making it to the NBA Finals before falling in six games to the dreaded Boston Celtics, but that 2008 team ultimately failed where so many other teams in this illustrious franchise's history have succeeded. Why, then, was that 2008 team my favorite of all? Was it because nothing was expected of that team - coming off two mediocre seasons, the Lakers were not expected to suddenly transform into a power house. Was it because that was the season they traded for Pau Gasol, and thus laid the foundation for future success? Was it because the season began with Kobe demanding a trade and ended with him sheepishly admitting he had been wrong about his teammates and his franchise? No, none of these facts are what made me love that team so dearly (though the Pau Gasol thing certainly helped). The reason why 2008 will forever remain fond in my heart is simple: It is the most fun I've ever had watching a team play basketball*.
* I barely missed out on Showtime ... I saw some of it, but it all came before I understood anything about basketball. My first basketball memory which has survived to this day was Magic Johnson's tragic retirement. I strongly suspect that if I had witnessed a full season of Showtime in all its glory, 2008 would have been a reminder instead of a revelation.
That team featured a lot of strange happenings. After famously blasting Andrew Bynum in a parking lot cell phone video, Kobe Bryant discovered Drew's pre-injury capability as a destroyer of worlds and a dunker of all lobs within a 10 foot radius of the basket at the start of the season, and played with him as a cat might a new toy. Jordan Farmar enjoyed a breakout second season (his finest, statistically, as a Laker). Sasha Vujacic enjoyed the only even decent season of his career (and it was better than decent; Sasha was good). Luke Walton and Derek Fisher were both still serviceable as players, and Lamar Odom was in his prime as the do everything (sometimes) heart of the team. Then, Drew got hurt and the Lakers traded for the most talented big man in the league, the star who had the perfect temperament to be Kobe's second in command. The entire team somehow seemed to get 20% better overnight, and then the Pau trade brought it all together in spectacular fashion and a new mini-dynasty was born. However, what made that team truly special to watch wasn't the winning, the shooting, or the new players.
It was the ball movement. The glorious, glorious ball movement. From top to bottom, that team loved to move the ball. Kobe had his lobs to Drew. Farmar had his swings to Sasha. Luke Walton had his between-the-legs passes to anybody he could find. It was just a great passing team, and they were a great passing team before trading for the best passing big man in the league. Once Pau Gasol was on board and comfortable with his teammates, it was a truly beautiful thing to watch. The team had 150 more assists in 2008 than they did in 2007, just over two thousand assists in all. 2009 saw the team almost reach those heights again, but ever since, the Lakers assists have dwindled. The team has won two championships and a boat load of games since 2008, but the ball has never moved as crisply, as sharply, as purposefully, as it did that season.
Until now. There have been flashes this preseason, brief and temporary flashes, in which the team's ball movement has reminded me of how enjoyable it was to watch that 2008 team move the ball. Now, it is just the preseason, and how a team plays now does not necessarily indicate how they will play when the games count. The Lakers have not exactly looked sharp throughout the preseason, and it would be stupid to expect them to be a great team no matter how good they looked. However, the team is definitely playing with energy, and as the preseason has progressed, so has the level of ball movement.
For a team that will be(until Kobe's return at least) led by Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, this is the Lakers' best-case-scenario. Passing can be infectious, and the team's two best players are both qualified to be patient zero for a team passing epidemic. Add to that the fact that the Lakers have three natural point guards in their rotation (either Steve Blake or Jordan Farmar seems set to play minutes as an off-guard) and a coach that preaches speed and offensive flow, and you have the perfect environment to promote passing as a team exercise.
Though it is very, very, VERY early yet, you can see the possibility that the team is catching the bug. The best possible illustration of this might be the play of Nick Young. Swaggy P has dazzled us with his unique blend of audacious handle and terrible shot selection, and has been every bit as good (and bad) as advertised in the preseason. But, after logging just one assist in the first two preseason games, Mr. P has 13 in the Lakers' last five games. This, from a guy who has five more assists than games played over the course of his entire career. If the Lakers as a team can somehow convince the league's most famously selfish player to be a willing participant in a ball movement-centric offense, there might just be a chance for this team to play a truly beautiful brand of ball.
Even under the best of circumstances, this year's team does not appear to have a chance in hell of duplicating the overall success of that transformative 2008 squad. For one, the teams they are competing with are too good. 2008 was a strange experience in which there were a bunch of good Western Conference teams, but no dominant ones. This year, there are just a bunch of dominant teams (at least on paper), and the Lakers aren't one of them. No matter how well the Lakers play on offense, their defense appears ready to be really, really bad. A super strong offense could win the Lakers some games, perhaps even enough to make the playoffs, but that's probably the best that can be hoped for. And many questions about how good the offense can be remain: How will the Lakers outside shooting hold up? Will the team sharing continue in the wake of many (expected) losses? How will Kobe Bryant affect the team dynamic upon his return?
However, if you are looking for a best-case scenario, a reason to have hope that this season of Lakers basketball will not be a dull and dreary affair, the hope that they can re-duplicate the offensive magic of the 2008 team is a realistic one. Considering how fun that season was to watch, the chance to see something even remotely similar is an experience worth chasing.