International trips have concluded, training camps are closed down and the buzzer for the collective amateur hour known as preseason basketball has sounded. The 2013-2014 Season is upon us, and we here at Silver Screen & Roll couldn't be happier that real, honest to goodness NBA basketball is upon us.
So let's get down to the most important questions.
Where will the Lakers fall in the Western Conference this season? Will they make the playoffs? If yes, what will be the biggest factor that propels them there? If no, what will be the largest component of them missing the postseason for just the fifth time in franchise history?
Despite the majority of pundits viewing the Lakers as a non-playoff team, I am more optimistic. I think the Lakers will make the playoffs and I'll go out on the proverbial limb and say they will finish with the same record as last season. I don't think this team is as good as last year's; no they are far from it, but last year's team had virtually everything go wrong. It was like Murphy's Law on steroids. Decades of good fortune suddenly was turned on its head. It would only be cosmic justice if the Lakers, who lost one of the best players in the league, turned around and finished with the same record.
Normally one feels comfortable penciling in the Lakers as a playoff team solely because Kobe Bryant wouldn't let them fail. This year the team's success won't be on his shoulders, though. Instead the success of the team will lie with one of the most skilled big man the game has ever seen. Pau Gasol has spent the last three years being the ultimate teammate as he was moved out of a position where he was an All Star and forced into a less natural position simply to create room for a pair of players, neither of whom had his skills. It is a testament to his team-first attitude that he put up with it for so long. Now the big Spaniard is back playing in the post and will be a focal point in the offense as opposed to merely a safety release valve at the top of the key. I think this is Pau's opportunity to show his decline has been greatly exaggerated.
Considering the tumultuousness of the past year or so, I think the Lakers have done a pretty decent job of putting this team together. After losing their "all in" bet on Dwight Howard, they have assembled as good a roster as could possibly be expected considering the tools they had available. The preseason has been an encouraging one, proving that, as long as the mood stays positive, this will be a fun team to watch. It will be an exciting team to watch. They will play with pace and (hopefully) strong ball movement, and they will score a lot of points. However, I don't think that will translate to winning a lot of games.
There is a playoff team somewhere in this roster, but it would require too many things to go right for that team to have a chance to make an appearance. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are all supremely talented players, but they are all very old, and we can have no idea what they are capable of giving, nor for how long they will be capable of giving it. A year of good health from all of them (or at least, from Kobe and Pau), in which they all find something close to the best versions of themselves on the court, when combined with the younger and more athletic core surrounding them, would probably be good enough for the Lakers to sneak into the back end of the Western Conference playoff hunt, just shy of 50 wins. But, that is an awful lot to ask from three guys coming off serious injuries. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash seem likely to break down based on past history, and while Kobe has been an iron man, there is simply no way to tell what kind of player he will be from this point on. If those three falter, the rest of the roster simply isn't good enough to pick them up.
In predicting what will happen to a team, the most prudent course of action is to determine the extreme possibilities, both good and bad, and assume that the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. The best case scenario for this team is good health and 50 wins. The worst case scenario is Kobe not returning anywhere near the same player, and a win total in the twenties, with the Lakers cutting weight mid-season with a Pau Gasol salary dump trade for which the rumors already exist. So I'll take the middle, just shy of 40 wins, and falling short of the playoffs.
This is the time when preseason optimism hits the cold hard reality of regular season matchups, something that will be put into stark relief during the brutal set of games the Lakers will have in the next week or so. It's not to say that some of this optimism isn't unjustified or the Lakers shouldn't take heart in some of the developments thus far -- Xavier Henry's emergence, Jordan Farmar's fit in the system, and Pau Gasol's seeming return to form -- but that they pale in comparison to the herculean task of building a competitive squad in the time the team will be without Kobe Bryant. Make no mistake: this will have to be a hell of an offense to compensate for what will be a poor defense, especially whenever the starters are on the floor, and there's a real concern that the Lakers simply don't have the horses to reach those heights without Kobe in the lineup. Steve Nash dealt with a variety of ailments in the preseason and his play has not inspired confidence, putting an awful lot of pressure on Pau, Farmar, and Blake to pick up the slack in that regard. This is an offense that requires its playmakers to work well off the high pick-and-roll and while Pau's presence in Horns will help relieve some of that need, there are simply too many questions present about how the Lakers are going to go about creating shots on a consistent basis.
As a result, the Lakers will have to rely on basically everything else going right to make up for the inevitable absences of Nash and Kobe: execution will need to be rock solid practically every game, that youthful bench unit (Farmar-Meeks-Henry-Johnson-Hill) has to pan out as well as anyone could possibly imagine on both ends, and the swag factor will have to be in constant overdrive. And heaven forbid that Pau misses any significant time this year because the Lakers are really, really screwed without him to anchor the offense. Mind you, that's just for one side of the court, as someone will have to emerge as a competent wing defender to spruce up what has been a putrid perimeter defense the past few years. Needless to say, the possibility of everything working out that way is rather remote and the health issues more than anything decrease the margin for error down to almost nothing.
So sure, there is a playoff squad somewhere in the mix here. I think it far more likely that poor health and a lack of consistency forces the team out of the playoffs. How badly the team does record-wise ultimately depends on how much the bottom falls out in regards to health: it's not inconceivable that Nash, Kobe, and Pau miss the majority of the year and the team ends up with a win total in the low 30s. Let's split the difference and give the team a puncher's chance to make it to .500, sadly the worst possible outcome from a long-term perspective given how it screws up the Lakers' draft position in a stacked year. That noted, if we're at Christmas and the team doesn't look competitive, the front office very well could start unloading guys they don't think they're going to be able to re-sign -- think Blake, Hill, or even possibly Pau -- to resolve this issue. To have such a variance in outcomes is testament to how little we really know of how this team will be able to perform, something that will quickly be borne out against their initial schedule.
Where will the Lakers fall this season? Well, I have them falling out of the playoffs and finishing with a worse record than last year, for starters. My expectations are low and essentially non-existent, for better and for worse. Put it this way - I'd rather aim low and be surprised than shoot high and have every loss feel like a slap in the face of expectations.
The largest component for them missing the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history? A combined lack of health and talent over a grueling 82-game season. When everyone is healthy -- which could be something that is rare with this team -- they still have odds stacked against them in regard to the other teams vying for the playoffs. When Steve Nash is having neck and ankle isses, or Pau's knees aren't feeling up to carrying his seven-foot frame up and down the court, or Kobe Bryant takes however long to make his return and has to ease into playing again, or Chris Kaman misses about 2/5 of the season because of any assortment of injuries, or Jordan Hill crashes too hard to the floor after diving after a defensive rebound and busts another hip flexor, the Lakers are going to have problems
Yes, they filled out the roster with some dudes--Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar and Shawne Williams--but I'm hard pressed to believe mixtures of these guys can hold up against starting five units.
To put a number on it, I have the Lakers at roughly 35 wins, the equivalent of being eleventh in the West last season.
The Great Mambino
The Lakers have far too many variables to make an accurate assessment of the upcoming season, as I wrote in my piece last week. However, there is one conclusion I feel pretty safe in making: we're looking at a bottom-10 defense.
Defensive metrics are notoriously hard to use in regards to predictions, so we'll have to go with an old stand-by: using our eyes to tell us what happens on the court. A revolutionary idea, I know. But it just might work.
For the first time in years, the Lakers have some youth and athleticism on their side, in the form of Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill. However, the Lakers are without a strong defense-first rim protector, and aside from Farmar and Hill, there's been no empirical evidence that the quick new imports will be able to grasp the schemes necessary to cover on the PnR or the perimeter. I could go on, but I'm not sure it's necessary. We haven't just beaten this horse on this blog--we've cremated the thing, used its ashes in a pinata and then hammered that to death. But let's put it this way: the Lakers finished 20th last season in defensive efficiency WITH a former Defensive Player of the Year at half capacity AND WITH Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Pau Gasol a year younger. I can't imagine that there's a scenario that the team is better than that, especially considering how guys like Johnson, Young and Henry have failed defensively in all their previous stops. There were no teams in the NBA last season in the bottom 9 of defensive efficiency that made the playoffs. In fact, there were only four teams in the bottom 15 that made the postseason, and each of them--the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks and Lakers--all had a top 10 offense.
The Los Angeles Lakers will not make the playoffs this year, with a faulty defense being the primary culprit behind their failures. Looking at the field, I can't see them finishing higher than 10th in the Western Conference.
Even though most writers and critics have the Lakers falling out of the top eight in the West this season, I'm still holding on to some hope that the Lakers will sneak into the No. 7 or 8 spot by the end. While some of that confidence rests in other teams like New Orleans, Minnesota, and Portland struggling more so than expected, the majority of it stems from the expectation that this team has enough talent to get to 40 wins. Having both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash healthy will be the team's number one priority. In other words, do whatever it takes to make sure Gasol and Nash aren't out for any extended period of time. If that requires cutting minutes or even sitting out a game once in a while, it's a small price to pay to keep their legs fresh for the full season.
As Walter explained, last season was the epitome of Murphy's Law - practically everything went wrong for this team. With sheer talent, however, the team got to 45 wins. This year's team clearly does not have the same caliber of players, especially with Kobe's status still undetermined, but it also doesn't have the same chemistry and off-the-court issues we saw last year. If Coach D'Antoni can make sure to spread out the minutes to limit injuries to his older players, the optimist in me can see 38-40 wins. D'Antoni, at least in the past, has been solid at getting the most out of average to slightly below-average talent. The remaining 3-7 wins the team would need to make the playoffs will be dependent on how effective Bryant is upon his return.
Just yesterday, I saw that AccuScore projected a 36-46 record for the Lakers, with a 33.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. Just for context, they currently have the Lakers as the No. 9 seed, barely above Minnesota, New Orleans, and Portland. With the doubts surrounding the team heading into the season, it seems like a fair projection for the number of wins. As of now, I'd take the OVER on that projection. Actually getting into the playoffs, on the other hand, will require its fair share of good fortune.