Just think: if events had played out a little differently last season, tonight's game against the Toronto Raptors could've meant Chris Bosh and Andrew Bynum facing off against the teams that drafted them. All these months later, it's not clear to me whether the Lakers ever really put Drew on the table as the centerpiece of a proposed trade for Bosh. Certainly, last winter there was a lot of chatter among well-connected national writers about a possible deal, and the dominant opinion at the time was that if the Raptors had made Bosh available, the Lakers would have parted with Bynum to make it happen. Knowing what they do now about both players, does the Raptors' front office wish they had pulled the trigger? Is the Lakers' front office relieved that they didn't?
As it famously turned out, Toronto went all-in to keep Bosh and got burned by that decision. Not that they were a particularly fearsome opponent even with their former star, but they arrive at Staples tonight a team notably bereft of top-line talent and looking very much like blowout fodder for the champs. It's not that the Raps have been terrible so far this season. Their 1-3 record includes an easy win over the Cavaliers, a big loss to the Jazz and narrow losses to the Knicks and Kings. But in the post-Bosh era, it's not apparent what they do well or what their identity will be. They definitely don't have the personnel to disrupt the Lake Show's offensive war machine. If the Lakers tonight play anything like they did in their midweek back-to-back, this will be a pretty straightforward W.
One thing that jumps out at me about the Raptors is that for a rebuilding franchise, their roster isn't especially young. They give real minutes to a number of guys who are either over or pushing 30. They also don't have any players who give a whiff of being a franchise cornerstone. Former top overall pick Andrea Bargnani is having a nice season, but no team for whom he's the number-one option is ever making a deep playoff run. DeMar DeRozan has a promising future in the league, but no one's sure quite as what. Their first-round pick this past summer, Ed Davis, has skills but hasn't yet seen the court, as he's recovering from surgery on his right knee in September.
Otherwise the roster is all role players and retreads. It's not like free agents are ever tripping over themselves in a rush to sign with Toronto, so you sort of wonder where this franchise is headed. They'd probably do well to pile up a hefty loss total this season and hope to luck into Harrison Barnes. Problem is, the jobs of GM Bryan Colangelo and coach Jay Triano are on the line, so short-term survival strategies are likely to take precedence.
What are the Raps looking like on the floor these days? The offense has been OK, though not as potent as it was last season. The defense has been bad, if not the hide-your-eyes horror show it was last year. The play of Bargnani has been the most encouraging sign. Working on the perimeter, as he usually does, he's been on fire in the Raptors' first four contests and is averaging 24 a night. I'd expect Lamar Odom to get the assignment of chasing him around, since Pau Gasol doesn't enjoy straying that far out of the paint. That would leave Pau guarding the nasty, brutish and short Reggie Evans. Evans almost never shoots, but he's an insane rebounder on both ends. He's also, by general consensus, the dirtiest player in the NBA.
The Toronto backcourt is suffering from a severe infestation of crappy play. Starting point guard Jarrett Jack is shooting terribly - he's missed all seven of his three-point attempts - and is turning the rock over too much. Backups Jose Calderon and Leandro Barbosa can't find the basket either. Only DeRozan, who's taking good care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line, and backup Sonny Weems are playing respectably. On Wednesday, Weems scored 23 points against Utah.
Oh, and Linas Kleiza's on the team for some reason. Last we saw him, he was on the Denver team the Lakers bounced out of the Western Conference Finals in 2009. He doesn't appear to be any better at basketball than he was back then.
When the Lakers have the ball tonight, they should be able to do whatever they want. DeRozan, one assumes, will get the honor of guarding Kobe. He sounds like a nice kid and probably doesn't deserve what's about to happen to him. If you're hoping for a repeat of Kobe's 81-point carpet-bombing of the Raps almost five years ago, though (wow, has it really been that long?), don't count on it. This game won't be close enough for Kobe to play the minutes he'd need to hit such a huge number.
Gasol and Odom shouldn't have difficulty doing their own things. Bargnani's a truly awful defender, and his backup David Andersen looks good only by comparison. Evans and Amir Johnson are among the better defenders the Raptors employ, but that's damning by faint praise. They both give up "mad inches" to the Laker frontline.
The task for the Lakers tonight should be to put the game out of reach early to maximize rest for the starters and allow the bench more floor time together. Next week, finally, we're going to see some more taxing opponents: the Trail Blazers visit on Sunday night, then it's off to Denver for a Thursday night showdown against the Nuggets. (A thrashing of the Timberwolves is sandwiched in between those two games.) In the meantime, as strong as the Lakers have looked so far, there are a few wrinkles to iron out.
First and foremost is defensive rebounding. I get that when you've built a huge lead and you can score seemingly any time you want, banging away on the defensive glass isn't the most appealing concept. But we'll soon come across teams that are going to keep games close, and it'll be crucial to start limiting second-chance opportunities. Evans and Johnson are good sparring partners for this purpose. I know I keep harping on this, but Ron Artest has got to help out more on the defensive glass. Of all the Lakers who've played real minutes, he has the lowest defensive rebounding rate - lower than Derek Fisher, Steve Blake or Shannon Brown. Ron's actually done good work generating second-chance looks on offense, but on the defensive glass he's been invisible. Time for him to chase down a few of those opponent misses.
Other than that, I got nothing to complain about. More of the same from the defending champs would be just fine.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.