With only a week left to go before the NBA season kicks off, get ready for some Season Preview overload. Over the next few days, we'll cover all the angles to prepare you for what is sure to be a crazy season. Here's hoping all our work doesn't get flushed down the tube with a big move in the next few days. Or maybe here's hoping it does ...
The Los Angeles Lakers are a team in flux. It's an ironic statement, because for every element of truth in it, the team appears on paper to be nearly the same. It's core is the same, though that core has been weakened with the departure of Lamar Odom. The statement is also ironic because the team is not fluctuating nearly as much as they apparently wanted to be. Before the free agency period even started, there was talk that the Lakers would attempt to make moves for not one, but two, superstars, moves that would have permanently altered the team and the NBA. The Lakers even managed to put one of those moves into action, only to have it blow up in their faces in the now infamous Chris Paul debacle. The Lakers may be a team in flux, with a new coaching staff, and new systems on both sides of the ball. But they wanted to be more in flux than they are.
However, with the season a week away, Chris Paul guaranteed to play for a different Los Angeles team for at least two seasons, and the Orlando Magic doing everything they can to shut down trade talk for at least a couple months, it is time to embrace the Lakers as currently constructed, because every passing day makes change to this roster less and less likely, at least in the short term. Today, we start with an overview of the part of the roster that, despite being the most weakened in the offseason, remains the Lakers' biggest strength: The Frontcourt.The Lakers frontcourt remains extremely formidable. In Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers have two guys who can both be dominant pivots in their own ways. Gasol is the owner of one of the biggest bag of tricks in the league. He can post up, with a good variety of options over either shoulder. He can spot up with decent range (and the rumors are he's trying to turn decent range into great range), which is important because it allows him to co-exist with Bynum, who is less versatile. He's neither a terrific rebounder nor defender, but he knows how to use his massive wingspan to be effective in both. Despite his trials and tribulations, Gasol remains one of the best big men in the league.
In Andrew Bynum, the Lakers have someone with the potential to be even better. Bynum has shown the ability to do a lot of what Gasol can do on offense, and considerably more than Gasol can do on defense, but the biggest difference between the two players is sheer power, and the intimidation that comes along with it. The two players are both roughly the same size. Pau Gasol is listed as 7'0" and Bynum as 7'1". Bynum's wingspan is 7'3" and Gasol's is 7'5". But Pau is listed at 220 pounds and is can be pushed around if his head isn't 100% into the game. Bynum is closer to 300 pounds of solid rock. At points along his career, Bynum has shown an offensive polish that would make him easily a 20 ppg player with the appropriate amount of touches. At times last season, Bynum showed a defensive dominance that is second only to the guy he is rumored to be traded for. He has never been able to sustain the performance at either end, to say nothing of putting both ends together. Injuries are primarily to blame for that fact, but injuries must be taken into account when assessing Bynum's performance, because a big part of the problem has been his inability to stay healthy. Regardless, the relevant point is that Bynum has shown flashes of potential that, when put together, would make him the most complete center in the game, and a decently close 2nd to Dwight Howard in terms of dominance. And is the year that he HAS to put that potential together. He has to because he came into this season injury free and, by all accounts, in great shape. He has to because the Lakers have shipped out the guy who was cutting into his minutes, guaranteeing that he will be on the floor as much as a young man of his ability can deserve to. He has to because his team is counting on him to be dominant, as opposed to just hoping for it. If the Lakers have any championship hopes at all, they are pinned to the jersey of Andrew Bynum.
The Lakers have other frontcourt players, all of whom will be new, and they are discussed below, but Gasol and Bynum are still the only players in the front court that will truly hold influence over whether the Lakers thrive or fail this season. That is, until one or (gulp!) both are shipped out ...
Projected Starter: Andrew Bynum
I've spent a lot of words on Bynum already, so there won't be much more here, except to talk about the other elephant in the room, his temper. The Lakers will be without Bynum for the first five games of the season because of his stupid, classless, reckless actions at the end of last season's playoff run, and he will deservedly carry a target on his back for the league to drop a hammer on if he doles out any more tough justice. I'm not normally against the occasional hard foul, but Bynum has got to keep his play 100% basketball related, no matter the score or situation. This is as important as any other aspect of his game.
Projected Primary Backup: Troy Murphy
As Ben R. so clearly elucidated last week, Troy Murphy is a reclamation project, which means we have no idea what the Lakers will be able to get out of him. If he's anything like the Troy Murphy that was a strong rebounder and great outside shooter for the Indiana Pacers two seasons ago, he will be a capable backup and will likely split time with the other new big man in the rotation, Josh McRoberts. If he is more like the broken down player that was seen at the end of benches in New Jersey and Boston last season, look for a three man rotation in which Gasol or Bynum are on the court at all times. Signed to the veteran's minimum, Murphy could be an absolute steal, but it is sadly more likely that he was signed to the veteran's minimum for a reason.
Other Notables: Derrick Caracter
I'm not going to lie to you, I'm a little surprised Caracter was retained after IHOP-gate (what do you mean that's not important enough to have a Gate named after it?). Caracter's a young dude who has been plagued by his own (lack of) maturity since high school, and I thought the incident during last year's first round playoffs would have been a clear sign to the Lakers that those issues are likely never to go away. Still, the dude is as cheap as they come, and has an NBA body and skill set, though he needs some seasoning, just like most young guys do. As a fifth big man, you could probably do a lot worse. His injury (out for 6-8 weeks to start the season) probably cost him a chance to work his way into the primary rotation with some strong performances in Andrew Bynum's 5 game absence, though he has a chance to play a role if the guy ahead of him can't provide anything.
Projected Starter: Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol has spent the last 12+ months riding a roller coaster, and the team has gone with him at every step of the way. He started last season as a legit MVP candidate, pulling down tons of boards, scoring tons of points, and playing with superb efficiency. But the fatigue of playing without a backup (with Bynum out at the start of the season, the Lakers had zero depth at big man) soon took it's toll, and Gasol crashed back to earth hard, bringing the Lakers with him. He had a bit of a Renaissance in the late mid-season, enough so that we had hope he would be his normal self in the playoffs. Boy were we wrong. No player played below expectations quite as much as Gasol did as the Lakers flamed out of the playoffs, in part because only one player, who need not be named, was given as much expectation to live up to.The Lakers did not lose in the playoffs because Pau Gasol played terribly. It was a team failure, with many participants. But, if everybody else had played up to their normal standards, the Lakers still would likely have failed to advance past the 2nd round, because Gasol was that bad.
Then he was traded. Then he was not traded. Then he was included in trade discussions that wouldn't even net the Lakers a player of greater stature. Now he remains on the team for the foreseeable future. Gasol is another player from whom the Lakers should expect great things. He has nearly as much to prove as Bynum does, he has had more rest (both due to the early playoff exit and the lockout) than he's had in years, and the last time he took tons of shit for playing soft in the playoffs, he responded in a major way. I've said before and I hope to say again: There can be no doubt that Gasol IS soft, but I have never believed that another player can make him be soft. His softness is entirely within his own mind, and he's been given plenty of reasons to play with the resolution that marked 2008-2010.
Projected Backup: Josh McRoberts
I like the Josh McRoberts signing quite a bit. I would have loved it if he were being added to the big man rotation. He provides a lot of what was missing from the trio of Gasol-Bynum-Odom - a consistent outside shot, good athleticism - and the things he's not so good at (defense, defensive rebounding) would have been compensated for because of the strengths of his front court partners. Alas, instead of supplementing the bench work of Lamar Odom, McRoberts is expected to replace it, and since LO is the reigning 6th Man Of The Year, those are some pretty tough shoes to fill. Don't expect him to succeed 100% in replacing Odom, but it may not matter entirely that he can't. If Bynum and Gasol can both stay healthy (that is a big IF), then McRoberts will complement them both in ways Odom couldn't always achieve, by giving them space to operate down low, and punishing any double teams with strong outside shooting and good finishing on dives to the basket.
The only area in which the McRoberts for Odom will seriously harm the Lakers is that the Lakers no longer have any big man who excels at help defense. Odom was one of the best help defenders in the league, and even with his services, the Lakers were absolutely torched on the pick and roll all season, and it was their inability to solve the Dallas pick and roll which led to their sweep out of the post season. If Mike Brown cannot find a defensive solution to this problem, then the loss of Odom will be felt much more acutely than the gain of McRoberts. That said, for the money being paid to him, McRoberts was an excellent acquisition.