You might be wondering what in the hell is going on here, so allow me to explain. Every year, my brother from another mother (who I guess could theoretically be my brother from the same mother) Jeff Clark, from CelticsBlog, organizes a blogosphere-wide preview of the NBA's 30 basketball teams. It's an awesome project to undertake, and one that takes about 6 weeks to do. Well, there are two truths to be said about the NBA season: One, we have no idea if and when it will happen, and two, if it does, we sure as hell won't have six weeks to prepare for it.
Generally, in life, I try to avoid being on the wrong side of cliched phrases that describe stupid or inane activity, but there are times when you have no choice but to put the cart before the horse. Sometimes, that means building a bridge before you've built the road that uses it, other times that means previewing a season that seems likely never to take place. If the worst that can happen is that you, dear reader, get to spend 10 minutes pretending that basketball has not been forcibly taken away from you, that seems to me a noble enough pursuit. Think of this as an awesome hike for folks who believe in making life's sweet, beautiful lemonade.
Team Name: The Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year's Record: 0-4
Last Year's Actual Record That Is Misleading Because It Might Indicate The Team Was Relatively Successful When We All Know It Was A Pretty Abysmal Failure: 57-25
Key Free Agents: Shannon Brown? Theo Ratliff??
Team Needs: A fire under their asses and, judging by the performances of Steve Blake and Pau Gasol, perhaps a team psychologist. Oh, and a starting point guard. Always, always a starting point guard.
1. What are your team's biggest needs in the offseason
There are two ways to look at the 2010-2011 season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Either the two-time champions were too sated and complacent to do what it takes to bring home a third NBA crown or ... we saw the beginning of the end of the Kobe Bryant era, with an aging team that just couldn't keep up. The Lakers' biggest offseason need is for the latter not to be the case. Of course, the latter shouldn't be the case, if only because the Lakers were blown out of the water by a team that's even older then they are. If L.A. had been dismantled so convincingly by an OKC Thunder team that was more athletic at every position, you could make a case for the Lakers' roster being too far past it's prime vintage, but instead, they were out-performed, out-savvied and out-composured by an even more veteran unit. Go figure.
In terms of actual needs, and the team's ability to play basketball, it's not so much that the Lakers have no needs as that those needs really don't matter, because the Lakers are in horrible position to address any needs. You might notice that there are question marks next to the team's "key free agents" listed above. That's because the Lakers don't have any. Eleven of the top 12 Lakers (in terms of minutes played) from last season are either under contract, or under team option, for the 2011 campaign, and you won't see many tears shed round these parts for the only guy who's likely to leave, one Shannon Brown.
The other very big, very important need for the 2011 Los Angeles Lakers is the one thing that is now impossible for them to get: time. With a new coach, Mike Brown, and a new offensive system known as Not The Triangle, after years spent under Phil Jackson's unique tutelage, the Lakers need time to get to know their new coach and what he expects out of them. A full training camp and preseason slate would have been just the ticket to ensure that the now (hopefully) motivated, hungry veteran squad could hit the ground running. Now, the getting to know you process will be truncated if it happens at all.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths and weaknesses (so far)?
Assuming Pau Gasol resembles in any way, shape, or form, the artist formerly known as Pau Gasol, the Lakers' biggest strength remains the best 1-2-3 punch in the league outside of Miami. With Andrew Bynum figuring out towards the end of last season how enjoyable it is to dominate on the defensive end and Kobe Bryant holding on to his other-worldly career with all of his fearsome might, all the Lakers need to remain a successful unit is to get the Spaniard back to playing basketball like he enjoys it.
Weaknesses? The whole age of the roster thing ain't great. We've literally run out of things to say about Derek Fisher's aging. Last year, I compared Fish to a block of Carbonite, and then he proceeded to get worse. Is it possible to describe Fisher's play in more negative terms? I'm not sure how, which means that Derek Fisher has effectively become the black hole of all ageist criticism. His bad play is now the sum of the remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the system of hyperbolic analysis.
And Fish isn't alone, in age or in poor play. Outside Andrew Bynum and some rookies, the Lakers don't have a single player on the upside of his career (so long as Shannon Brown makes good on his willingness to leave. Besides, he might not have much upside either). And the very fact that Fisher remained the Lakers best point guard option last year tells you all you need to know about the Lakers' skill level at the position. And Ron Artest didn't exactly light it up either. Bottom Line: The Lakers are old, and they are locked in to that age for at least two more seasons. Then again, Dallas just won an NBA title, so who gives a crap about age.
3. If there is no season in 2011-12, how is your team set up for 2012?
The answer to that question lies solely in the question of what will happen to player contracts if next year's season is completely removed from the docket. If a complete loss of next season results in players losing a year off their contracts, the Lakers will be in a better position in 2012 than they are in 2011, with more roster flexibility, and perhaps* the ability to get out from under some albatross contracts (Derek Fisher and Luke Walton would both be in the last year of their contracts in 2012). However, if the books are simply rolled back a year, there's no doubt the Lakers will be in worse shape in 2012 than in 2011, because it just adds another year to the Lakers already predominant age issue. Is it a death knell? Who knows. Could a year off actually help a team that's played more games over the past 4 seasons than any other in the league? Sure, it's possible. But generally speaking, veteran teams need to get going while the getting's good, and a year lost in that regard would most likely be detrimental to the Lakers.
*It's unknown whether expiring contracts will even be commodities under the next CBA, so there's a lot of unknowns here.
4. If you could make one change the NBA's new CBA, what would it be?
Honestly, I'm a bit out of my depth on this one legally speaking, so I'll go for the low hanging fruit and say that a limit on contract length would probably be in everybody's (except Luke Walton's) best interest. I'm smart enough to know that I root for a franchise which is blessed to be able to make a mistake like Mr. Walton's ridiculous contract and still be able to field a high-caliber team, but it's rough on any franchise, even our beloved purple and gold, to have to pay anybody for that long even if the man's central nervous system disintegrates before our very eyes ... or, you know, if the player just stops being very good. If I stop doing my job well, I stop getting paid immediately. I understand that's not realistic for the industry in question, but there should be some balance along the way.
5. Is Mike Brown the answer?
Whenever the Lakers get back to doing what they do, the biggest question surrounding how the team will perform has nothing to do with the aging and inflexible roster that has heretofore been the focus. The questions of primary concern all revolve around new Lakers head coach Mike Brown, and whether he can do the unthinkable ... succeed where the greatest head coach in professional basketball history failed. Brown has a few things going for him in that regard. First, that the Lakers failed provides them with a motivation to succeed that last year's team could not fabricate. Even if Phil Jackson's last season was a failure, he certainly found success with this very bunch previously, and would likely have been able to find a higher degree of success in the coming season if he were interested in doing so. Second, Brown is a known defensive mind, and while the Lakers' failures were paramount on both sides of the ball in the reckoning that was the Western Conference Semi-finals, defense was by far the greater issue, the one that had the Lakers look like giant school children, and in the end, like giant thugs.
But there are concerns, lots of them. First of all, Brown managed to coach two consecutive sixty win teams (good) to relatively early playoff exits (bad). Second, his teams often displayed the offensive acumen of your average YMCA pick up team (give the ball to your best player and watch) and if that particular strategy is employed in L.A, the results will likely be terrible. To make that matter potentially worse, he is taking the lead of a team that used an offensive system (in the Triangle) that is so unique and different that a roster must be specifically tailored to it (which the Lakers are), and the team is actively going away from that system. So, the Lakers will have to figure out an offensive game plan that utilizes the same personnel that the Triangle prefers, but does not actually resemble the Triangle. It's going to be the greatest offensive challenge in the league, and the guy in charge of it has a reputation for not being all that strong an offensive strategist. And third, the ear of the Lakers locker room was lost (as far as this scribe can tell) by Phil Freaking Jackson last year. Does Mike Brown really have the credibility to go in there and get that ear back? If things go poorly for a time, does he have the chutzpah to keep getting these veterans with multiple rings to continue to buy in to his message?
Those are difficult questions to answer. The Lakers are a team in flux that isn't actually fluctuating, and that's a difficult proposition to manage. But I sure as hell would like to see Mike Brown try. That would mean we don't have to make any more lemonade.