Regulars around these parts will know the drill. Prior to major events, the writing staff of Silver Screen and Roll takes the time to put pen to metaphorical paper and bare their souls and expertise to the world so that the metrics can be used to make them look foolish later. Without further ado, the roundtable predictions of the crack SSR writing staff.
I'm neither alarmed by nor totally dismissive of the Lakers' poor performance in the preseason. I don't think it predicts anything about their ability to win the title this year, but I do think it shows how the new roster will need time to get comfortable with each other and find the right groove. (Not to mention adjusting to this hybrid Princeton offense, which I'm not sure is worth the trouble.) We already knew those things. There will be occasions when injuries or age have the Lakers looking like a disappointment. There will definitely be times when Mike Brown seems out of his depth, and in fact he might be out of his depth. I think he'll come through it okay, though, and in the long view all that matters is getting to this team to the playoffs as a healthy and cohesive unit. Brown, with the help of an excellent training staff and front office, can manage that. And actually, I think he and the squad will come together fairly quickly and post the same regular-season record they did in 2010 and 2011. I like Dwight Howard to win yet another DPOY award, and I even like him as an MVP candidate if LeBron somehow stumbles. This is really going to work, people. It's going to be incredibly fun and occasionally awesome to watch. In June, the Lakers will overcome Miami's home-court advantage in the Finals and knock off the Heat in five games for the organization's 17th banner.
The Great Mambino
Even as what would amount to a 51 win team (prorated over a 82 game season), the Lakers were still very middling last year. They needed to get better on both ends of the court...which they very well may have done. Defensively, I expect the Lakers to improve leaps and bounds immediately with Dwight Howard on the court. In his few games of preseason action, there was such a stark difference on his activity versus Andrew Bynum's that, paired with how much better he made mediocre defensive players in Orlando, it's easy to think that LA's defense will be suffocating. Offensively, the team could take months to adjust to one another, but over that stretch I can see the defense making up for the confusion on the scoring end.
The key for the Lakers was getting to the Finals; Oklahoma City was the most troublesome matchup for LA, especially with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins able to give Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard the most one-on-one trouble as any duo in the league. However, with the Harden trade, I feel like the Lakers are much better suited not only offensively without his defense on Kobe, but also defensively in regards to staying in front of only two of the best 20 players in the league, rather than three. It's not a forgone conclusion that the Lakers can get past OKC--how can you underestimate Durant and Westbrook?--but the prospects just got a lot better. Moving onto the NBA Finals, the Lakers should have a decided advantage against both the Celtics and Heat looking at the strength of their potential play inside.
It's always championship or bust with this team, but even moreso this year. With the talent the Lakers have on paper, the neighborhood of 60+ wins should be easily attainable. I've written this before, but this team has the potential to be one of the greatest Lakers teams of all-time. It's not just their talent level though--in addition Kobe's insatiable competitiveness, they've added Nash, another psychotic competitor, and Howard, who knows the stink of his "Dwight-marish" offseason will only be washed away with the gleaming gold of a title. This team has a tremendous amount to prove--from the coaching staff downwards--which will only add fuel to the fire.
Right out of the gates this Lakers team will be relying on the sheer talent they have compiled in their starting lineup to begin building team wide chemistry. Even if the offensive and defensive schemes are works in progress, winning certainly patches holes and keeps morale up and the fans happy. No matter what, they should be a must-watch team on a nightly basis. It is going to be interesting to see this group of individuals become a team, and the many angles that will spring up as the season rolls along will be compelling to say the last. Can Dwight redeem himself as a cream of the crop player? Can Kobe play a better brand of basketball? How much does Steve Nash have left in the tank? Will Pau return to form now that the constant looming threat of being traded for X point guard has dissipated? Overall, as long as injuries are managed, they are a lock to catapult themselves into the Western Conference Finals in their first year together. With the Oklahoma City Thunder losing their third best player in James Harden, that road may have become easier, but it would be a mistake to automatically put the Lakers past the Thunder because of it. The NBA Finals will be a stage filled with two of the brightest stars in the league, Dwight Howard who will be defending like a madman after recapturing Defensive Player of the Year honors (and coming in third in MVP voting) and Lebron James (grabbing yet another league MVP). Flanking them will be a batch of fading lights in Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. It will be an amazing series of basketball, but in the end there's just too much talent on the Lakers to overcome. Lakers in 7. Number 17 arrives in true Hollywood fashion. An amazing season of basketball is upon us, and it's going to be a great time to be a Lakers fan.
I am sure that the Lakers will encounter a few bumps in the road with so many new faces on board this season, but think Los Angeles has constructed the body of their team so well that they'll be able to survive the season without feeling any tremors. Los Angeles starts off with a home heavy schedule - 11 of their first 16 games on the season taking place at the Staples Center - and I think that will go a long way in getting this team settled in together (less travel days means more time for rest and practice). I think the Thunder losing James Harden is a huge positive for the Lakers (Martin may be able to score, but Harden's off the dribble game was the real game changer and Martin can't match that), which means the Lakers should be a lock to make the Conference Finals. At the end of the season it will come down to whether or not the Lakers came beat the Nuggets, in my mind, because I think they matchup the best with Los Angeles. If the Lakers can get by Denver (and I think they will), then I think they will beat the Heat in the Finals in six games.
I was hesitant to pick the Lakers to finish 1st in the West given that the starters have played less than 30 minutes together, however two things broke their way. The first is the recent trade of James Harden that will almost certainly knock a few wins off the total of OKC, which was the favorite to finish 1st. The second is that the Lakers may not lose all that many games while trying to get acclimated with each other. It has become an annual tradition for the Lakers to be given a fairly easy schedule right out of the gate. Nine of the Lakers first eleven games are at home and they play only one back-to-back. This means the Lakers will have plenty of time to squeeze in practices between game days as they won't be on the road traveling. Furthermore, not only are most games at home, the opposition is pretty weak as only four of those opponents made the playoffs last year: Spurs, Clippers, Mavericks, and Jazz. The Clippers and Spurs are certainly title contending teams but both games take place with the Lakers sporting home jerseys. Look for the Lakers to be favorites in all of their first 11 games, most by a heavy margin. A 9-2 start would not be a surprise.
As for the title, the trade of Harden made the path to the finals significantly easier for LA. Should the Lakers make the finals, they are a nightmare match-up for the Heat. The Heat's best line-up featured LeBron at the power forward spot and Bosh at center. That option is taken off the table the second Howard steps on the court. Howard destroyed a good LeBron team in Cleveland single handedly because they didn't have anyone who could match up with him. He will force the Heat to play big which plays into the Lakers strengths. In the end, if the Lakers remain healthy, they should survive the gauntlet in the West and then over-power the undersized Heat in the finals.
As much as we have talked about the problems the team will have in getting acclimated to the Princeton offense and playing with each other, let us not discount what the sheer talent on this roster will do any given night. In their single appearance alongside one another in the preseason, the starters looked basically unstoppable on offense and that was with about half the sets implemented. To start the year, Mike Brown and company are going to go with what works while they work in the rest of the Princeton. So Steve Nash isn't going to give the ball up early and not become involved in heavy pick-and-roll play, Metta World Peace won't be hoisting as many shots off the dribble, and so forth. The bench will finally get into a decent rotation in which it doesn't have to hold the fort as a standalone unit without any of the starters present, let alone finish out games. These simple changes make all the difference in the world against most teams, as the fact that the starters will be on the floor for the majority of the game will be enough to get a victory on most any given night. There is no doubt that the team will appear clunky and somewhat disjointed out of the gate, but we are talking about the difference from being merely very good as opposed to a rampaging juggernaut. Let us not overstate the problems the team will have. And this is just off the bat, as the team will get much better as the year goes on. So by the All-Star break, you could conceivably see the team start to rip off huge winning streaks as everything falls into place on both ends.
The Thunder being weakened by the James Harden trade helps in this regard as the Lakers go through the West, and gives me more confidence in their first seed placement. Even had it not happened, however, the Lakers will be a terror in the playoffs as their biggest weakness (the bench) will become muted as the starters play extended minutes. The presence of Dwight Howard gives them an indelible edge over whichever team makes out of the East -- Miami is about as much of a lock here as you can get, but there is a small chance Boston could slip through -- and I have the Lakers winning in six over Miami to bring home that seventeenth banner to LA.
I went all-in with Kobe last season, and this summer, by nabbing Steve Nash along with Dwight, so did the Lakers organization. So, it boils down to these questions... Can Kobe still do it? OR has LeBron become good enough that nothing else matters? Or even KD? (I really think Durant is transcendent enough to erase any loss of the Harden trade.)
A loss to LeBron in the Finals stands to crush everything Kobe wants out of his career. Not only does a Finals loss to the Heat push LeBron further down the Jordan path of Greatest of All Time, but it definitively paints LeBron as the best player of this generation without a doubt. Just look at one championship has done for LeBron. Kobe has worked too hard to achieve his own goals to go down as an also-ran in The King James Era. Which is what he's facing with LeBron's ascension to the top. So, if the Lakers meet the Heat in the Finals, just know that Kobe's putting it all on the line to define a legacy, in spite of everything. The best should never lose with talent like Dwight, Pau, Nash and Metta. Unless, there's something better. I'm picking the Lakers to beat the Heat in the Finals in 6 basically because I still have faith in Kobe.
I expect the Lakers this season to perform much as the Miami Heat did in the first season after the creation of their superteam: Dominant at times, vulnerable at others. There's no doubt this Lakers squad has as much or more talent than any we've seen in decades, easily more talent than any of the five previous championship squads that Kobe Bryant has been a part of. Talent alone can win many basketball games, and early on in the season, that's what I expect from this team. Then they'll go through a stretch where the talent isn't enough, playing .500 ball for longer than we're comfortable with. And finally, things will click into place towards the end of the season. Barring a significant injury to one of the four principals, the Lakers should be in prime position come playoff time, and with OKC diminishing their own title chances, it's tough to see anybody in the West posing a significant threat.
It is not, however, tough to see anybody in the East posing a significant threat. The Miami Heat are deserving champions, and they got better, perhaps significantly so. Not by signing Ray Allen (who is still valuable) or Rashard Lewis (who probably isn't), but by establishing a firm identity, They know who they are, and they know how to be the most effective, and those were lessons that took the better part of two years to learn. The Lakers won't have it so rough, because their collection of stars is a more natural fit to begin with, but I suspect the burden will be too much to overcome in year one. I do think this group will reach the promised land at least once, but I don't think it happens this year.