I think it's safe to say the Lakers have won the NBA's offseason. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the two biggest names to change teams, both ended up with the purple and gold, and when he wasn't engineering league-rocking trades Mitch Kupchak kept busy shoring up the Lakers' depth chart by signing or re-signing Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. No team improved their near-term quality as much as the Lakers, and few if any teams did as much for their long-term prospects. And it only cost the Lakers Andrew Bynum, draft picks, cash and roster flotsam. Reloading on the fly was difficult under the old CBA and was supposed to be impossible for high-salary teams under the new CBA, but Kupchak pulled it off and DAMN IT'S GOOD TO BE A LAKER FAN.
But exactly how good is this monster he's created? Let's put aside the question of whether the new-look Lakers are the class of the NBA. Are they even the new favorites in the Western Conference? Opinion on that question is split. Bookmakers in Vegas moved the Lakers ahead of the Thunder after the Howard trade went down, not every one is convinced. Royce Young of CBS Sports still likes OKC, as does (subscription required) Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus. And don't forget, the Spurs are still out there, ready to annoy/impress the hoops world with another 55-win season.
Over the weekend a few of us asked ourselves whether the Lake Show now deserves to be the clear-cut heavies in the West. Check out our thoughts after the jump, and as always let us know what you think in the comments.
The Great Mambino
The two horses in this race are clearly the Lakers and the Thunder. With the Show, there's just so many variables: Nash's age, Kobe's age, Jamison's age, Metta's age, Dwight's back, Mike Brown's offense, Jordan Hill's continued development (?) and of course, every issue pertaining to adding two major pieces to a team. That's a LOT of revolving parts to be concerned about before a season. Now, that all being said, even with everything seemingly in flux going into 2012-13, the upside for this Lakers team is not just blowing away the Western Conference, but the NBA as a whole. This team's potential is to be not merely great, but to be one of the greatest teams ever to play in the National Basketball Association. Still, even this caveat makes them mere co-favorites to win the Western Conference. Why? Because the Thunder are that good.
Whether OKC remains the favorites depends on the continued growth of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and most importantly, James Harden. In 2010 during the FIBA World Championship tournament, it was clear that playing with the best basketball players on the planet had a tremendous effect on the development of Durant and Westbrook. I'll predict that the same exposure for KD and Westbrook, as well as Harden and Ibaka during the past month will spur an incredibly young, hungry team that craves respect and thinks about nothing but winning to even greater heights. All four of these players will be 24 years old or younger. They are only getting better, wiser and more experienced, as they begin their fourth season playing together. While the addition of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison is gigantic for the Lakers, there isn't enough that can be said about a young team with continuity that has two of the best 10 players in the league, both just at the beginning of their primes. The Lakers still don't have an answer for the Thunder's three deadly perimeter threats who hit jumpers by the boatload and with L.A. having few effective wing defenders in the fold, can easily get Howard and Pau into foul trouble.
Still, I have faith in Mike Brown, who for all his faults is still very capable of drawing up an excellent defensive scheme. The Lakers offense, like Oklahoma City's, will be nigh unstoppable. At the end of the day, I think it'll come down to who can stop whom. I'd like to believe it's L.A., but with so many variables, it's extremely hard to make a prediction right now.
To answer the question, are the Lakers the favorites in the Western Conference? Maybe, leaning closer to yes. Clear favorites? Definitely not.
I can't call them the clear favorites. In fact, I am not quite certain I can even call them the favorites.
Have the Lakers improved? Most certainly on paper they have, but we have yet to see this team play one minute together to gauge just how well the pieces fit. My biggest concern is spacing on offense.
Nash is a world class maestro when orchestrating an offense, but those great Suns teams were Nash plus at least three other three-point threats. The Lakers with both Howard and Gasol on the floor means no more than two shooters paired with Nash. This will likely keep two opposing big men near the basket at all times and may render Nash much less effective.
Some may claim that Gasol can provide some spacing by stepping out to 15 or 18 feet, but I would argue that Gasol at this distance is exactly what the defense wants. The simple fact is that a long two-point jump shot is the least efficient shot in the game, even for a great shooter like Gasol. For example, Gasol has made only 46% of his two-point attempts beyond 15 feet in his career as a Laker. That effective field goal percentage is the equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers offense last season, which ranked 29th in the league in this stat.
Smart teams pack the paint, prevent post-ups and penetration, and stay close to the shooters on the perimeter without helping. That is the reason the Lakers have performed worse in the playoffs with both Bynum and Gasol together than when only one is on the floor. Howard doesn't change this dynamic, and a lack of space may make Nash nothing but a more glorified Steve Blake. Unless Gasol suddenly becomes a legitimate three-point threat, I am afraid the Lakers may succumb to the same spacing issues that plagued them in past seasons when they were arguably the more talented team on paper in each series that they lost.
The Lakers made three consecutive trips to the finals when injuries to Bynum prevented the Bynum and Gasol dynamic from seeing the floor. Both post seasons featured heavy doses of the twin towers and resulted in early exits. Until this dynamic changes, whether via trade or development from within, I can't pick the Lakers as clear favorites over a team like Oklahoma City, which has star power with pieces that fit.
Stipulated: the Thunder weren't just better than the Lakers last season, they were much better. (For that matter, so were the Spurs.) Likewise stipulated: the Thunder will be better this season than they were last as their young core continues to develop its talents. Which means, for the Lakers to have overtaken OKC in the food chain, they need not merely to have improved, but improved by orders of magnitude. And my colleagues do make excellent points about all the factors (age, X's and O's, Mike Brown) that could derail the Lake Show Express.
Hold on a minute, though. I feel like we need to give a little more attention to the massively upgraded Laker role players. Last season there was a free fall in quality once you got past Kobe, Pau and Bynum. The awfulness of roster slots 4 through 14 (aside from a tiny bit of Ramon Sessions and some very-late-season Jordan Hill) meant there was no one to back up Kobe, no one to take advantage of open three-point looks, no one off the bench who could create his own shot and no decent big man to spell Pau and Drew. Meeks, Jamison and a full season of Hill will solve all of these problems.
So even the less sexy moves have made the Lakers a more complete, more dangerous team. Then you replace Bynum, a very good center, with Howard, one of the all-time greatest centers and entirely capable of winning an MVP award. And then you take the point-guard position, which (except for occasional Derek Fisher magic) was total deadweight in Lakerdom for the last decade, and you fill it with Steve Nash. For the all the well-argued commentary you can read about schematic difficulties the Lakers will face, we have to be careful not to overthink this. As Zach Lowe of SI put it, "there comes a point where you have so much talent to throw at a problem that it ceases to be a problem." The Lakers were a pretty good team to start, they did a bunch of little things to make themselves better, and ALSO IN ADDITION THEY ADDED DWIGHT HOWARD AND STEVE NASH.
Either Nash or Howard would have pulled the Lakers to within striking distance of OKC. The insane combination, along with less-insane but crucial upgrades down roster, rightly make them the odds-on favorites in the West.
By sheer force of deference to what Oklahoma City accomplished last year, I would have to say no at the moment, if only because we have to see the Lakers come together as a cohesive unit first. Make no mistake: this will be a spectacular team that can be utterly dominant on both ends. There will, however, be a growing process they have to undertake until they realize the full scope of their enormous potential. Granted, "growing process" means blowing most teams apart by 15 or 20 instead of 30, as the talent on this team is such that we should see huge dividends from the very start of the year.
For starters, Steve Nash is an offensive operator of such esteem that even if Mike Brown and Eddie Jordan haven't found an ideal balance between the Princeton offense's ball-sharing tendencies and giving Nash freedom to work his magic off the pick-and-roll - and recall that Jordan had this same problem with Jason Kidd in New Jersey and was able to formulate a successful approach - the offense should benefit enormously regardless. Nash has always been superb at elevating his teammates to greater heights, and he makes the ceiling the team can reach on offense sky high. On most teams, having one of Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard as Nash's pick-and-roll partner would be considered a huge boon; having both is borderline unfair. Gasol will receive the ball in his spots flawlessly, which syncs well with his skill set because there are so many things he can do from there, especially within the confines of the Princeton offense and the cutters that are omnipresent in that system. Howard is a roll man without peer, and should benefit tremendously from the fact that there will be three adept passers in the starting lineup (Nash, Kobe, Gasol) who can get him the ball near the rim. How Kobe fits into this mix will be the biggest quandary for Brown and Jordan to solve, but if he can be convinced to work more off the ball as a screener, cutter, and spot-up player, everyone else will benefit from his presence.
And that was just the starting unit, as the Lakers finally have a competent bench squad. Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks are the weak links here, but between the rock solid frontcourt rotation with Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill as well as the addition of a legitimate shooting threat in Jodie Meeks, Brown finally has a real rotation to work with, namely one whose reserves won't get blown off the floor when the starters aren't in the game. And on the subject of Brown, Howard's addition will either be the validation of his defensive acumen or a fairly damning affirmation of his mediocrity. There is no big in the game - hell, there are precious few in the history of the league - better suited to executing his aggressive hedge-and-recover system on the pick-and-roll than Howard, and with such a monstrous interior presence at their backs, the wings hopefully should be given greater leave to gamble and start forcing some turnovers, the defense's bete noire last year. By his lonesome, Howard more or less made Orlando an elite defensive team despite having two or three defensive liabilities on the floor with him at most times, and there is no reason to believe that he can't do the same thing here. Ultimately, we can critique Brown for many things, but he did construct excellent defenses in Cleveland with Anderson Varejao, a very good defensive big in his own right, as the fulcrum, and having faith that he can construct a championship level defense around Howard is a fairly safe assumption.
But as a final point going beyond what the team can do on offense and defense - top five efficiency marks in both are completely possible and to be expected - let us bring attention to what Howard makes the Lakers into: the anti-smallball team. Every single conference finalist last year (OKC, San Antonio, Boston, and Miami) ran nontraditional lineups with power forwards masquerading as centers, small forwards moving into the frontcourt as fours, and so forth in order to inject more speed and dynamism into the game, and Howard positively butchers these kinds of units. He simply can't be defended by the likes of Serge Ibaka, Kevin Garnett, or Chris Bosh, and unlike Bynum, opposing teams can't increase the pace to tire him out or blow past him in transition because of his insane athleticism. This forces teams to play traditional centers such as Kendrick Perkins to have a chance of slowing him down in the interior, and given the current personnel on these squads, it only detracts from their offensive capabilities given how poor most of these guys are on offense. Furthermore, being able to essentially ignore someone like Perkins on defense and roam gives Howard a huge amount of flexibility in terms of how he can disrupt opposing offenses, only compounding the problem for these teams. As such, smallball teams will have to make a Catch-22: go small and try to put up enough points against a Howard-led defense while getting decimated on the interior, or trot out a panoply of big defensive bodies at center that greatly limit the overall offensive potential of the unit on the floor. Of course, this is an "on paper" assumption that will have to be realized in real play, but the Lakers have the capacity to be every bit as good and even better than the top teams in the league. The journey to get to that point and whether that potential can be actualized will be most interesting.