It has been a long time since the Lakers have appeared truly rudderless going into a season, hopes of competing for a title dashed to all but the most deranged viewers, yet seemingly no clear plan on the horizon for how the team is going to rebuild. With Kobe Bryant returning to the fold, the team presumably will make a game attempt at fielding a competitive outfit, but to put it plainly, they lack the means to do so, even with perfect health on the roster. We will leave that discussion for another time, namely what kind of roster strategy they should be employing from a team-building perspective, and focus primarily on trying to parse out any real means of the Lakers surpassing their quite dim expectations for this upcoming season.
And make no mistake: they are exceptionally dim. Blake wrote on whether this could be one of the worst Lakers teams ever earlier this summer, and while that still might be a stretch, it's not an outlandish claim either. They jettisoned Mike D'Antoni for a demonstrably worse offensive coach -- and worse coach overall, but we digress -- and the current starting lineup is a horror story on defense. No, really, let's look at the depth chart:
|Starters||Bench||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String|
|PG||Steve Nash||Jeremy Lin||Jordan Clarkson||Ronnie Price (CI)||Keith Appling (CI)|
|SG||Kobe Bryant||Wayne Ellington (CI)||Jabari Brown (CI)|
|SF||Wesley Johnson||Nick Young||Xavier Henry||Roscoe Smith (CI)|
|PF||Carlos Boozer||Julius Randle||Ryan Kelly|
|C||Jordan Hill||Ed Davis||Robert Sacre||Jeremy Tyler (CI)|
The (CI) refers to camp invites and that presumably won't be settled for a while, although Ellington's place is an otherwise sparse wing rotation is likely a safe assumption. Regardless, try to pinpoint the best defender on the team. Or even more elementary than that, point to an above average defender anywhere on the roster. Seasoned NBA viewers will rightfully choose Ed Davis, but that's as much an indictment of the rest of the roster as it is praise of how underrated Davis' game is. As it stands, the team is utterly bereft of serviceable defenders and in fact, there probably are more players who are outright travesties on defense than there are merely average ones.
Look no further than the starting backcourt to wince at the notion that the Lakers can stop anyone on the perimeter. Even at his peak, Nash was a poor defender and the crippling nerve damage he has received has only compounded this issue. As for Kobe, he was the subject of withering criticism at this site in the '12-'13 season for how he essentially mailed in his defensive responsibilities, and considering that he is returning from a major injury and will have to once again carry a tremendous offensive load, there's little hope of this improving in a substantial fashion. There's even the question of whether Kobe even has the physical ability to be a good defender nowadays, but this is impossible to answer until we get a good look at how he returns from injury.
The rest of the starting lineup isn't quite as horrible, Carlos Boozer's abominable defense notwithstanding, but suffice it to say that that group's defense is and will be an insult to what five traffic cones could do out there. And yet Scott is very likely going to continue to field that starting five, whether out of a misplaced affection for veterans, a perception that he needs to play veterans in order to compete, or just a plain misunderstanding of the roster's capabilities. The Lakers lack the personnel period to even be an average defensive team, but there are configurations available that could perhaps push the team into something not resembling a dumpster fire every night on that end. Playing Davis more is the principal option, although one could argue that simply limiting how much Nash and Boozer see the court in favor of their much more able replacements would be ideal.
We're not really here, however, to say that the Lakers' reserves are better on defense since that's painfully apparent, but to make the claim that you could even argue that the reserves could be more competent than the starters on the offensive side of the ball. This seems like a blasphemous claim considering that Kobe is part of the latter, but it has to be emphasized how limited that group is when you look closer at how at how they presumably will operate as a unit. No one besides Kobe can create their own shot, Nash isn't going to receive nearly as many pick-and-roll opportunities with a spaced floor as he would under Mike D'Antoni, and the frontcourt is painfully limited. Boozer is a glorified midrange shooter and pick-and-pop threat at this point in his career, and as we learned last year, Hill doesn't really possess the tools to be effective on a consistent basis outside of putbacks and rolls to the rim.
Combine that with Byron Scott's less-than-stellar record on that side of the ball and you have a recipe for a truly miserable group on both ends. The only consistent source of offense is going to be Kobe post-ups on the elbow over and over again since you can't dump the ball to anyone in the post, Scott's Princeton-style system isn't going to emphasize the pick-and-roll as much as last year, and most of all, this starting group is old and slow. There aren't a lot of ways for this group to get easy transition buckets and the same cannot be said for their opponents on the other end. The deliberate, grind-out offensive scheme hasn't been completely phased out in today's more uptempo, smallball era, Memphis the past few years being the most prominent example, but the Lakers don't really have the personnel to run that kind of scheme.
The preseason games so far have mostly borne this out in a rather extreme fashion as the Lakers have failed to make any sort of hay on offense due to the inefficient shots the offense is producing. Yes, the team has fewer shooters than last year and shouldn't be running a spread pick-and-roll style all the time with Kobe present, but by the same token, what they're currently doing isn't working. Offenses that fail to actively seek out easy transition buckets, corner threes, and/or opportunities at the rim don't work, and the starters are too often bogged down into a monotony of watching Kobe get the ball and either shoot a very difficult midrange fadeaway or pass to a release valve like Boozer who also invariably releases a long two pointer. Basically, replacing the three point attempts from last year with long twos has closed off the lane due to the horrid spacing it engenders and rendered the offense ineffective, not to mention borderline unwatchable.
And despite this, a good deal of the training camp rhetoric so far has been building up Byron Scott as the anti-D'Antoni of sorts. Granted, we need to take it for what it is: rhetoric, but by the same token, this is the same Byron that sat in the TWCSN studio all of last season lambasting what the Lakers were doing on both ends. Seeing that the Lakers have heavily downplayed the three in the offense thus far, however, it's something that he has taken to heart and is putting into action as far as we can see. Frankly, there's not much more that needs to be seen: what lies at the end of this route is an offense that doesn't create the spacing necessary to get to the rim, whether via drives or Princeton cuts, and hoists a ton of long twos while losing badly every single night.
The internal solutions for dealing with this are limited, but they can at least put a dent in the problems that plague the starters. For one, the reserves have multiple options capable of creating offense (Lin, Randle, Clarkson, Henry), offer more serviceable shooters (Young, Ellington), and most of all, aren't limited to walking the ball up the court. The easiest fix for not scoring in the halfcourt is to get as many buckets as you can in transition or semi-transition, and there are quite a few players who like to push the ball among the Laker reserves. Considering that essentially the entirety of the Laker frontcourt is undersized and would benefit from rim running near constantly -- this is particularly one of Davis' strengths -- to maximize their advantage every given night, this would appear to be especially necessary.
Finally, the simple reality is that this team doesn't have a very high ceiling. Or even an average ceiling for that matter when it comes down to it. We know what most of the veterans on the team can produce, from which we can reasonably extrapolate their performance for the upcoming year. Yeah, there are ups and downs and the occasional bounce back season for veterans, Kobe's '12-'13 campaign the one most fresh in our minds, but those don't happen all that often. To surpass expectations you need players who will play above their perceived ceiling and that is only really going to come from the team's youngsters. While throwing the likes of Randle and Clarkson into big roles could flame out, it at least opens up the possibility for more success this year than their limited veteran corps will. Getting this type of production out of otherwise limited or inexperienced players was one of Mike D'Antoni's particular strengths and much as Scott likes to rag on him, it is one thing about his predecessor that he would do well to emulate.
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