Looking at this year's edition of the Los Angeles Lakers, you could have made an argument--easily, some would say--that the '13-14 team is packed with just as much, or more talent than last season's. Let's take a look:
Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Clarkson and Ronnie Price might very well be an upgrade over last year's core of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Kent Bazemore, Kendall Marshall and just over a dozen games from Steve Nash, simply on the merit of Bean making his return.
While Pau Gasol is certainly missed, the defensive potential of Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Robert Sacre could definitely equate in talent and overall value to Hill, Sacre, the Spaniard and Chris Kaman. An unfortunately timed injury to Julius Randle could have definitively swayed the balance towards the '14-15 Lakers' frontcourt. Please note that I did not mention Carlos Boozer. At all.
Looking at the swingmen, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry all remain, leaving them at an even wash from last year. However, some would say Young is a better player, as is hopefully Johnson with a summer full of off-season workouts with Kobe.
When I wrote this year's Lakers aren't only worse than last year's, but were the worst of all-time, I got a tremendous amount of push back. Almost unanimously. How could a team with Kobe Bryant be worse than a team without Kobe Bryant? That just didn't make sense. Moreover, even beyond just addressing the intangibles the Black Mamba brings to the table, comparing both teams side by side could arguably give the edge to the very Lake Show we see before us.
But my credo when it comes to the NBA is that professional basketball isn't playing checkers -- it's playing three dimensional chess. Against a robot. That Bruce Wayne designed. It's never an apples to apples comparison when evaluating two players. One can't simply say that Jerry West was a better player than Hakeem Olajuwan. There are too many variables to consider -- positional differentiation, offensive statistics, defensive metrics, teammates, minutes played, offense and defensive systems played in, usage rate .... I could go on. But the point is, taking a player, or a group of players, and assigning overall value to them without looking at varying factors doesn't a fair contrast make. That's like saying a meal in Mexico is better than a meal in Seattle because you shelled out more coins for it. You've got to have context.
In comparing last year's team to this one, it isn't about the amount of talent, it's how that talent fits. Last year's team, as flawed as they were, played to an amazing ceiling, especially considering how prominent roles were for guys like Marshall, Johnson and Meeks. That's because the team was much better suited to play Mike D'Antoni's style -- plenty of three-point shooters, athletes that could get up and down the floor and point guards who could execute top of the key pick-and-roll plays. Sure, the team was atrocious defensively, but they weren't the most atrocious .... just the 28th most. Out of 30. As limited as the team was in skillset, those limited skillsets at least complemented one another.
The evidence? Pau Gasol is a very good passing big man out of the post. It certainly couldn't have hurt a team that finished seventh in three-point percentage for the year and it's probably not a coincidence that the top five three-point shooters on the team finished at the top or near the top of their respective career lines in three-pointers made. Overall, those Lakers were horrid mid-range shooters .... so the team just didn't shoot mid-range jumpers. Guys like Wesley Johnson weren't ready or equipped to make decisions with the ball, thus guys like Wesley Johnson were given roles as spot-up shooters and finishers on the run. Meanwhile, multi-dimensional point guards like Farmar and Steve Blake were given the responsibilities to make decisions with the ball, including starting on-court offensive actions, as well as taking shots from deep themselves.
Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports
The MDA Lakers weren't good by any stretch of the imagination, but there's little doubt to me that they were all put in situations where they could best succeed, as the system best accentuated their strengths. That is the biggest problem with Byron Scott's Lakers, though on paper the talent may be superior to last year. The pieces just don't fit. And it's leaving me with so many questions ....
Why is Jeremy Lin, whose best skill is unquestionably driving to the basket, taking it to the rack the same amount of times per game as Shelvin Mack, Perry Jones III and Patrick Beverley? And why hasn't he been more successful at it? Because there aren't enough three-point shooters on the team to adequately space the floor.
Why is Wesley Johnson, whose best skill is finishing plays at the rim and spotting up for threes, being asked to start pick-and-roll-actions at the wing and create off the dribble? Because there aren't any other wing players capable of doing so right now.
Why has Kobe taken the most three-point attempts on the team, despite being a sub-par long range shooter for his career? Because he may be the best option out there.
Why are Jordan Hill and Ed Davis not playing more often together? In fact, 22nd in terms of minutes on the team? Because offensively their games are so similar that it's difficult to pair them without the scoring suffering.
Why is Kobe dribbling for 20 seconds and then taking a double-teamed 20-footer? Because no defense worth its salt has to worry about long-range shooting from his teammates and can use a zone to seal off the interior.
Why is the team 29th in turnovers already? Because guys like Jordan Clarkson, Wesley Johnson and Carlos Boozer are being put in places where they have to facilitate for their teammates.
These are just a few examples of the many ways this team isn't working that I've seen in just four games. These Lakers simply do not complement each other, as well as what Scott's system seems geared for early on offensively. Jeremy Lin is a driving point guard with a poor mid-range jumper and league-average three-point shot. That doesn't work without any other three-point shooters on the team. The Lakers are emphasizing long two-pointers, though no one on the team besides Kobe and apparently Jordan Hill can hit that shot with regularity. Even when the team does manage to get the ball out to the perimeter, not only are there few options, but this squad is just full of guys with painfully slow releases ....Wayne Ellington, Ronnie Price and Lin, I'm looking your way.
Defensively, it's the same story. Davis and Hill don't play together. Kobe loafs off his assignments and guys like Price and Lin can't compensate adequately enough. The team has one shot blocker in Davis, but he's averaging 4.8 fouls per game. Carlos Boozer is getting plenty of minutes, but his lack of athleticism is badly hurting the defensive scheme already crippled by young, inexperienced players making mistakes.
These Lakers are consistently, foolishly continuing to try and pound round pegs into square holes. 15 of them, in fact. The players don't fit the system while the players don't fit with one another. Strengths aren't being accentuated and flaws aren't being hidden. This is a young, athletic team that's built to run but doesn't seem to accelerate very much and is satisfied to plod on with a half-court offense. The few lockdown stalwarts on a squad of poor defenders cannot make up for the mistakes and limitations of their teammates. Even Kobe's value offensively is negated when no one can make up for his defensive lapses and there isn't another teammate that can benefit off his double teams.
Some of these issues will be addressed when Nick Young returns if he's as effective as last season, but with such a serious injury on his shooting hand, there's no telling when he'll re-acclimate to old form. Ryan Kelly, who's been sidelined with hamstring injuries, could also help in terms of shooting, but unless he's made gigantic strides defensively this summer, it might be a net-neutral contribution. However, what we see is most likely what we're going to get. Unless Scott radically changes how he's been running his system, I'm almost positive that the '14-15 will not be better than last year's squad, no matter what it says on paper.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino