Most people would call last season an unequivocal disaster. But I contend that such a statement is selling the debacle well-short.
It was an Extinction-Level Event.
It is my contention that there was never a worse Lakers team--Minneapolis or Los Angeles--in their 68-year run. And to me, there's no doubt that the 2014-2015 edition of the Los Angeles Lakers could top that.
At 27-55, the 2013-2014 edition of the Los Angeles Lakers rang up a docket full of futility records, both in-game and over an entire season. No Lakers team had ever lost more games and only one, the 1957-58 club, had a worse winning percentage. They lost seven straight contests at home in front of an increasingly dissatisfied fan base, as well as the worst drubbing in their history, a 142-94 nationally televised loss only made worse by the fact that it was at the hands of their "crosstown rival" Clippers. A large part of the team's utter inability to compete on a night-in and night-out basis had to be their pitiful defense, which allowed the 2nd most points per 100 possessions in Lakers history.
But another significant component of their collective failures had to be the roster's extensive injury report. The Lakers lost nearly 400 games to the injury bug--easily the tops in the league--which included centerpiece Kobe Bryant (76), Steve Nash (67), Pau Gasol (22), Jordan Farmar (41), Xavier Henry (39) and Nick Young (18) all missing time with various maladies. For large stretches, the team simply couldn't compete, as their active roster was filled mostly with inexperienced young players, one-dimensional retreads and reclamation projects. Even when the Lakers would get a player back from the inactive list, the sheer volume of returns and departures made it a nightly struggle for coach Mike D'Antoni to create any type of continuity in his lineups.
With last week's re-signings of Ryan Kelly, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry, GM Mitch Kupchak and VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss are bringing back many parts of that 27-55 squad. The Lakers still do not have a full roster, so there still is a chance that they could bring on an impact player late in the offseason. However, looking at the team's cap figure and roster composition, that venture looks rather slim. Thus, by-and-large, this is the 2014-2015 Lakers roster. And it is absolutely horrid.
Please keep this in mind: the Lakers still don't have a head coach, a miraculous development considering the other remaining team with such a vacancy--the Brooklyn Nets--filled it two weeks ago. All signs point to Byron Scott being named the team's newest skipper, which as The CDP pointed out last week, should result in predictably catastrophic results for the franchise. However, I would never bar the Lakers from completely changing course last minute, so whoever ends up being their head coach could change my forecast for the upcoming campaign. But that being said, there's really no reason to consider that Scott won't be chosen, which only adds fuel to this fire.
When discussing the 2013-2014 Lakers, the headline story will most likely be the massive amount of injuries. But for me, their ultimate fate is always going to truly be about one thing: defense. Or a complete, and utter, lack thereof. Looking forward, this is the first of several issues that I foresee damning next season's team.
Many Lakers fans--as they are wont to do--will pace the blame squarely at the feet of coach D'Antoni. True, MDA has never placed the greatest emphasis on defense, but the team's performance goes far beyond what mere direction can or cannot help. It was sheer inability.
For all the squad's athletes and young players, there wasn't a less capable group of defenders in the NBA, hands down. Robert Sacre was by far the team's best rim protector, but is still a developing player. Jordan Hill, probably the team's best overall defender, isn't a strong shot blocker, nor is he a paint deterrent in the mold of a Tyson Chandler or Dwight Howard. Henry, Johnson and Young are all spry, explosive and thus far, not lacking of effort--results is another issue entirely.
Other than that, the team was simply burnt toast on most nights. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant--if they were on the floor--looked every bit of their combined 75 years on Earth. Chris Kaman, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall and Pau Gasol were statues of statues, designed after a painting of statues.
This group of immobile, poor defenders couldn't protect the rim or keep up with any guards on the perimeter. They didn't hedge enough on help and gambled too hard when faced with any semblance of successful floor spacing. In many cases, guys simply weren't strong enough to stand their ground, whether it'd be Kelly trying to contain other bigs or Meeks and Marshall getting bullied by other swingmen. But the worst component of all at play? This team was trying. To the very last game of the season, the 2013-2014 Lakers busted their humps for D'Antoni, playing from whistle to whistle in almost every game. They were expelling effort on defense, but just couldn't execute when they needed most.
Though there were two teams that had worst points per 100 possession ratings, for my money, there was no more defensively inept squad last season than the Lakers. Looking towards next season, why should that change at all?
Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, two big men waving the big red blankets in front of the rim last year, are both gone. Bazemore and Meeks, two full effort but less than fully equipped defenders, have also departed. In their places? Maybe worse solutions: the recently amnestied Carlos Boozer, prized rookie Julius Randle, second rounder Jordan Clarkson, former lottery pick Ed Davis and former Houston Rocket Jeremy Lin. None of these players is considered defensive specialists and in the case of Lin and Boozer, whatever the qualified opposite is.
Boozer was a net negative on the court last season, part of the reason why he'd frequently finish games waving a towel after a basket on the bench rather than celebrating on the court with his teammates. Lin has never been a strong defender, neither in his ability or effort. Together, they'll take up the lion's share of court time created by the vacancies left by Gasol and Meeks, a frightening prospect when looking at the rest of the lineup.
Kobe Bryant has been reported with a fully clean bill of health, though there's really no telling how his soon-to-be 36-year-old body will react when thrown onto the court to face NBA-level competition. However, if the Mamba's pre-injury defense was any indication, we have to expect that he'll look like the old man he jokingly refers to himself as in interviews. As for Randle and Clarkson, there's really no telling how steep the learning curve will be for them entering the NBA, but if the past 60 years of basketball have taught us, it should be rather steep. I'm not expecting much from them on that side of the floor next season.
Defensively, the Lakers should be every bit as bad as they were last season, with potential to crater even further if the front office doesn't hire a coach that the players will run through a wall for. However, that's only part of the equation. The other half has to be another season of potentially disruptive injuries.
I highly doubt that the team will face another similarly historically devastating year, but when examining the personnel, I have concerns that this team will miss some serious court time. The potential starting five of Lin, Bryant, Henry, Randle and Hill all have faced recent injury issues, the least troublesome of which may be Randle's foot, which is saying a lot. Backing them up is Steve Nash, whose basketball bodybag is already zipped up to the eyebrows.
All last season, I wrote a lot about continuity and its importance. The 2012-2013 Lakers suffered greatly because their pieces could never establish enough of a rhythm to ever truly gel together as an offensive or defensive unit. There were too many injuries, too many resulting lineup changes and too many players pressed into roles that they weren't ready for. The 2013-2014 Lakers were a much less talented group, which was only compounded by facing a very similar set of circumstances. When talking about next season's roster, it feels that watching Nash and Bryant come in and out of the lineup, as well as guys like Randle, Clarkson and Kelly taking too much responsibility too quickly, we're looking at the very same circumstances that have damned the last two years of Lakers basketball.
And thus, we see the aggregate effects that may linger from Kobe Bean Bryant being the centerpiece of the 2014-2015 LA Lakers. At this point, there isn't a single person--even Bryant himself--that can give an accurate assessment of what the Mamba will look like next season...except for perhaps defensively. Offensively, there is the potential that he'll adapt to the times--as he's done his entire career--but predicting that he'll be able to put a team on his back at age 36 like he did 10 seasons ago with a similar crew of scrubs is an exercise in wishful thinking. The team looks like it's designed with Bryant as the fulcrum of the offense, as Lin and Young are really the only other players that can create for themselves. Kobe, even in his dilapidated state, should be the team's best scorer, which can't mean great things for the team's overall attack as well as defense. Any injury to him, which shouldn't be at all a surprise at this point, would not only be extremely disruptive for the team overall, but also just another huge monkey wrench in the team's continuity...yet again.
Offensively, this team could be high scoring but inefficient, and that's only if all the pieces fit together. Again, referencing The CDP's piece, Scott's offenses tend to be stagnant and revolve heavily around a slow down, post-up scheme with talented guards to create actions. Though Lin and Bryant can certainly create, there won't be anyone in the mold of Chris Paul, Jason Kidd or Kyrie Irving to disrupt defenses and create shots for themselves. However, without knowing who the coach is, it's extremely premature to predict just how this team will function scoring-wise.
It's still very early, but this team's heavy dependency around an aging and injury-prone Bryant, injury concerns across the roster and another putrid-looking defense should cripple this team's chance of not only winning, but even maintaining their competitive dignity throughout the year. The only potential salve I see here is that the additions of Ed Davis and Boozer, may make this season's team slightly deeper than last season's. However, if you consider all other things equal--if not worse with Scott at the helm--then we're simply looking at a team that's depending on the performance of Kobe Bryant rather than Pau Gasol.
As I've said many times, basketball isn't checkers--it's a three-dimensional game of chess. It isn't as simple as replacing old pieces and reading the calculus of it all. But looking at how everything may fall, I just don't see right now how this team is improved from last season. Defense wins titles, and the lack thereof will doom the Lakers this season just as it did last. Combine that with a simple lack of talent and serious injury concerns, the 2014-2015 Lakers could be worse than the worst.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino