Less than two months from the start of training camp, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a unique position that the franchise has seldom faced going into any NBA season: with long odds against them to make the postseason.
There's really little to argue against that premise, with the exception of citing intangible motivating factors like "Kobe Bryant's undying will to win" or looking to an even higher power (some would argue) and saying that God loves the Lakers too much for them to be bad for this long. But examining all the empirical evidence, the damning facts are there.
After the Lakers struck out almost completely in free agency this past summer, the team will once again revolve around the excellence of Kobe Bryant. While this has obviously behooved the organization for the past decade--and even further past that--the Black Mamba is 36 years old, past his prime and coming off of two devastating leg injuries. Bryant is still the straw that stirs the purple & gold drink, but even as much as he'd like to channel his inner 30-something Reggie Jackson, time--and NBA history--are against him.
That right there should be enough to make any rational Lakers fan a bit dour on the team's prospects. But the rest of the supporting cast isn't helping matters. The roster is filled with reclamation projects (Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Ed Davis), unproven youngsters (Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre), faded stars (Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer) and young veterans still trying to find their games (Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill). Altogether, the fit just doesn't look quite there. Offensively, this team doesn't even remotely resemble any of the teams that Byron Scott's had success with, and that's even with Kobe Bryant performing at the peak of his powers. Defensively, the word "disaster" comes to mind, but that term may not even be adequate for what could lie ahead for this Lakers team.
All in all, placing your emotional stock in this team right now looks about as heady of an investment as throwing down for a piece of Myspace in 2014. Beyond the factors that the Lakers can control, they're looking at a Western Conference that will be (cliché alert) as competitive as it's ever been. There could be as many as 9 teams that win close to 50 games and that's discounting any possible strides that New Orleans might make. To me, the Lakers have virtually no chance at making the playoffs. Combine that with an uncertain forecast for the 2015 offseason and free agency (Kevin Love may not be an option any longer) and the Phoenix Suns owning the team's upcoming draft pick (thus all but eliminating the motivation to tank), LA's road map back to title contention is as muddled as we've ever seen. We saw this almost unprecedented situation for the franchise at the end of last season: a Los Angeles Lakers team flirting on the fringes of NBA irrelevance. Come February, March and April, why should anyone pay attention to a team that's well out of the race for even the bottom rungs of the playoff bracket? With the future on hold for yet another season, there's a chance that we're not even witnessing more than one Julius Randle-sized building block for the next great Lakers team. Besides a guttural, instinctive urge to follow this team, what's there to watch? What's there to care about?
Controversy. Isn't that always the case with the Los Angeles Lakers?
Looking to next season, the most interesting facet of this team may focus less on the team itself than the pieces that revolve within it. We're used to the Lakers being fodder for sports radio and the talking heads on television. But unlike most years, the drama surrounding the Lake Show may be the only noteworthy aspect of the franchise.
As always, I suspect lightning rod numero uno will be the Black Mamba, who despite being in the twilight of his career should attract considerable attention. Unfortunately, very little may be because the Lakers are winning games.
Bryant's assault on the record books should grab headlines just like Derek Jeter is in his final year with the New York Yankees. Kobe is less than 600 points away from surpassing Michael Jordan on the career scoring list and if he plays even 2,000 minutes this year, will vault all the way to 9th place in NBA minutes played (passing Hall of Famers Robert Parish, John Havlicek and Gary Payton). With even just 60 games played, Bryant will have participated in more games than all but 15 other players.
As incredible as Kobe's accomplishments are, he'll be doing so on a struggling team, once again magnifying the age-old argument of the dichotomy of Bryant's achievements versus that of his squad. This will only be fueled by the ever-present $48 million shadow that's been cast over the roster, as the Mamba's gargantuan contract is inevitably a fire starter conversation between most NBA fans. Still, as evidenced by the Lakers' 28 nationally televised games this season, interest in Kobe Bryant--negative or positive--stills burns hot. It seems that no matter how bad the team looks on paper, the discourse revolving around Bean is still popular. However, he'll hardly be the only target of controversy this season. Enter: Jeremy Lin.
Seemingly, just as one second banana leaves town in a cloud of Spanish dust, another drops right into his spot to draw the ire of the gigantic Lakers fan base. Jeremy Lin has been one of the most controversial figures in basketball over the past three years, which is rather remarkable all on its own. In so many ways, there's nothing controversial about him. He is, on his best day, a very good role player. Not even a "not quite an All-Star"...just a very good role player. However, he's certainly far from a guy who should be playing overseas somewhere. Beyond his skill level, he's...just a really nice boy. Lin has made his pronouncement in his faith well known publicly, and while that personality trait does not always translate into a well-behaved human being, it seems to be the case with the point guard. He's thoughtful and well-spoken, with rarely a bad word spoken out loud.
However, in other ways, Lin could very well provide the greatest split of opinions on the Lakers next season. Even more so than Kobe.
There are some who will argue that Lin is still a developing All-Star, with a great jump shot that's still bubbling to the surface. There will be some who say his defense is actually quite decent, that he's not nearly the sieve some writers and critics make him out to be. More than a few will blame any of his shortcomings on his coach, or his selfish teammates and...they might not be wrong.
But there will also be some who will say that Lin isn't anything more than an overpaid role player. A defensive liability who is really only focused on handling the rock at all times and some would say an even bigger ball hog than Kobe. Some will say he's too one-dimensional, too un-athletic and that he only ever got a break in this league because of the color of his skin...and those people might not be wrong either.
These arguments will happen. Lin wields a sizeable fanbase , a defensive crew that I got my first taste of weeks ago when I penned a somewhat critical argument against the guard, but also with many points in his favor. After talking to several Houston Rockets bloggers, as well as living in New York when Lin hit his peak, I know firsthand that his fanbase is rabid and is not afraid to start an argument. Playing on the most popular team in the world isn't going to do anything but magnify the perpendicular opinions about him, with a bevy of haters ready to skewer a guy who's going to be on national TV 20+ times next year for a genuinely horrible Lakers squad. As turbulent a ride as it is loving or hating Kobe Bryant, it could be Jeremy Lin who attracts the biggest dichotomy of opinion.
Couple those two lightning rod players with a grip of expiring contracts, a few draft picks and some intriguing young players, the Lakers are going to consistently be involved in trade rumors all season long. It's easy to envision the Lakers floundering on the court in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. But in terms of off the court drama? They'll be on top.
No matter how good or bad the Lakers are, they'll always be in the public consciousness. But this year, perhaps not for reasons we'd all really like.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino