Los Angeles Lakers: 10 Encouraging Signs of a Stellar 2012-13 Season

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IAugust 21, 2012

Los Angeles Lakers: 10 Encouraging Signs of a Stellar 2012-13 Season

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    When the 2011-12 NBA season ended, the Lakers looked like an old, beaten down former contender that stayed in the ring a bit too long.  The Oklahoma City Thunder dominated Kobe Bryant and Co. in the second round of the playoffs, exposing a team that looked old, slow and sorely lacking depth.

    Just three months later, as Labor Day approaches and training camp is less than 60 days away, these same Lakers have reason to feel optimistic that 2012-13 may well be their year to take back the title and hang another banner in the rafters of Staples Center.

    So what happened over the course of the summer to change L.A. from a team destined for the scrap heap of hoops into a team of possible destiny and a world championship come next June?

    How can an aging team that finished 41-25 in the regular season, was seeded third in the playoffs and had the stuffing squeezed out of them by OKC last spring be expected to contend for a title the following year?

    How could the Lakers, who started the offseason way over the salary cap, with no first-round draft pick and only a mini mid-level exception to use as bait for a trade or free-agent signing, go from being the team that Magic Johnson suggested be "blown up" to one that today is the envy of the NBA?

    While fans and critics of the Lakers wondered aloud about the commitment to greatness by its players, coaches, management and ownership, it appears now that the franchise took the time to draw up a flexible plan of attackcomplete with audiblesthat would address most of the Lakers' needs and give them an opportunity to legitimately challenge OKC, San Antonio, Miami and any other contender for the crown in 2012-13.

    There are a number of encouraging signs for the Lakers of next season, not the least of which is a burning desire by Kobe Bryant to grab a world championship ring for his other hand.  Let's examine what other signs point to a stellar campaign by the new look Lakers.

10. Goodbye, Ramon Sessions. Hello, Steve Nash

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    How Steve Nash ended up in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform is one of those stories that will be told over and over again at disbelieving dinner tables around Southern California for years.

    In June, all the talk was about re-signing Ramon Sessions and giving him the opportunity to start the season as the Lakers point guard, despite his dismal showing late in the playoffs against the Thunder.

    But after Sessions decided to test the free-agency waters, the Lakers decided to look elsewhere and somehow came up with a startling deal to acquire Nash, who at 38, is still one of the top 10 PGs in the NBA and is a future Hall of Fame first-ballot selection.

    One of the main reasons Steve Nash is a member of the Lakers today, and not Toronto or New York, is because he wanted to be close to his children, who live with their mother in Phoenix.

    After publicly stating that he couldn't see himself in a Lakers uniform playing for his long-time rivals and alongside his nemesis, Kobe Bryant, Nash made the decision to go to L.A. and try to win a championship before he retires.

    What's encouraging is that Nash has taken to L.A. and brings a can do, leadership quality to the team that was sorely lacking last year after the Lakers unceremoniously dumped veteran Derek Fisher.

    Not only will Nash bring his uncanny quarterbacking skills and career averages of 14.5 points, 43 percent from three-point range and 8.6 assists per game to L.A., but he will also bring durability: The 16-year veteran averaged almost 32 minutes while starting all 62 games for the Suns last year.

    The Lakers closed one door on Ramon Sessions and look who they found behind another.

9. Once Anemic Bench Suddenly Looks Quite Promising

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    The Lakers bench averaged 21.3 points per game as an entire unit, which was dead last in 2011-12. 

    Matt Barnes, no longer with the team, was the leading bench scorer at 7.8 points per game.  Compare that with Antawn Jamison who averaged 17.2 points last year in Cleveland and who is a former Sixth Man of the Year when he played for Dallas (2003-04).

    As Suns Coach Alvin Gentry recently told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times: "They'll either have Metta World Peace or Jamison coming off the bench, and that immediately makes their bench better.  Then you throw in Jodie Meeks, which to me is like a great fit."

    Much like Lamar Odom, Jamison is used to being a starter and has averaged 19.5 points on 45 percent (35 percent beyond the arc) shooting, eight rebounds and 33 minutes per game.  The 6'9", 235-pound forward may be 36, but he's in a good shape and will give the Lakers tremendous scoring punch whether he starts or comes off the pine.

    Likewise, Jodie Meeks decided L.A. was the best fit for his guard skills even though he just turned 25 year old. With exceptional outside shooting ability, Meeks will play backup to Kobe Bryant.

    Meeks averaged 8.4 points in 25 minutes last year for the Sixers and made 37 percent of his shots from three-point range.  He should allow coach Mike Brown to rest Bryant after the Mamba averaged 38 minutes last year, which is about five minutes more than he should be playing.

    Add a re-signed Jordan Hill at backup center (6.4 rebounds and five points in 18 minutes per playoff game for the Lakers), and you begin to feel like L.A. has much more to offer when the starters come off the floor for a breather. 

    Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks most likely will improve over last year, and the Lakers acquired Chris Duhon and Earl Clark in the Dwight Howard deal.

    Several players, including second-year pros Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock, will battle it out for remaining spots on the Lakers roster.  The bench suddenly seems flush with talent.

8. Lakers Went out and Got Themselves an Offense: The Princeton

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    Anyone watching the Lakers this past season saw an offense that sputtered and stalled much too often.  This was anything but Showtime.

    While the Lakers improved their defense (96.2 PPG) under the defensive eye of Mike Brown, their offense left much to be desired, averaging 97.3 points. 

    Brown has been known to court former Sixers assistant and and soon to be new L.A. assistant coach Eddie Jordan.  The former Laker player, who has been an assistant coach at Philadelphia, has a keen understanding of the Princeton Offense which works somewhat like the familiar Triangle that the Lakers used to run under former head coach Phil Jackson.

    Expect to see the Lakers combine the Princeton with traditional pick-and-roll basketball. The former should benefit Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol tremendously, while Dwight Howard and Steve Nash will often work plays around the latter.

    With the newly configured Lakers lineup of Howard, Gasol, Bryant, Nash and either Metta World Peace or Antawn Jamison, expect to see a more fluid offense, one that will be capable of averaging 100 points or better every night.

7. Dwight on the Road to Recovery: Signs Point to Him Being 100 Percent

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    All the reports about Dwight Howard and his post back surgery recovery have been positive.

    The conventional wisdom is that the team would not have traded Andrew Bynum had they thought Howard might not play this season or that his back surgery would limit his range and abilities.

    According to a report on ESPN radio that featured prominent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Klapper, Howard is coming along just fine and should make a complete recovery from his herniated disc operation. 

    It is also thought that Howard will be back running and training for the new season sometime in the next week or two, a great sign for Lakers fans.

    If the Lakers do start the season without Howard, which is a possibility, Pau Gasol will man the center position; and Jordan Hill will be his backup.

6. Pau Gasol Looked Anything but "Soft" During Summer Games in London

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    The real Pau Gasol showed up at the London Summer Games two weeks ago, a far cry from the "lost" version who experienced his most trying season with the Lakers and was the subject of too many trade rumors over the past year.

    Gasol re-asserted himself in the low post as his Spanish national team went all the way to the gold medal game again before succumbing (again) to the U.S.A. and Kobe Bryant. 

    Gasol was anything but soft as he is sometimes labeled in the NBA.  He scored 24 points, had eight rebounds and handed out five assists against the U.S.A. in the gold medal game and almost singlehandedly won the game for Spain.

    After having watched Gasol in L.A. for the past four years, it's obvious he plays with passion and thrives in tough situations when his back is against the wall.

    The reason Gasol looked clueless at times with the Lakers last season had more to do with how he was used by Mike Brown than anything.  Gasol may be 32, but he has a lot of gas left in the proverbial tank and should absolutely excel under the Princeton Offense with Steve Nash at the point.

5. Jim Buss Actually Seems to Know What He's Doing

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    If you had asked most Laker followers in May what they thought of the job Jim Buss was doing in running the team, you might have had to put ear muffs on the kids.

    But after one of the team's best offseasons in history, Buss is no longer an afterthought.  He is the man in charge of the NBA's legendary franchise who has helped pull off some stunning trades and roster moves that could catapult the team back into the Finals again next spring.

    Remember when Magic Johnson looked into the ESPN television cameras following the Lakers' humbling playoff defeat to Oklahoma City and told Buss: "Jim Buss, brother, you have a job to do. I'm telling you right now because if you don't do it, you're going to hear from me." (via Los Angeles Times)

    Initially, Buss told reporters he did not expect any major moves from the team.  It drove everyone, except Jim Buss, absolutely crazy.  He obviously knew something we all didn't: Don't tip your hand and have patience.

    Good things come to those who wait.

    How about Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and more?  How about Pau Gasol remaining a Laker?

    Jim Buss is now the respected head of the L.A. Lakersno longer the clueless son of Dr. Jerry Buss, but an owner who puts his trust in management (Mitch Kupchak, best GM in the NBA) and isn't afraid to take risks.

4. Lakers Find Several Three-Point Shooters Who Should Really Help

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    Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Steve Nashall three new members of the Los Angeles Lakers can and will make plenty of three-point shots over the next season. 

    As a team last year, the Lakers made under 33 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.  Kobe Bryant shot 30 percent, Metta World Peace 29.6 percent and Steve Blake just 33 percent.

    Nash is a career 43 percent shooter from three-point distance, while Jamison makes 35 percent and Meeks buries 37 percent from downtown.

    Bryant will certainly rebound from a very subpar outside shooting campaign as well.  His form looked pretty good at the Olympics. There won't be as much pressure on Kobe to score every time down the court, and that alone should help his numbers.

3. Metta World Peace Was in Great Shape Before Slamming James Harden

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    MWP is still here, only there's less of him and that's a good thing. 

    Having finally gotten over the nerve issue in his back that threatened his career and made it near impossible to dunk the ball, MWP is healthy again.  And lighter, having shed about 15 pounds as he rounded into shape towards the end of the regular season.

    “I’m getting to the basket any time I want,” World Peace told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times. “I couldn’t do that for years. I would miss layups. I missed so many layups. It was ridiculous. I’d be right under the basket and I can’t jump. Then I’d get blocked and miss a layup. Then I’m trying to pray for a foul. But later in the season, I was able to get it and dunk.”

    Had he not clocked James Harden in the face during a late season win over the Thunder that earned him a seven-game suspension, MWP was well on his way to recapturing some of his old magic.  He has spent this offseason getting prepared for the next season and is prepared for whatever happens to come his way.

    MWP will be the last option on offense when he is on the court with his four teammates, all of whom are future Hall of Famers.  With less pressure, World Peace can concentrate on being a lock-down defender and making the occasional shot when it presents itself.

2. Kobe Bryant Loses Weight, Wins Gold Medal

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    Kobe Bryant has not slowed down since winning the gold medal in London one week ago.  He used a charity game in China this week to run around and through a bunch of amateurs and score 68 points in 15 minutes.

    Nothing unusual about the output from the Black Mamba. What's noteworthy is that, at age 34, Kobe Bryant is in the best shape of his life and is ready to go after his sixth championship.

    Bryant lost 16 pounds in getting ready for the London Olympics.  Realizing he is not the first option anymore among such superstars as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Kobe nonetheless was able to pour in points when his U.S.A. team needed them and was a constant cheerleader on the sidelines when he came out for breathers.

    The Lakers are not Team USA, but they sure are formidable.  With Nash, Gasol and Howard on the court, Kobe won't need to take over games with the frequency of last season.  He also should be playing fewer minutes than the 38 he averaged in Mike Brown's first season. If Bryant is fresh, the Lakers will win more.

    Balance is the key for Kobe Bryant in 2012-13.  He still will lead the team in scoring and take most of the big shots, but he now has a supporting cast that can take a lot of the pressure off.

1. Panic Has Been Replaced by Excitement

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    There's a feeling of calm excitement at Staples Center these days.

    All seems right again in the Lakers Nation.  They'll still have to play the games, and the Lakers must still get by the high-flying, athletic, Kevin Durant led OKC Thunder and the ever dangerous San Antonio Spurs before they can enter the ring of the NBA Finals again.

    Other teams, such as Denver, Utah and the Clippers will all be better in 2012-13.  And there will always be questions about the Lakers.

    Will the chemistry be there with all the new, high powered, big ego talent now in L.A.?

    Some have brought up the year (2003) in which the Lakers went out and got an aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton to match with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and how everyone thought a title was a foregone conclusion, until the Pistons dismantled the Lakers in the 2004 Finals.

    Somehow, this iteration seems different.  Nash is still playing at an extremely high level, and Dwight Howard is still only 26.

    The signs are encouraging.  The Lakers have done their due diligence.  Now they just need to lace up and play the game.

    The hardest part is now waiting for the real season to begin.