Complete Breakdown of Expectations and Roles for New-Look Los Angeles Lakers
Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Antawn Jamison. The Princeton offense.
For one, it means (or should mean) less time with the ball for Kobe Bryant, which is a good thing for all parties involved.
Not that the Black Mamba isn't still an excellent, if not elite, player. If there's anything Kobe proved last season—his 16th in the league—it's that he can hang with the young guns who've encroached on and seized ownership of his perch atop the basketball hierarchy. He nearly led The Association in scoring, at 27.9 points per game, and was right up there in minutes per game and shots.
Despite being 33 (now 34) and despite coming into last season with a bum wrist.
At times, the results were spectacular, like when the Mamba dropped 40 points in four consecutive games in January. At other times...well, not so much, as in the 30.9 points per game he averaged in seven playoff defeats.
Now, there are no excuses for Bryant. He may still believe he's the best player on the floor at any given moment, but he'd be foolish (if not downright delusional) to imagine that he doesn't have teammates to whom he can and should defer for the good of the team. In that sense, GM Mitch Kupchak's moves have rendered Kobe less a savior and more a potential scapegoat if things don't work out.
As much of a scapegoat as anyone with five rings can be in the eyes of L.A. sports fans, anyway.
Kobe will still have his fair share of chances to be Kobe on the court, though. As Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti points out, the Princeton offense that former Washington Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan is expected to install leaves plenty of leeway for isolation opportunities, perhaps even ones that would ease Kobe's burden. The constant cutting and movement that the Princeton offense requires will make it that much more difficult for opposing defenses to swarm Kobe with double- and triple-teams.
As will the mere presences of Howard and Nash, both of whom command hefty helpings of defensive attention themselves.
Nash, in particular, should appreciate his new digs. Whatever ill will he felt toward the Lakers as a long-time member of the rival Phoenix Suns will surely be defenestrated by the time he takes the floor in Purple and Gold, though the awkwardness among those in LaLa Land will take some time to dissipate.
Not too long, of course. Watching Nash run pick-and-roll with Superman and Pau Gasol a few times should do the trick.
No longer will Nash be left to waste his talents holding together a fringe playoff team with an ever-more-depleted roster under the auspices of unlikeable, penny-pinching ownership, as was the case in Phoenix. Instead, he'll be working for the Buss family, who've hardly ever been shy about spending in pursuit of championships.
And, of course, he'll have a chest full of All-Stars with which to toy around on the hardwood. The master of the modern pick-and-roll will have at his disposal arguably the best roll man in the game (Howard) and another big man (Gasol) who can pop out to the perimeter, among other talents.
Better yet, the folks who fill the Staples Center and feed money into the Lakers' coffers through the new Time Warner Cable SportsNet will appreciate Nash simply because he's something more than passable at point guard. Not since Magic Johnson have the Lakers employed such a revered and entertaining creative force at the position, settling instead for the likes of Nick Van Exel, Derek Fisher, Smush Parker and (most recently) Ramon Sessions.
If things don't always go so smoothly, everyone can chalk it up to Nash's 38-year-old legs or something, right?
That being said, if Nash plays even half as well in LA as he has over his last decade in the NBA, he'll be revered as a key cog in another Lakers revival.
Howard's place in the Lakers' universe, though, remains somewhat up in the air. His role on the court shouldn't be a mystery—he'll be expected to rebound, block shots, control the paint on both ends of the floor, set screens and run pick-and-roll and. In other words, he'll be expected to do all the things that the best big man in basketball is supposed to do.
But when will Howard be able to do those things? According to Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated, Howard is still on the mend from late-April back surgery and may not be ready to go for the start of the season in late October. If Howard's not ready, head coach Mike Brown will likely start the newly-re-signed Jordan Hill at power forward and slide Gasol over to center while Howard heals.
In the bigger picture, this might actually diffuse the pressure on Howard. Chances are, he'll be out for a while, and even when he gets back on the court, he won't be fully healthy for some time.
If that's the case, then the expectations on Howard figure to be less suffocating than they normally would be. If he looks anything like his old self during his debut season in LA, it'll be viewed as a bonus in Year One of the Superman Experiment.
Howard's presumed absence should serve as a golden opportunity for Pau Gasol to "reintroduce" himself as an elite power forward and a player who should be respected for his uncommon talent. Pau's performance dropped off considerably last season, though that seemed to have more to do with a shrinking role in Mike Brown's Bynum-centric offense than any impact Father Time might've had. With Drew commanding the paint, Gasol was left to fight for scraps on the glass and forced to settle for shots from 15-to-18 feet.
That may be Pau's fate again when Dwight finally hits the floor in Purple and Gold. In the meantime, Gasol will have some leeway to dominate down low and rekindle the confidence that waned during last year's incessant trade rumors.
And, frankly, it seems unlikely that Pau would mind running the two-man game with the best pick-and-roll finisher in the NBA.
That is, if plays like these are any indication:
Gasol figures to find himself on the receiving end of many such passes with Nash running the show up top. The partnership between these two basketball savants should make for some spectacular displays of passing, shooting and all-around intelligent hoops.
Speaking of basketball IQ (or lack thereof), Metta World Peace—a former All-Star in his own right—will essentially be relegated to the role of corner shooter, occasional post-up player and physical defender as the "weak link" in LA's starting five. At the very least, the blending of personalities—between MWP's intergalactic exploration and Kobe's alpha-dogness, Nash's cerebral uplift and Dwight's pursuit of acceptance—could make for some fascinating drama, both on and off the court.
At best, the Lakers will see the healthy, in-shape and motivated World Peace who shined down the stretch, before an elbow to James Harden's head put him out of practice.
The biggest question marks for the Lakers rest where they were last year—on the bench. But, this season's reserves should be significantly better than were their predecessors.
The addition of Antawn Jamison as a sixth man supreme (at the veteran's minimum, no less) figures to bring a much-needed scoring boost to a bench that was dead-last in that department in the NBA last season. Jamison has never been much of a defender and doesn't figure to start now, at the age of 36, but he can still put up points in a pinch and has plenty of prior experience with doing so off the bench.
Fellow Lakers newcomer Jodie Meeks will have but one task on his to-do list—knock down three-pointers. The former gunner for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers is a career 37.1-percent shooter from distance and, at 25, may well inject some youthful exuberance into an aging roster.
It's unclear what to make of the roles to be inhabited by the throw-ins from the Dwight Howard deal, though. The 24-year-old Earl Clark, a former lottery pick of the Phoenix Suns, has some potential at power forward, but isn't likely to see the floor outside of garbage time, especially once Howard returns to stack the depth chart.
But Chris Duhon could have some value. On the one hand, the 29-year-old Duke grad has long been below-average as a point guard and hasn't been so much as serviceable at that spot since 2009. On the other hand, the guy's a career 36.3-percent shooter from three and nailed 42 percent of his treys just last season. On a Lakers team for which outside shooting remains something of an issue, that marksmanship could come in handy.
The roles of the secondary and tertiary pieces that the Lakers retained should be fairly set in stone, even before training camp begins. Steve Blake will more than likely be Nash's primary backup at the point, and the Lakers will pray that he can hit the broad side of a barn more consistently than he did during his first two years in Purple and Gold. Jordan Hill will be asked to bring the same blend of hustle and energy to the floor that he showed in his time after the trade deadline last March, be it as Pau's "understudy" at power forward or as his front-court sidekick while Dwight is out.
Devin Ebanks will be counted on to play crucial minutes at small forward behind World Peace (a tough act to follow, as the name might suggest) in his third season. If Ebanks can serve as a poor man's Trevor Ariza—and either knock down a few threes or refrain from trying, since he went 0-for-12 on the season (playoffs included)—then he'll be an asset to L.A.'s pursuits.
And, at the end of the bench, Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock will be expected to hand out water and towels quickly and efficiently, and generally lift morale with high-fives and secret handshakes.
As for Mike Brown, he won't be on thin ice just yet, but following up Mitch Kupchak's historic offseason with an unsatisfactory campaign will certainly loosen the surface beneath the head coach's feet. He'll come into this season with a relatively clean slate, on account of last year's run being marred by the lockout, a lack of practice time and the repercussions of the nixed Chris Paul trade—none of which were at all Brown's doing, but impacted his work anyway. The fact that he did the Lakers one win better in the playoffs than Phil Jackson did the year prior (and might've had more, if not for some late-game choke jobs against OKC) also counts as a credit on his resume.
But the excuses won't be so easy to come by this time around. Save for Dwight's back, Brown's backers can no longer point to a compacted schedule, the absence of a full training camp or a gaping hole at point guard in his defense. A shortfall in or before the Finals won't cost Brown his job, but it will land his hindquarters firmly on the hot seat heading into the 2013-14 season.
Because you don't make two blockbuster moves in one summer without having your eyes fixed firmly on the top prize, especially if you're the Lakers, who've played for nearly every other NBA title and have brought home 16 of them so far. You don't trade for a Hall-of-Fame point guard and the best big man on the planet without bracing for the upticks in pressure and expectations, if not welcoming them eagerly.
It's not necessarily "title or bust" for L.A., as far as the rest of the league is concerned. The Miami Heat are the champs until someone pries the Larry O'Brien Trophy from their collective grasp. Plus, the Heat have only improved with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. The same goes for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference, even though one could argue that the Lakers "should have" done better in their playoff series against the young guns.
Who will be under the most pressure with the Lakers this season?
Let's not forget, either, that the San Antonio Spurs will be returning largely the same team that led the NBA in wins last season, and that the cross-hall Clippers and the Denver Nuggets—who pushed the Lakers to seven games this past spring and upgraded on the wing with Andre Iguodala in the Dwight deal—have both improved since they were last seen in live action.
Nevertheless, none of that changes the reality that the Lakers will ultimately be judged against the wise words of Uncle Ben. The front office has done its job tilting the table back in LA's favor.
Now, it's up to the players (and, to some extent, the coaches) to make sure those extraordinary efforts don't go to waste.
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