Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant welcome Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to the starting five.
Nothing is automatic in life, even if you coach today's L.A. Lakers, who, this season, can boast of four future Hall of Fame superstars averaging over 91 points per game.
You can already feel the expectation meter rising to dangerous levels in Lakers Nation. How can this team lose? Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on the same team? 82-0? Maybe 10 losses max?
Please, people, take a deep breath and get a hold of your emotions.
Make no mistake, the Lakers of today are a much better team overall than a year ago. How much better will depend on a number of factors, including team chemistry, depth, defense, fitness and overall health of some key assets.
In a recent ESPN poll of basketball "experts and pundits," the Lakers were voted to win the Western Conference with a record of 59-23.
I am going to go out on a rather slim limb and predict a 57-25 mark for the purple and gold. They'll be much better in 2012-13 than last season, but they are not going to run the table.
Lakers fans have been giddy this summer and for good reason. In a span of about 30 days, the team went from being playoff also-rans to one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship. It upgraded to first class and it didn't cost it an arm and a leg. It didn't even have to check any baggage.
Other than Andrew Bynum, the Lakers gave up next to nothing in the way of assets to acquire Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks. And even though Howard is recovering from back surgery and may not be ready for the opening round of games beginning October 30 against Dallas, the Lakers with Nash running the offense will be a vastly improved starting unit from a year ago for that reason alone.
Predict the Lakers record for 2012-13
If all the Lakers replicate their career averages, you're looking at a juggernaut offense that could average 115 points every game. A lot would have to go right for that to happen, but the odds of these Lakers improving on their paltry 97.3 scoring average of last season are quite high.
Let's say this team will average between 105-107 points per game, a marked improvement.
In addition to adding a player (Jamison) whose career average of 19.5 points per game is almost equal to that of the entire Lakers bench from last season, the team has added better shooters in trades and signings, including guards Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon.
We'll also see the maturation of such young players as Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris and Devin Ebanks. Rookies Darius Johnson-Odom (guard) and Robert Sacre (center) have also been impressive this summer.
In addition to the starters of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Howard, Nash and Metta World Peace, the Lakers have a bench that can compete with any in the league. Jamison may even play his way into the starting unit; he is a big-time scorer used to averaging over 30 minutes a game and, at 37, can still knock down jumpers from any distance. He is hungry for a championship and could be the X-Factor for the Lakers come playoff time.
There will be a lot of competition for minutes on this team. One player who will be an integral part of the second unit is Jordan Hill. The 6'11" high energy center/forward should get early-season minutes backing up Pau Gasol, especially if Howard is slow to recover from his back surgery.
Ebanks, the 6'9", third-year 22-year-old forward from West Virginia had occasional moments of athletic brilliance last year and saw his minutes increase to almost 17 per game for the Lakers and coach Mike Brown.
As Mark Medina of the L.A. Times wrote in his assessment of Ebanks after two seasons: "Ebanks could secure a long-term future with the Lakers if he plays his cards right this season."
The Lakers of last year relied way too much on Kobe Bryant, who averaged over 38 minutes a game and almost won the scoring title at age 33. Bryant averaged 27.9 points, his most since 2007-08, but his shooting percentage was just 43 percent, his worst since the first two years of his career in 1996 and '97.
Although Andrew Bynum became an 18.7 points per game All-Star, the rest of the Lakers stagnated under the misguided offensive system that Brown and his staff devised for the team.
For L.A. to improve this year, Bryant will need to take fewer shots, pass more often to open teammates and cut his minutes down to about 32 or 33. If he is able to do that, it will mean others are picking up the slack on offense and defense. A more evenly-balanced Lakers attack will result in big winning streaks.
Installation of the Princeton offense, under the direction of new assistant coach Eddie Jordan, will most definitely be a benefit to a team that often stood around last season and watched Bryant shoot with two or three defenders draped on him. I have never seen an offense that all too often waited for the shot clock to wind down to five seconds before someone made a move.
Some of that was Kobe's fault, but he has a tendency to do that when his teammates are not scoring or moving around.
When this Lakers team hits its stride, look out. One can imagine Steve Nash unselfishly making great passes to Gasol, Bryant and Howard. How will defenses be able to stop such an offense, and who will they slack off on in order to double team Bryant or Howard?
The possibilities can make you giddy and anxious for the season to start.
I think L.A. will stumble early as they all get acquainted with one another. But, by the time the Lakers meet Miami on January 17 at Staples Center, expect Nash, Howard, Bryant, Gasol and company to be firing on all cylinders.
The Lakers may not break any record this season for victories, but as we all know, it's not how you start that matters, it's how you finish.
Expect the Lakers to finish what they start.
Expect Western Conference Champions and a return trip to the NBA Finals in 2013.