It's the waning weeks prior to training camp, the Los Angeles Lakers have a team that (on paper) is one of the four best in the NBA, title hopes are high and Lakers fans everywhere are getting cocky. Isn't that the way the NBA should be?
For the past season we've seen the Lakers bench dwindle into sticks and stones, the starting lineup has gotten older and their future was in trouble as far as Lakers standards go. All it takes to completely change everything that concerned Lakers fans a year ago is an offseason that included trading a bunch of draft picks (a classic Lakers move) for an old yet effective superstar, bringing in the best center in the NBA (the original Lakers move) and nabbing a high-scoring veteran for a third of what he's worth.
Of course, with high hopes comes high stakes, and the team that Mitch Kupchak compiled over the Summer is fragile to say the least. There are egos involved that are both easy to bruise and good at doing some bruising, so it's not like an utter disaster is out of the question.
There are quite a few people out there wishing for this little amalgamation of star players to fall flat on their faces, but that's the way the league has been forever, right?
In hopes of keeping this team afloat in the early part of the season in order to promote a competitive league at the very top I've put together a guide to avoid a collapse for this team. I'm a basketball fan above everything else, and a dynastic-looking Lakers team is always an interesting story line to have in the NBA.
There were too many pages to the Lakers' book last season. Kobe was hanging out in the table of contents trying to figure everything out, Andrew Bynum was scattered throughout putting up big numbers here and there and Pau Gasol was only mentioned on the dedication page where it stated, "In memory of Pau Gasol's game, now a shadow of what it once was."
The point there is that they didn't seem to work well together for most of the season, it was just a few really good basketball players and some other guys coming off the bench to add in a shot here and there.
What the Lakers need to do from day one is get all four of these star players in a room together and hammer out what's going to go down this season. From there get the whole team together and get them on the same page as Kobe, Gasol, Howard and Nash.
Call it a top-down, Reaganomics look at putting together a basketball team. The top few guys really nail down what's going on and get trickled the basketball knowledge down to them early on.
It was less than four months ago that Dwight Howard had his back sliced open to fix a herniated disc. Even with the advancements in medicine over the years there's no way to get around making back surgery sound like a small thing.
We see surgeries go down every year, and every time a player goes under the knife it turns into a clock ticking down the minutes, hours, days and weeks until they can come back and play some basketball. However, it's never easy to go out and set a date for a guy to come back and get it exactly right when doing so.
Instead of taking a road of recovery where Howard tries to get back by a certain date, whether it be training camp (not happening), the preseason (possibly), the first few weeks of the season (we're getting closer), or before Thanksgiving (that one sounds about right), they need to just let Howard do his thing in recovery. Let his back heal, strengthen and get to the point it was at before the back problems surfaced and then work him into the game.
There's no need to get him into the game as soon as possible. They have plenty of regular season games in which to make up any missed time with the team, and the longer the wait for him to play, theoretically the fresher he will be when the playoffs roll around.
It's almost forgotten at this point that the guy the Lakers traded for before they traded for Dwight Howard just so happens to be one of the best offensive point guards in the NBA. Sure he's 38, sure he's never won a title before, but there isn't a guy you'd rather have running the pick-and-roll.
My Synergy Sports sums it up pretty nicely with this:
Steve Nash Impact: he created/scored 22.4 points per game on the pick and roll in 2012, 12th among TEAMS in increasingly PnR heavy NBA.— mySynergySports (@mySynergySports) July 6, 2012
Needless to say, the guy who created more points off the pick-and-roll than more than half the teams in the league also led the league in creating points off the pick-and-roll as far as individuals go.
The most important thing for the Lakers to realize is that they actually have a point guard capable of running an offense, and doing so extremely efficiently. Instead of devolving into a superstar takeover the likes of what they had last season, they need to run their offense to be inclusive and efficient.
For the first time since they won a title with Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom coming off their bench, Los Angeles seems to have a group of guys starting out on the pine who will have a positive impact on the game.
Between Antawn Jamison's shooting ability, Jordan Hill's energy, Jodie Meeks' three-point shooting and athletic defense and whatever they can get from the rest, Los Angeles has a bench that is going to be able to hold onto a lead much better than they could (or couldn't) last season.
What should be even more promising for the Lakers is the possibility of Steve Nash running alongside the second unit for a time during the game. Rather than keeping him out there with Kobe the entire time, benching him early so he can be the focal point of the second unit might make their bench a force of sorts.
Nash distributing the ball, running the pick-and-roll and essentially using Jamison and Hill like he used Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat (although Hill is much faster but less offensively skilled than Gortat) a year ago.
There's a lot they can do with this bench, but they need to really hammer out a rotation and stick with it. Creating habits early can be a terrific advantage for a new team.
With so many good players coming together on this team, it's going to be easy for a gut to fade into the background from time-to-time, and that's to be expected. The only thing they need to make sure of is that a guy doesn't fade out for too long, lest he get a tad disgruntled.
From time-to-time it's fine to go away from the game plan and let each player go with his go-to individual offensive moves.
Let Kobe play one-on-one at times. Give Pau Gasol the ball in the post and let him dip and dive around defenders. Feed Dwight Howard in the paint and watch him dunk on people's heads. Give Steve Nash free reign to take up the dribble on his trips around the court and knock down one of his patented pull-up jumpers.
It's a lot more fun playing inside an offense when it's not so strict that everybody can't get a bit of their special groove going once in a while. As we all know, a fun offense usually leads to a happy team which can lead to a lot of wins.
Eventually this team is going to hit a skid. Whether it be three weeks into the season or three months into the season, this team is going to get to a point where they lose four or five games in a row and headlines around the Internet will scream, "What's going on with the Lakers?" or, "Are the Lakers folding under pressure?"
What needs to happen in this situation is for everyone on the team to take a few deep breaths and move past it. Losses come in streaks at times, it's truly unavoidable. The 1996 Bulls even lost back-to-back games at one point.
Essentially, this team has become the center of the basketball universe this season, regardless of who is the reigning champion. Questions are going to come fast and hard, but what needs to happen is for every single player to be on the same page and be ready to overcome the little things that get in the way of a big season.
Just taking a look at the Lakers rotation (gotta love the "on paper" arguments) it's hard to imagine this team scoring fewer than 100 points on any given night. There are just too many weapons.
Between Kobe continuing to be the machine that he's always been, Dwight Howard's brute strength down low, Pau Gasol's finesse and his mid-range game and Steve Nash's ability to do it all, this team has enough to half-ass their way to 95 points. Throw in Antawn Jamison off the bench and a few other guys knocking down an open shot and you've got an offense that should be able to score even with Mike Brown at the helm.
However, they can't go out there every night and get away with not playing defense. If they want to keep this ship afloat as long as they can during the regular season and well into the postseason, defense is going to be where they win games.
Should they go out and work as a unit, helping each other out and playing hard all game long, they've got a shot at a title. If they decide to hang their hat on the offense and play to outscore their opponents rather than hold them down and keep them down then it could be a different story.
Above anything else, this is what the Lakers need in order to avoid an extreme disappointment this year. In terms of expectations a season without a title may be a letdown, but as long as this team is competitive, plays well together and shows promise of doing that to an even higher degree in the future then this season will be positive.
Should the team break down like the Lakers did at the end of the 2012 season, with Kobe calling out his teammates during the Nuggets series, then there's a good possibility of a grizzly end to this team way before they were hoping.
For all we know this team has the potential to be one of the best teams of the past decade, but it's all going to rely on how well the team comes together as a unit. They've got to trust each other, they've got to be able to get along and they've got to play like a team should play.
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