L.A. Lakers' Final Checklist Before the 2012-13 NBA Opening Night
Even before the Thunder traded away James Harden, many analysts had the Lakers penciled in to represent the West in the Finals. Now, it might seem like an inevitability. Dwight Howard came to Hollywood. So did Steve Nash. Pau Gasol looks to have rediscovered his nasty streak in the London Olympics. And Kobe does work.
How can they lose?
Despite bringing in two future Hall of Famers to go with the two they already had on the roster, the purple and gold's success is not preordained. Bryant's reluctance to give up the ball late in games, Howard's health, Nash's age, Mike Brown's strategy and the bench's ability to do anything are all major question marks.
The Lakers are almost certain to best their previous two middling runs in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean they will win it all—or even the West. Oklahoma City hasn't stepped backwards as much as many think. San Antonio is old but ready for one last run. And there is an upstart in Denver and a potential sleeping giant in Memphis that can challenge any team in a seven-game series.
If the Lakers don't advance to the Finals for the first time since 2010, one—or all—of the following will be the main reason.
Injuries are the one thing that could make the Lakers fare even worse than they did the past two seasons.
Dwight Howard is returning from back surgery and looks to be ready to go, but there are some underlying physiological issues created by his playing style that concern the team. His preseason regimen has focused on footwork and drills that improve his proprioception (understanding where his body is), but if he falls back into his old habits, there is a chance that he may re-aggravate his back injury.
Few think the Lakers are a legit contender unless the big man is at least a close facsimile of his old self.
Then there is Kobe. Given his tolerance for pain and willingness to play through injury, negative Kobe Bryant health news draws less attention than it would for mere mortals. He will play in any game that really matters, says the consensus, so don't fret.
This is why the news that he may miss Los Angeles' opening game tomorrow has not influenced most people's assessment of the Lakers' chances to win this year. But while Bryant is "only" 34, he has a ton of mileage on his body and is, presumably, human. Injuries do affect his performance, if not his tenacity, and the Lakers need him healthy to win a title.
The "good" news: the Lakers have been so disappointing during their last two playoff runs that Kobe has only played 22 postseason games (and just 162 games including the regular season) in the two years since he won his last NBA title.
To put that number in perspective, Bryant played 201 games in the preceding two seasons while winning back-to-back championships. This relative period of rest over the past 28 months may bode well for the purple and gold, but let's be completely clear: if Kobe isn't at least 90 percent in the playoffs, this team probably can't beat Miami even if it does win the West.
Meanwhile, Steve Nash isn't facing any specific injury today, but he has had a bad back for years and is now leaving the comfort food that is the Phoenix's Suns legendary training staff.
In season after season, he has largely relegated his back condition to an afterthought, but he will be 39 before the All-Star break and hoping to play in more playoff games this season than he ever has before. Only twice in his career has he been asked to play more than 16 postseason contests. It will take a lot more than that for him to finally get a ring.
Kobe's Inability to Change
And while it is unfair to lay sole blame at Kobe's feet—Pau Gasol has had major consistency issues, Andrew Bynum's immaturity has hurt, Derek Fisher turned into a statue years ago—his propensity to go into gunslinger mode has factored prominently into many loses.
Just take L.A.'s critical Game 4 loss to OKC in the second round last season.
With his team up nine and just under six minutes to play, Kobe proceeded to launch eight jump shots down the stretch, making just two. All but one came from 17-feet away or further, and the result was the team only scoring fout points in the game's final four minutes (two of which came on a meaningless Kobe jumper as the clock ran out.)
That victory, in Los Angeles, gave the Thunder a commanding 3-1 series lead—and, soon after, an early summer vacation fishing trip for Bryant, who shot just 38.5 percent in the first four games against OKC.
This isn't just a single-game issue.
His game is increasingly predicated on jump shots and his efficiency plummeted last season. Some of this has been overlooked due to Kobe's bounce-back scoring totals in 2011-12, during which he posted his highest point-per-game total since 2007-08.
But he shot poorly (just 43.0 percent from the field) while averaging more than 15 shots per game from outside of 10 feet. He is a capable jump-shooter so it isn't the location as much as the volume that is the issue.
If he can pick his spots better and allow Steve Nash to run the offense through the front court much of the time, his best-in-the-league ability to get a shot on any possession will be a much more vital weapon in a team arsenal that doesn't need him to dominate every possession. Instead of a what it has been at times in recent years: a benefit to the opponent.
The reason injuries to L.A.'s starters are so much of a concern is because of the players behind them. They aren't good. At all. Jordan Hill is arguably their best reserve, depending upon how you feel about Steve Blake. Yes, I know how that statement sounds.
After him, the Lakers are relying primarily on an Antawn Jamison who was washed up by the time he got to Cleveland (in 2009), a make-or-miss-dependent Jodie Meeks, an Earl Clark who Stan Van Gundy could still barely trust on the court in Orlando after Dwight's injury created a barren front court and a Chris Duhon (who is Chris Duhon).
To their credit, Meeks and Jamison should add some shooting/scoring punch, but they will not be stopping any other bench unit from adding the same.
It's fitting, then, that the Lakers reserves may be the ones digging the team's grave this season. Because putting the team in a hole is what L.A. fans should expect from the bench unit almost every time they enter the game. The starters may be potent enough to overcome such deficits—and they will have to if they expect to win it all.
All the Pieces Fitting Together
Mike Brown takes a pounding in the press, and much of it is undeserved. He isn't the Zen Master, but he isn't the scourge of the Lakers' hopes and dreams either.
Perhaps you can fault him for failing to be the type of leader of men who was able to ever reach Andrew Bynum or pull Pau Gasol out of whatever funk he fell into during the 2011 playoffs. But it was his players more than Brown who were responsible for the team's 9-13 record throughout the past two postseasons.
That will remain the case this year.
Still, he must spend as much time ensuring the nice guys the team brought in mesh with Kobe, Pau and World Peace as he does on teaching them all the Xs and Os. Make no mistake: putting Dwight Howard in positions to dominate and play bully ball inside with Gasol is paramount. And finding a way to make full use of Nash's gifts is a top priority.
None of that will matter, however, if the new players—and the old—are unable to adapt to their new roles.
There is a reason the Lakers couldn't win the title months after Gasol first arrived via trade, and it similarly took Miami two seasons before their promise turned into a title. Let's not even talk about the Melo/Amar'e Knicks.
The Celtics, in 2008, were the one "Frankenteam" in recent memory to mesh immediately and quickly establish an identity. But with a core comprised of a defense-minded big man, a shooter who thrived off picks in the half court and only one player who needed to score with the ball in his hands to be most effective, they were essentially starting the experiment trying to score from second base.
The Lakers will need to find ways for Nash and Kobe to both take turns handling the ball on the perimeter while also feeding two big men in the paint—something the same coach and captain were unable to always do well in the past.
Not Pounding the Ball Inside
At 65.0 percent, the Lakers shot better than all but six teams on attempts inside the restricted area during the regular season in 2011-12, according to HoopData. They only got looks from there 22.5 time per game, however, which was fewer than all but four teams. Some of this can be explained by their slightly-slower-than-average pace, but a lot of it was simply their reluctance to force the ball inside.
Things weren't much better in the playoffs, when Andrew Bynum's shot attempts dropped from 13.6 per 36 minutes to 12.2 while Pau Gasol's attempts fell from 13.6 shot attempts per 36 minutes to a meager 11.6. Surprisingly, it wasn't just Kobe taking more attempts (per-36, he only increased his volume by 1.3 attempts); it was a team-wide failure to get the ball into the area where the team's two seven-footers can dominate.
A repeat display with a front court led by Dwight and Pau likely won't get it done either. In theory, Steve Nash will be the team's coach on the floor and ensure that no matter when the games are played, the big fellas remain the focus.
As evidenced by the league's decision to remove the center position from the All-Star ballot, the NBA is increasingly becoming a perimeter-oriented league. Except in Los Angeles. Failing to use their giants in a land of shrimps could be the quickest way for the Lakers to, quite literally, minimize their biggest advantage.