How 'On Paper' Version of L.A. Lakers Compares to Reality

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 15, 2012

How 'On Paper' Version of L.A. Lakers Compares to Reality

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    Even by NBA superteam standards, this Los Angeles Lakers' roster is special.

    Led by a five-time NBA champion (Kobe Bryant) on the wing, a two-time MVP point guard (Steve Nash) and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner anchoring their interior (Dwight Howard), there are no identifiable weaknesses among the starting five.

    When Metta World Peace said on the ESPN Los Angeles with Max and Marcellus radio show (as transcribed by Chris Fedor of sportsradiointerviews.com) that his club wanted to break the Bulls' record of 72-10, the basketball world let out a collective chuckle.

    A minute or so later, though, and we all realized that this club might actually have a chance. Despite a largely punchless bench and a heavily criticized head coach (then Mike Brown), the abundance of skill that this starting group shared screamed "championship or bust."

    Of course, games aren't played on paper. And paper can't account for things like team chemistry and injuries.

    Make no mistake, eight games is far too early for this club to hit the panic button. (Even if the front office pounded on it three games ago.)

    But it is more than enough time to highlight some inconsistencies between our perceptions of what the Lakers should be and our observations of what the Lakers really are.

Perception No. 1: This Is Still Kobe's Team

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    When the Miami Heat added LeBron James and Chris Bosh in their 2010 free-agent heist, the first question they faced was who would be the team's leader?

    With Howard and Nash added to the Lakers' fold, those same questions permeated around the Lakers and their incumbent alpha male, Bryant.

    A Laker lifer, the 34-year-old Bryant didn't appear ready to relinquish the reins to any of his new teammates.

    Through eight games, his resistance has been largely justified. He leads the team in points (26.4), assists (4.6) and three-point shooting (44.1 percent). His scorching-hot shooting (55.1 percent) has bettered all of his teammates but Howard.

    The Heat were unable to hoist their championship banner until Dwyane Wade entrusted James as the team's leader.

    The Lakers may need Bryant to follow in Wade's footsteps eventually, but his teammates will have to show him they have the ability to run this franchise.

    Perception No. 1: True

Perception No. 2: This Is the League's Best Offense

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    With the combined scoring acumen of Bryant, Howard, Nash and Pau Gasol, this team appeared far too deep for opposing defenses to lock in on one or two players.

    Throw in instant-offense options like Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks on the second unit, and that scoring depth appeared to extend beyond the starting five.

    But with the Lakers stuck at just 96.5 points per game (tied for 18th in the league), this club has been anything but an offensive machine.

    Bryant and Howard have both been effective, but Jordan Hill is the only other regular shooting above 45 percent.

    Nash's absence (and Steve Blake's subsequent injury) have impacted the team's ability to get in to their offensive sets, but this roster looked deep enough to weather this storm.

    Jamison (3.8 points per game) and Meeks (2.5) have been nonexistent, while Gasol is on pace for the worst shooting season of his career (40.4 percent).

    The arrival of new coach Mike D'Antoni and the return of Nash should help improve these numbers, but it won't take the lid off of the basket.

    Perception No. 2: False

Perception No. 3: They Are the Class of the Western Conference

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    As quickly as the national media embraced the Oklahoma City Thunder as the team to beat out West (and as they continued to ignore the prowess of the veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs), they banished all non-Lakers teams to the back pages following their roster overhaul.

    Since the year tipped off, though, the Lakers have posted just a 2-5 record in conference games, with their only wins coming against the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors.

    Of the seven NBA teams with a winning percentage of at least .714, five of them play in the Western Conference (Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies, Clippers and Timberwolves).

    Two teams in the Pacific Division (Warriors and Clippers) improved their own rosters over the offseason, while the Phoenix Suns have displayed a toughness that many analysts didn't expect to see this quickly after Nash's departure.

    In other words, the Lakers won't find many gimmies on their divisional schedule.

    Perception No. 3: False

Perception No. 4: Their Talent Level Will Trump Their Unfamiliarity

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    Even before Mike D'Antoni came on board, the Lakers were tasked with establishing a collective identity while learning a new offensive system.

    With a collection of battle-tested, productive NBA veterans on their roster, this didn't sound like an impossible task. But it is one that will clearly take some time to accomplish.

    What makes things more challenging for this Lakers team, though, is the fact that D'Antoni will have to adjust along with his players.

    L.A.'s experienced (i.e., older) players do not have the legs to succeed in D'Antoni's seven seconds or less offense. And D'Antoni likely will not ask them to do so.

    No matter the collective skill level assembled here, there may be too many moving pieces for Los Angeles to emerge as championship contenders by season's end.

    Perception No. 4: False

Perception No. 5: Pau Gasol Will Thrive Alongside His New Teammates

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    The proverbial scapegoat for the Lakers' woes over the past two seasons, Gasol appeared poised to return the efficient offensive machine that helped Los Angeles win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.

    With the defensive attention afforded to Nash and Howard (and, to a lesser extent, Jamison), Gasol figured to be low on the opposition's defensive checklist. Given his ability to pass the basketball and operate out of the high post, he looked to possibly have the most seamless transition of the revamped roster.

    Eight games into the season, though, and the big man is on pace to have the least-productive season of his 13-year career. His 13.8 points are more than three points fewer than he's ever averaged, and his 40.4 field-goal percentage is over seven percentage points lower than his previous career low (48.2).

    Gasol is more than capable of being an effective screener for Nash, but it's hard to imagine many scenarios where D'Antoni opts to use him as the screener when Howard is on the floor.

    Perception No. 5: False