Three of the starters for the Los Angeles Lakers are firmly entrenched. Who will join Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash in the starting five?
What a difference a year makes.
Last offseason the Los Angeles Lakers were making mental preparations for yet another championship parade after penciling in a starting lineup of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
That murderer’s row—which has combined for 35 All-Star appearances, 33 All-NBA selections (19 First Team), four Defensive Player of the Year trophies and three league MVPs—started together all of seven times in 2013, leading the Lakers to the same number of playoff victories as the Charlotte Bobcats.
Going into 2014, the situation is much bleaker. Howard is gone, Bryant is hurt, Nash is suddenly very old, World Peace is on the verge of being amnestied, and Gasol is constantly involved in trade rumors.
So what will the starting five look like next season? Let’s take a look.
It always feels like the Lakers are the only team in the NBA to not have a young, flashy, potentially great point guard.
At least the greatness part lies in Steve Nash, who is entrenched in the starting point guard role.
After showing incredible durability in Phoenix, Nash struggled to stay on the court in his first year with the Lakers, missing 34 games (including the playoffs).
It wasn’t just the health issues that were a concern either. Nash finally began to look his age as well. He had difficulty just bringing the ball up against quick, athletic defenders and wasn’t penetrating as deeply or as often as we are accustomed to seeing.
Nash’s role also changed drastically with L.A. He played off the ball much more than he’s used to and ran way fewer pick-and-rolls than in his heyday.
Things may change this season with Dwight Howard gone and Bryant out to begin the season. Nash should have the ball in his hands all the time, and if he stays healthy, he could return to his 2012 All-Star form.
This is a spot you can write in with a permanent marker for as long as Kobe Bryant remains a Laker.
The big question is: How many games will Bryant play in 2014?
A torn Achilles is a difficult injury to come back from, especially at an advanced age. Elton Brand’s career was derailed by a torn Achilles when he was in his prime. Chauncey Billups only played in 22 games and looked pretty limited last season after tearing his Achilles in February of 2012 at the age of 35.
Bryant has shown a Wolverine-like ability to recover from injury, but this is by far the worst injury he has suffered in his career. With Howard gone, a championship run is wholly unrealistic. Why not let Bryant take his time in coming back to ensure 100 percent recovery?
In Bryant’s stead, expect 2012 offseason signee Jodie Meeks to get the nod as the starting 2-guard. Meeks started 114 games for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011 and 2012 combined, so he has experience.
Also, he’s the only other wing player on the roster.
Here’s the real mystery: With Metta World Peace about to be waived via the amnesty provision and Earl Clark leaving for greener pastures, the Lakers have no small forwards on the roster.
It’s why it feels less than necessary for the Lakers to let MWP go, especially since it doesn’t free up any extra money toward replacing him.
Clearly, L.A.’s starting three will have someone not currently on the roster. Pretty much all of the useful wings on the market have been snapped up, leaving the Lakers with the dregs of the free-agent pool.
Corey Brewer may be the best small forward available, but with the Lakers committing their mini-midlevel exception to Chris Kaman, they likely don’t have the funds to attract Brewer.
So we’re going with a true dark-horse candidate in this slot—Wesley Johnson.
Yes, the same Wesley Johnson who was the No. 4 overall pick just three years ago yet was so brutal he didn’t even get the fourth-year option on his rookie deal picked up.
Johnson will never be the elite player his top-five selection presumed, but he’s youngish, has good size and the upside to at least develop into a useful “3-and-D” wing.
In his brief time with the Lakers, Jordan Hill has excelled when given a chance to play.
Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 29 games last season. In that span, though, Hill proved himself to be a force on the boards.
Had he played enough minutes to qualify, he would have finished with the best offensive rebounding rate in the league. He grabbed 13 rebounds per 36 minutes in 2013.
Hill should be given a chance to shine as a starter in 2014. He’s the only player on the Lakers’ roster with any upside, and as an expiring contract, he’s a prime trade asset as well. More minutes and more stats should increase his trade value.
Playing next to a skilled center, Hill’s responsibilities will be simple, and he can focus on being a nightly hustle/energy/rebounds guy with the potential to become a real rim protector and complementary offensive contributor.
The big winner (if you can call it that) in this lackluster offseason is Pau Gasol. The constantly beleaguered Spaniard is back in the good graces of the city—and to being L.A.’s main option down on the block.
Without Howard in the fold, Gasol can slide over to his more natural position at center and play more out of the post, closer to the basket as opposed to being camped out uncomfortably near the three-point line.
Gasol is still one of the best back-to-the-basket players in the league and will get to showcase his skills in a contract year. And with Bryant out to begin the season, Gasol should see more touches than he ever has with the Lakers.
Defensively, Gasol’s presence must be felt. He will be the one manning the middle and protecting the rim. As shoddy as the Lakers perimeter defense is, he’s going to have to clean up a lot of messes.
Coming off the worst season of his career, both health-wise and performance-wise, Gasol will be motivated to produce and earn one last, big payday.