Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Los Angeles Lakers are in danger of missing the postseason for only the fifth time since moving to LA. Mind you, if everything breaks just right, they still have a fine shot at making it in.
The Lakers lost a huge chess piece during the 2013 offseason with Dwight Howard’s departure. His defection is a substantial blow for the franchise given that he was going to usher in a new era once Kobe Bryant retired.
And yet, Howard’s exit is both a blessing and a curse for the league’s most glamorous franchise. With the superstar center now a Houston Rocket, Mike D’Antoni will be able to play more to his up-tempo identity and get the pieces to fit.
That part of the equation cannot be stressed enough: The coaching staff must get the talent on the roster to play to their strengths if the Purple and Gold will participate in the 2013-14 playoffs.
D’Antoni did everything short of publicly blasting Pau Gasol during the 2012-13 season, but that trend can no longer hold up. The former New York Knicks head coach will start the Spaniard at center and watch him look like an All-Star.
The Lakers headman has already stated we should expect a stellar 2013-14 campaign from Gasol in an interview with ESPNLA (710 AM): "I expect him to have the best year he's ever had."
The multi-faceted big man will need to receive a multitude of touches both in the post and in the pick-and-roll to make the Lakers offense truly diverse. Gasol has proven in previous seasons he is a terrorizing low-post force as well as a terrific passer.
The Lakers need to highlight those skills to make a postseason run.
In addition, D’Antoni will rely more on Steve Nash and use him as a creator rather than simply a spot-up shooter.
The former two-time MVP occasionally orchestrated the offense during the 2012-13 campaign, but his role saw far too many changes for the attack to consistently click. Indeed, the coaching staff initially used Nash as the primary ball-handler, then switched things up and bestowed those responsibilities on Bryant’s shoulders.
The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer faced a large workload, and the offense sputtered at times as a result. Bryant had instances in which he simply stopped initiating the offense and instead just monopolized it and took nearly every shot. Have a look at the video below:
Bryant is at his best when facing one lone defender, and Nash will be a big key on this front going forward. Nash can initiate the offense and force defenses into rotations, then feed Bryant in one-on-one situations where, quite frankly, no one is truly equipped to stop him.
Watch him match up here against Jerryd Bayless and make him look completely invisible:
The two-time Finals MVP will need more off-ball opportunities in 2013-14 in order to keep defenders off-balance. Also, removing some of the ball-handling duties from Bryant reduces his work to create a field-goal attempt.
Bryant’s scoring exploits are obviously the stuff of legends, but his Achilles injury may very well alter the capacity in which the superstar contributes. And yet, the expectation is that he will be ready sooner rather than later, as Lakers vice president Jim Buss shared with Arash Markazi of ESPN LA: "Well, we're in Vegas, and I would bet a lot of money that this guy comes back probably in preseason."
For the team to have any shot at the postseason, Bryant’s availability is a must. The typical recovery time for an Achilles rupture is roughly nine months, which places the former league MVP’s return around January 2014.
Furthermore, one cannot predict with much certainty whether he will have regained his old form. In the event he no longer resembles the player fans have become accustomed to through his 17-year career, the Lakers have no shot at the playoffs.
The face of the Lakers franchise was the best 2-guard in the league during 2012-13, and the team only earned a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season. Without his playmaking and scoring, Los Angeles will not have one of the best eight records in the Western Conference.
However, if Bryant defiantly conquers science and modern medicine on his way to a superb recovery, the Purple and Gold are in business. Indeed, the future Hall of Fame guard has consistently demonstrated throughout his career that he can adjust based on his ailments and find ways to contribute.
Thus, if he rushes his comeback but is less than stellar, he can still help steer the ship towards the port of the playoffs. The most optimistic expectation has Bryant returning for the start of the 2013-14 training camp.
D’Antoni needs Bryant in the lineup because it keeps replacement players such as Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson in their designated second-unit roles. Both can space the floor with their shooting and even finish at the rim on occasion, but that is the extent of their abilities.
In addition, the Lakers will more than likely face their fair share of injuries in 2013-14. Bryant’s presence has often mitigated that in previous seasons, and his availability will certain help on this end going forward.
Bryant is crucial to the Lakers because he gives the team just about everything it needs from an offensive perspective. He bails them out late in the shot clock, scores in the post and on the wing.
Also, his passing and understanding of defensive schemes are essential for a Lakers team that will spread out defenses and attack them off the dribble. Indeed, it stands to reason D’Antoni will rely on more small-ball units in 2013-14, given the way the roster has taken shape.
That is a crucial component for the Lakers because it will dictate the effectiveness of their offense and protect what projects to be a subpar defense.
Los Angeles was in the league’s bottom half in defensive rankings at the conclusion of 2012-13 and has since lost the services of, Howard, their defensive anchor. Thus, they will need an elite offense to counteract their deficiencies on the other side of the ball.
The Lakers brought in shooters and a ball-handler during the 2013 summer, and they will pay huge dividends. D’Antoni has to start Gasol alongside Jordan Hill and then surround them with a combo of penetrators and long-range snipers.
That will open up the floor and make the offense lethal. The opening five-man unit will consist of Nash, Bryant, Nick Young, Hill and Gasol. It will be their job to set the pace and put pressure on opponents with their scoring.
The second unit will rely on Chris Kaman’s low-post scoring coupled with the dribble penetration of Jordan Farmar. That will open up the floor for the likes of Steve Blake and Meeks to make shots rain from the outside.
Nash and company have to consistently generate the two most efficient shots in basketball: layups and open three-pointers. Between good health and a lights-out offense, the Lakers still have the recipe for a playoff berth in 2013-14.