Expectations for NBA championships have surrounded the Lakers almost perennially during Kobe Bryant’s career, but this season has many figuring the Lakers won’t even make the playoffs—in part because of Bryant’s recovery from a torn Achilles tendon which he injured in April. Lakers fans will be eager to see Bryant, 35, bounce back, but other keys to the team’s fortunes will be Pau Gasol returning to elite form and the roster showing vastly improved comfort with Mike D’Antoni’s spread-floor style.
Third in Pacific Division
Tied for seventh in Western Conference
Lost in first round to San Antonio
Success last year: Bryant defied the odds and had a resurgent 17th NBA season, producing with an efficiency few could’ve projected. Despite a dip in form on defense and difficulty incorporating Dwight Howard next to him, Bryant averaged 27.3 points, raising his career mark to 25.5 points per game, and showed a renewed ability to attack the basket until tearing his left Achilles tendon in his 78th game.
Failure last year: First Mike Brown and then D’Antoni failed to blend the supreme talents of Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash, with injuries playing a big part in the bust also. The Lakers were rarely on the same page with each other last season, including in-house confusion over whether the coaching job would go to Phil Jackson or D’Antoni.
The primary storyline to the Lakers’ season will be Bryant’s recovery from his left Achilles tendon tear. How well he can return to form will dictate not only the team’s 2013-14 success, but also how much he can be counted on in 2014-15, when the Lakers hope to move back toward favored status in the NBA via free-agent signings.
2) Key Storylines
Key additions: Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry. Key losses: Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison.
With Bryant not close to joining team practice, the Lakers’ first training camp under D’Antoni focused on building teamwork through quick ball movement and more active defense. Bryant, Nash and Gasol all reported vastly improved team chemistry with Howard having left for Houston in free agency, giving D’Antoni hope that he can field a team of guys who enjoy seeing every teammate succeed individually. The team’s trip to China helped build that camaraderie, with the easy-smiling Young and Farmar at the forefront of the bonding.
Nash was eager to come back strong after his injury-plagued first Lakers season, but despite playing basically no basketball all offseason to rest a nerve problem in his back and hip, Nash is still struggling. He was limited to partial practices and used exhibition games to try and regain his famous feel for distributing the ball. Nash was trying to work through a neck problem as the preseason wound down, and he is not expected to play 30 minutes per game too often while sitting out other games entirely.
With so many new players, D’Antoni needed the preseason to sort out what combinations worked well together—although much will change when Bryant can play. After showcasing Kaman’s face-up game at power forward early on alongside Gasol, D’Antoni went back to his nature of going small and looked more at Williams and Johnson as stretch 4s with Gasol at center. The Lakers are determined to be one of the league’s better three-point shooting teams.
3) Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
C: Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre
PF: Shawne Williams, Chris Kaman, Ryan Kelly
SF: Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Elias Harris
SG: Kobe Bryant (Achilles), Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks
PG: Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar
C: A-. Gasol will be a triple-double threat every night as the centerpiece to D’Antoni’s offense, and either Kaman (offense) or Hill (defense) offers something, too.
PF: D. Williams and Johnson will play as undersized power forwards regularly, and both are weak at making that last rotation in the paint to stop the driver. Kaman is slow at pick-and-roll defense.
SF: C-. Young is overjoyed to be playing at home in Los Angeles next to his idol, Bryant. He has shown more willingness to pass in the preseason while having his usual bursts of offensive brilliance. Johnson is being asked to be a defensive maven and three-point specialist.
SG: A-. Bryant might miss the opening weeks of the season because of his Achilles tendon tear, but it’s hard to bet against him coming back in a highly productive manner.
PG: B. In Nash, Farmar and Blake, D’Antoni believes he can always have someone capable of running the team—with Bryant handling the ball often, too. Farmar has been off the grid in Turkey but has been dazzling in training camp and ready to pick up all the slack Nash is expected to leave because of his creaky body.
Check out Lakers player power rankings, here.
4) What to Watch For:
Breakout player: Farmar. He watched Lakers games last season from Turkey and knew he could be dynamic in D’Antoni’s point-guard driven system, so he bought out his contract and made the leap back to Los Angeles. With an outside touch and the ability to make scoring or passing decisions in traffic, Farmar will be exciting to watch while giving the team a different look via second-unit full-court pressure defense.
Team MVP: Bryant. His fundamentals are so solid and his drive to show he still has it so fierce, Bryant is still the main man here. D’Antoni said Bryant can still come back and jump into any system and score 35 points.
Most disappointing player: Hill. He is a big-time energy player and outstanding rebounder, but he doesn’t have a clear place on this team. Hill worked on his jumper in the offseason so he could fit D’Antoni’s requirements, but he missed everything in the preseason. Big men also have to set solid, fast, repeated screens for D’Antoni, and Hill might’ve set an NBA preseason record for most moving screens committed.
Most likely to be traded: Hill. There remains a chance Gasol, with an expiring contract and $19.3 million salary (or even Nash) gets dumped somewhere for a dissatisfied younger player, but it’ll be much easier for the Lakers to move Hill, who can help a contender fortify its frontcourt and get the Lakers a draft-pick or younger asset.
Biggest rivalry: After the historic battles with the Celtics and recent jousts for West supremacy with Sacramento and San Antonio, the Lakers’ main rivalry now is the Clippers. The Lakers have always owned L.A., but what if the Clippers are a title contender now? Doc Rivers covering up the Lakers’ banners for Clippers games at Staples Center only added to the intrigue.
5) Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Predicted W-L Record
Best-case scenario: Bryant inspires his fans and teammates with continued dominance, and he and Gasol remind everyone that they carried the team to two NBA titles not so long ago. With great team chemistry the Lakers defend with surprising tenacity while Dwight Howard and James Harden clash in Houston.
Worst-case scenario: Bryant’s Achilles tendon takes months to fully heal, and even after he gets on the court, opponents blitz him and Nash and score at will from the paint. The “We want Phil!” chants continue behind D’Antoni inside Staples Center while newcomers such as Young and Johnson never get serious about playing winning ball.
Predicted record: 44-38