Something about the state of the Los Angeles Lakers' season seems eerily familiar to last year. In fact, it reminds me of an old famous television series that opened with "the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
Make no mistake, these are not your father's (or mother's) Los Angeles Lakers. And trying to predict their season's outcome is about as easy trying to figure out which lineup head coach Mike D'Antoni is planning for the next game.
Last year's Lakers of Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and company were expected to challenge LeBron James and the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy. This year's edition of cast-offs, no-names, senior citizens and one famous superstar with one major injury isn't expected to do much of anything except be entertaining.
Still, these are the Lakers we're talking about. This proud franchise, winner of 16 world championships, has very proud fans who demand a great product from a team that charges them outrageous prices to attend games at Staples Center.
So what sort of results can Lakers fans expect this season? Based on a handful of games, the answer would seem to be a definitive: "your guess is as good as mine."
The pessimist among a group of hardwood pundits is LVH sports book oddsmaker Jeff Sherman. The over-under has the Lakers finishing the regular season with just 34.5 wins.
We've been writing a lot of over money from the public having a hard time believing the Lakers are going to be that bad. We have a different view when you look at how severe Kobe's injury is and the mileage of [Steve] Nash and [Pau] Gasol.
Lakers beat writers Ramona Shelburne and Dave McMenamin predicted 48 and 44 wins, respectively, for the Purple and Gold. Shelburne also thinks the Lakers will grab the seventh or eighth seed in the Western Conference.
D'Antoni did not add any confident swagger to the conversation, when he jokingly told ESPN Los Angeles' Shelburne: "Well, I think every coach right now is confident. I'm sure [Gen. George] Custer was confident before he went to Little Bighorn too. He was hootin' and hollerin' and probably happy as heck, so that's how we are right now. Talk to me in December and we'll have a more serious discussion."
Along with just about every scribe covering the Lakers, Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times predicted the team would lose its first three games to the Clippers, Warriors and Spurs. The unpredictable Lakers blew out the Clippers, got hammered by Golden State and let a big lead slip away in their loss at home to San Antonio.
What followed in Week 2 was just as unpredictable: a two-point win against the Hawks, a blowout loss at Dallas and a last-second, three-point field goal by Steve Blake to beat Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Rockets in Houston.
The X-factor for the Lakers is obviously Kobe Bryant and his health. Without him, this team will have trouble playing .500 ball. With a relatively sound Bryant back in uniform, the Lakers just might win in the neighborhood of 45 games.
It's plausible that the Lakers could sneak into the playoffs, but they'll need 25 or more points per game from Bryant, 17-18 ppg from Gasol, big scoring off the bench and consistent, aggressive defense in order to accomplish that.
While trying to predict where the Lakers will finish this season, consider the unpredictable:
- Opening Night: The Lakers bench outscores the starters 76-40 and go on a huge fourth-quarter run to upset the upstart Clippers, 116-103. Xavier Henry scores 22 points, Jordan Farmar adds 16 points and six assists, and Jordan Hill chips in with 12 points and eight rebounds in just 18 minutes.
- Blowout in Dallas: L.A. gets drubbed by the less-than-glamorous Mavericks, 123-104. The starters total just 32 points and the team is out-rebounded, 50-35, by Dallas.
- Blake's Dagger Beats Houston: Lakers race out to a huge 17-point lead, then let the Rockets back into the game as James Harden scores 35 points and Houston goes to the line 52 times. Hack-A-Howard strategy by D'Antoni keeps L.A. in the game until Blake nails a three-pointer with 1.3 seconds remaining. Lakers win 99-98.
- Pau Gasol is M.I.A.: Until Bryant returns, Gasol is the de facto leader of the team and the one D'Antoni wants to run the offense through. Heading into their Friday night game at New Orleans, Gasol was off to the worst state of his 12-year NBA career. He was averaging career lows in points (12.5), field-goal percentage (37 percent) and minutes played (28). Gasol has publicly made it known he wants the ball in the paint, but that is difficult when you are shooting threes and standing out near the perimeter for much of the game.
One night the Lakers' perimeter shooters are on fire; the next night they are tossing up bricks. The team is regularly shuffling 11 players in and out of the lineup as it attempts to find the right mix. It remains a work in progress.
There will be great nights and there will be games that look lost from the opening tipoff. There will be games where D'Antoni looks like a genius and others where you wonder what he's thinking when he made a particular decision.
Realistically, it feels like a 35-win season for the Lakers, even with a healthy Kobe Bryant. While it is fun watching young players such as Wesley Johnson, Farmar, Henry, Hill and Jodie Meeks all battle and hustle for minutes and a job next season, the fact remains that this is a team in flux.
Never one to shy away from controversy, former Lakers great Magic Johnson went on radio, with the Max and Marcellus Show on ESPNLA 710, to offer his predictions for the team in 2013-14. He didn't mince words:
Laker fans are spoiled. I don't know how they're going to react now, because this is going to be a tough season. This is going to be one of the roughest seasons that the Lakers have ever faced. You're waiting on Kobe [Bryant] to see if he can get healthy. Nobody knows if he can be what he was. Then you've got [Pau] Gasol -- who I think is a premier big man -- but he plays better when he has talent around him.
You've got guys who are all on one-year contracts, and all were journeymen on other teams. Laker fans are not used to that. I don't know if they're going to buy into that. We're going to see. If you want the Laker fans to really buy in and be involved, you're going to have to win right away. I don't see that happening. The West is tough this year.
This much is certain about the Lakers for the 2013-14 season. Nothing is as it was and unpredictable is the new norm.
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