Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' 10 Biggest Storylines in Season's Early Going

Nate Loop@Nate_LoopFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014

Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' 10 Biggest Storylines in Season's Early Going

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    The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a strange situation after 34 games in this nascent NBA season. They stand at 14-20 overall, ranked 13th in the Western Conference standings, and injuries have left the ranks depleted at a juncture where many other teams are starting to get into a rhythm. No doubt, the uncertainty swirling around Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol have thrown the season into turmoil.

    Any preseason hopes have been dashed on the rocks, although there has still been something enjoyable about watching this ragtag assortment of players work hard every night. There have been plenty of interesting developments to keep an eye on with the Lakers' crop of younger players.

    If everything broke the Lakers' way, then yes, the Lakers would have a great shot at a low seed in the playoffs. That's what a team with Bryant, Nash and Gasol on the roster should expect.

    Clearly this has not been the case for the Lakers this season; one obvious reason is having those three players on the roster has meant a lot of checks signed to guys wearing suits on game day. Several other trends and incidents have damaged the Lakers' ambitions this season.

    Now that this season is looking increasingly like a gap year for the Lakers, it's time to see how what has transpired this season affects the team for the near future. It's too early to write the team off, especially if there is good health in certain player's futures, but it's not too early to consider just how this team will change in the next couple years based off what's transpired so far.

    Let's take a look at the top 10 developments that have derailed the season for the Lakers, and which one's will also have the greatest impact moving beyond this season. The stronger the impact on future outlook, the higher it goes on the list.

Honorable Mentions

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    Of course, not every development in the Lakers' season could make the top-10 list. These honorable mentions are relatively recent developments that haven't quite taken form or events that haven't rippled out and changed the Lakers' season. They also may not have a sizable impact on the near future for the Lakers. 

    Kendall Marshall: Scoring 20 points and dishing out 15 assists in your team debut at least garners some extra digital ink from this columnist. Marshall was sensational in his first Lakers outing, and he comes in playing a position that has been ravaged by injuries this season.

    His deft passing was a sign of the ability that allowed him to set the all time UNC single-season assists record (351 in his sophomore season). It is certainly too early to tell what else Marshall has in store for the Lakers, but if it's anything like the way he played against the Utah Jazz, there is certainly a glimmer of hope in this player.

    Open Auditions: Considering the woeful state of the Eastern Conference and the ample minutes shared by many of the Lakers' rotation players, it will be difficult to see some of these guys returning to the team for the league minimum.

    Players like Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson have all made significant contributions at certain points in the season and could be excellent building blocks for the future. Whether that is for the Lakers or another team, remains to be seen.

    However, with the Lakers' state of uncertainty when it comes to building for the future, the team would be hard-pressed to bring back all of its surprise performers. I imagine some may be pricing themselves out of the Lakers' future plans.

    There is an open casting call in the East for talent, and I suspect some Lakers understudies could find themselves featured players on the other side of the Mississippi next season.

10. Jordan Hill's Hustle

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    You can see and appreciate the effort in the Lakers players this season. They are castoffs, second-chancers and weary travelers. No one personifies the hustle of this young group more than Jordan Hill.

    Hill leads the team with a 21.7 PER (player efficiency rating). He is also one of three Lakers to appear in every game this season, and every appearance brings with it an insatiable appetite for rebounding. He is one of those players who clearly maximizes his skill set by relying on hustle and determination rather than natural talent.

    Hill has taken well to the increase in playing time, much like Earl Clark did last season with the Lakers. His development as a storyline ranks lower on this list because due to his size and incredible hustle—a coveted asset for any basketball coach—Hill can definitely command a larger salary next season and may find many suitors this offseason.

    He makes this list over players like Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar because the Lakers face greater uncertainty in the frontcourt rather than the backcourt, with Kobe Bryant and potentially Nick Young coming back next season.

9. Chris Kaman's Lack of Playing Time

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    Chris Kaman was brought in to solidify the Lakers' frontcourt and add veteran presence. The beginning of the season saw him take up starting center responsibilities. After a long injury layoff that saw him miss 16 games, Kaman has come back to the team. Mostly sitting in warmups and filling plastic Gatorade cups, much to his chagrin.

    Kaman has logged just five starts in 18 appearances and is averaging 17.4 minutes per game, hardly starter or even sixth-man numbers. He has been vocal about his lack of playing time. Via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times

    I'm just going to take the high road and do the right thing, but it's definitely not what I was told coming in here. Obviously, I would have never came here if they had said, "We're not going to play you at all." I thought I had a good opportunity coming here.

    D'Antoni has been opting for starting lineups featuring Robert Sacre, who's celebration value has greatly diminished with all his playing time. Rookie forward Ryan Kelly has also been soaking up minutes; not that he's undeserving, but with the Lakers struggling, its strange to see Kaman spending so much time on the bench.

    How does this affect the Lakers' future? Well it certainly doesn't help management gauge whether or not to bring the $3.2 million veteran back for another year when he is sitting on the bench. It also speaks to D'Antoni's coaching ability, considering there is frustration between him and two big men on the current roster. 

8. Steve Nash on the Sidelines

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    Steve Nash was supposed to be a rock for the Lakers when they snagged him from Phoenix in 2012. In a Lakers uniform, he has been a shadow of his former self. If you know, Nash and his shadow ever found themselves under the lights on the court that is? 

    He may have done irreparable harm to his reputation in the six games he managed to play so far this season, as he shot a putrid 26.1 percent from the floor. There was something eerily off in the point guard who is highly regarded for his precision-shooting technique.

    No one likes to see a player wilt like this at the end of his career, and Lakers fans may remember watching Karl Malone and Gary Payton shrivel before their eyes when they made late-career trips to Lakerland. However, Nash doesn't see things ending quite so soon. Via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com:

    "Yeah, think about it, right? That's about 18 months. So I've got to find a way to get through that and prove to myself every day that I can contribute."

    Nash's own comments force him into this portion of the list as we look toward the future. Considering he has reached NBA geezer status and has hardly played this year, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers can really justify holding onto him through 2014-2015. Then again, they just may have to because they would be hard-pressed to find any takers, considering the age and the price tag.

7. While We're at It, Injuries All Around

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    Rare does an NBA team find itself without a single healthy point guard, but the mighty Lakers franchise found itself in that position when Steve Blake went down with a knee injury in mid-December. Kobe Bryant moonlighted as point guard and then promptly got hurt as well.

    Point guard hasn't been the only problem, though. All told, Lakers players have missed nearly 100 games this season due to injury. In fact, only three Lakers have played every game this season: Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and Nick Young.

    How does this affect the future? It has kept certain players such as Blake and Kaman from demonstrating their full value and throws the future—when it comes to picking keepers—into doubt.

    This point is also separate from players with more notable injuries because the Lakers have relied on chemistry from their younger players for so much of the season. The injuries to stars such as Bryant and Nash have different implications because of the caliber of player involved.

    And if the injuries don't let up and the season goes from bad to worse, the Lakers could find themselves creeping toward an early draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft, considered by many to be one of the most talent-laden drafts in recent years. The lost minutes keep adding up.

6. Pau Gasol's Diminishing Returns

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    Pau Gasol has looked like an anemic form of his past self on the court this season. His numbers are up slightly from last year, but at 15.3 points per game and 9.5 boards, the numbers can't justify the salary of the Lakers' $19 million big man. 

    The fact that Gasol is playing poorly in the absence of Bryant and Nash exacerbates the issue. He instantly becomes the focal point of the team but isn't able to carry this group of players around him. Perhaps Hill has sucked some of the life out of him or perhaps he is just getting old. 

    Gasol and D'Antoni have never seen eye to eye on what is the best role for him in the offense, and this is concerning should both parties stick around through the end of the season, as it could affect team chemistry.

    The fact that Gasol's days in a Lakers jersey—more on this later—may be numbered regardless of how he plays keeps this point down on the list, whereas any other season it would be a full-blown crisis.

5. Nick Young's Killer Confidence

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    There are some nights where it seems Young is angling to participate in a halftime half-court shot contest. He shoots with a reckless abandon. 

    Young is averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game this season and has quickly made himself a fan favorite with his nightly displays of boldness with the basketball in his hands. He ranks highly on this list because he would be an excellent piece for a rebuilding team and actually has a player option for $1.2 million next season.

    If he were to stick around for that amount of money, he would be a steal considering the level of play he has brought to the team. However, a player with Young's personality wouldn't surprise anyone by testing the market next season with this season on his resume.

    According to a report by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Young isn't thinking that far ahead and is only focused on his game right now. That's good news for now, but that leaves a lot to be desired when figuring out the Lakers' future.

    Maybe the Lakers should let him participate in a halftime show. Add a few of those giant novelty checks to his player option and the Lakers may be able to keep Young around for another season.

4. Mike D'Antoni's True Value

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    Someone is in charge of this mess, right? Considering all the storylines developed around individual players, it makes sense that coach Mike D'Antoni's major developments are accounted for as well.

    The Lakers trotted out 15 different lineups through the first 30 games of the season. D'Antoni has role players flourishing under him, but established players such as Gasol and Kaman are floundering. His defensive tactics still leave much to be desired, as the Lakers rank 22nd in defensive efficiency rating, according to ESPN's Hollinger Team Statistics.

    His constant lineup changes have been exacerbated by injuries, but it is clear he has not found a strong enough combination to win games with the talent he has. Changing lineups this often also means there is a clear lack of substitution patterns, which makes games tougher for players who don't know what situations or minutes they will find themselves playing.

    D'Antoni is proving he can handle role players and get performances out of them. This is where he has value; he can help a less talented team play above expectations and remain entertaining to those who are ambivalent toward defensive tactics.

    However, considering his overall pedigree and the issues he has had with other players, detailed in other slides on this list, there is even greater certainty that D'Antoni lacks championship coaching ability. The Lakers are always a win-now, win-often type of club, and this doesn't bode well for D'antoni. Of course for many Lakers fans, this may be good news more than anything else.

3. Kobe Bryant's Contract Extension

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    So far, the Lakers' two-year, $48.5 million contract extension for Kobe looks like folly. He deserves to be paid large sums of money, considering his past performance and overall star value (his image rakes in millions for the Lakers every year).

    It signaled that the Lakers would remain Kobe's team for at least two more years, and this season is unlikely to be associated with the end of Kobe and his enviable legacy.

    However, the contract doesn't help the Lakers when it comes to cap flexibility over the next two seasons. They need as much room as possible to attract big-name free agents, whether it's the summer of 2014 or another down year and a coup in 2015.

    Bryant is locked in for both of those years, and it creates extra pressure on Mitch Kupchak to mine the league for hidden talent, not to mention convince current players who fit into his overall plans.

2. Pau Gasol Trade Talks

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    Yes, I'm aware that's Andrew Bynum. As he is the player who is heavily linked to Gasol in trade talks, it makes sense to show him here. This man, or more likely his waived contract, represents the Lakers' future.

    A Gasol trade would send a clear message to Lakers fans to expect a page-one rewrite on the makeup of the franchise, not only for this season but also for the next as well. Clearing the cap space and removing the Lakers' talented big man is a sign that any upward mobility can't be expected for this season either.

    The reports swirling around a possible Gasol-Bynum deal are a direct result of Gasol's play and salary but rank higher on this list because of the potential effect on the future for the Lakers.

    The trade may not be as straightforward as once perceived, as there are a significant number of salary and roster issues both team's need to overcome to make a deal happen, summarized in an excellent piece by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.

    When you consider Gasol's documented tension with D'Antoni, the end result of this storyline will have much to say on the Lakers' eventual plans.

1. Kobe Bryant's Second Injury

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    Six games. That's all the Lakers have gotten from their franchise cornerstone so far this season. Laker Nation waited with bated breath for Kobe to return from a devastating Achilles injury, only for him to succumb to a knee injury on December 8 against the Toronto Raptors that put him back in his all-black-everything courtside ensemble for at least six weeks.

    The contract is in place, and every game Kobe spends on the sideline creates doubt as to how his future will pan out. Is the man who once seemed indestructible finally breaking down? This question, due to Bryant's large contract and outsized importance to the Lakers from a playing, marketing and leadership standpoint throws all of their plans into doubt.

    This ranks higher than the contract because the money is already in place, but the more important question for the Lakers' return to glory is what they will get out of it.

    Of course, Kobe is undeterred. Via the Associated Press (h/t USA Today):

    "My spirits are fine," he said. "I feel more locked in now than my entire career."

    His personality may be intact, but with his playing ability uncertain, there is little for the Lakers to understand about their future.