Byron Scott's back. Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly are, too. Kobe Bryant will be. Steve Nash might be. Pau Gasol won't be. Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle and Ed Davis are all first-timers.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason to date. It hasn't been a particularly pretty one, not with Gasol's departure and Carmelo Anthony's spurning.
But...well, there's a whole lot of new in Lakerland. That turnover, combined with the gag-inducing taste left over from the team's 27-55 campaign in 2013-14, has kept expectations tempered for the Purple and Gold. So, too, has the strengthening of the Western Conference, with the cross-hall Los Angeles Clippers rising through the ranks.
This isn't to say that the 2014-15 season will be as replete with misery as its predecessor. The tandem returns of Scott and Bryant should do plenty to engender the sort of stability needed to underpin a winning environment.
Still, the Lakers' situation remains as volatile and unpredictable as any in the NBA today. With so many variables in play, it's nigh on impossible to predict how L.A. will fare with any great confidence.
Instead of engaging in such a futile speculative exercise, then, let's hedge our bets by imagining what the Lakers could look like if everything breaks right for them...and if everything falls apart again.
If Dr. Pangloss were a Lakers fan, he'd probably say that the best of all possible worlds for the Lakers is one in which they show significant signs of progress, perhaps even toward a playoff berth.
That would require no less than a near-full recovery from Bryant. He looked rusty and hobbled in his six games last season, and subsequently succumbed to another knee injury that put him out of commission for the remainder.
Bryant tried to alternate between scorer and facilitator during that comeback, but he didn't fill either role all that well. He hit just 42.5 percent of his shots—his worst mark since his rookie season—and turned the ball over on a whopping 29.2 percent of his possessions. According to Basketball-Reference.com, that latter number would've been the 11th-worst in NBA history had Kobe played enough to qualify for the scoring title.
But this is an inordinately small sample we're talking about here. Moreover, it's one gleaned from a guy who motored through his rehabilitation from an Achilles tear, which is arguably the worst injury in basketball.
By the time the 2014-15 season tips off, Bryant will have had more than 10 months to recover from the fracture in his left tibial plateau, get himself back in shape and fire up his old mid-post magic again.
A healthy Bryant could make all the difference for L.A.
"Physically, I feel great," Bryant told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin at his annual camp in Santa Barbara. "I don't think about the knee at all when I train. I don't think about the Achilles at all when I train. So, I feel sharp, crisp, and now it's time to just add on from there."
The last time Bryant was in peak condition, he averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists while dragging a banged-up Lakers bunch into playoff contention. It may be too much to realistically expect him to perform at that level again, given his age (36 in August) and recent injury history. But in the best of all possible worlds, Bryant is still an All-NBA performer.
Nash wouldn't be anywhere near that, even if everything were to fall into place for him. Nash has long been a subpar defender, and at 40, he's lost enough steps to put his otherworldly offensive game in peril as well.
But hey, if Nash can play, he could still impact L.A.'s fortunes in a positive way. Nash has racked up double-digit assists in 12 of his 65 games as a Laker, with another 10 games of eight or nine dimes. At the very least, a healthy Nash could ease Bryant's ball-handling and creative duties while getting the rest of the roster involved in the offense.
The Lakers won't have to worry about rationing Nash's minutes too much, either. He'll have Jeremy Lin as his backup, another pick-and-roll whiz kid who turns 26 on the same day Bryant hits 36. Lin's productivity took a hit on account of his move into a bench role last season, though he still managed to put up 12.5 points and 4.1 assists while posting career-high percentages from the field (.446) and from three (.358).
And in the event the Lakers need Lin to start in a pinch, they can expect him to do as well as or better than the 14.2 points and 4.5 dimes he averaged in 33 starts with the Houston Rockets last season.
The same could go for Young in relation to Bryant. Given the dearth of depth on the wings in L.A., Young should have ample opportunity to start at small forward.
Then again, Swaggy P may be better suited to coming off the bench, as his splits between the two roles with the Lakers last season would suggest:
|Nick Young's Splits, 2013-14|
In that case, Henry, who chipped in 14 points per game as a starter for Mike D'Antoni's Lakers, could get the starting nod if he stays healthy. Either way, Young, who averaged a career-best 17.9 points per game last season, would be an important piece of the puzzle for a successful Lakers season.
That'll be the case for Randle for however long he's in L.A. The No. 7 pick in the 2014 NBA draft posted a so-so 12.5 points and 4.3 rebounds during his four games in the Las Vegas Summer League.
Granted, Randle didn't really practice with the Lakers' squad and missed the team's first game on account of having not signed his rookie contract until July 13. Randle won't have that problem once training camp rolls around in October.
What he may have a problem with, though, is trying to bully grown men the way he did teenagers and in-progress posts at Kentucky. Even so, his tenacity on the glass and at the rim could make him a double-double threat from the outset.
And even if he's not, the Lakers will have several other board-crashing bigs to lean on instead. Hill got yanked around by D'Antoni last season, but he still managed to pour in 13 points and 8.9 rebounds as a starter while finishing sixth in offensive rebounding rate (13.9 percent) among those who played in at least 40 games, per NBA.com.
Hill will be joined up front by fellow rebound-eater Boozer. Say what you will about Boozer's yelling, his dubious use of spray paint and/or his questionable defense, but the guy is and can still be a valuable contributor, especially for the $3.251 million the Lakers will purportedly pay him. At that rate, anything close to the 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and solid mid-range shooting that Boozer brought to the table for the Chicago Bulls in 2013-14 would make him not only a steal, but also a worthwhile addition for the Lakers.
Even if it means fewer minutes (once again) for Davis. The Lakers snatched up Davis on a two-year, $2 million deal in free agency. The former North Carolina Tar Heel spent the past season-and-a-half toiling behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph with the Memphis Grizzlies, after accounting for 9.7 points and 6.7 boards during his final 45 games with the Toronto Raptors.
If afforded more minutes, Davis could be a force inside for L.A., thereby boosting the front line from "meh" to fairly formidable.
And that's before factoring in Kelly's ability to stretch the floor, Wesley Johnson's long-armed defense and Robert Sacre's exceptional cheerleading skills.
But the team's latest experiment in straddling the line between rebuilding and competing won't succeed without strong leadership from Coach Scott. The former "Showtime" guard-turned-Lakers head coach has already made it clear that improving the team's defense will be the first focus of his regime.
"[Kobe Bryant] told me he was working out with Wesley [Johnson] and Nick [Young]," Scott told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne shortly after inking his new deal with the Lakers. "I told them that sounded great, but they 'better be ready to play some defense.'"
As well they should. The Lakers gave up 107.9 points per 100 possessions last season—the third-worst mark in the league—amid an onslaught of injuries, apathy and a lack of attention paid to that end by D'Antoni and his staff.
While Scott's preaching of defense and toughness will be paramount to the Lakers' strategic success, it's his ability to lead a locker room in flux that could prove most important to the team's quick turnaround. In particular, Scott's close ties to Bryant (Scott was nearing the end of his career with the Lakers just as Bryant was beginning his in 1996-97) could foster the level of harmony and respect throughout the team that's required of a winning operation.
As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding put it: "What's different now is that Scott comes into the job already legitimately bonded to Bryant, and the relationship happens to be established with Scott as the big brother to someone who has never been too fond of being the little brother."
If Bryant takes well to that usually uncomfortable role, with Scott embracing his in the hierarchy, the Lakers could find themselves playing a fun and successful brand of basketball again in relatively short order. Throw in better health for the returnees and quick assimilation for the new faces, and 45 to 48 wins and a spot just ahead of the cutoff for the Western Conference playoffs could be in the cards for the Purple and Gold.
Truth be told, that's not a particularly rosy picture to paint, considering just how many big "ifs" are involved.
If Kobe can stay healthy...If Nash can play...If Randle stars as a rookie...If the blend of Boozer, Hill and Davis is enough up front...If Young isn't fresh out of swag after a summer spent swagging out on behalf of his girlfriend, Australian sensation Iggy Azalea.
Those ifs could just as easily turn on the Lakers in horrific and all-too-familiar fashion.
Bryant may feel good now, but there's no telling how he'll react to the speed and physicality of actual NBA basketball. He's already rung up well over 50,000 minutes of playing time as a pro and has dealt with myriad injuries along the way. It certainly doesn't help Bryant's case that his two most devastating injuries are also his two most recent ones.
Nor can the Lakers realistically count on Nash to be much more than an occasional contributor, if his first two seasons in L.A. were any indication. Nash has already made it clear that the end of the road is in sight for him.
"I think this is my last season," Nash told Sport TV (h/t The Score's Carlo Campo). "But I still love to play, practice and work on my game. I'm going to spend hopefully many years living this life without basketball. It'll be nice to play one more year."
He's not saying he'll definitely play one more year, or even expects to play one more year. Rather, Nash said it'd be "nice," as if another go-round would be akin to icing on his Hall of Fame cake.
Nash's outlook, while reasonable, is at once depressing for fans of his and unsettling for the Lakers. They don't need to count on him now that Lin is around, but if Nash can't go at all—which would be the worst case for him—the Lakers would be counting on a high-priced backup (Lin) and a second-round rookie (Jordan Clarkson) to run the offense when Bryant is either on the bench or entrenched in the mid-post.
Assuming, of course, that Bryant is on the court at all, which, again, may be too much to assume.
L.A.'s potential injury woes aren't limited solely to Bryant and Nash, either. Young missed 18 games last season with a knee injury. Henry's own knee problems forced him out of 39 games. Hill stayed relatively healthy, with 72 appearances to his credit, but has been known to wear down quickly as a result of his intense, high-energy style of play.
And though it's already been determined that Randle won't need surgery on his right foot after all, the fact that he has a screw in there, from breaking his fifth metatarsal as a senior in high school, has to be somewhat disconcerting for the Lakers. In the case of our Murphy's Law Lakers, another foot ailment would be in the cards for Randle, leaving the team short of its star prospect for a considerable period.
Such a turn of fate would thrust Boozer even further into the spotlight, for better or worse. Boozer may be a great value play for the Lakers, but the Bulls parting ways with him doesn't bode well for his future. The fact that Chicago, one of the NBA's thriftiest franchises, was willing to eat most of Boozer's $16.8 million for him to not play in the Windy City speaks volumes of where he is in his career.
More specifically, Boozer shot a career-low 45.6 percent from the field last season, wasn't trusted to close out games for the Bulls, has never been much of a defender and, with his 33rd birthday coming up in November, isn't likely to turn things around in any of those areas—or any others, for that matter—going forward.
Davis could, but only if he isn't buried on the depth chart for the second time in as many stops. And while Kelly comes equipped with a reputation for shooting, his percentages from last season (.423 from the field, .338 from three) suggest he still has a ways to go before he's a threat to whom opposing defenses have to pay attention.
As for Scott, he may be the best fit for the Lakers' job right now, but it's easy to see why the team seemed to drag its feet on the way to finally hiring him this past weekend. His three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers constituted an unmitigated disaster.
They lost 26 games in a row in year one, topped out at 24 wins in year three and never escaped the league's bottom-five in defensive efficiency during Scott's tenure. According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Scott's the only coach to hold such a dubious distinction over a three-year period in a 30-team NBA; three coaches shared in the Golden State Warrior's defensive futility between 2008 and 2012.
Which is to say, Scott might not have the antidote to what ails the Lakers on the defensive end after all. Nor is Scott a sure thing to hit it off with Bryant over the long haul.
Ding explains: "Scott's challenge is to keep it clear that he is certainly here to help Bryant but not get run over in doing so. That's a substantial challenge, as even in Jackson's final season of '10-11, Bryant's beloved Phil struggled to get Bryant to do many of the right team things."
If Phil Freaking Jackson couldn't keep Bryant in line, why should anyone expect that Scott will? Scott's been the victim of insurrection from controlling veterans before (see: Jason Kidd) and may well be again.
So if Scott loses control, the Lakers lose a bunch of key players to injury and the team can't stop anyone, what then?
A replay of last season's debacle would be an all-too-imaginable outcome for L.A. With the West looking as deep and talented as it does, the Lakers could anticipate another season yielded between 20 and 30 wins, if not fewer.
As terrible as that sounds, it could work in L.A.'s favor. The Lakers' 2015 first-round pick will belong to the Phoenix Suns if it falls outside the top five in the lottery. Thus, if the Lakers really stink up Staples Center in 2014-15, they could hang onto their own selection in what may well be another strong draft.
Either way, the range of outcomes for the Lakers leaves them far below their historical threshold of competing for championships. They'd be fortunate to so much as set a finger on a Larry O'Brien Trophy that isn't already sitting in their practice facility in El Segundo.
And that could be the situation for some time after that.
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