5 Reasons Why the Los Angeles Lakers Could Surpass Expectations Next Year
The Los Angeles Lakers will have their work cut out for them in 2014-15, but there are a number of ways in which they could outperform the dismal expectations for them.
Just how bleak to things look? Well, according to ESPN's summer standings forecast, the Lake Show will stumble its way to a 30-52 record and a 12th-place finish in the West. Considering the cynical commentary ESPN included from two example tweeters, a lot will have to go L.A.'s way just to reach that unsatisfying result.
That popular point of view makes a number of assumptions about the Laker personnel—hobbled, raw or otherwise flawed. But with a full offseason's worth of healing and a regime change from Mike D'Antoni to new head coach Byron Scott, recent performance might not be a representative point of judgment for how these guys will play next season.
The odds are stacked against Kobe Bryant's crew making a playoff run in one of his final campaigns, but their talent and experience levels are being underrated. Even if greatness is too much to predict, they have a better chance at respectability than people are saying.
Black Mamba Redemption
For nearly two decades, Kobe has poured in points, weathered bangs and bruises, gone to Germany and back and kept on producing at an elite level. Yet he has not been invincible as much as indestructible—a paragon of recovery and success through injury rather than one of flawless health.
Of course, his torn Achilles suffered late in the 2012-13 season was his most debilitating to date. When he returned in December 2013, he had yet to work himself into his usual form, averaging 13.8 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting in 29.5 minutes a night.
Then, in just his sixth game back, he fractured his lateral tibial plateau. Per the Lakers team Twitter account, he was initially expected to miss just six weeks, but he did not return at all in 2013-14.
When significant injury befell Kobe Bryant,he could not regain his star status. Entering next season at 36 years old, this mortality in health and ability appears to be the new normal.
However, small sample size must be taken into account. We can't gauge the level at which Kobe would have reached last season based on a week-and-a-half of play, and, as Will Carroll reported for Bleacher Report, Bryant's knee fracture likely wasn't related to his Achilles tear:
Dr. Bob Baravarian, one of the top foot and ankle specialists in sports from St. Johns Hospital in California, spoke with me and said it's unlikely the Achilles had much to do with this injury. He agreed that it was more a traumatic injury.
'Conditioning is more of a factor, especially with elite athletes,' he explained. 'There could be some bone loss with the time he was non-weight bearing, and even when he was ramping up.'
"Fractures tend to heal cleanly, so there should be no long-term issue," Carroll also noted.
So we don't know if Kobe permanently exited the ranks of 20-point-per-game scorers when he tore his Achilles, and Carroll doubts Bryant's most recent injury will work to his detriment in 2014-15. And considering he will be returning nearly 11 months following the initial break, he should be at his fullest health in two seasons.
Back then, at 33, he averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. Even if he doesn't reach those marks, he can still be a true cornerstone of this team.
Linsanity, Part II
Even if he can't capture international imagination the way he did when he broke out as a New York Knick, Jeremy Lin is poised to have his best season ever with the Lakers.
That might come as a surprise, since his stock is at the lowest it has been since the pre-Linsanity days. His 12.5 points, 4.1 assists and one steal per game last season were his worst stats since his New York explosion, as he ceded his starting point guard spot to Patrick Beverley and was hampered by back spasms.
With curtailed mobility and the likes of Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons limiting his chances to attack off the bounce, Lin could not be his regular self in 2013-14.
That won't be the case in L.A. After sitting just 11 regular-season games, he needed the summer to rest his back. And while Kobe will still have his ball-dominant moments on the wing, he'll need someone to help create for him, and 40-year-old Steve Nash is not up to that task.
Lin is the only current Laker who can slash off the dribble to both score at the rim and find his teammates for open looks. That makes him a vital engine to the offense, giving it a dynamic element no Kobe-adjacent ball-handler has ever provided the Lakers.
Bryant will benefit from ball-handling relief, and Lin will thrive with the ability to orchestrate the attack himself. It's a win-win for L.A.
Another note about Kobe's historical Laker supporting cast: No other L.A. wing has cracked even 15 points per game since 2006-07, when Caron Butler posted 15.5 in the split Rudy Tomjanovich/Frank Hamblen coaching era.
Last season, Nick Young embraced his sixth-man role and led L.A. with 17.9 points per game. Even acknowledging his usage will lessen playing with Kobe and Lin rather than the hodgepodge collection of guys thrust into significant minutes on the 2013-14 Lakers, Swaggy P is still the best swingman in at least a decade.
Unlike a 24-year-old Butler, Young can probe defenses off the bounce and can get his shot and make it from any spot on the floor. Defenses will now have to account for Bryant's post-up game and Young's quickness, sometimes even at the same time—a difficult task considering the offensive firepower between them.
Swaggy will be even more beneficial to Kobe and the Lakers as an off-ball complementary threat. As Drew Garrison writes at Silver Screen and Roll, the wing with the chucker's reputation reached new heights of restraint and efficiency last year:
When he was working as a cog within the offense Young was a perfect weapon for the Lakers last season. He shot an astounding 46.6 percent from beyond the arc as a spot-up shooter, which was a critical aspect of Mike D'Antoni's offense and really any offense at this point. The Lakers needed players to space the floor while running pick-and-rolls and Young was instrumental in providing an outlet as the secondary option.
If Young can combine the controlled approach to offense that served him so effectively with significantly greater talent around him, the Lakers will be a pain for opposing perimeter defenses.
Vitality Through Youth
Julius Randle won't be a fair-value replacement for Pau Gasol in the near future, but he still has the potential to be a game-changer for the Lakers as a rookie.
L.A. lost height, high-post passing and offensive polish when Gasol left for the Chicago Bulls this summer, but it gained a potent combination of strength and agility that can punish opposing forwards if Randle is able to harness his natural gifts.
At Kentucky, Randle would occasionally falter when facing multiple defenders, but he was hell for anyone to cover one-on-one. That will still be the case much of the time in the pros, especially when he posts up.
Standing 6'9" and weighing 250 pounds, Randle's frame is reminiscent of Zach Randolph's, but the new Laker has incredible quickness in his face-up game, driving by slower-footed forwards who lack the speed to cut off his path and powering through whoever remains in his way.
In what he saw from the rookie in summer league, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, L.A. assistant Mark Madsen was impressed by Randle's knack for penetrating off the bounce and even kicking out to open teammates.
"He's very difficult to guard because he's so good with the ball," Madsen said. "He has the skills of a point guard in the frame and the body size of a 6-9, 250-pound man."
Even if Randle isn't always able to finish against NBA rim protectors, his pure talent will disrupt defenses, forcing them to keep multiple bodies in his path and giving Lin and the wings more room to operate.
In all likelihood, Randle won't garner that kind of attention from Day 1, but with his physical prowess, it will come soon enough.
Wait, These Lakers Play Defense, Too?
If you're thinking that, with Kobe's old age and no real starting-caliber centers, the Lakers would just focus on offense and cede the other end of the floor, Byron Scott won't let that happen.
In an interview with NBA.com's Mike Trudell, Scott preached the importance of strict attention to defense in practice, stressing "that's something we have to get better at right away, and it will":
'Defensive philosophy has to be constant. This is no knock on Mike at all, but there were games where they were playing defense one way, and other games where they played it differently. When I go into the season, there are three ways we’re going to guard side pick and rolls, for example: we’re going to down it, hard show, or red it (trap). If you do it from day one, guys get better at it because they’re working on it every day in practice. I want to establish those things day-to-day, and if you do that, it takes a lot of the thinking away and gets back to reacting.'
From a personnel standpoint, defense is clearly a problem in Lakerland.
Kobe is a question mark right now. Lin and Swaggy P have the athleticism but lack the awareness and instincts to consistently execute on-a-string defensive rotations. Ed Davis is the lone Laker shot-blocker, leaving the likes of Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill to defend inside.
That's the hand Scott has been dealt: He lacks go-to stoppers at any position, so he is instead committed to installing a regimented, team-first strategy that puts the defensive onus on five-man unites rather than any individuals.
For example, when asked about rim protection, Scott acknowledged Boozer's and Hill's limitations in that regard and said "we'll focus more on forcing guys to certain places and corral them instead of trying to block shots." The coach understands the limitations of his roster and is determined to craft a defense that solves them through work ethic and commitment to his system.
For these Lakers, that's the right away to approach things, and it's the only way they through which they could perform effectively on that end. Just defensive competence could make the difference necessary to lift L.A. from the Western cellar and beyond their lowly expectations.
All stats via NBA.com.