Optimism comes cheaply in August for followers of the Los Angeles Lakers. It should not, however, be confused with reality.
Make no mistake: The Lakers of 2014-15 will not be very good. Even with some offseason moves designed to shore up more than a few weaknesses, Byron Scott’s first year as head coach promises to be a rocky one.
It would seem there is nowhere for these Lakers to go but up after finishing 27-55 last year, the team’s worst in franchise history. Yet there exists enough question marks on the current 13-man roster to warrant a good dose of head-scratching.
Lakers fortunes begin and end with the 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, who is coming off two major, career-threatening injuries in the past year. The big question mark, of course, is Kobe’s health and whether or not his well-traveled basketball legs can withstand the rigors of an 82-game season at 30-plus minutes per game.
Assuming Bryant plays injury-free and averages 30 minutes and 20 points, the rest of the roster will need to step up and have career years in order for this team to have any chance of making the NBA playoffs. And, that may require a huge leap of faith and a lot of luck.
A Look At a Suspect Roster
Small Forward: The Bench Looks Better Than the Starters
Nick Young is the only other Laker not named Kobe Bryant who could be counted on for major minutes and plentiful scoring. Happily signed to a four-year extension ($21.5 million), the Los Angeles native is poised to improve on a year in which he averaged a career-best 17.9 points per game.
Scott has already made it known he prefers that Swaggy P come off the bench. Last season's most successful experiment saw Young not only score from all over the court but also improve dramatically as a defender.
Young is needed to serve as catalyst and driving force behind a second unit that otherwise appears thin. Scott did tell Mike Trudell of NBA.com that Young could see some important minutes playing alongside Bryant:
I liked how he played and how he was giving full effort on the defensive end, and I really love his energy. He cared about winning. He changed his whole persona, what people thought of him. I’d never seen him play defense before. I also saw him being unselfish at times where he made passes. I do love Swaggy coming off the bench.
He will play together with Kobe as well, but I do love his energy and firepower being able to score the ball off the bench.
If Young comes off the bench, that means the Lakers will probably go with Wesley Johnson or Xavier Henry at starting small forward. While both showed flashes of excellence last season, neither was consistent enough on both sides of the ball.
Toward that goal of adding depth, the Lakers this week brought free-agent small forward Michael Beasley in for a second look and could offer him a contract if they liked what they saw. The 6’10”, 235-pound Beasley is just 25 and was actually pursued by the Lakers two years ago when the former No. 2 pick (2008) played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Beasley played for the Miami Heat last season and was praised for much of the year by head coach Eric Spoelstra, per Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald. And, though Beasley saw less playing time at the end of the year, the former Kansas State star retains an intrigue about him and could add much-needed depth at the SF position.
Not Enough Big Bodies in the Middle
The Lakers are stacked with power forwards but lack a big body for the 5 position. Outside of the limited Robert Sacre (7’0”), L.A. lacks a dominant center to clog the middle.
Scott insists that his team defense will be by committee, per Trudell:
You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.
It may be a sound plan, given the roster, but also feels like a lot to ask of a team that last year was among the league’s worst on defense.
Back from that squad is Sacre, Jordan Hill, Johnson and Ryan Kelly. Former Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer was added via the amnesty clause, Julius Randle was the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft and Ed Davis was signed as a free agent after playing last year for the Memphis Grizzlies.
All are in the 6’9”-7'0" range, big enough to make a difference if they learn how to help each other. Davis is considered the best rim protector of the bunch and has played some center. Consider him an X-factor on defense.
Point Guard: Potential with a Lot of Uncertainty
Given what they had to start the summer, the Lakers deserve credit for finding adequate replacements for the departed Kendall Marshall, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar. Marshall was one of the league’s best passers (8.8 assists in 54 games), while Blake and Farmar were above-average perimeter shooters (40 and 44 percent respectively) who will be missed.
Blake and Farmar both fell victim to the injury bug that fell upon the Mike D’Antoni-led Lakers and were deemed expendable. The only point guard who remained on the roster was the most injured of the group: 40-year-old Steve Nash, who played in just 15 games and has one year left on his expensive ($9.7 million) contract.
And so the Lakers start fresh this fall. There’s a healthy (for now) Nash, rookie Jordan Clarkson and former Houston Rocket Jeremy Lin, who is certain to get the most playing time of the three.
After Lin, in his prime at 26, there's a big drop-off. Nash cannot be counted on due to his recent spate of injuries, and Clarkson, while talented enough, is just beginning his career. That doesn’t leave the team with much depth.
The ideal scenario would have Lin playing 25 minutes and Nash and Clarkson picking up what’s left. A healthy Nash is still one of the league’s top outside shooters and a tremendous passer.
And Lin is not only an improved passer and outside shooter (36 percent from three-point range last season), he is tremendous at penetration to the rim and pure money (82 percent) from the charity stripe.
Outside Shooting Could Be An Issue; Offense a Work in Progress
Long-distances threes were an issue last season only because the Lakers, under D’Antoni, shot too many of them and didn't get back on defense when they missed.
They did end up as the league’s third-best team in three-point shooting, making good on 38 percent. But the Lakers were 29th in team defense, giving up 109.2 points per game.
This season could be the reverse. Scott envisions an offense that is part Princeton, part triangle and part traditional half-court. As he told reporters at his introductory press conference last month:
It's going to be a mixture of a little bit of everything that I've done in New Jersey, New Orleans and Cleveland. There are a lot of different sets that you can call in the Princeton offense, there's like five different sets. And we won't get into all of the them and we won't even try and work on all of them. It's going to be a mixture of things that I think can make this team successful.
Magic Johnson told reporters that Scott’s offensive philosophy will translate better for this Lakers roster: "The team is better than what we had last season, because we have more guys who can do more things than just shoot three-pointers. If I don't see another three-pointer from a Laker team, I'll be happy."
Despite Johnson’s strong mistrust of the three-pointer, the reality is that it’s a critical element to fielding a successful team today. The Lakers are still able to add one or two players to their roster and would be wise to have at least one be a threat from the perimeter.
Nick Young (39 percent) is the best returning three-point shooter for L.A., followed by Wes Johnson (37 percent), Lin (36), Ryan Kelly and Bryant (both 34 percent).
Without another sharp shooter, the Lakers may have to rely on Young and hope for improvements from Lin, Johnson, Kelly and Henry.
Just Not Enough Firepower
Since Byron Scott was named coach in July, he has been preaching defense. He may be emphasizing that aspect because the Lakers’ offense appears anemic. It could be a long season trying to score points.
Losing star forward Pau Gasol and his 17 points per game won't help the Lakers' struggle to put points on the board.
Will Carlos Boozer be enough to replace that productivity? He’ll need to step up his game from the 13.7 points per game he had last season, the lowest average since his rookie year of 2002-03.
Julius Randle could be an important part of the Lakers offense if he is able to withstand the pressure and rigors of an 82-game season in the NBA. The former Kentucky Wildcat averaged 15 points his first and only season in college and looked promising in the summer league (12 points per contest).
Still, It’s asking a lot from a 6’9”, 250-pound rookie who won’t turn 19 until November 29 and graduated from high school just a little over a year ago.
A Season of Uncertainty and Entertainment
The Lakers have some serious flaws on their roster. They also posses youth (not counting Bryant, Nash and Boozer), athleticism and potential.
Much like last year, the Lakers will be entertaining. It will be interesting to watch a new coach, new players and one old but still very good superstar as they try to prove the skeptics (myself included) wrong.
The honeymoon period for Byron Scott and his team has been extended, but will probably end sometime shortly after the season starts in late October.
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