Training camp is around the corner for the Los Angeles Lakers, and there are important questions to be answered. Such as, can they make the playoffs this season?
This would have been considered a ridiculous thing to ask just a few years ago—the Lakers went to the Finals seven times during the Phil Jackson era, winning five NBA titles.
But that was then, and this is now. And after the worst loss record in franchise history last season at 27-55, the question of advancing into the postseason is a legitimate one.
In fact, many observers are more than a little doubtful about the prospects for this current roster. The bombastic Charles Barkley recently ventured on NBA.TV, per Sheridan Hoops: “I love Kobe Bryant. He's one of the 10 greatest players ever, but it's over for him and the Lakers.”
Charles Barkley on NBA TV: "Kobe Bryant will save a lot of money on playoff tickets because the Lakers aren't making the playoffs."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) August 13, 2014
Those are harsh words. But they are also those of a provocateur and should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of sodium crystals.
While nobody really expects the Lakers to contend for a championship this season, their new head coach is maintaining a positive mantra.
During an interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Byron Scott had this to say:
I know it's going to be a tough road, but when I start training camp, the first thing I'm going to tell our guys is that our goal is to win the championship. I want them thinking that way from day one. People aren't picking us to make the playoffs, sure, but that's not how we're going to approach it.
We have to change the mindset. It may take a year or two, and I think Kobe knows that, but he already has the championship mindset. It's not hard to convince him. Convincing everyone else is the biggest trick we have to do, but that's how we have to do it.
Buying into Scott's positivity isn't all that hard if you're a Lakers fan. There's an understanding that a tough comeback road lies ahead, but this, after all, is a new beginning.
It's not surprising, however, that pundits around the country are questioning the tools Scott has to work with. As Thomas Johnson for The Washington Post writes:
A 35-year-old Kobe Bryant coming off two major injuries. A 40-year-old Steve Nash sticking around for one final year's worth of paychecks. Nick Young being Nick Young. This is the type of roster that will cause Scott to fondly reminisce over his last job, coaching the post-LeBron Cavaliers. At least that team had Kyrie Irving.
Bryant turned 36 since that article was written, but who's counting? There are also those who expect to see a rejuvenated Mamba playing like a much younger man.
There will be plenty of doubt cast on the Lakers' aspirations between now and the start of the regular season. And if L.A. gets off to a rough start, criticism will become even more brutal.
But there is no reason to expect that last year's train wreck, fueled by an unimaginable number of injuries, will repeat itself.
Is there cause to believe the current squad can get back into the playoff hunt? Actually, there is. With a new defensive mindset, some fresh legs and a healthy Bryant, the Lakers could stay in contention as a slightly better than .500 team and ultimately surprise unbelievers by sneaking into the first round and possibly beyond.
How many wins would they have to add to last season's record? The Dallas Mavericks clinched the eighth and final playoff spot last season with a 49-33 record, while the Memphis Grizzlies had the seventh slot at 50-32.
In other words, the Lakers would have to pick up about 22 wins from their recent debacle. That's a lot of ground to make up. But perhaps the idea of affixing a theoretical net gain is the wrong way to look at this.
How about forgetting the past—the highs and the lows—and simply looking at this as a starting point. Everyone begins with the same record of 0-0. All teams get their shot, regardless of the expectations game.
The Lakers have not been on a unified page for the past three seasons. A new coach creates an opportunity for that to change. It's also a chance to show that last season was an aberration—this may not be an elite roster, but it's certainly not worthy of bottom-feeder status.
So how does the team with all those banners find its way back to what was once taken for granted?
There has to be a new commitment on the defensive end of the court, and teammates have to help each other out. Players will have to learn a form of the Princeton offense and in doing so be willing to play off the ball. How this works with the point guard trio of Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash and Jordan Clarkson will be interesting to say the least.
Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle will have to rebound incessantly, and role players who thrived under Mike D'Antoni's freewheeling shoot-first offense will have to dial back to a structured team-first mentality. Nick “Swaggy P” Young may enjoy a little leniency, however, and be allowed to play his style of game as a sixth-man scoring machine.
Above all, Bryant has to remain healthy, operate in lockstep with Scott as a fellow taskmaster and prove to Barkley and all the other naysayers that it is not over.
And if all those things happen, the Lakers will make it to the playoffs, and life in the land of Purple and Gold will begin to find its balance once again.