Unable to entice any major free agents over the offseason, management has once again surrounded 36-year-old Kobe Bryant with a ragtag army of walking wounded, chronic underperformers, castoffs and untested rookies.
That’s not to say there isn’t any potential, or that the roster is utterly lacking in talent. It is to say, however, that the path forward is cluttered with waving symbols of doom and gloom.
The No. 1 red flag is injuries and has been for years. At the end of the 2012-13 season, trainer Gary Vitti said, per the team’s website: “It wasn’t a tough year, it was a tough 10 years in one.”
Last April, during an interview with Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Vitti said: "I didn't think it was going to get any worse than that. And then we had this year, which was worse."
Here we are six months later, and the injury bug has already reared its ugly head.
Here’s the rundown: Nick Young tore the radial collateral ligament in his right thumb the first week of training camp, and that injury necessitated surgery. He is expected to be out until early December.
Steve Nash is dealing with the same back and nerve issues that have plagued him since arriving in Los Angeles. He’ll turn 41 in February, and his basketball future looks less than bright—it may be nonexistent.
Xavier Henry flew to New York City to get a second opinion on his surgically repaired right knee and will then travel to Germany for Regenokine treatment. The 23-year-old swingman has yet to play more than 50 games during any of his four NBA seasons—injuring his right knee repeatedly and also tearing ankle and wrist ligaments.
Is this cyclical injury pattern some kind of strange curse for the Lakers? Or is it just simply random bad luck? Has new Lakers head coach Byron Scott run some of his players too hard during training camp?
Whatever the reasons, the team simply can’t seem to hop off the carousel of poor health.
As Scott recently said, per Lakers.com:
Every day right now in our coaches meeting, we're saying, 'OK, who are we going to have today? Who's going to be able to practice?' So we're trying to figure out combinations just to have 10 guys on the floor to be able to go through things on both ends of the floor. So yeah, it does affect the game planning. It affects your practice, because you want to have those guys out here. It messes up a lot of things.
It’s not optimal for training camp, and if the situation doesn’t improve soon, it won’t be a good way to kick off the regular season.
Injuries can go hand in hand with age. Bryant played only six games last season after fracturing his knee—that coming on the heels of a ruptured Achilles tendon. So far during the preseason, he has looked healthy, leading the team in scoring at 19 points per game.
His age is a concern given that so much rides on his ability to deliver wins. But, as Drew Garrison for Silver Screen and Roll recently wrote: “Kobe regressing with age isn't his fault, and isn't the leading reason why the Lakers are where they are today.”
The failure of Nash to deliver on what he was signed to do also isn’t his fault. Time and injuries have simply caught up. The oldest active player in the league isn’t able to be particularly active at the moment. That could still change for some number of games, but how many? Nobody can predict.
Carlos Boozer was claimed off amnesty waivers this summer and at age 32, he is starting down the slippery slope of decline. The veteran power forward averaged the fewest points and rebounds last season since his rookie year.
There’s an old spiritual song in which a fragment of the lyrics are as follows: “The knee bone's connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone's connected to the hip bone, and the hip bone's connected to the back bone…” and on and on.
Injuries, age and positional deficiencies are also connected, resulting in yet more red flags.
Ronnie Price was signed on the cusp of training camp to add depth to a dangerously thin guard rotation. In short order, Nash, Lin and Clarkson went out, leaving a 31-year-old role player as the last point guard standing. Price has done an admirable job, but a guy with a career average of 3.4 points in 11.7 minutes per game can’t hold down the fort forever.
The small forward position has also been a weak spot, with starter Wesley Johnson staying true to his reputation of being consistently inconsistent. The 27-year-old former No. 4 draft pick has never lived up to his promise, and this preseason is no different—he’ll follow a couple good sequences with careless turnovers or extended periods in which it’s hard to tell he’s even on the floor.
When you add the injuries of Young and Henry to the equation, the hole at the 3 becomes downright gaping.
If there’s one area that seems relatively solid, it’s the frontcourt. Boozer may not be the player he once was, but Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Robert Sacre have all played well.
And then there’s 19-year-old Julius Randle. The team’s No. 7 draft pick has been receiving tough love from his coach and from Bryant.
The rookie power forward has played with increased confidence as the preseason has progressed, however, and represents at least one example of how youth, strength and versatility can help forge a way through the danger zone.
The rash of red flags cluttering up the Lakers preseason are worrisome. It is not a given that they will define the team’s future, but they serve as warning signs nonetheless.
Can the team thread past them, to caution flags and then green?
The health situation is a mixed bag. Lin played well in his return Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns with 15 points, five assists and four rebounds. Nash’s season, however, seems increasingly tenuous.
The positional weaknesses are simply what they are, and they are not likely to change unless through fortuitous midseason trades.
Yet, the Lakers are pushing hard as the preseason advances, coming from behind to win against the Utah Jazz and falling in overtime to the Suns.
Bryant’s ragged coalition seems determined to give it a shot, regardless of questions, omens or flags.