Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers Primed For New Challenges This Season
With the ink barely dry on Shannon Brown's new two-year contract, the Lakers roster for the upcoming season is just about set. Only contracts for LA's two second-round draft picks - Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks - are left to be arranged.
Now that everything is in place and speculation about possible moves and signings has given way to the reality of core players returning and new arrivals fortifying the bench, it would seem appropriate to ponder what the 2010-2011 season has in store for the Purple and Gold, with three big questions that Laker Nation had at the start of the offseason:
How might the physical health of the team affect its performance this year?
After three straight seasons of more than 100 games each and international offseason tournaments sprinkled in between (i.e. the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing), it would stand to reason that LA's current dynastic core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher came into the summer with a fair amount of bumps and bruises, to say the least.
Kobe and Bynum, in particular, suffered through some rather significant injuries. Like clockwork, Bynum's knee gave way during the Lakers' first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though not nearly as serious as the knee injuries he'd suffered in each of the previous two seasons, Drew showed some serious grit playing on a bum wheel to help the Lakers eek out a championship against the Boston Celtics.
Which new player will help the Lakers most this coming season?
Meanwhile, Kobe played a large chunk of the season with a broken pointer finger on his shooting hand...and was still arguably the best player in the NBA. Nevertheless, his busted digit has reportedly gone arthritic as a result of his decision to put off proper treatment until after the season.
That's not to leave out Lamar Odom. The Lakers' maddeningly inconsistent sixth man, who's spending the summer training with Team USA for the World Championships in Turkey.
On the brighter side of things, Bynum recently had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and should be fit and ready to go with plenty of time before the Lake Show starts its preseason schedule. While Kobe's finger may never be 100% healthy, chances are the rest of his body will never be either, after seven career Finals appearances in fourteen NBA seasons, though a summer off should grant him time enough to be fresh and ready for another title run.
As if Kobe needed any additional help preparing himself for a shot at another ring.
Lamar, meanwhile, may not enter camp as well-rested as his weary teammates, but his experience as an elder statesman on a young and sprightly American squad will hopefully enhance his confidence and on-court leadership...at least more than Khloe Kardashian has.
What will the Lakers' front office, led by GM Mitch Kupchak, do to fortify the squad for another deep playoff run?
While the health of a squad is difficult to predict, especially over the course of a long and grueling schedule, the Lakers now, on paper, boast a much deeper, more versatile squad than either of the previous two title winners.
Knowing full well that he had to, at the very least, keep the Lakers' core intact, Kupchak bookended the team's dip into free agency by re-signing the old-but-invaluable Derek Fisher and the young-and-improving Shannon Brown, thereby assuring that Kobe would have both his trusty sidekick (Fisher) and a reliable back-up (Brown) for the long haul.
In between, the team's brass upgraded the rest of the bench. First they replaced the Triangle-phobic Jordan Farmar, who bolted for the allure of backing up Devin Harris in New Jersey, with veteran stalwart Steve Blake. Blake, while hopping and bopping around the NBA landscape during his career, has proven to be a steady, professional point guard with a consistently solid shooting stroke wherever he's landed.
The saga continued with the surprise addition of Matt Barnes, the UCLA alum who seemed headed to Toronto before a sign-and-trade with the Magic fell through. Though Kupchak swung and missed in his pursuit of the feisty Raja Bell, he quickly recovered by landing Barnes. Barnes, like Bell, ranks among the few players in the NBA with the gumption to get in Kobe's face.
Of course, Barnes' merits go far beyond his attitude (or his "tat"-itude). He started consistently for a strong Orlando team last year, during which the Magic demonstrated their viability as a legitimate NBA championship contender. He has also established a reputation in the league as a hard-nosed defender and able shotmaker, though his "thug" image tends to overshadow his positive on-court contributions.
Meanwhile, the Lakers quietly brought in veteran big man Theo Ratliff to fortify their front court. While perhaps not exactly the fan favorite that DJ Mbenga was, Ratliff has made a solid career out of playing solid defense and swatting back shots more than just occasionally.
And lest we forget that draft day wasn't ALL about LeBron. The Lakers did well to snag a couple of first-round talents in the second round. Though the NBA Summer League is far from a fully-functional proving ground, LA's picks–Ebanks, a Trevor Ariza clone in both appearance and playing style, and Caracter, a veritable "Big Baby" clone–both performed well enough to earn praise from scouts and observers around the league as well as contracts from Lakers management.
All in all, these signings should make the Lakers a much deeper club, turning the second unit–last year's biggest weakness–into a potential strength. The additions of Blake, Barnes, and Ratliff should provide much-needed relief for the old (Fisher) and the ailing (Bryant and Bynum), thereby keeping the starters fresh for another deep and arduous run into June.
Though the draftees may not receive many meaningful minutes, they should get plenty of opportunity to prove themselves to coach Phil Jackson and the rest of the organization in practice and during "garbage time", at least enough so as to groom them to be future assets to the franchise.
After three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, how will the Lakers stay motivated in the chase for another title?
Going into the season last fall, the Lakers' motivations were basically two-fold–integrating Ron Artest as the latest addition among new players on title contenders (Shaq joined Cleveland, Vince Carter was traded to Orlando, and 'Sheed signed on with the Celtics), and, obviously, defending their crown.
As evidenced by their newest Larry O'Brien trophy, those factors proved to be just enough to push Kobe and Co. to the 16th title in franchise history. Of course, a shot at redemption against the hated Celtics helped a bit as a motivator, too.
This season looks to be a whole different story, with no shortage of bulletin board material at the Lakers' disposal.
For one, according to Phil Jackson himself, this will be the last season for the "Zen Master." What better way for his adoring players to send him off on a motorcycle into the Montana sunset than with a 12th championship? Oh, and did I mention it'd be Phil's FOURTH three-peat? And that another LA victory parade would mean six titles in two different cities (Chicago and Los Angeles) for Phil?
Of course, it would stand to reason that Odom, Bynum, Gasol, and Brown wouldn't mind being a part of a three-peat, for the second time in the cases of Kobe and D-Fish.
And I haven't even mentioned what's happened to the rest of the NBA this offseason!
Before the Lakers can get back to the Finals, they'll likely have to contend with another deep pool of competition in the West, led by league-scoring-leader-at-21 Kevin Durant and his merry band of fellow talented youngsters in Oklahoma City. The same merry band who gave the Purple and Gold all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs this past postseason.
Should the Lakers return to the Finals–and they're certainly favored to–they'll likely be challenged by either the SuperFriends–LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh–in Miami or the now-Shaqtastic Celtics, each of which are likely to divert plenty of limelight away from SoCal and back toward the East Coast.
Now, Kobe may not be quite the hot dog that LeBron and Shaq have proven to be, particularly this summer, but, more than anyone else in the game today, he relishes new challenges. And there's no doubt that either option–defeating LBJ and his Sunshine Gang or (dare I say) stuffing Shaq with humble pie in the Finals–would do much to fuel the Black Mamba's competitive excellence and enhance his already-rich legacy.
Not to mention Kobe would then have six rings, matching Michael Jordan's total.
Unfortunately for all basketball fans, including Laker Nation, the real fun doesn't start for another three-and-a-half months or so. That being said, there are still plenty of questions left to be answered, and more still yet to be asked.
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