Lakers fans had the full roller coaster last year. It began with Kobe Bryant's trade demand, and Lakers fans thought the last vestiges of its championship teams was falling by the wayside (and would the Lakers fans really have been satisfied with a Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Ty Thomas core?).
With no trade coming, the Lake Show got off to a hot start, and the young, talented Andrew Bynum was showing signs that he shouldn't have been traded for Jason Kidd. But then, Bynum went down and a promising season seemed lost.
"Thank God for Kwame Brown." I doubt any Lakers fan would think they'd say that, but he was instrumental in acquiring Pau Gasol. And the Gasol-Bryant-Lamar Odom combo dispatched the Western Conference's best.
The Finals versus the Boston Celtics was supposed to be an epic matchup that had the Lakers come out on top, but it ended up with an embarrassing 30+ point loss.
For the next season, the Lakers are facing the challenge of overcoming the devastating disappointment of the Finals and maintaining a championship-caliber team while everyone else is gunning for you.
Bryant is the alpha and omega of this team. The Doberman/Black Mamba averaged a shade over 28 points, with 6.3 boards and 5.4 dimes last year. While impressive, these aren't the best statistical year he's ever had, but the trust he showed in his teammates led to his first Most Valuable Player award.
But maybe it wasn’t a trust in these teammates, but a need. If you've been watching Bryant as long as I have, you'd notice that he's no longer the athletic, cocky kid from Lower Merion. Sure, he's still cocky, but he's much more likely to kill a team with a jumper than a monster jam on the opposing center.
Bryant had trouble taking over against the Celtics though. Sure, they had a great team defense, but it seemed like Bryant was having trouble lighting up his former whipping boy Ray Allen. His defense hasn't been as good either, mostly due to the load he takes on offense.
Kid Skills will only be turning 30 this August, but he's been in league for a dozen years now. With multiple injuries, and a long summer this year, could this be the year Bryant slows down significantly?
Fortunately, this Lakers team is loaded with talent. The big Spaniard Gasol has a good mid-range game, and a strong low-post array of moves. He's also quite happy being the second option in the offense. He's good on the boards and plays decent defense, but is often overpowered by the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and guys like LaMarcus Aldrigde.
Hopefully, Gasol's defensive deficiencies can be made up by Bynum. But he's a seven-foot question mark. First, his dislocated kneecap was supposed to be a two month injury … then, he'd be out until the playoffs … and he just wasn't healthy enough to play. Can this potentially-game changing big man get back healthy? Will he be able to adapt to the triangle with another talented big man? How well he comes back could very well determine where the Lakers wind up this year.
Odom had another solid year (14.2 points, 10.6 boards, 52 percent from the field) but he too may find difficulties adjusting to the big frontcourt. While the no-on-shorter-than-6-11 frontcourt could be stifling on defense, Odom's going to have to work on his perimeter game to spread the floor for the two seven footers.
Derek Fisher will man the point guard spot and provide tough defense, outside shooting, and leadership. I expect this will be the last year Jordan Farmar will come off the bench, as his speed, shooting and tenacity will make for a good starting point guard soon.
Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic got a nice contract over the off season, and he should provide more lights-out shooting off the bench and pestering defense (as long as he's not guarding Ray Allen). Luke Walton and Vlad Radmanovic are overpaid, but they can contribute and at least have some trade value.
Trevor Ariza has amazing timing on defense, and newly-signed Sun Yue makes for some nice mashup videos, but will have a hard time getting any floor time.
Notice anything missing on the bench? This team is lacking experienced big men to come off the bench. Losing Ronnie Turiaff not only leaves Bryant without a viral video buddy, but it leaves the Lakers without a solid backup big. Odom will be able to slide over to the four spot for stretches, and D.J. Mbenga showed some flashes of competence, but this could be a concern.
Even with all the question marks, the Lakers are in an enviable position. They have world-class talent at multiple positions, and they have a great bench – minus a super sub big man. The Lakers always have a target on their back, and that will become larger thank to the Finals run. Look for the Lakers to stumble a bit during the season, but I see them going all the way next season.