Even though all the Lakers did this offseason was re-sign Sasha Vujacic, replace the departed Ronny Turiaf with Josh Powell, and sign the so-called Chinese Magic Johnson, Sun Yue, they enter the 2008-09 season substantially improved.
They exercised restraint, knowing that Trevor Ariza, Chris Mihm, and especially Andrew Bynum return in good health.
Here are the new keys to success:
1) Kobe Bryant, following his great Olympic experience, steps up another level in leadership by facilitating the new Laker inside game and intensifying his play on the defensive end.
2) Vladimir Radmanovic/Luke Walton/Trevor Ariza start at SF. Lamar Odom comes off the bench a la Manu Ginobili—playing starter minutes at PF and SF—and relishing his new role as leader of the Bench Mob while finishing with the first unit. Additionally, he embraces his NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidacy.
3) Andrew Bynum does emerge as the beast anticipated by the Laker front office. He is the shot-blocking presence sorely needed on the defensive end. At the offensive end he is the certain finisher at the rim—missing last year after he went down.
There is no better collection of interior passers in the league than Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Odom—all looking for Bynum coming off the block. Beyond that, he will demand increasing attention from his growing assortment of Kareem post moves.
He also picks up where he left off on the boards (10+ in 28 minutes per game last season).
4) Pau Gasol thrives in his more natural position of starting PF—adapting to all front line combinations—including with Odom and Bynum when the Lakers go BIG.
5) Sasha Vujacic emerges as arguably the best 3-point marksman off any NBA bench. His goal is to be the best perimeter shooter in the NBA. He makes his case this season.
6) 48 minutes of intensity from the PG spot—from greater depth and thus less wear and tear on Derek Fisher, thanks to an improved Jordan Farmar, sometimes from Vujacic, and even from Sun Yue as the season progresses.
7) Greater depth at center with Bynum, a healthy (at least for a while) Chris Mihm, Pau Gasol in a pinch, and maybe even D.J. Mbenga again at the end of the bench.
Of course, Josh Powell can play the five when the rotation goes small. Last year the center spot ended up being manned only by Gasol, Turiaf, and Mbenga—too weak against the Celtics.
Thus, the Lakers return to the NBA Finals. Who will they meet?