No Middle Ground: Lakers' Motley Crew Will Be Feel-Good Story or Sheer Disaster

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands during a free throw against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 16, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Respectability or bust.

Don't expect the slogan to take the marketing world by storm or even pacify restless Los Angeles Lakers fans, but it needs to be Hollywood's mantra for the 2014-15 campaign. This could be a low-end playoff contender or a raging tire fire.

Those aren't the extremes, they are the options. There is no in-between.

The Lakers, of course, can't sell the season as such. Not with those 16 championship banners suspended from the Staples Center rafters, which serve as both badges of honor and measures of success.

"This organization is all about championships, period," head coach Byron Scott said at his introductory press conference. "We don't look at Western Conference finals, Western Conference championships. We look at (NBA) championships."

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26:  The Los Angeles Lakers react as the 2009-2010 Championship Banner is unveiled during a ceremony prior to their opening night game against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on October 26, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

That unwavering pursuit of excellence dictated L.A.'s offseason maneuvers, although futile attempts to drape LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony in Purple and Gold forced the franchise to take an indirect route. Future flexibility drove front-office decisions, as short-term contracts were handed out like the Lakers were hiring seasonal help.

The result is a mishmash of a roster highly motivated to do something. Whether those motivations are shared by the collective or split among individuals will determine what happens next for the Lakers: decency or disaster.

If the Lakers do go down in flames, the carnage still shouldn't be quite as bad as the calamitous 2013-14 season.

"The Lakers were so awful last season that it figures to be next-to-impossible to be as bad," wrote NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "The Lakers lost a franchise-record 55 games."

Kobe Bryant made six appearances, and Steve Nash played 15 games. Former coach Mike D'Antoni pulled interior bruisers out of the middle and tried forcing them out to the perimeter, curtailing their playing time as their production predictably suffered.

Dec 23, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni and center Pau Gasol (16) on the sidelines against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns won 117-90. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Even after D'Antoni's exit, four-time All-Star Pau Gasol still couldn't get the bad taste from that experience out of his mouth. The versatile big man took his talents to the Windy City over the offseason, and D'Antoni might have purchased his ticket:

These Lakers aren't those Lakers. Not on paper, at least.

Health questions still face Bryant, who turns 36 in August, and Nash, who will turn 41 next season, but there are some fresh faces around to help carry the load.

The Lakers found their crown jewel of the offseason in a place they rarely venture: the draft lottery.

Rookie Julius Randle, the franchise's highest selection (seventh overall) in 32 years, stands as perhaps the most important piece of the Lakers' future. While the team hasn't embraced a youth movement, it will need some bargaining chips in a year or two when it cashes in its salary-cap savings.

Randle's development is key, but that won't necessarily buy him significant playing time. Not with Scott looking to restore some type of relevance:

The 19-year-old, like every other rookie, is far from a finished product. Growing pains aren't likely, they're expected.

"Like every organization should with its rookies, the Lakers should expect inconsistency from Randle—inconsistency tied to the trial-and-error process of figuring out what the heck works and what doesn't," wrote Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman.

Still, Randle has obvious talent:

Throw in his drool-worthy upside, and he'll give the Lakers frontcourt something it didn't have last season. To a lesser extent, the same could be said of 25-year-old Ed Davis, an active, athletic interior presence who could be a consistent role away from capitalizing on his potential—or the latest in a long line of prospects that never panned out.

Davis isn't the only one with something to prove, either.

Like last season, the Lakers have gambled on a couple reclamation projects. The difference is that these players—Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer—have already enjoyed significant success at this level.

Lin, who was sent to the Lakers by the salary-shedding Houston Rockets, shouldn't need to prove anything. He's been steady, and spectacular at times, over the last three seasons. During that stretch, he has averaged 13.3 points on 44.4 percent shooting and 5.4 assists.

Those are solid numbers, yet not everyone sees them as such due to the unrealistic expectations set forth during his "Linsanity" run with the New York Knicks in 2011-12. He may never be that player again, but he's a good one now with more room to grow than people might realize.

"I’m 25 years old and I think because of the way things have happened, people always think I’m older or I’ve been around longer than I really have," he told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. "I’ve played two full seasons in the NBA – two full seasons and those 25 games in New York."

Lin is a massive upgrade over Kendall Marshall, who made 45 starts for the Lakers last season. Of course, that's not saying much.

Lin can be good, but time will tell whether that's good enough. The Lakers will need more if Bryant's body prevents him from recapturing his All-Star form.

The last time the Mamba was healthy he put up 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds. However, he has suffered both a torn Achilles and a broken bone in his left knee since. Expectations are never easy to place on a player with his competitive fire, but even the future Hall of Famer can't break Father Time's undefeated streak.

Boozer's case is different from Lin's. His reputation has soured for a reason.

Never a strong defender, the 32-year-old has shown signs of regression at the opposite end. In 2013-14, his scoring (13.7 points per game) was as low as it had been since his rookie year. His 45.6 field-goal percentage was easily the worst of his career.

Still, a change of scenery could be what the two-time All-Star needed. He no longer has an eight-figure salary to live up to—the Lakers won his amnesty auction with a $3.25 million bid—and he has the added fuel of producing for his next contract.

"I have a lot to prove," he told reporters at his introductory press conference. He also said, per The Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, he "absolutely" expects to start and plans on continuing his career "maybe four or five, six more years, maybe seven."

It will be a grind making either one a reality, but an energized Boozer could look a lot different than the one who was forced out of Chicago.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JULY 25: Carlos Boozer #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks at the Los Angeles Lakers championship trophies in the office of Jeanie Buss before a press conference at the Toyota Sports Center on July 25, 2014 in El Segundo, California. NOTE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There are reasons to hope, provided the Lakers are willing to weigh success in new ways.

This isn't a contending team, but it has the framework of a group that could win more games than it loses and battle for one of the Western Conference's final postseason spots. It would take a clean bill of health for Bryant and Nash, a smooth transition for Randle, some forward progress for Lin and a vintage effort out of Boozer, but it's possible.

As is the doomsday scenario: Bryant and Nash wear suits more than uniforms, and Randle and Davis play like projects, while Lin and Boozer put personal profit ahead of the team.

Chemistry could turn quickly if losses pile up, and Scott could boil over if his plan, per NBA.com's Mike Trudell, "to establish ourselves as a defensive basketball team" never comes to fruition. A consecutive 50-loss season isn't out of the question.

It's hard to say which outcome we'll see: competence or catastrophe. Either way, expect to see some type of extreme.

Middle ground does not exist in Lakerland.


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