Although the Miami Heat have taken much of the spotlight away from the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, there have still been numerous projections regarding the Lakers, both positive and negative.
The fact is: The Lakers have drastically improved since last season. Most notably for strengthening their most glaring weakness—the point guard position.
Laker offseason acquisitions have been thoroughly discussed, and I'll leave this one alone by simply stating that Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Derrick Caracter, and Devin Ebanks are a major upgrade over Jordan Farmar, D.J. Mbenga, and Josh Powell.
Both Bryant and Fisher now have consistent, veteran replacements to fill in quality minutes for their aging legs.
While the superstars on the Lakers are likely to maintain their heightened level of play or improve, two other Lakers should make strong leaps forward this season: Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum.
Although statistical analysis could be used to project the level of play of these two, statistics are not always the strongest factor for evaluating players. Oftentimes, it is simply sheer motivation and psychological development that prove to be the rise or fall of a player.
Bynum has shown strong inclinations of stardom throughout his short NBA career. His fault has been obvious for some time now. Whenever injured, he seemed to take major steps back as it hurt the fluidity of his game. It is much harder to recover from an injury psychologically than it is physically for a young player.
Although Bynum is starting training camp sidelined due to injury, he shows strong promise due to his development in last year's playoffs. Bynum understood how crucial his role was for the Lakers against teams like Boston, even if he was just another big body clogging the paint.
Against Boston, he did an excellent job on Kendrick Perkins, and substantially reduced the ease at which the opposition created driving lanes. Through significant pain, Bynum gave everything he had and opted out of surgery, possibly putting his NBA career in jeopardy just to help his team win.
This won him major kudos with teammates, most notably Kobe Bryant, and head coach Phil Jackson. This has and will further contribute to the respect Bynum gets from his teammates and coaching staff alike.
Bynum has essentially figured out how to play through injury, and more importantly, has shown great role development for the Lakers. His successes, commitment, and awareness of his own injury proneness will play out as a strong season for Bynum and the Lakers.
He is the youngest starting player on the Lakers and seems to have finally earned the respect of his teammates. This translates into confidence for a young player, which is deadly for an athlete that has not come close to his presumed potential.
Artest began his career with the Lakers with a huge responsibility. He had let everyone know that if the Lakers did not repeat in 2009-10, it was all on him.
Combined with an inability to adapt to the triangle offense, difficulties shooting, and poor decision-making, Artest seemed destined to fail. However, noticing his short-comings, Ron decided to do what he does best—play defense.
Although the regular season was a bust for him, the playoffs proved to be his saving grace. He began to play more confidently, make crucial shots, and lock-down on defenders.
I believe the most important game of Artest's career was Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Celtics. Although a strong showing in a Game 7 in the Finals would be the highlight of any player's career, it was different for Artest. Not only did he play excellent defense, but he scored 20 points and made a dagger-shot of a three-pointer that sealed the deal for a Lakers repeat.
This was especially important as Bryant was having a horrible shooting night. No one was happier than Artest after the title was won, and rightfully so.
With a new NBA season rapidly approaching, Artest no longer has the burden of responsibility that he placed on himself this time last year. He has more or less learned the triangle offense. He is coming off of the best performance of his career as a Laker in Game 7. He has earned the trust of his teammates.
Really, the only thing Ron has to do this year is play basketball.
Players with anxiety and anger management issues do not benefit from added pressure placed on themselves. This is what Artest's psychiatrist helped him realize.
This season, he will be much more calm (well, for Artest anyway), will have shaken the Ariza-Artest talk, and will have much more confidence.
These factors will translate into a better Artest. Who knows, maybe he might even become a consistent shooter? Or, maybe not.
All-in-all, the Lakers show great promise for the upcoming NBA season. Although almost every Laker should show development and maturity after two back-to-back championships, Artest and Bynum should prove to be the most improved Lakers.