2009-10 Regular Season: 57-25
Additions: Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks, Derrick Caracter, Theo Ratliff
Key Losses: Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell
Projected Rotation Players: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Shannon Brown, Derrick Caracter, Theo Ratliff
As Kobe Bryant enters his 15th NBA season, look for Pau Gasol to slowly move from the Lakers second option to "option 1a."
Right off the bat, let’s get one thing clear: a modest upgrade in Gasol’s role would NOT signal the end of Kobe Bryant’s run as a top-flight player. If anything, doing so will extend it.
However, Kobe’s neither getting any younger nor—despite his incredible force of will and ability to play through pain—is his body as fresh as it’s been in years past. With more than 1,300 meaningful (regular and postseason) games in 14 seasons under his belt, Kobe may be the oldest 32 year-old in NBA history. It’s already been revealed that Phil Jackson plans to limit his superstar’s minutes in the coming year (though limiting his games could be the prudent play), especially as he works out some kinks and gets back up to speed.
Given Kobe’s struggles this offseason—12.6 PPG and 28.2% from the field in roughly 22 minutes per game—it’s clear that lightening his considerable workload is vital to the Lakers shot at a three-peat.
Meanwhile, Pau Gasol, the second option on three straight finals teams (including two straight title-winners) and an elite NBA big man, is more than capable of shouldering an even larger load for this team. In the middle of the past decade, Gasol was the centerpiece of three 45+ win (and playoff bound) Memphis Grizzlies teams—and he never played with the likes of Kobe, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. Rather than relying on Kobe to carry his usual heavy load, a Kobe-and-Gasol-led Laker team should win 55+ games in the regular season and will likely still emerge as top-three seed in the Western Conference.
As the Lakers pursue their second championship three-peat since 2000, reassigning some of Kobe’s offensive responsibility to Gasol will allow Kobe to not only rest his knee during the regular season, but to go full speed in the postseason and shoulder a full workload in the Lakers pursuit of a 17th championship.
Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Lakers at 56.5. This is probably the right number for this team, with the smart money on the “under” (by no more than 2-3 games, but still).
While Kobe’s health and Pau’s role atop the team will garner attention during the regular season, this is a classic “waiting for the postseason” team. With a healthy Andrew Bynum (hope springs eternal), the Lakers will field one of the best big lineups in recent memory. In addition to the 7’ Bynum, the Lakers will trot out a roster consisting of Kobe (6’6”), Gasol (7’0"), Lamar Odom (6’10”), Ron Artest (6’7”), Matt Barnes (6’7”), Shannon Brown (6’4”, pretty good for a PG), Theo Ratliff (6'10", and happy to more than just an expiring contract) and second-rounders Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter (6’9” each).
If the Lakers are able to field their full complement of talent in the postseason, irrespective of opposition, they'll be well-positioned to make a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and a solid bet to secure the franchise's sixth title since 2000.