There are some crazy-ass Lakers expectations floating around town. The last time expectations were this high, USC had a No. 1 pre-season ranking and Matt Barkley had a premature Heisman coronation. How's that working out for Trojans fans?
No doubt the new-look Lakers will win a lot of games and go deep into the playoffs.
But they won't win the NBA championship. And anything short of an appearance in the NBA Finals will be considered a catastrophic failure for a Lakers team whose five starters have 33 All-Star appearances among them.
There are plenty of reasons for all the irrational exuberance. Point guard Steve Nash is a huge upgrade from Ramon Sessions — better handle, better passer, much better shooter. Center Dwight Howard is a big step up from Andrew Bynum — plays harder, runs the court faster, better defender, better rebounder, less injury-prone. He's even more mature than Bynum — but then so are Honey Boo Boo and LiLo.
But those improvements plus the returning starters — closer supreme Kobe Bryant, multi-skilled big man Pau Gasol and loony-but-lovable Metta World Peace — only buys them a trip back to the Western Conference finals, a familiar destination they've missed the last two years.
This year there are only three realistic championship contenders: Miami Heat, OKC Thunder and the Lakers, in that order. The Lakers would have to beat both to win the title, while Miami would only have to beat one of them.
Forget the Lakers' ominous 0-8 pre-season record — the worst in team history. Pre-season games don't mean jack.
There are five other reasons Lakers fans won't be flying purple-and-gold flags on their SUV's next June.
AGE: Nash turns 39 in February and finally showed serious signs of decline last year. His bad back will only get worse as the season stretches on. Kobe is 34 and entering his 17th NBA season with more mileage on his fragile knees than a '96 Beemer. He shot only 30 percent on threes and 43 percent overall last year. Pau Gasol is 32, plays every summer for Spain and had a sub-par season last year after his feelings were hurt when the Lakers tried to dump him in the aborted Chris Paul deal. World Peace will turn 33 in a couple of weeks and isn't getting any saner. Antawn Jamison, the team's newly acquired sixth man, is 36.
Most NBA championship teams feature a nice blend of prime-time veterans and spring-loaded youth. But five of the Lakers top six are well past their prime and one is pushing 40. Only Dwight Howard, at 26, is entering his prime hoop years. And he is slowly returning from serious back surgery six months ago
Kobe already has a foot injury and may miss the first few games. Look for much more of that for the Lakers senior stars. Trainer Gary Vitti could wind up as their MVP.
BENCH: Last year's bench was so bad that management dumped most of it and supposedly upgraded by signing Jamison and shooting guard Jodie Meeks. But Jamison shot 29 percent in the pre-season and Meeks was even worse, shooting 27 percent. Steve Blake is at best an average backup point guard. And the big-man backup for Gasol and Howard is 6-10 Jordan Hill, a former lottery pick traded twice in his first three seasons. The other backup big is rookie Robert Sacre, a nice surprise as the 60th and last player taken in the draft, a hard worker who lacks athleticism.
CHEMISTRY: Who will control the ball, Kobe or Nash? Both need the ball in their hands to be effective. Will Howard accept the role Kobe expects him to play – relentless rebounder and dominant defender who rarely has a play called for him, a hustler and scrapper who gets his points with dunks and stick backs? It's exactly that role that drove Bynum to act like a spoiled brat last year. Howard is a six time All Star and has long been the undisputed best center in the league. After Kobe told Howard of his prospective Laker role in a phone call last winter he spent the rest of the season trying to force his way to Brooklyn before that became impossible and he settled for a one-year rental in LA. And Howard can't be trusted with the ball late in a close game because of his terrible foul shooting — or at least that's what Kobe will argue when he refuses to pass him the ball in clutch situations.
Conventional wisdom among LA media is that this will all work out if Howard just accepts his role, absorbs the Lakers championship culture, and waits for Kobe to hand over the team in a couple of years. The reality is just the opposite: this four-star approach only works if Kobe accepts a greatly reduced role. He needs to hand the ball over to Nash, let him run pick-and-rolls with Howard as their basic offense and take only good shots after 16 years trying to prove that he can take – and make — any shot he wants. Early warning sign of trouble brewing: If Kobe insists on continuing to take one-on-three shots with guys hanging all over him while his teammates stand and watch as the 24-second clock winds down.
In 2004 the Lakers chose young Kobe over old Shaq. But this time young Howard has all the leverage — management desperately needs him to re-sign long term next summer while Kobe has already given the Lakers the best he has. Kobe may soon learn that this is no longer his team to do as he wishes when he wishes. But who exactly will deliver that message? Mike Brown? Mitch Kupchak? Jimmy, Jerry or Jeannie Buss? Magic Johnson?
COACHING: For more than a decade the Lakers had great success with Phil Jackson's Triangle offense, predicated on sharing the ball, quick reads by each player and an acute understanding of angles. But when Mike Brown took over he immediately junked the Triangle and started over-coaching, standing on the sideline and trying to dictate every offensive possession. By the end of the year he had wised up, sat down and was running no discernible offense other than Let-the-Black-Mamba-do-whatever-he-wants. His primary coaching challenge will be to stand up to Kobe, who last month declared the Lakers “my team.”
DEFENSE: Nash has never been able to guard anybody, but in Phoenix's beep-beep, 7-seconds-or-less offense it didn't matter. This year it will, especially when the playoffs come and it turns into a physical half-court game. Lakers fans insist that Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, will be waiting to swat all those quick guards who get by Nash so easily. Maybe, but it's equally likely that will put Howard in early foul trouble due to his habit of committing dumb fouls.
Kobe is still a great defender when he wants to be, but has preferred more and more in recent years to concentrate on offense. Gasol tries hard and uses his length well, but he can be overpowered by players like Blake Griffin. World Peace used to be a great defender and is still pretty good, but has lost a lot of lateral quickness and proved he is no longer a Kevin Durant stopper in last year's playoff elimination by the Thunder. And Jamison is a big-man version of Nash, a proven non-defender who can't stop anybody. It's hard to believe Howard can solve all these defensive deficiencies by himself.
Bottom Line: Cancel the parade, hope the Lakers re-sign Howard next summer and thank God no Laker player or executive has issued a LeBron-like “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” multiple championships prediction. All the Lakers championship hype feels like all the Facebook get-rich hype before its IPO last spring — how's that working out for those eager investors?
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