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Los Angeles Lakers
Last Years Record: 45-37
Growing from within: While trades and free agents are what excites the fan base in the offseason, the key to the Lakers’ success this year is growth of guys already in the system. It’s a nice zen-like concept (which is fitting). After a season to get the complex triangle figured out, this is the season we see who can really fit in this system and who should be kindly escorted out.
Questions include: Can Lamar Odom continue to assert himself like he did the last couple months of last season? Can Kwame play, well, if not like the first overall pick at least like he should have been picked? Can Andrew Bynum play older than his 18-years? (He’s going to have to because of injuries at the start of the season.) Can Smush Parker not look baffled any time the opponent runs the pick-and-roll?
Key Additions: There are three guys coming in — the big name, the sleeper and the future favorite.
Vladimir Radmanovic got most of the ink this summer, moving from Donald Sterling’s condominium to Jerry Buss’ Playboyesque mansion (which one would most men chose?). Vlade’s main skill is no secret and will help him thrive in the triangle — he’s a big who can space the floor. He’s been described as bringing what Steve Kerr brought to those 90s Bulls teams — you know you can’t leave him alone, and that is one less guy to colapse on Kobe driving the lane, or a little farther to go on a rotation that gives someone else a good look. And he will get his looks, too.
Maurice Evans was a little discussed draft day pickup but may have a bigger impact this season than any other change. The reason is the guy he will spell much of the time — Kobe Bryant. Last season the Laker were +4.5 points (per 48 minutes) when Kobe was on the court and -7.9 when he sat. The reason was it’s a very long fall from Kobe to Sasha Vujacic and LaRon Proffit. The end result was Kobe played a lot of minutes, carried a lot of burden. Evans is no All-Star but he is a very solid NBA player — he can hit the corner three (39.1% from his favorite left corner last year), he can defend and he can make smart plays. All of that means a little more rest for Kobe’s knee (especially to start the season), which is huge.
Then there is Jordan Farmar, who was already loved in LA after taking UCLA to the brink of another title. He walked on the floor with a confidence that gives Lakers fans a vision on strength at what for a couple of years has been a weakness. He is already better leading the break than any other Laker, and he is already as good a defensive point guard as we have. What he lacks is a consistent outside shot (something the triangle demands of its PG), some time in the weight room to help defend the stronger points in the NBA, and experence. He won’t start, but by the end of the season he’ll be getting key minutes.
Key Losses: Nothing that will be seriously missed, although Laker fans will always think back fondly on Devean George.
What is the Lakers’ biggest strength? Um, have you seen Kobe play? At points in the preseason Laker fans have been hyped about all impressive and improved side dishes we have this season, but the main course is what will make or break the meal. And the Lakers have one of the best in the game.
We could fill up the rest of this preview talking about what Kobe brings to the table, but instead let’s talk about another strength — creating matchup problems. Let’s say you’re the coach facing the Lakers, it’s clear that your best perimeter defender has to guard Kobe so you can hope to hold him to 40. But what do you do with Odom? But a sloth-like power forward on him and he steps outside and burns you J, or just drives past the pylon and into the lane. Go with someone small and, well, look what he did to Shaun Marrion in the playoffs in the post. Newcomer Radmanovic poses a problem too, although he prefers to be outside he is still 6-10 and if you put someone too small on him he’ll take advantage. Luke Walton has become confident in the offense and his shot, making him a threat from the high post or on the wing. Smush, who is 6-4 and strong, can even post up the Steve Nash’s of the world.
The Lakers are big and long, and that is hard to defend.
What is the team’s biggest weakness? Perimeter defense. Simple to name, hard to fix. Also the key to how well they do this season.
When opponents ran the high pick-and-roll last season, Laker defenders acted like they were carrying the hanta virus. Laker bigs didn’t trap or show well on a consistent basis, Smush Parker fought through the pick as often as the Raiders win football games. But the problems went beyond that: Smush just had trouble staying in front of his man, any big who could step out 15 feet and hit a jumper was given free reign to do so.
This is where the growth part of getting better really comes in – because only one personnel move might have an impact and that is even borderline. When he walked in the door Jordan Farmar was as good a defender at the point as the Lakers had. In a year or two, with experience and some physical strength he’ll be an upgrade, but we’re not previewing 2009. For this season, well, if Radmanovic is improving your perimeter defense then things were really F&*$%& bad.
Returning assistant coach Jim Cleamons is the guy at the forefront of fixing this problem from within. And improvement is possible — the Lakers were dead last in the league in defensive rating two seasons ago (points per 100 possessions), last year they were 15th. If the coaches can get players to understand their roles, make steals and not fear the pick-and-roll, they can improve again. And that would mean improvement in the record.
Little Help Here. The Lakers have for a long time been a franchise hesitant to make mid-season trades, a tendency that has been stronger in the triangle era (it’s a hard system to pick up on the fly, just look at the second half of the 04-05 season under Frank Hamblin).
But this season could be different. For one thing, they have three seven-foot inside centers in Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum and Chris Mihm. That’s one more than you really need – and Mihm is in the last year of his deal. Also, because the Lakers guaranteed Kwame Brown’s $9 million for next season, they have no real cap flexibility to go get a free agent. So, if they see a weakness, a trade is the only real way to address it. Likely a two-for-one deal, say Mihm with Aaron McKie or Brian Cook for a veteran guard. Still not likely, but more likely than in past years.
What are the goals for this team? The Lakers are one of those few franchises in all sport where fans have come to expect the team to be in contention annually. We all have that at our gut level, even the rational ones among us who know that there won’t be a parade through downtown every year. At the Summer League, GM Mitch Kupchak suggested that the goals should be 50 wins and a second round playoff berth.
This season we’ll see if the team is really moving in the direction of hosting another parade or not – not just on a team level but also with individual players within the system. Mitch’s goals, if met, would suggest they are on the right tack.
Predicted Record: 49-33, followed by a first-round playoff win (likely and upset).