Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winter Soldiers

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
                  -Thomas Paine
                   December 23rd, 1776

The immortal words of Thomas Paine once echoed through the American colonies, inspiring a wave of patriotism that ultimately led to the British defeat at the hands of George Washington's Continental Army (with a massive assist from the French, Spanish, and Dutch, of course).  

However, when Paine wrote "The Crisis" things weren't going so well for Washington's not-so-merry men.  The excitement of the unlikely triumph at Concord was long gone, as was the cautious optimism stemming from the moral victory at Bunker Hill.  More than a year had passed since those feel-good stories and in that time the American Revolution had played out just like everyone expected it to: with the British dominating.  They had one of the greatest armies on Earth with professional, well equipped soldiers and were taking on a Patriot side that was essentially just farmers with guns.  It was like last season's Lakers, with inspiring wins over the Clippers and Rockets to start the year off but then reality set in that the Lake Show just didn't have the talent to compete.   

The British were rolling and the Continental Army could do nothing but retreat.  Essentially, the British were in LeBron James' version of heaven, where their superteam could coast to one victory after another without having to challenge themselves.  After enduring the British front-running for so long the idealistic Americans were ready to break.  The losing had taken its toll and more than a few were questioning whether maybe, just maybe, this whole "take on the world champs with a bunch of plucky rookies" thing was such a great idea.  

                                     They have tickle fights in LeBron's heaven too.  Don't ask.

The bandwagon began to empty and the great Revolution was running on fumes when Thomas Paine picked up his pen and preached perseverance.  While the credit for the continuation of the Continental Army can't solely go to Paine his words unquestionably made an impact.  It was fitting, as Paine had previously written "Common Sense", the pamphlet which helped inspire the colonial Americans to take up arms against the British.      
When he wrote "The Crisis" Thomas Paine had to find a way to convince the demoralized American troops to continue fighting.  Using his uniquely inspiring style Paine focused on describing a certain character trait that was necessary for success to be found.  While Paine never mentioned this trait by name he alludes to it in his denouncement of the soldiers who were quitting on the Revolution.  What America needed was Winter Soldiers.  

To Paine, what he called Summer Soldiers are today known as front runners.  The guys who are flexing and shouting when things are going their way and they are steamrolling inferior competition, but are quiet as soon as things get tough, the guys who won't do the dirty work necessary to get the win.

*Ugh that's two LeBron references already.  

Instead, Paine reached out to the men who were made from a different stock.  The guys who never stop fighting in spite of the odds.  The men who let nothing stand in their way.  The ones who push themselves farther and farther until history marvels at their greatness.  These were the Winter Soldiers that Paine sought. 

His words found friendly ears, allowing Washington to lead his freshly-inspired troops into a confidence-boosting victory at the Battle of Trenton.  The Revolution was saved.  

Similarly, the Los Angeles Lakers currently find themselves in a moment of crisis.  The greatest franchise in the history of sport has been reduced to record-setting losses and embarrassing play.  

Many fans have hopped off the bandwagon amidst a barrage of heckling and media pessimism.  The haters celebrate the demise of the former Goliath, shouting "how the mighty have fallen!" with a pride that suggests they feel as though they somehow played a part in slaying the giant.  

It appears as though the Los Angeles Lakers are in need of a miracle.  Like the Continental Army they find themselves hopelessly outgunned and overwhelmed on a nightly basis.  Their opponents simply have more firepower, more proven soldiers, and they know what it takes to win.

Washington, of course, could sympathize with Kobe Bryant.  Both men found themselves supported from behind by a rabid fan base that is desperate for victory.  In front of them stood an enemy that appears to be unbeatable  To their left and right, fighting alongside them, was a rag-tag bunch who simply doesn't have what it takes to win.  And yet both men fought on, never willing to admit defeat.  At some point though, even the great ones need help.  

* We've learned three things so far this year: 1- Kobe can still play at a very high level. 2- Kobe has no one on the team he can rely on night-in and night-out. 3- Steve Nash is secretly still a Phoenix Sun...has to be, just no other explanation. 

It's apparent that the Lakers need to re-stock their cupboard, that they need new stars to lead them into the future.  Just as George Washington found his army replenished when the French and Spanish agreed to join him the hope amongst the Laker faithful is that Kobe will eventually get a similar kind of help.  

However, before that can happen the Lakers need to prove themselves worthy of assistance, just as the Continental Army had to prove that they had what it took to win before the French or Spanish would sign on.  Free agents need to see that the Lakers organization will not back down and will keep after it until they are back on top.  

The Lakers quite simply haven't shown that yet.  They are missing a crucial piece: Winter Soldiers.  The thing that Thomas Paine prescribed for the Continental Army nearly 240 years ago is precisely what the Lakers need today. 

Just as Paine wasn't speaking to solely one portion of the army, the entirety of Lakers Nation must find their own Winter Soldiers if the team is going to turn things around.  

The Front Office

Over the past few years the Lakers front office has been faced with one challenge after another, from Stern's heinous actions and Dwight's cowardly ways to the death of the beloved Dr. Buss.  Now the Buss children, most notably Jimmy and Jeanie, have to step in to fill their father's sizeable shoes during the most tumultuous time in Lakers history.

With more questions than answers the media narrative about the Lakers front office seems to be that Mitch is a skilled GM and Jeanie is a competent leader.  Jimmy, on the other hand, makes poor decisions and is undeserving of his position at the helm of basketball operations.  

As a result power agents are sending their clients elsewhere, unconvinced that the front office can right the ship and return the Lakers to glory.  Obviously that is a perception that will take time to change, and that's where Jimmy, Jeanie, and Mitch all must show their ability to be Winter Soldiers.  Jimmy in particular must persevere in spite of all the negative publicity.  Living up to his dad's legacy will be difficult, but in time Jimmy will have the opportunity to win over the legion of Lakers fans.  

With the mounting losses the Lakers front office will continue to be abused in the media.  Jimmy will, rightly or wrongly, continue to be the media's scapegoat.  However, they must not panic.  To swing for the fences too soon through either free agency or trade could result in the team being stuck in mediocrity for much longer than anyone wants to see.  

With limited assets it is increasingly important that the front office continues to make shrewd moves, like the deal with Houston that landed Jeremy Lin and a draft pick.  There have been a number of missed opportunities as well but to be fair the Lakers are in an unfamiliar situation and need to learn how to truly rebuild.  Jimmy and Mitch must be opportunistic in free agency (as they were with Ed Davis) as well as on the trade market.  They need to build a core that will compete hard and generate positive press before they will be able to find the home-run move.  

If they can endure the pain of the rebuilding process and make intelligent, long-term moves the Lakers will find themselves back in the hunt sooner rather than later.   

The Team

Being a Laker is far from easy right now.  The players and coaching staff are reminded constantly that they are failing to live up the franchise's glamorous history, which can affect the confidence of even the most professional players.  

Kobe Bryant does what he can on a nightly basis and continues to defy all those who claim that his career is done.  Still, at 36 he can't be expected to carry a team of journeymen to the playoffs regardless of how superhuman he appears to be. 

The remainder of the Lakers players have to fight through these hard times, and they need to fight for something more than just their next contract.  They need to fight for pride, both in themselves and the organization.  Even as the losses pile up and frustration grows they have to continue to plug away, doing everything they can to improve both as a team and individuals.  

Similarly, Byron Scott and his coaching staff have to continue building a culture.  It takes time for any coach to get adjusted to a new environment, but the early results for Scott have not been positive.  His defense-first approach has fallen flat as the team doesn't have the athletes necessary to become as stingy as Scott would like.  However, the coaching staff must continue to believe that someday the Lakers will be that team, that someday the future will arrive.  

The Continental Army wasn't turned into a fighting force overnight.  George Washington's side was undisciplined and unruly, and he found himself too often pushed into the role of disciplinarian.  Washington resorted to brutal tactics to keep his soldiers in line and in camp, but ultimately the tough love paid off.  When the Prussian drill instructor Baron Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge he found a group that was inexperienced but malleable, one that could be transformed into something greater.  And  transform them he did, just as Byron Scott must do with the Lakers.  

*If only we could pull a Bill and Ted and bring Baron Von Steuben to Lakers practices.  That would be excellent.

Coach Scott also has to realize that this season is about rebuilding.  It's about establishing a culture not for the team as it's constructed now but for the team that will be brought together in the future.  Being a coach is often a thankless job filled with uncertainty, but the coaching staff must not fall into despair.  Losing doesn't always equate to a loss.  To lose without growing, without building, that would be truly tragic.  Regardless of the record the coaching staff and players must continue to push forward.  

The Fans

For the fans the past few years have been exhausting.  Watching the purple and gold sink into obscurity has been excruciating, especially seeing as it all started with the diabolical actions of David Stern and his unjustifiable veto of the Chris Paul trade.  Since that moment it's been nothing but maddening injuries, free agent misses, and Dwight Howard treachery.  Meanwhile, the basketball being played on the court has been progressively getting worse and worse.  

The current Lakers team is just plain hard to watch as the losses are accumulating quickly.  While it certainly isn't a situation that any fan want to be in there is opportunity to be found amidst the sorrow.  For decades Lakers fans have been labeled as band wagoners, as front-runners who only support the team because of their success.  

The time to change that perception is now.  Lakers Nation must continue to support the purple and gold in spite of the hardships.  Those who make it through these difficult years will come to appreciate the eventual return of Laker glory that much more.  

Going into the battle of Bunker Hill there were many who expected the Patriots to turn and run at the first sight of adversity, just as many around the league expect Lakers fans to do now.  But the Patriots didn't run, they stayed and fought, inflicting massive damage upon the British army and only retreating after they had ran out of ammo.  In fact, they were so reluctant to give up the hill that the Patriot soldiers loaded bits of glass and nails into their rifles after they ran out of ammo, intent on inflicting as much damage as possible.  

It's this kind of attitude that Lakers fans must have now.  Support the franchise, support the coaches, and most of all support the team.  Let the naysayers come and fire back at them.  Prove that Lakers fans do not shrink in times of darkness but instead stand strong.  The juice will be worth the squeeze.  

The Continental Army found their Winter Soldiers and Success followed.  It's time for the Los Angeles Lakers to do the same.

Follow me on Twitter @16ringsNBA for more Lakers goodness!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Week 1 Wrap Up

Four games into the Lakers season and it feels like an eternity.  The most snake-bit franchise in the league over the past few years keeps taking one hit after another.  The good guys were blown out by the Houston Rockets and the Phoenix Suns, losing by 18 and 20 points, respectively.  The team looked to be in over their heads until a fantastic performance against the Clippers on Friday night sparked some renewed optimism amongst Lakers fans.  The Golden State game featured a fantastic three quarters of basketball but a total collapse after that.  It's been a trying start to the season with few positives.

Here is what we have learned so far:

Can't Handle Losing Randle

Most fans understood coming into the season that this year would be a trying one.  Wins would be difficult to come by but there was still some hope that maybe the squad could outperform expectations the way the Suns did last year, that maybe they could even sneak into a playoff spot.  

However, even the realists who knew that a playoff run was all but out of the question had something to be excited about this season: the development of Julius Randle.  The #7 overall pick had moments of brilliance during the preseason.  The combination of size, strength, an explosive first step and a surprising ability to handle the ball had many projecting greatness for the bruising rookie.  Randle wasn't dominant yet but the talent was clearly there.  

For a team in desperate need of young talent a player with the potential that Randle possesses seemed like a gift from the basketball gods.  Unfortunately those gods proved to be cruel and vengeful.  Randle's leg broke, and as it did so did the hearts of Lakers fans.  

After enduring an incredibly painful 2013-2014 season the one silver lining was landing a talent like Randle in the draft, but that was gone in an instant.  Julius'  season is over just as it was starting, robbing the team and the fans of the opportunity to watch the future develop right before their eyes.  

We can only hope that Randle will be 100% next season and that when all is said and done this injury will be nothing more than a footnote in a long and successful career.  For the next 12 months though Lakers fans can only wait and pray for the eventual return of their talented young forward.   

Kobe the Nash

For the first two games of the season Kobe was in gunner mode, taking most of the shots on offense while everyone else on the team stood around and watched him.  With a roster as week as it is playing 1 on 5 might have seemed like a decent idea, but it clearly wasn't working.  Defenses focused all of their attention on Bryant, knowing that they could all but ignore the rest of the team.  

It wasn't all Kobe's fault, as guys like Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and Wesley Johnson seemed content to sit out on the offensive end while Kobe did his thing.  It's tough to pass when no one is making an effort to get open.  

By the time the showdown with the Clippers rolled around it was clear that things had to change.  Lin especially had to get more involved on the offensive end if the team was going to have any kind of success.  To his credit Kobe bought into this concept and made a concerted effort to be a facilitator and get his teammates involved.  While he still ended up tied with Jordan Hill in Field Goals Attempted Kobe also finished with 7 assists, the most he's had this season.  

On several occasions Bryant found himself with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down, which is usually Kobe time.  He has a knack for hitting big shots from seemingly impossible angles, but against the Clippers more often than not Kobe moved the ball on to a teammate, forcing them to do something with the ball.  

As a result the Lakers offense looked much more in-sync and cohesive, and the team nearly upset their heavily-favored Staples Center house guests.  While he wasn't a Nash-level distributor or anything close to that it does appear that the Lakers offense clicks when Kobe makes an effort to get his less-talented teammates going.

    When Kobe passes good things happen...usually.

Ed Davis Is Better Than Carlos Boozer

It's not a huge surprise to anyone who saw Carlos Boozer play basketball last year but one thing that has really stood out thus far is that Ed Davis is better than him at nearly every aspect of the game.  While Boozer is the better 15-foot jump shooter he is a liability everywhere else on the floor, committing an obscene number of turnovers against Phoenix (8) while shooting a miserable 42% on the season.  

Ed Davis, meanwhile, is shooting 70% and has only turned the ball over twice all season.  He has shown fantastic pick and roll chemistry with Jeremy Lin and is a consistent finisher around the basket.  He also provides a real defensive presence for the woefully undersized Lakers.  Davis is constantly contesting shots and forcing opponents to think twice before taking the ball inside.  While this does lead to him picking up more fouls than he should it is still a breath of fresh air to see Ed swat a shot after watching Boozer's stuck in the mud version of defense.

Byron Scott has said that he isn't planning on making any changes to the starting lineup just yet but at some point Boozer has to find his way to the bench.  Boozer should still get minutes thanks to the basketball gods cruel punishment of Julius Randle but Ed Davis is the better player now and the player the Lakers need to develop for the future.  

It seems all but assured that Boozer's greatest career highlight will be this.   

  Jeremy Lin: Good vs. Evil

I was a huge proponent of Jeremy Lin heading into the season.  I thought that a return to near-Linsanity levels was imminent and that he would be a bright spot in an otherwise dark Lakers season.  Thus far I was wrong.  So, so, wrong.  

Lin is leading the league in turnovers by a decent margin and has looked out of sorts in 3 of the 4 games thus far, shooting just 34% for an average of 9 points and 5.5 assists.  That's putrid.  For perspective, take a look at these numbers two sets of numbers: 
1 3.1 8.9 .345 0.9 3.1 .300 .368 .929 3.7 6.8 0.6 0.0 4.6 3.4 11.1
2 4.5 10.1 .447 1.6 4.3 .366 .506 .694 3.5 3.9 1.8 0.2 1.9 2.8 12.2
Player 1 is Jeremy Lin.  The only significant advantages he has over Player 2 is in assists and free throw percentage.  Outside of that Player 2 absolutely destroys Lin across the board.  But just who is this mysterious Player 2?

This guy:

I'll wait a moment for everyone to stop throwing up. 

Better?  Ok, sorry I had to do that everyone,  Yes, after four games Jeremy Lin is playing worse than Smush Parker.  It's a level of awfulness that Lakers fans thought they would never see again, and yet, here we are.  

The good news, of course, is that it has only been four games.  By all accounts Lin is a much, much better player than what we have seen thus far.  It's easy to forget after the ineptitude he displayed against Golden State but in the Clippers game Lin was actually very good.  He was aggressive, assertive, and dynamic in his attack.  That was the good version of Lin.  The one we saw the other three games?  That's Evil Lin (bonus points to those who recognize the He-Man reference).  

In order for the Lakers offense to truly reach it's optimal performance Good Lin is going to have to make nightly appearances.  Evil Lin needs to go away.  Now.    

Embrace The Tank

As a Lakers fan living in the Valley of the Sun I knew that I would hear about it when the Suns curb-stomped the Lakers.  Phoenix fans tend to have a bit of an inferiority complex (probably due to their lack of championship hardware) and love to rub it in when the Lakers are down.  It's a practice even taken up by their announce team, who mentioned several times during the game that they were thrilled to see the Lakers struggling.  

However, it's no secret that this Lakers squad won't be making the playoffs, and that their draft pick winds up in the Suns hands should it fall outside the top 5 (thanks again Nash). With that said, my response to Suns fans attempting to heckle me was always simply "Thank you".  9 times out of 10 I had to explain the complexities of draft pick protection to the confused Phoenicians but their smiles faded quickly when they realized that by beating the Lakers the Suns had actually weakened their chances of getting the Lakers pick this summer.  

With Randle sidelined for the year it's that much more important that the Lakers keep their pick this summer and are able to land another cornerstone with it.  When it comes to bringing free agents to town the biggest and best stars want to see a team in place that is only a piece or two short from title contention, which means the Lakers need to accumulate as much talent as possible. 

I'm not advocating losing on purpose, as that's a indignity that is reserved for Philadelphia.  Instead, the Lakers should be looking at giving as many minutes as possible to guys who could be part of the future or could have value on the trade market.  In other words, less minutes for guys like Boozer, Wesley Johnson, and Ronnie Price and more minutes for Jordan Clarkson, Ed Davis, and Ryan Kelly (when he's finally healthy).  Even if going with the younger guys ends up costing the Lakers a game here and there (which is doubtful) the chance to find out who can be part of the long-term plan is worth it.  

The West right now is a hornet's nest of very good teams.  With the possible exception of Minnesota every franchise has improved while the Lakers at best stayed the same.  Kobe's return helps of course but he can't be expected to put the team on his back anymore.  As such it just isn't realistic to assume that Kobe can will the team to the playoffs in a loaded conference.  It's time to find cornerstones for the future, and the draft is the best chance to do that.  

It may not be palatable to impatient fans after last season's disaster but the best-case scenario for the Lakers this season is to retain their pick, and the only way to ensure that is to finish with a poor record.  No one is going to out-tank Philadelphia, but if the Lakers can keep pace with teams like Orlando, Boston, and Minnesota (not out of the question) they could luck into a franchise player in the draft next summer.  After the past few seasons if anyone is deserving of a little good luck it's the Lakers.

It remains to be seen just how bad (or good) this team will be but the absolute worst-case scenario would be finishing with the 6th-worst record in the league and handing over a great pick to Phoenix.  If fans have to endure another sickening season of losses to avoid that then so be it.  

Support the team through thick and thin.  By all means, celebrate victories, but also know that with the losses comes a silver lining in the 2015 draft.  

For more Lakers analysis follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA

Monday, October 27, 2014

My Basketball-Eve Wish List

It's the night before NBA tip-off and I'm returning from a much-needed vacation to drop some more Laker-goodness.  Everyone knows it's going to be a trying season with frustrating losses outnumbering the heartwarming wins.  Some days Kobe will look like Kobe and others he will look like a guy barely hanging on.  Nick Young will shoot the team into games as well as out of them.  Some days Carlos Boozer will miss his jumpers while others he will just punch a referee in the cash and prizes.  Those are the ups and downs of an NBA season, and we have to be ready for them.      

In spite of it all though us winter soldiers can't wait for the purple and gold to take the floor once again.  It might not be Showtime, the Shaq/Kobe One-Two Punch, or even the Pau/Mamba connection anymore, but it's still Lakers basketball.  

With the craven Dwight Howard and his floppy comrade James Harden awaiting the Lakers on opening night here's my wish list for this basketball eve.  

Defend Dwight

Last season's Lakers routinely got scored on in bunches and it made me want to punt kittens.  While this year's squad doesn't have the personnel needed to be near the top of the league in defense I do expect them to at least be respectable.  After all, that was the big selling point of hiring Byron Scott: a old-school, defense-first coach who would have the team competing hard every single night.  The anti-D'Antoni, or maybe the Pretzels to his Pringles, if you will.  

The Rockets lineup features Dwight Howard, who for some reason or another will be motivated to stick it to the team he already stuck it to.  Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, and Ed Davis are going to struggle containing Howard but if they can keep him from catching the ball deep in the paint and give the guards a chance to dig down on him Dwight will cough the ball up more times than not (Lakers fans set the world record for face palms after watching "Superman" act like the ball was made of buttered-up Kryptonite two seasons ago).  

So on this basketball-eve I'd love to see Dwight Howard finish the game with 5+ turnovers.  And a billion missed free throws.  

Houston Can't Handle Randle

 The Rockets bench is significantly weaker than it was last season, thanks in part to the Lakers pilfering Jeremy Lin last summer.  They also lost defensive stalwart Omer Asik, which means that the Lakers second-string should be going up against a Houston defense that is lacking in rim protection and bulk.  

Enter Julius Randle.  The Lakers rookie consistently improved his play during the preseason, eventually settling into a rhythm and showing a knack for pushing the ball coast to coast following a defensive rebound.  On the offensive end his best moves saw him attacking after facing up from the perimeter, using his surprisingly quick first-step and strength to bully his way to the basket.  

Houston's second unit seems well-suited to a Randle attack, and as long as the Julius can avoid throwing anymore forearms to the throat (sorry Rudy Gay) he should be able to have a solid night.  

I'm wishing for 10 points and7 boards from Randle (20 minutes played) with a flash or two of future brilliance.  

Put A Hurting On Harden

I don't want to advocate any athlete getting hurt or any kind of dirty play, but James Harden is going to flop, fall, and fool the refs into one free throw after another.  If he's going to get the call anyway the Lakers might as well get their money's worth.  

Harden needs to feel it, really feel it, if he's going to drive into the lane and flail around in hopes of snagging a whistle.  Make him think twice about attacking the paint so he has to settle for the jumper, which is still deadly but much more watchable than a parade to the free throw line.  

Maybe we need to bring back MWP for a game....

The Lakers have been talking about playing "smash-mouth defense" for the past week or so, and with Harden they need to really put that plan into action.  Smash-beard defense?  Sounds like a perfect basketball-eve wish to me.  I want to see Haren held to less than 20 points on 40% shooting or worse with at least two or three plays that make him glad his beard provides a little shock-absorption.  


Ronnie Price has a sore knee.  Jordan Clarkson isn't quite ready for major minutes running the offense.  Steve Nash is so old they ruled him out for the season because he hurt himself picking up a piece of luggage (I wish that was a joke).  

Enter Jeremy Lin.  The plucky point guard who set the league en fuego in 2012 finds himself on the grandest stage of them all going up against the team that relegated him to the bench in favor of Patrick "Westbook Kick" Beverly.  

In fact, Lin's time in Houston was so unremarkable that he now finds himself underrated by fans and media pundits alike.  The stigma of being reduced to a bench role caused many to overlook the fact that Houston mainly went with Beverly because they needed a defensive ace at point guard in order to take on the tough assignments that James Harden was unable (and unwilling) to handle.  

The fact remains though that Jeremy Lin is a very good point guard.  Maybe not an All-Star (although he will be one this year) but he will be much better than most expect.  He's a hard worker who plays the game with fire and passion.  The Staples Center crowd is going to love Jeremy Lin and he is going to do big things in purple and gold, mark my words.  

On this basketball-eve I'm wishing for 18+ points and 6+ assists from Jeremy Lin, with a steal or two and a couple of threes thrown in for good measure.  

Lastly, This....So Much This

Just once.  If there is any karma in the world the basketball gods will bring us an old-fashioned Kobe posterization of Dwight Coward.  Tea, anyone?  

Don't miss Lakers vs. Rockets tomorrow night at 7:30!  Follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA for more Lakers fanaticism.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Top 5 Positive Storylines of the Lakers Season

Everyone knows the Lakers are in a tough spot.  They are a franchise based around championships that won't be contending anytime soon.  They have an aging superstar who has suffered two serious injuries in consecutive seasons and just got an enormous contract extension.  Their starting point guard is the oldest player in the league at 40 and looked completely finished as a player last season.  Over the past two off-seasons they have lost two of the best big men of the modern era to free agency, receiving nothing in  return save for cap space.  They have also struck out in their pursuit of superstar-level talent, as they don't have a roster that would provide such a player with an opportunity to win a championship.  Their draft picks have been depleted through poor win-now decisions that were made over the past few seasons, and in the midst of it all their owner, the benevolent Jerry Buss, passed away.

In short, the Lakers are slowly fading away, and the fans of the 29 other teams in the league are celebrating their demise.  Fear not though, resilient Lakers fans.  It takes more than a few down seasons to kill the greatest franchise in the history of sports.  The Lakers will be back.  Take these difficult times and use them as a way to make us appreciate the good times that much more.  

With an eye towards optimism let's take a look at the top 5 positive storylines for the Lakers this season.

1. The Development of Julius Randle- Julius Randle is the one positive thing that the Lakers received for being so terrible last season.  While some experts have questioned whether or not he has the upside of some other members of his draft class, such as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, there is no question that Randle has the tools to be a very good NBA player.  He has an ability to attack the basket and create off the dribble that few bigs can match.

He's not without his share of challenges, such as an over-reliance on his left hand and questionable defensive abilities.  There are also concerns about his ability to shoot over lengthy defenders, which is something that nearly every NBA team has the days.

Still, every rookie areas of weakness, and only a year ago Randle was projected to be one of the favorites to be drafted #1 overall this summer, yet the Lakers landed him with the 7th pick.  LA hasn't had a rookie of his caliber in quite some time and watching him grow as a player will be a joy to watch.

This should also make Lakers fans smile: When he was going through pre-draft workouts Randle, a life-long Lakers fan, chose not to workout a second time for the Celtics (who had the 6th pick), which helped ensure that he would be available for the Lakers to draft at 7.  Gotta love a guy who will pass on the Celtics so he can be a Laker.

2. Do or Die For Jordan Hill- Jordan Hill has long been a fixture on the Lakers bench, providing hustle, rebounding, and an interior presence that is a must-have in today's NBA.  While Hill has struggled with injuries his game has intrigued Lakers fans, as many wondered if he could continue his production if given starter's minutes.

Next season the question should finally be answered.  After the unceremonious departure of Pau Gasol the Lakers moved quickly and signed Hill, the next-best big man on the market (aside from restricted free agent Greg Monroe) for $18 million over two seasons.  While this was a substantial pay raise for Hill the Lakers made a shrewd move when they made the second year of the deal a team option.

As a result, should Hill not live up to the expectations of his salary the Lakers can instantly free up cap space next summer by simply declining the option in his contract.  He could also be an interesting trade chip for teams who are looking to clear salary cap space.

For Hill though, this contract essentially means that he has 9 million reasons why he should have the best season of his career.  At 27 years old he is in his prime and will finally be given an opportunity to be the starting Center for the Lakers.  In the past he has bounced around from backup PF to backup C, but also showed the most promise when starting at the Center position.

This year will provide an opportunity for Hill to prove once and for all that he deserves to start and can handle the responsibilities that come with it.  Lakers fans should be excited too: in 8 games starting at Center last season (admittedly a small sample size), Hill averaged 16.6 points, 10 boards, and nearly 2 blocks per game.  If he can live up to those lofty numbers then the massive contract that most pundits have mocked all summer will end up looking like a bargain.
3. Back to Defense- Last season the Lakers defense was apparently based on the strategies employed by France during World War 2.  It was disheartening to see the opposition light the Lakers up each and every night.

With Mike D'Antoni preaching more offense than defense the Lakers got scored on in bunches.  It was obvious to any poor souls watching that teams playing the Lakers were excited to run their offense because they knew that just about everything would work.  Scrubs were getting career-highs on a nightly basis.  In fact, it became a sound fantasy basketball strategy to play guys who would be going up against the Lakers because they were all but assured to put up big numbers.

So what has changed?  Not much, except for the departure of Mike D'Antoni.  Most of the Lakers squad remains the same from last season, which isn't necessarily a good thing.  The team doesn't have a single player who would be considered a lock-down defender, and as such expectations for their defensive improvement have to be tempered.

However, Byron Scott is an old-school, defense-first coach that if nothing else will have the team competing hard on that end of the court every night.  While we can't expect the Lakers to transform overnight into a defensive juggernaut we should see their help rotations tighten up and their schemes become more sound and consistent.

At the very least they should return to respectability, which in these dark times is something to celebrate.

4.  All Lin For LA- The biggest offeason move for the Lakers was arguably the trade for point guard Jeremy Lin.  Instead of pursuing restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe or mini-might Isaiah Thomas the Lakers instead made a deal with the Houston Rockets to land Lin and a first-round draft pick.

While the deal itself was a phenomenal one for LA (especially after Houston whiffed at their attempt to land Chris Bosh with the money freed up by the trade) the acquisition of Lin gives a slight spark to an aging and relatively uninteresting roster.

While no one is expecting a return of the "Linsanity" days of 2012 there is no question that Jeremy Lin is a very good point guard.  He isn't an All-Star level player (though he may be voted in as one) but he has a fantastic ability to get to the basket and finish.  His mid-range and three-point game are nearly as good, making him a dangerous offensive player that can help the team in a number of ways.
The biggest question marks surrounding Lin are his defense and his ability to run a team.  Fortunately for Lin his competition at the point guard spot, Steve Nash, will be a great mentor in one of those areas while coach Byron Scott will help him with the other.

To top it all off Lin is in a contract year, which means that Lakers fans should get some great performances out of him this season.  He connects to the fans, wears his heart on his sleeve, and competes each and every night.  He just may endear himself to the Lakers and their fans that he sticks with the franchise long term.

5. Kobe Bryant: The Return- Kobe Bryant is perhaps the greatest Laker ever, having waged countless battles while wearing the Golden Armor.  He is also in the twilight of his career and coming off two serious injuries which cost him nearly all of last season.  Kobe spent the majority of his career defying the limitations of the human body and playing through injuries that would have decimated other players.  It was as though he would simply Hulk up and become impervious to harm.

                                                                Kinda like this

The question now is, at 36, is Kobe finally mortal?  Or can he be the Black Mamba once again?  We know that he won't be flying through the rafters like when he was 22 or have the defensive chops that he did at 28.  He is still one of the most intelligent players in the league with no offensive flaws, and if he stays healthy could average 20 a night just on his savvy alone.

No one wants to see Kobe fade away in a sea of injuries, so a strong, injury-free season would be such a relief for a weary fan base.  After paying Kobe $48 million for the next two seasons a healthy Mamba would also take some heat off of Lakers management and allow them to sell the team a bit more to potential free agents next off-season.

Kobe is the heart and soul of the Lakers, and while contention may be currently out of the question it's going to be phenomenal to watch Kobe defy expectations yet again.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lakers Potential Starting Lineup

With just over a week until training camp the NBA season is slowly inching closer.  For hoops heads like myself the off-season feels incredibly long, especially in a season in which the Lakers didn't make the playoffs.  Sure the FIBA World Cup proved to be a minor distraction but it still doesn't scratch the itch for Laker basketball.

Fortunately things should be picking up shortly.  Before we know it the preseason will have started and this season's edition of the Lakers will provide plenty to talk about.  In fact, Byron Scott got things off to a bit of an early start with his recent comments about how he sees the starting lineup at this point.

According to Scott, he currently has this starting lineup in his head:

PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Jordan Hill

Ouchtown.  Population: Lakers fans.

Looking over the Lakers roster it's clear that there isn't a sure-fire starting 5, or at least not one that would make any of the 29 other teams in the league cower in fear.  However most fans (myself included) expected to see Jeremy Lin listed as the starting point guard instead of the rapidly aging Steve Nash.  Nash is a legend but at this stage in their careers Lin is simply the better player.

There may well be method to the madness though.  While Nash clearly isn't the player he used to be the Lakers have opted to pick up his full $9.7 million contract for the 2014-2015 season rather than waive him via the stretch provision and pay him just over $3 million for the next three seasons.

  After Carmelo Anthony took the money to stay with New York the Lakers were left with several options on the free agent market that they decided weren't the caliber of player they are looking for.  The decision to not pursue Lance Stephenson or Isiah Thomas is still a head scratcher, as both would have made the team into something resembling a playoff team.  For whatever reason Mitch Kupchak, Jimmy Buss, and the rest of the Lakers decision makers decided that it would be better to hold off on a major free agent signing until next summer.

As such it makes sense to bite the bullet and get Nash's contract paid off now to clear up more space next summer when there may be more attractive free agent choices.

                                               Gasol Version 2.0?  Yes please

One of the other benefits of eating all of Nash's contract in one season is that also gives the Lakers the opportunity to get whatever they can out of Nash's final season.  Offseason reports suggest that Steve is in fantastic shape and feels like he has finally healed from the assortment of issues that plagued him last season.  Then again nearly every player claims to be in great shape during the summer when they aren't going through the grind of an 82 game NBA season.

                                       Well, except Raymond Felton.  He just feels hungry.  

Assuming that the Lakers are going to try to squeeze whatever they can out of Nash then starting him actually makes some sense.  At this stage in their careers Lin matches up better against other starting point guards in the league but when players get older it becomes more difficult to warm up.  Time needs to be spent stretching aging muscles to prevent stiffness while younger players find it easier to just step on the court and play.  If Nash were to go through a full warm up and then sit on the bench for 20 minutes before going in he very well may tighten up and have a more difficult time getting going.

We know Nash can't play many minutes anymore but if he plays for say the first 8 minutes of each half, using pre-game and half time to get loosened up, then he might be able to stay on the court more this season.  That would keep his minutes at about 16 per game, leaving 32 minutes remaining at the PG position for Lin and occasionally Jordan Clarkson.        

If this strategy works and Nash can at the very least not be a negative on the court then his expiring contract just may have a little bit of value around the league at the deadline.  It's unlikely, but with Mitch at the helm you never know what kind of deal he is going to be able to pull off.  Turning Nash's expiring contract into one with positive trade value would be a much-needed stroke of good luck for the most snake-bit team in the league.  

The other questionable decisions in the Nash/Kobe/Wesley/Boozer/Hill starting 5 come from the small forward and power forward spots.  Most assumed that Nick Young would receive a starting spot at Small Forward after he received a 4 year deal during the summer.  However, Swaggy P seems to do his best work as an instant-offense player coming off the bench, so his absence from the starting 5 isn't necessarily shocking.

No, the perturbing part is Wesley Johnson sitting in as the Lakers starting SF.  While Johnson does have impressive athleticism and can shoot the ball fairly well he also appears to coast through games,  His athleticism would suggest that he would be a strong defender but his play on the court has yet to show that (Johnson's defensive rating last season of 110 suggests that he was well below average as a defender).

He is the type of player who would appear to perfectly fit in Mike D'Antoni's system and yet he still struggled in the "Shawn Marion-lite" role.  He's also 27 years old, which means that his upside is limited.

On the plus side Johnson has been reportedly working hard with Kobe this off-season, but again, all off-season reports have to be taken with a grain of salt.  If anyone can get some fire and hustle out of Wesley Johnson it's Kobe, and maybe playing together in the starting lineup will help, but to assume that the switch is going to suddenly flip to "On" at this point in his career is overly optimistic.

There was some hope that Xavier Henry, a.k.a. the guy who killed Jeff Withey, would get the starting nod but it's looking like he won't be up to full speed by the time training camp starts due to knee and wrist surgeries he underwent this summer.  With Young playing better off the bench and Xavier not quite healthy Johnson essentially falls into a starting role by default.

Carlos Boozer getting the starting spot over Julius Randle also raised some eyebrows, as Randle is the most talented young player on the roster and it was assumed that he would be given plenty of minutes to develop while the Lakers aren't contending.  Upon reflection though it's tough to complain much about this move.  Rookies need to be brought along slowly, and while it would be great to see Randle step on the floor and dominate from day 1 it's just not realistic.

The team is better off setting him up for success by letting him learn the NBA game and get his feet wet playing off the bench and running against opposing bench players.  Throwing him in against the likes of Duncan, Griffin, Love, Dirk, etc would be asking for him to do too much too soon.

***The development of Julius Randle just might be the most important storyline of the season for the Lakers, along with Kobe's health of course.  Randle's full potential is something of an unholy Chris Webber/Charles Barkley hybrid, and while it may be  a long shot that he ever reaches that level it's going to be tons of fun to watch him grow.  It's also going to be interesting to see how many times Bill Macdonald shouts "Can't handle Randle!" during Lakers broadcasts.  I sense a drinking game coming on...

While the Nash/Kobe/Johnson/Boozer/Hill starting lineup might not be one that will set the world on fire, it does mean that the Lakers bench will be very, very interesting.  Check out this lineup coming off the pine:

PG: Jeremy Lin/Jordan Clarkson
SG: Nick Young
SF: Xavier Henry
PF: Julius Randle/Ryan Kelly
C: Ed Davis/Robert Sacre

Now that's an exciting lineup.  Every person on that list is capable of producing highlight-reel plays through a combination of skill, hustle, athleticism, and in the case of Nick Young, mountains of swag.  That's a high-energy second unit that should give opposing team's all they can handle and then some.  The case can be made that some bench players will have more success than the starters from time to time, which means that Byron Scott will have the luxury of mixing and matching his lineups based on who is hot that night.  It's terrible for fantasy squads, but a great thing for the Lakers and their fans.

In a perfect world Nash, Kobe, and Boozer will use their veteran wiles to control the pace of the game, slow things down, and find efficient shots.  When the reserves come in the pedal goes to the metal as Lin, Young, Randle,and the rest fly up and down the court in full attack mode.  It's a little reminiscent of the Farmar/Sasha/Walton/Odom/Bynum "Bench Mob" (yeah yeah technically Bynum was a starter) that used to terrorize the league during the 2010 championship season.  Ah memories.

***I recently re-watched game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals (thanks NBATV).  It was one of the uglier games that I can remember but there were so many iconic moments.  Pau's hanging in-the-air, maybe he traveled maybe not put back, Kobe slamming Rasheed Wallace into retirement, Ron Artest tangling with Paul Pierce early in the game and then blowing kisses to the crowd after sinking the three with 2 minutes left, Lamar Odom playing out of his mind but still looking like he was coasting, Sasha's clutch free throws....good times.  Let's hope it isn't too long before the Lakers are back where they belong, winning championships again.     

Of course that's not to say that this coming season is going to be all Showtime and string music, because it's not.  It's going to be a grind and there will likely be more low points than high, but if nothing else they will be entertaining.  I can't say I agree with all of Byron Scott's picks for his starting lineup, and they may very well change over the course of training camp.  For the time being though the most exciting thing about the Lakers starting 5 is the bench, and that may not be a bad thing.  

Follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA for updates on all things Lakers!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Steve Nash: Friend or Foe?

In the 1980's the Los Angeles Lakers electrified NBA audiences with their fast-breaking "Showtime" offense.  They ran the break in a way that had never been seen before, whipping their fans into a frenzy and making the Lakers into the league's most popular franchise.  The driving force behind the Showtime offense was none other than Magic Johnson, who had a knack for making passes that no one saw coming.

In an era where the NBA was obsessed with the number of points a player scored Magic made passing into an art form.  Kids on playgrounds everywhere tried to mimic the no-look pass and get out and run like the Showtime Lakers.  Magic's influence went beyond his team's wins and losses, he changed the sport itself.

                                            And changed Jack Nicholson from crazy person into mascot.

Since those glorious days in the 1980's only one player has been able to make passing cool again: Steve Nash.

Nash's resume reads like one that is the stuff of basketball dreams: 8-time All-Star, 7-time All-NBA, and the cherry on top: 2-time MVP.  He was the engine of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns teams that revolutionized NBA offenses and made terms like "stretch 4" part of the NBA lexicon.  Perhaps more importantly Nash proved that a pass-first point guard can not only succeed in today's NBA, he can thrive.  In an era when highlight packages are focused on dunks and aerial acrobatics Steve Nash showcased a below-the-rim game based on footwork, spacing, and great fundamentals.  He used his passing to add sizzle, and while he didn't make the passes that no one saw coming like Magic could he did make the passes that no one could stop.

Nash played the game in such a cerebral way that he made his athletic shortcomings all but disappear.  Players loved to play with him because they knew that on a Nash-led team they were going to get the ball in the best spot possible and would put up great stats as a result.  Watching his Suns teams play was eerily reminiscent of a modern day Showtime, albeit with more emphasis on three-point shooting and without the swarming defense that Pat Riley's teams displayed.

So when the Lakers traded for Steve Nash two summers ago it seemed like a match made in heaven.  A foursome of Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard (who was acquired shortly after Nash) were poised to rule the NBA, and when Nash's former coach Mike D'Antoni was added it appeared that the Showtime-era Lakers style would indeed be resurrected.

We all know what happened instead.

                                                                   Pretty much

Nash spent the year bouncing on and off the injured list while he struggled to develop any chemistry with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.  It became so bad that Nash was relegated to the role of spot-up shooter, as Bryant and the team as a whole were having more success with the ball in Kobe's hands instead of Nash's.

While there were many problems facing the Lakers during the 2012-2013 season for Nash perhaps the most difficult adjustment was to the lack of screens being set for him.  Nash always thrived in the pick and roll situation, using screens to create the separation from his defender that he needed in order to operate.  Despite the fact that many assumed Nash and Howard would be a perfect pairing Howard, who was recovering from back surgery, flat out refused to set screens.  He would often slip the screen in order to avoid contact with Nash's defender, which can be a useful tactic but as soon as defenses caught on it left Nash out to dry trying to beat his man one-on-one.

That summer Dwight showed his true colors and abandoned the Lakers to leave for Houston, no doubt concerned about the durability of Nash and Kobe Bryant, who was recovering from achilles surgery.  With Dwight gone and Kobe injured it was time for Nash to return to his MVSteve form and run the show.  The Lakers spent the summer adding athletic shooters and stretch players like Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, and Ryan Kelly in the hopes that they would fit into Mike D'Antoni's system and allow Nash to bring out the best in them.

Alas, Nash (and seemingly everyone else on the team) suffered through one injury after another and the Lakers ended up posting the worst record in franchise history.  While the team's record may not have been all his fault a closer look at the numbers revealed something more alarming: In an admittedly small sample size of just 15 games Nash posted the worst numbers of his career by far.

The typically can't-miss shooter shot just 38% for the season, and while that could be contributed to his chronic back problems the eye-test showed that he was a shell of his former self.  When the Lakers needed the Steve Nash of old all they got was old Steve Nash.  To most observers it was clear that Nash had crossed over the line and was no longer an even respectable NBA player anymore.

The history books are littered with players who stayed a year or two longer than they should have.  We struggle and grimace right along with them, wishing that we could turn back the hands of time and allow them to become the player they once were.  Since we can't, the only thing we can do is hope that they allow themselves to go out gracefully.  Tap out.  Retire.  When the time is right.

That just isn't Steve Nash though.  It wouldn't be true to the warrior mentality and rigorous physical regimen that has allowed him to sustain such a long and successful career.  He's determined to go out on his own terms, after proving once and for all that he still has it.

Here's the thing though: he's killing the Lakers by doing it.

Under just about any other scenario seeing a player do everything they can to continue playing the sport he loves would be a heartwarming story.  However, in the NBA there is such a thing as a salary cap (sorta) and because of that Nash's salary is taking up valuable space that could be used on a younger, more productive player, which is something that the Lakers desperately need.

While this alone isn't reason for Laker fans to turn on Nash we can't forget that during an interview last season he admitted that part of the reason that he isn't retiring is because of the $9.7 million owed to him.  He stated “The reality is, I’m not going to retire because I want the money.”.  

Obviously this doesn't sound great to fans, especially considering that Nash has earned over $125 million over the course of his career.  That's not to say that his statement is completely damning, but is does come across as greedy considering that the vast majority of fans will never come anywhere close to earning that kind of money.

Nash has reportedly got himself in absolutely tremendous shape this offseason and is doing everything he can to have a successful year, which aren't the actions of a guy who is truly just about the money.  Still, the statement that he made stings.

To make matters worse the Lakers traded away their 2015 first round pick to the Suns in the deal that landed them Nash.  At the time no one thought that it would be a strong pick but with the Lakers looking like long shots to make the playoffs that pick has become a very valuable one.  The pick is only top 5 protected, and given the Lakers luck in recent years and their current respectable-but-not-good roster they will end up in the 6-8 range.

By trying to hang on and refusing to retire Nash is all but ensuring that the Lakers will have a worse record than if his salary cap space was free to be used on a more productive player.  It's an odd situation, but Nash's decision to continue playing helps the Suns much more than it helps the Lakers.

The real tough part for Lakers fans to swallow is that Nash didn't attempt to qualify for medical retirement.  Most fans understand that walking away from over $9 million isn't easy, even if you are a multi-millionaire already.  Furthermore, hanging up his sneakers after such a horrendous year would be difficult for Nash to live with, as he clearly feels he has something left in the tank.  However, had he applied for medical retirement as a result of his chronic nerve-root issues then not only would the Lakers have received the cap space they so desperately need but Nash himself would still have received his full salary.  Win-win.

Of course to do this Steve would have had to accept that last season's injury-plagued, 15 game showing would be the last thing that fans would remember about him.  It's never easy to go out on the bottom, but for the Lakers it clearly would have been the best outcome and very likely would have allowed the team to be a playoff contender this season.  Over the past few years though nothing has broken the way they needed it to so Nash's decision was just one more unlucky outcome in a long line of them.

*** The CP3 theft.  Mike Brown.  Mike D'Antoni.  Nash's broken leg.  Dwight's back and lack of heart.  Kobe's achilles.  Dwight's cowardice.  Nash's nerve root issues.  Pau's everything.  Kobe's tibial plateau fracture.  Dr. Buss' death.  The entire Western Conference becoming stacked.  The list goes on and on.  Lakers fans would ask what else could go wrong but at this point that would seem to be tempting fate. 

Even Laker-haters are starting to admit that the Lakers deserve a little good luck now.  Never thought that would happen!  

So how should Lakers fans treat Nash?  Assuming the rumors about Nash's improved health are true then fans should support him through it all.  Cheer him on, even if it's only because of the player he was and not the player he currently is.  Even in his diminished state Nash can still help the team if he can stay healthy.  If he ends up on the injured list for the majority of the season though and the losses start mounting though even Nash himself has to realize that a solid amount of blame will be placed on him, and rightfully so.

For Nash's sake and the Lakers sake let's hope that he can return to form.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Predictions for Next Season

We are in the midst of a strange, uncomfortable era of Lakers basketball.  As much as Lakers fans love to spout the "championship or bust" rhetoric it's clear that this season's squad is going to fall far short of those aspirations.  Fans do understand that every team has down seasons and the Lakers are no exception, but still something feels different this time.  The fan base is shaken, unsure of what comes next.  Of course they are right to feel that way, as over the past few years a series of mistakes compounded by the outright villainy of David Stern's infamous "basketball reasons" veto has left the team in the worst position in...well, ever.

Fans were tortured during the free agency period with rumors of Carmelo Anthony joining Kobe in LA but it wasn't meant to be (might be for the best).  Then there was the group of young guns with plenty of potential, guys that would bring Laker fans hope for the future.  Surely, Mitch would land at least one of Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Greg Monroe, Kyle Lowry, or Lance Stephenson.  Once again, misses all around.  

The team was left to pick through re-treads from last season and cast-offs from various franchises with high aspirations.  The Lakers watched All-Star big man Pau Gasol walk out the door for less money in Chicago just one season after watching the skittish Dwight Howard do the same.  Troubling times in Laker land to be sure.

Even while fans are uneasy though there is belief around the league that someday the Lakers will be back on top, if for no other reason than they are the Lakers and winning is what they do.  It may take longer than anyone expected and longer than the Lakers faithful are comfortable with but someday the sun will once again shine on the Staples center.  

There will be no parade down Figueroa street, and no one can truly say when we will see one again.  However, what can do is focus on this season, the here and now.  As Phil Jackson would say, "Live in the moment".

***Phil truly was the best.  Part motivator, part teacher, full-time media abuser.  Aside from Greg Popovich no one could play with the media quite like Phil could.  He wasn't the best X's and O's coach nor did he pretend to be.  Instead he focused on the X's and O's of life, on who his players were as people and what inspired them.  

I'm still in shock over the Lakers letting him leave for New York.  He's one of a kind and in the top 3 of Lakers I'd want to sit down and have a drink with.  (the others: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Magic Johnson.  So much wisdom in that group.  

He also coached from a chair that can only be described as a throne.  Phil Jackson: doing it before "Game of Thrones" was cool.    

So what can we realistically expect from the 2014-2015 Lakers squad?  On paper the team doesn't look very promising.  This is the lineup that we have to look forward to on opening day (assuming Michael Beasley doesn't end up in a Lakers jersey as rumored, which I'm pretty sure would be a sign of the apocalypse):

PG: Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash 
SG: Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Jordan Clarkson
SF: Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson
PF: Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly
C: Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Robert Sacre

For one thing, it's a near-certainty that next season's squad will be healthier than last.  With 220 man-games lost due to injury the Lakers were attacked by the injury bug harder than any team in the league.  It was a season filled with one improbable injury after another, to the point where each additional call of "Medic!" could only be greeted with disbelief.  It was a nearly unheard of bout of bad luck that is unlikely to repeat itself.

The Lakers do have elder statesmen Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the squad, and neither can be counted on to play a full season at this point.  Aside from them though we should see a much healthier team and therefore a more consistent one as well.

Speaking of the two Lakers who are a little long in the tooth, Kobe and to a lesser extent Nash will be important to the overall success of the team next season.  After missing nearly all of last season no one really knows what Kobe has left at this point.  If he can somehow come back to be the Kobe we saw pre-injury then this Laker team may have an outside shot at the playoffs.  If he's the guy we saw for 6 games last season, who rushed back from injury and didn't quite have his legs under him, the Lakers will struggle and likely end up giving the Phoenix Suns a fantastic draft pick next summer (the Lakers pick going to Phoenix from the Nash trade is only protected 1-5).

Steve Nash played in just 15 games last season and put up the worst numbers of his career since his rookie season.  It's extremely unlikely that he can be much of a positive impact on the floor at this stage in his career, but he can be useful as a mentor to young guards like Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson.  Nash also drew the ire of Lakers fans when he admitted to trying to play one more season just to make sure he collects the entire $9.7 million remaining on his contract.  He has a lot of work to do if he wants to go out as a fan favorite.  Best-case scenario would be Nash logging 15-20 minutes per game as Lin's backup and putting up efficient offensive numbers.  Worst case?  Well it's hard to imagine things getting much worse than last season, but if Nash were to once again look completely done on the court and still push to get to the 10-game minimum to avoid medical retirement and rob the Lakers of cap relief then it would be rather difficult for him to show his face around Los Angeles again.

Outside of Kobe and Nash the Lakers squad is littered with players who have little chance of reaching All-Star status and no chance of becoming the superstar that the Lakers need.  Ok, Julius "The Juggernaut" Randle has a shot at becoming an All-Star level player, but he's at least a few years removed from that level.  The team is counting on guys like Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, and Jeremy Lin all having fantastic seasons (in contract years no less), which may be a bit of wishful thinking on their part.  

As such the Lakers won't be winning any games on pure talent like they are used to.  Instead they will find themselves in the relatively unfamiliar position of underdog against the majority of the league.  Fortunately they have hired a coach in Byron Scott who is willing to get his hands dirty to build a team that will out-work their opponents, using a defense-first strategy designed to keep them in games that they wouldn't be able to based on firepower alone.

Scott's no-nonsense, defense-or-die approach is the exact opposite of Mike D'Anonti's "Seven Seconds or Less" strategy he used over the last two seasons.  Lakers fans grew tired of seeing D'Antoni's team give up huge scoring runs to anyone and everyone, and if nothing else Scott should put an end to that.  That's not to say the Lakers will suddenly become a lockdown team, as they are still fielding a lineup with shockingly few even adequate defenders, but Scott will at least bring them back to respectable levels.  
Byron Scott: At least he's not Mike D'Antoni

As fans last season we were let down.  We saw a squad that was besieged by injuries, Kobe-less, Nash-less, and poorly coached.  D'Antoni tried to force square pegs into round holes and it was often painful to watch.

So what can we expect from this season?  For one expect a new defensive intensity but at the cost of a little bit of the team's offense.  Expect to see Jeremy Lin have a fantastic season and quickly become a fan favorite.  Expect to see the log jam at the PC/C positions battle each other all season long.  Boozer is fighting for his next contract, Randle, Davis and Kelly are hoping to live up to potential, and Jordan Hill aims to prove he's a starting-quality center and worthy of his big contract.  Expect to see Steve Nash bounce in and out of lineups while Jordan Clarkson learns the ropes.  Expect Xavier Henry to endear himself to Lakers fans once again and ultimately win the starting SF spot with his defensive tenacity.  And lastly, expect Kobe Bryant to move heaven and earth in his attempt to return to form for his final two seasons in the NBA.  With Kobe in particular it's either going to be a season of celebration as an icon proves he's not going to go away quietly...or one of sadness as we watch a star fade.

Prediction: 36-46, miss the playoffs and hand a #10 pick to Phoenix.