Saturday, December 24, 2011

Burning Question #7: Is this the end for this Lakers era?

What I loved most BockerKnockers' excellent 2011-2012 Knicks preview was the prevailing notion of "feeling". Knicks fans feel the excitement again. They have a reason to care about their team and to be optimistic about the year. They are not counting down to the 2012 draft, nor are they waiting until a forthcoming free agent class. The feeling is finally about the here and now. It's about the basketball in the moment, how their team will play today and what will be coming in 5 months rather than 2 years. There is an expectation of winning, rather than just hoping not to be embarrassed. In every word from my blog brother's latest post, I felt every bit of excitement emanating from the Garden and beyond. This is the beginning, not the end. It's a good time to be a Knicks fan. And then there's us, the Lakers faithful, coming into tomorrow with the exact OPPOSITE emotions.

I'll be honest with you; it's pretty sweet being a Lakers' fan. Fellow MAMBINO contributor and friend of the blog El Miz often refers to me as an "arrogant Lakers fan". I'll agree. I don't know if there's any other kind.

A little "joke fad" going around right now is the term "white people problems". My roommate often says this when he complains about having to "sit in his chair all day for work" or "feeling like he never has enough fresh squeezed orange juice." This is all very tongue in cheek; he knows that people are going hungry in the Sudan and that kids his age grow up crack addicts. But relative to his situation, things like "the best bench press wasn't available at our gym" are a problem.

Similarly, we in Laker Nation have "Laker fan problems". Oh, a trade didn't work out for Chris Paul (the best point in the game) and we STILL have Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on our team? #Lakerfanproblems. We didn't make the Finals last year after 3 in a row and two titles, in which the Lakers beat their archrival Celtics in a Game 7 for the first time in 65 years? #Lakerfanproblems. Darn. We are in daily trade rumors for the best center in the game, Dwight Howard, and that might be a distraction for the team? #Lakerfanproblems. I might be an arrogant Lakers fan, but I am pretty realistic about it. Our problems are just relative to our situation. But our situation is usually winning titles and creating legends. If that sounded terrible, I'm happy because it was meant to be. Lakerfanproblems means you are a part of a tradition that expects greatness in the present and on into the future. We always look ahead, never content with just the present.

I've written about how the Lakers didn't need to change roster personnel too much to contend for another couple years. But the organization, as forward thinking as they've always been, knew that the roster needed to change if they wanted to contend for the next 10 years.

Why is this even a question?

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor played together for over 11 seasons, went to 6 NBA Finals and never won a single one of them. West then teamed up Wilt Chamberlain for five seasons and took one title in four attempts. Kareem and Magic went to 8 Finals and won 5 together in 10 years as teammates. Shaquille and Kobe spent over 8 seasons on the same squad, going to 4 Finals and winning 3 of them.

This will be Pau Gasol's 4th full season with Los Angeles, 5th overall. In case you haven't been following the news, the organization put their union in to serious jeopardy a few weeks ago when Pau was nearly traded, along with Lamar Odom, for Chris Paul. When frustration mounts after waiting mere seconds for a 1:20 youtube clips and a 15 minute full Robot Chicken episodes is about 3 minutes too long, a 3 1/2 year-long tandem between Kobe and Pau might have seemed equal to the twice as long marriages of Kareem and Magic, Kobe and Shaq or Elgin and West.

For the moment, Gasol and Bryant are still the center of the Lakers' latest sprint for another championship. With trade rumors for Dwight Howard swirling at a daily ebb and flow, whether they win or lose in June (or earlier), this could be it for this specific Lakers era. As I just noted, the team clearly has an eye for the future. But how are they going to go out?

How will this play out?

I think that this team's foundations could be changed before they even reach the playoffs. Some trade scenarios I've heard involve both Pau and Andrew. Though I would easily let both of them go for Dwight Howard, I cannot imagine that the Lakers would leverage a deal against themselves when a deal revolving around just young center Andrew Bynum should be enough to get the deal done. Even though I believe that the Lakers' package revolving around Bynum was the better deal before Brook Lopez's broken foot, it's clear now that the Lakers have the upper hand in a pact for Orlando's latest and greatest big man.

(Before anyone argues the contrary, Dwight is going to leave. I've looked at the Magic's roster up and down, and they have no more cards to play. They have very few tradable assets and no cap room. This is essentially the same team whose season ended with a well-deserved first round playoff exit in April. Dwight will see that the Magic cannot improve in the short term, and he will leave, either via free agency (I think GM Otis Smith could be foolish enough to let this drag out until the summer) or via trade)

The Lakers' front office knows that we are nearing the end of this team's run as title contenders. They need to reload if they want to stay relevant for more than just this and next season. I truly do expect a Dwight trade in the next few months. I'd put the percentages around 70%.

But in the event of that he doesn't? This current Lakers squad could compete for a title. Yes, they are older and Kobe is dealing with more injuries than ever before. Yes, they are not nearly as deep after the infamously confusing deal for Lamar Odom to Dallas. But let's look at this in a positive light.

Frontcourt: In 2009, the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic with a hobbled Andrew Bynum playing at arguably a 60% clip. A year later, same story against the Celtics; Bynum hurt his knee in the first round against the Thunder that postseason, and contributed very little for the team. Drew's regular season numbers have been fantastic, but his postseason numbers are not nearly as great. In those two championship postseasons, he's averaged 7.4 ppg 5.3 rpg. I know that basketball is more than just math and plugging in one part for another. however, the Lakers won two Finals with Andrew Bynum performing to roughly half of his regular season statistics. Can they win this year with Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy forming 40% of a Lamar Odom, plus a full strength (presumably, but perhaps not probably) Andrew? Nothing is certain in this 66-game sprint, especially health of a guy who has played exactly one full season of NBA basketball, but it's still very possible.

Small forward and bench: If the latest reports are correct, second-year man Devin Ebanks will be starting at the small forward position for the Lakers tomorrow. With the emergence of an unforeseen starter on the roster, the bench is bolstered with both Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace coming off of it. In two preseason games, Josh McRoberts has not only proven to be an actual professional basketball player, but one of the steals of the offseason. The year before last (when he got hurt in training camp), Troy Murphy averaged 14 points and 10 boards, shooting nearly 40% from downtown. Steve Blakers is a much better player than he showed last year (I hope).

Coaching: I mentioned in my season recap last May that the Lakers didn't need massive personnel changes, just another voice in the locker room and a spark to light their hunger again. Mike Brown could be the best man for that job. While much is being made of the team not playing under Phil Jackson and his triangle offense anymore, I doubt the team will have that much trouble reacting; every player on the roster has played in a conventional point guard driven system. The problem lies more in the lack of acceptable personnel than anything else. I don't know much about how Mike Brown wants to run his offense (I suppose we'll find out tomorrow, won't we?), but I do know that the man can get his teams to defend, which is one of the prime reasons the Lakers were so unceremoniously dumped last May.

In regards to everything else, Kobe is still Kobe and Pau is still Pau. Injuries and potential off-court distractions aside, I know what I'm getting from these two.

Weaknesses: I still have major concerns about the Lakers ability to execute with a point guard driven offense, and anyone's ability to run a pick and roll other than Kobe and maybe (on a good day) Derek Fisher. I am not sure if Jason Kapono will fall curse to the Los Angeles disease of former sharpshooters (Vlad Radmonivic, Sasha Vujacic, Steve Blakers in recent memory) losing all cognitive ability to ball. I don't know if I can take Troy Murphy's face seriously for 7 months, or if he can remain on the roster for that entire time. Metta World Peace's game might have become as much of a joke as his new legal name. There are so many things I'm worried about this season, but underneath it all, the squad still have Kobe, Pau and Bynum. And we can still contend for a title. This era of Lakers' basketball is not done yet. Complete game changer however, if the Lakers trade for Dwight Howard. But that's a post for another time. #Lakersfanproblems.

How will this affect the season?

It already has. With all the hullaballoo (finally got to use that word on MAMBINO!) surrounding the Lakers' non-acquisitions for CP3 and D12, the Clippers' subsequent trade for Paul and the Knicks deal for Tyson Chandler is that no one is really paying attention to other teams in the league. The axis of the NBA seems to be spinning in New Orleans, Orlando, LA and New York and not in Miami, Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, Boston and Memphis. In an offseason that should have been about Miami losing in the Finals and OKC's brewing potential problem between a Kevin Durant versus a Russ Westbrook-led future, the focus was on five teams that might not even get to the Finals. The pressure has been off for the Thunder, Heat, Spurs and Dallas for the most part, which can't do anything but help them focus in 2012. Their rosters have remained largely intact, a huge boon for the continuity in a two week training camp.

The Lakers acquisition of Dwight will change not only this season (how could they not be the favorites in June?), but the next 5. Without him, they still remain contenders for this year. I'm still hopeful for title #17 and wouldn't be surprised if it happened. I see the Lakers throwing away some games this year based on the newness of the coach and his systems, as well as some of the age on the Lakers' roster, but winning enough to have home court advantage in the first round. For all the freaking out and declared death sentences I've heard in LA, we still have it pretty good people.HashtagLakersfanproblems.

Player to Watch: Steve Blakers

On a team with reliable guys like Pau and Kobe, the most important players are going to be the other guys in the rotation. For this squad, nearly every "other" guy is someone to watch, from Devin Ebanks, to Josh McRoberts to President Fisher to Metta World Peace. But the performance of Steve Blakers could be the difference between a major move for the Lakers and none at all. The team needs a steady hand to lead the offense, and Steve is as good of a ball handler and decision maker as the team has in a point guard. He needs to be able to set up the offense, hit the outside shot and be able to drive and dish effectively. If not...

The hidden player to watch in the wings could be Gilbert Arenas. There have been rumors that the Lakers would take a flier on the recently waived Agent Zero, who is looking for a chance to rebuild his value in his hometown of Los Angeles. He no doubt has some game left in his tank, and could potentially swing a title with his presence on a roster. Again, this is a post for another time, but if Steve Blakers can't get it done, maybe Crazy Gil can.


Best they can do: 48-18, 1st in the Pacific, 1st in the West

Lowest they can go: 39-27, 2nd in the Pacific, 6th in the West

Probable outcome: 44-22, 1st in the Pacific, 4th in the West


Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:

#8: How far can the Knicks go?

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