Monday, August 27, 2012

How could the Lakers NOT Win the NBA Title?

For the past few weeks, I've been a part of a series of Lakers roundtable posts by the fine folks over at Silver Screen & Roll. In the long, droning pace that's the NBA offseason, we've debated a number of subjects, but lately focusing on what could hinder this glamorous All-Star-laden starting five from doing anything besides parading down Figueroa in June. Here they are, aggregated and expanded upon. Check it out!
Injuries. Plain and simple.

As I ran down a couple weeks ago, you really can't consider the Lakers the clear favorites for the Western Conference because quite frankly, there's too many variables before this famed new starting five even hits the hardwood together. This team's potential is vast; not just as a regular season juggernaut, but as a historically unprecedented vehicle for postseason glory. Thus, my prediction for their current standings had nothing to do with what I think their ceiling is. Far from it, in fact.

Out of everything regarding the Lakers potential deficiencies, team chemistry isn't a factor I'm worried about. The Lakers are facing a season of massive adjustments just in their starting five alone, from Steve Nash playing with the most talent he's ever had on a basketball court (all due respect to Marion, Amar'e and Joe Johnson, but we're talking about Kobe, Gasol and Howard here), to Dwight and Kobe getting less touches than they've ever gotten in their careers to Pau's role as a glorified Brad Miller-esque role as a facilitator and rebounder in the lane (that wasn't meant to be an insult..for real reals). However, these two biggest mitigating factors makes me think that these changes in on-court philosophy are miniscule compared to the task at hand:
1) Nash's ability as a floor general: Kobe, Howard and Pau will (theoretically) all be taking less shots, less personal glory and a lighter stat sheet than they're used to. It's Steve Nash's job to make them feel like it's worth it. My dad always says that the most brilliant part of Phil Jackson's version of the triangle offense was that because of the intricacies of the scheme, most, if not all five of the players would touch the ball on every single possession. After all, there's nothing more that a basketball professional loves than feeling the touch of leather on his hands and believing that yes, he is a crucial part of the game. Nash has shown that he'd single-handedly be able to replicate one of the most efficient pieces of the triangle by juggling the egos of his teammates and adjusting his passing ratio accordingly. I have no doubt that he'll be able to utilize the weapons he has in front of them to their deadliest efficiency, as well as smooth over any on-court frustrations. This is what Steve Nash does. And he does it quite well.

2) The championship hunger of all five starters: Everyone has their reasons, but none should make any individual more motivated than the next. For Steve Nash, he'll finally hold his first trophy at age 39, and one of the greatest players ever will finally have his ring. Kobe, he's looking at a historic sixth title, which would tie him with Jordan, Kareem, Robert Horry and a host of Celtics, as well as put him ahead of Magic Johnson and solidify his resume as perhaps one of the top five players ever to grace the NBA. For Pau, this is chance to put more hardware in his prestigious trophy case and maybe more importantly, to prove to his detractors that at age 32, he's far from done as a star power forward. For Dwight, winning is the balm that soothes the sting of any offcourt transgressions. Look no further than South Beach, where nary a person calls LeBron James the "best player on the planet" with any reservation. And for Metta, this is another chance to party.
Injury, not the fitting of personnel pieces, is what scares me the most about this crew. Even scarier is that I'm not sure whether or not Dwight's back is the bigger issue, or the 34 and up club of Kobe, Nash and potential Sixth Man of the Year Antawn Jamison. Kobe has been a walking MASH unit for years leading up to his miraculous blood-spinning procedure by Dr. Moreau last summer, but at age 34, is always ripe for another swath of maladies. As if Dwight's back wasn't enough, many of us are forgetting that before he was reconstructed like a broken Lego pirate ship by the wondrous training staff in Phoenix, Steve Nash's back was the biggest concern that Mark Cuban had in giving his point guard an extension to stay with the team in 2005.

A startling undercurrent here is that no one seems to be talking about Pau's spotty injury history the past few seasons. Gasol will be 32 when November rolls around and while he's been mostly healthy, has been extremely susceptible to hamstring injuries ever since he became a Laker. Just like Kobe and Nash, it's not so much his recent medical chart that gives me pause, it's his birth certificate.
Though again, I'm pretty confident about Nash's ability to manage egos and touches, in order to do this, he needs time with his full arsenal. It's already disarming to me that Dwight will not be an active participant in training camp, not to mention potentially the first two months of the season. To be honest, Howard is the fourth best offensive player on this team, but his massive physical presence and scoring limitations make it even more important that the other Lakers have as much time on the floor with him as humanly possible. On top of all of that, there's no telling how effective or not this once impervious colossus will be once he returns from a back surgery that put him on the shelf for upwards of seven months. 

Oddly enough, after seven seasons of worrying year after year if Andrew Bynum's knees would be able to hold up to the stress of a brutal 82 game stretch, we've traded our favorite ambivalent superstar for a team littered with injury questions.

As much as I would love to lay the reasons for a season's ultimate achievement or premature demise at the feet of Metta World Peace, as he suggested should happen weeks ago if the Lakers were to lose, my logic is still steadily fastened to reality. The truth is, as always, that the captain goes down with his ship: win or lose, the onus is on Kobe Bean Bryant.
The Lakers are adding in four rotation players to Mike Brown's top ten guys this year, including two All-Star caliber starters. In all aspects of the game, the team is changing the ways it plays the sport. From Dwight's complete, persistent and overwhelming domination of the paint, to Steve Nash's playmaking ability to Antawn Jamison's and Jodie Meeks' distance shooting, this Lakers team will be wholly different from the slow, limited squads that have taken the floor since the opening tip of the 2010-2011season.
After giving this weeks of thought, I still can't even picture what the Lakers offense will look like. Kobe Bryant has never played with a point guard with the shot-creating expertise of Nash, nor has Nash had a bevy of elite talent of this magnitude surrounding him. Mike Brown has never had so many great, not good, but great, players to work with, let alone a genuine pass-first floor general with an ability to get his own at any time. Pau Gasol faces another big change in role, as he will now share the floor with another paint dominating center with a much more limited offensive skill set than his last partner. However, I have faith that all these problems will be smoothed out with Nash, who has spent his whole career making his teammates better by distributing the ball, getting everyone involved and tempering egos. That all being said, I would be shocked if the blame for the Lakers' failure was laid at Nash's doorstep. Moreso than anyone else on the team, Nash is genuinely liked by media and NBA fans across the country, and that type of reverence will curb a lot of criticism that might otherwise rightly float his way if the Lakers' scoring stutters. After all, even Nash isn't at his fully formed best, the changes he'll implement will be amplified in comparison to the jumbled, stagnant offense the team had last season. Also, pass-first point guards are rarely blamed for a team's collapse, simply because inherent in their roles is an unselfishness that's hard to criticize. As Shaquille likes to say often and eternally muffled on television, it's never the big man's fault. The fans and the media are always going to look at the guy with the ball at the top of the key. Which leaves us staring at Kobe.
Even as the Lakers are bringing in two players that averaged over 30 shots per game combined in 2012, I still expect Kobe to hoist up between 15 and 20 per contest this upcoming year. Bryant is ball dominant, and even when he's not shooting the ball on every possession, it simply feels like he is. A lot of this is because of the level of difficulty of his shots he's taking (and thus, are more memorable), but it could also continue to feel like he always is touching the rock because he'll be involved in more plays whether he's shooting or not with Nash in the fold. If the Lakers' new offense doesn't work, make no mistake, it won't just be about Kobe. Much of the blame should rightly be laid at Mike Brown, for not being able to manage his team of superstars and their egos, as well as create an intricate enough offensive plan to properly use his cadre of scoring options. However, it'll go towards Kobe, because a slow, discombobulated Lakers offense must be the fault of the "ball hog" Kobe, who wasn't able to properly curb his gunner's trigger finger enough to share the ball, not to mention keep the on court chemistry healthy enough. I can see Henry Abbott foaming at the digital mouth just imagining the type of venom he'll be able to unleash on the Mamba for any Lakers' pitfall. This isn't to say that Bryant should be without blame. If the Lakers cannot mesh the pieces together, both in the locker room and in on the floor, it'll be the fault of the team's captain, as well as best wing scoring threat. In our collective SS&R zeal to protect Kobe, let's not forget he was definitely less than efficient this past season, and needs to sacrifice shots this upcoming one for this team to win. If the Lakers fail to win #17, it'll be a multi-layered problem, but the majority of it will be centered on Kobe.
As for Dwight, he isn't expected on the floor until December, but as soon as he dons the purple and gold, there's little doubt that he'll be able to seamlessly impact the team's defensive schemes as a shot blocker, guarding the post and on help D. Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol are still good to strong defenders on any given night, and the quick hands of Meeks, Kobe and World Peace should be able to gamble more on the perimeter with Dwight backing them up. Along with Mike Brown's defensive pedigree, Dwight will certainly be a transformative enough force on D that any misgivings on offense will be overlooked. Thus, with such a massive contribution on D, I can't imagine that Dwight will be given as much blame as Kobe.

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