The season is still a ways away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little). We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else. In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next couple months or so. We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z. Today's team: LA Lakers. Jump to the comments to discuss the Lakers and make a prediction on their record.
Last year's record: 65-17 (Pythagorean Record: 61-21)
Playoffs: Beat Utah 4-1 in first round, beat Houston 4-3 in second round, beat Denver 4-2 in Western Conference Finals, beat Orlando 4-1 in NBA Finals.
Offensive Rating: 112.8 (3rd)
Defensive Rating: 104.7 (6th)
Pace: 94.3 possessions/game (5th)
- How will Ron Artest work out in LA? Can Phil Jackson control him, both on and off the court?
- How does Kobe Bryant approach this season now that he has his title without Shaq?
- Andrew Bynum got hurt again and wasn't himself in the playoffs. How will he perform this year?
- Could the whole rushed Lamar Odom-Khloe Kardashian wedding thing distract the Lakers at all this year? (Answer: No. It's LA.)
- The Lakers won the title with pretty spotty point guard play. The same characters (veteran Derek Fisher, underachieving Jordan Farmar, cartoon character Sasha Vujacic and surprise Shannon Brown) are back. Can we expect point guard play that's any better this time around?
- How fast will the Lakers play now that they're replacing the athletic Trevor Ariza with the slower Ron Artest?
- Pau Gasol's had a long summer playing for the Spanish National Team. He was even hurt at one point. Could that affect him this season?
- How much longer will Phil Jackson coach? Who is waiting in the wings to replace him and how will that affect the Lakers going forward?
The World Champion Los Angeles Lakers basically return the same cast from last season, with one major swap: Ron Artest instead of Trevor Ariza. The price for both was the same -- five years for the mid-level exception -- and the main reason Artest is in town instead of Ariza seems to be the Lakers' disinclination to deal with Ariza's meddlesome agent, David Lee (who also happens to be Andrew Bynum's agent). We'll discuss this swap in a second.
Just to be clear, though, just because the personnel remains the same doesn't mean their performance will be the same. In a lot of ways, the Lakers were not at their best last season even though they won 65 games. Their point guard play was pretty crappy all year. Derek Fisher showed his age, save for a couple big shots in the Finals, and Jordan Farmar went through a stunning regression that saw him produce on a level worse than even Javaris Crittenton. Shannon Brown arrived in a midseason trade and helped right the ship, and he does return poised to continue his surprising play. The bottom line here is that Fisher is steady, Brown showed he can play and Farmar, and to a lesser extent Sasha Vujacic, can't possibly be as bad as they were last year. That should help the Lakers become a better team.
Similarly, Andrew Bynum, for now, is healthy again. Anyone who saw Bynum in the playoffs and concluded that he's that player is fooling themselves. Bynum didn't recover fully from his knee injury suffered at midseason and lost his timing in the playoffs. The Lakers were able to win anyway because Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were so spectacular, but they should get a better performance out of Bynum this season.
But then, there's the Artest/Ariza swap. I'm confident Artest will behave off the court this year. No coach deals with egos better than Phil Jackson, and Artest is now playing with a superstar he respects (Kobe) and a friend who might be just as zany as he is (Odom). The bigger problem is how Artest fits in the Triangle. Artest has annoyed coaches for years with his poor shot selection and monopolization of the ball, two things you never had to worry about with Trevor Ariza. Can Artest curb his shooting ways and start to play well off the ball? Perhaps, and again, if he does it anywhere, he'll do it in LA. But that will require an adjustment period that could hamper the regular-season win total. Anyone remember how long it took Gary Payton to figure out the Triangle in 2004? It'll take Artest just as long to master the Triangle on a level even Payton achieved, and you can argue that Payton never mastered the Triangle at all.
Another interesting subplot here is pace. The Lakers played extremely fast last year, using the ballhawking of Kobe and Ariza, as well as the mobility of Odom and Gasol, to kill teams in transition. Artest goes for steals a lot too, but he's nowhere near the transition threat flying down the wing that Ariza is. That, along with a healthy return for Bynum, will probably slow the Lakers down a tad this year. It might not make a difference -- LA is deadly in the half-court too -- but it's worth watching.
The Lakers' repeat hopes ultimately rest on how quickly Artest adapts to the Triangle. He has the tools -- he shot 47.1% eFG% on jumpers last year, with 55% of those assisted, and has decent passing skills -- but he doesn't have the mindset right now. The time it takes to drill away Artest's old mindset will cost the Lakers some regular-season wins, but it may pay dividends come playoff time. Maybe.
Mike's Prediction: 62-20, first in the Pacific, first in the West.
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