As the regular season is set to tip off, there are a few things to keep an eye on this year which could determine just how successful the Lakers will be.
This is probably the biggest factor going into the season. Last season, the Lakers were absolutely riddled with injuries and it was one contributing factor (among many) to the team’s struggles and underachievement.
The most concerning players are the team’s core players — Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol. Kobe was healthy most of last season, but is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered in April. The level of play he’ll be capable of when he returns is still a huge question mark at the moment.
Pau Gasol appears healthy and ready to take on a full load offensively, after undergoing a procedure on his knees over the summer.
As for Steve Nash, he’ll be 40 this year and is struggling with nagging injuries. Jordan Hill’s health following a hip surgery is also of concern, although he’s looked quite active thus far.
Certainly, any other injuries that may arise would be of concern as well, but hopefully the frequency and severity of them won’t be as detrimental to the team as they were last season.
With Mike D’Antoni’s hiring of Kurt Rambis and the team’s supposed emphasis on defense throughout training camp, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers can sustain any kind of defensive identity and maintain their energy on that end of the floor.
In D’Antoni’s system, it is very tempting to want to erase any defensive flaws with a quick three-point shot at the other end of the court. However, the Lakers will have to understand that in order to get the most effective fast-break opportunities, defense and rebounding will be key in attempting to run a faster paced system.
Additionally, now that the team has some youthful players on the wing, transition defense — which was horrible last season — will be another factor to keep an eye on. The team definitely has the physical capability to consistently get back after missed shots, but will they maintain the enthusiasm to do so? Let’s hope so.
Another variable to look at this season will be chemistry. Now, the team has seemingly done a complete 180 in this department compared with last season, but can it be sustained?
Getting off on the right foot is often very important as it sets the tone for the rest of the season, and it seems as though this year’s Lakers have done exactly that. Unselfish passing, positivity, and genuinely wanting each other to succeed have all been common themes in the preseason.
Right now, everything is going great, but what happens when Kobe Bryant comes back? Will Kobe’s presence disrupt the team? Will he slowly integrate himself back into the fray and let the game come to him?
Nobody knows yet, but if the team displays its ability to be successful without him, perhaps it will take less time for some of the younger players to earn his trust than in years past. Generally, if Kobe has trust in his teammates, he’s willing to step back a little bit and let them blossom. But if he feels the need to take over in order to will his team to victory, we all know he’ll do just that, even if it means taking other players out of rhythm.
The Lakers have depth at the point guard position this year. Steve Nash — if healthy — will be starting and hopefully not playing more than 25-30 minutes on a regular basis. Then you’ve got two capable backups in Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar.
Blake played exceptionally well toward the end of last season and can be a streaky shooter at times. As for Farmar, he’s matured since we last saw him in a purple and gold uniform, and appears well equipped to lead the Lakers’ second unit.
If all three are healthy, it will be interesting to see who comes off the bench first, and just how many minutes each of them gets. However, Mike D’Antoni absolutely loves point guards, so I fully see him finding minutes for all three of his lead guards.
To start the season, I’m convinced D’Antoni will play Nash and Blake together while Kobe Bryant recovers, which will leave ample time for all three. When Kobe returns though, I’m also willing to bet that D’Antoni will prefer to play two point guards off the bench together in place of one point guard and, say, Jodie Meeks. The fact that the Lakers are a bit thin at the small forward position will also justify him going smaller and moving players normally considered to be shooting guards down to the three slot.
At the very least, Nash will likely sit out a few back-to-back games, leaving minutes for both Blake and Farmar. Normally it’s rare to see three point guards all get consistent minutes, but I truly foresee each one impacting the game and averaging around 20 minutes this season.
Without getting into specifics, it’s very possible that a trade (or multiple trades) could happen this season. With most of the players’ contracts being over at the end of the season, the Lakers may look to pick up a few solid, long-term contracts if it makes sense.
Additionally, when Kobe returns, the Lakers will have a slew of wing players — particularly at the shooting guard position — and could look to trade in an effort to add depth at another position.
I personally don’t predict a major trade going down, but can certainly see a minor trade or two throughout the season to avoid redundancy on the roster.
With the season set to tip off, there are many encouraging signs going into the season. The team may not have quite the expectations they had last season, but they appear to be much deeper, younger, and more full of enthusiasm to play with each other than they were last season.
Even if they don’t go as far as they did last season (I’m an eternal optimist and will say they’ll go farther), the Lakers will deliver more flair, fluidity, and finesse compared with what was an extremely frustrating season last year.
There are just a few things to keep an eye on, but if all of the aforementioned factors hold up in a positive manner, fans should be in for an exciting ride this season.
Let the season begin, and let’s go Lakers!