By this point, the major topics of discussion revolving around the Lakers have been exhausted: when will Kobe return from his Achilles injury? When he does return, what type of player will Bryant be? After an injury ridden season last year, will the team be getting the old Steve Nash back or just an old Nash? Can Gasol thrive without Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum taking up his preferred position?
We, the fans, have been discussing these normative issues for months now and we’re all ready for the season to officially start on Tuesday night. But before we get there, let’s take a look at some of the storylines that have been overlooked, but not to be ignored.
1. Who fills in for Earl Clark?
Mitch Kupchak brought in a plethora of athletic wing players from the bargain bin to replace Metta World Peace and Earl Clark. Enough has been written about MWP’s departure, but the Lakers are going to miss Earl Clark, who elected to take more money to sign with Cleveland.
Clark was the latest in the line of guys the GM has brought in that have produced beyond their expectations. Following in the footsteps of Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown, Clark (who was a throw-in in the Dwight Howard trade last summer) started 33 games in the regular season for the team last year, serving as the stretch four that Coach Mike D’Antoni loves to utilize in his system. With all due respect to a declining MWP, Clark was the team’s best perimeter defender for most of last year and that void now needs to be filled.
Wesley Johnson, acquired from the Phoenix Suns, will likely be called upon to pick up where Clark left off. Shawne Williams may also receive ample opportunity, as one of D’Antoni’s favorites from his coaching tenure in the Big Apple.
2. A crowded backcourt.
Speaking of the trolley Kupchak brought in the offseason, the Lakers’ backcourt is suddenly very deep in comparison to last year. Take a look.
At the end of last year…
PG: 1. Steve Nash, 2. Steve Blake, 3. Chris Duhon, 4. Darius Morris
SG: 1. Kobe Bryant, 2. Jodie Meeks, 3. Andrew Goudelock
At full health, this year…
PG: 1. Steve Nash, 2. Steve Blake, 3. Jordan Farmar
SG: 1. Kobe Bryant, 2. Nick Young, 3. Jodie Meeks, 4. Xavier Henry.
Considering the team strut out Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris to start Games 3 and 4 versus San Antonio, and considering both of those players aren’t with the team anymore, I’d say the backcourt received a very positive makeover. Suddenly, this team is now spoiled for choice in the backcourt.
Now, like everything else, the productivity of this backcourt is contingent on the health of Bryant and Nash, as Blake, Farmar, Young and Meeks are very serviceable reserves but subpar when asked to produce against elite starting units.
3. Will this team defy the odds?
No one outside of those inside the locker room is expecting much out of the 2013-14 Lakers. In fact, Vegas have set the over/under on regular wins this season at 33.5.The Raptors (36.5), Cavaliers (40), Pelicans (41) and Wizards (42) are all projected to win more games than the Lakers by the bookies. Those projections may be realistic, especially because the Raps and the Wiz play in the East, but 33.5 still seems a bit low.
Let’s contextualize. Despite their slow start to the season last year, the boys still got their act together and reached 45 wins. The year before, the team managed to win 41 games despite the lockout shortened 66 game season.
The only season in which the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since acquiring Kobe Bryant is the 2004-2005 season. Bryant surrounded by Lamar Odom, Vlade Divac in the twilight of his career and a bunch of nobodies, still hauled the team to 34 wins.
Going to sound like a broken record here, but as long as Nash stays relatively healthy and Bryant is back by around Christmas time and resembles Kobe Bryant; this team should comfortably reach 34 wins despite their shortcomings.
So, go put $5 on this or something.
4. Monitoring Mike D’Antoni
After the team limped out of the gate to start 1-4, last year, Mike Brown was fired. Since the NBA-ABA merged in 1976, no team has fired its coach after fewer teams. Then came the well-documented Phil Jackson saga, before the team decided on hiring Mike D’Antoni.
The expectation last season was championship or bust. The bar is set much lower for D’Antoni. If this team sneaks into the playoffs, this season will be considered a success by most.
However, I still don’t think Coach Pringles has an unlimited leash this year considering the history of head coaches with this franchise not named Pat Riley or Phil Jackson. Here’s a look at the last 30 years.
Pat Riley 1981-1990
Mike Dunleavy: 1990-1992
Randy Pfund: 1992-1994
Del Harris: 1994-1999
Kurt Rambis: 1999
Phil Jackson: 1999-2004
Rudy Tomjanovich: 2004-2005
Phil Jackson 2005-2011
Mike Brown: 2011-12
Mike D’Antoni: 2012- current day.
(note: interim coaches were exempt from this list)
According to my calculations, the average tenure of the Lakers’ head coaches over the past 30 years is 3.5 seasons. This could be a make-or-break season for D’Antoni. He could prove himself to be the right coach to usher the team into the next era or he could join the list of coaches who served as another temporary blip during a transitional period for this storied franchise.
Be mindful of these sneaky storylines as we count down to Tuesday; until then, I can’t wait.