Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Los Angeles Lakers 2013-14 Season Preview (10.29.13)

Almost a year to the day, I preached patience with the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. They were coming off of an 0-8 preseason, and an 0-2 record to start the regular season. The arrival of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, along with the move toward the Princeton offense, had me believing that, over time, this team would work out the kinks and start tearing up the league. Many were fixated upon the problems of the Lakers, but I staunchly maintained an optimistic viewpoint.

Just over a week following that post, the Lakers' season took the most blindsided turn I can recall, as the Lakers fired coach Mike Brown. The decision reeked of panic, an uncharacteristic haste that the organization had never shown before. I felt that Brown was shortchanged, especially with Nash going down with a broken fibula in the second game of the season, and Howard unable to play up to his maximum level due to offseason back surgery. For me, and countless Lakers fans, the move to fire Brown only made sense if it meant that Phil Jackson would be hired.

Well, that obviously didn't happen. Instead, the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni, claiming he was the best man for the current makeup of the team. They spurned the greatest coach of all-time, regardless of sport, for Mike D'Antoni. My thoughts upon the matter basically came to fruition as I wrote, "Essentially, D'Antoni will have to coach in a manner that he's never coached before. Honestly, that doesn't sound all that promising. I hope D'Antoni can get the job done, but his style certainly doesn't fit the makeup of this squad."

Clearly, I wasn't enamored with D'Antoni, and it turned out that he couldn't get the job done with the makeup of that 2012 team. The team went on a furious rally just to make the playoffs, finishing 28-12 over the second half of the season in order to nab the seventh seed  it took an overtime victory over the Houston Rockets in the final game of the season for the Lakers to get that seventh spot.

However, the promise of that second half charge evaporated the moment Kobe Bryant tore his achilles against the Golden State Warriors in the 80th game of the season. With Bryant out, and Nash receiving epidural treatments, the Lakers were easily swept in the first round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs oh, and let's not forget that Howard seemed to play as if he wished he had missed the playoffs and already been on vacation, which he cemented by getting ejected in the final game of the series just after halftime.

Now, Howard is a member of the Houston Rockets, Nash and Gasol are another year older, and Bryant is coming off of the most devastating injury of his career. Those facts would seem to point to a dreadful 2013-14 Lakers season, especially in the deep Western Conference.

Oddly enough, I believe that the 2013 Lakers won't suffer the disastrous decline that those facts indicate. In fact, I believe that the Lakers will finish in the seven or eight seed with somewhere around 44 to 48 wins  Vegas has the Lakers at 33.5 wins, and ESPN has the Lakers as the 12th seed, so I'm taking the over, and then some.

Why? How? Am I insane?

Well, in a comedic turn of events, this 2013 Lakers team actually resembles a D'Antoni led squad, and, at this point, that is a good thing.

The plodding twin tower setup of Howard and Gasol will no longer be an issue. Howard refusing to run the pick and roll with the greatest pick and roll point guard of all-time — a staple of the D'Antoni offense no less — will no longer be an issue. Gasol being benched will no longer be an issue. Metta World Peace being left wide open to jack up three pointers will no longer be an issue. A lack of athleticism and three point shooters will no longer be an issue. A lack of reliable point guards will no longer be an issue. And finally, a general malaise in the locker room will no longer be an issue.

With so many issues turned around, this team should gel together as many of the players post career highs across the board.

Overall, the Lakers have taken an addition by subtraction approach, and while that approach won't lead to a championship this season, it will lead to enjoyable basketball, and possibly a fun little playoff run.

Why such optimism? Especially with Bryant's return unknown?

Well, let me break it down.

My take is that Bryant returns sometime between late-November and mid-December. Once he does return, I expect Bryant to play at a high level, averaging around 24 points per game with his usual 4.5 assists and 5 rebounds. Although Bryant showed some astounding athletic flashbacks last season  just ask Josh Smith or Gerald Wallace — it is clear that his game is as refined as they come, and it just doesn't take that much athleticism to shoot a baseline fadeaway jumper. Bryant is the most fundamental basketball player in the world, and he's still going to have his multitude of jab steps and pump fakes in order to get off clean looks. Trust in the Mamba.

The key will be for the rest of the squad to maintain a high level of play as Bryant works his way back from injury. If the Lakers start off slowly with a losing record, you can toss my prediction out the window. But if the Lakers can float around .500 ball for the first month or two, the return of Bryant should work wonders toward a playoff push.

As for the rest of the squad, I believe that D'Antoni's system is perfect for the likes of Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams, Pau Gasol, and obviously, Steve Nash.

The starting five will likely consist of Nash, Blake, Young, Williams, and Gasol, giving the unit a blend of youth and experience with shooters spread all over the court.

Young and Gasol will be the primary beneficiaries of this up-tempo, spread offense.

Expect Young to do his best Bryant impersonation — his favorite player when he was growing up. Known as a gunslinger, Young has shown an ability to pick his spots throughout the preseason. Young has done an excellent job of playing within the offense, and only turning to one-on-one ball in the waning seconds of the shot clock. A career .374% shooter from downtown, Young will be the beneficiary of numerous drive and kicks from Nash, and handoffs or swings from Gasol. Young's speed, athleticism, and long range shooting will bolster the wing position until Bryant's return, and following that, he may stick in the starting lineup if Bryant slides down to the three-spot.

The most integral player on the squad will be Gasol. I consider Gasol to be the most talented big man in the NBA — or at least second, after Tim Duncan. Stuck in a no-win situation last season, Gasol gutted through injuries, demotions, and trade rumors all the while displaying class and professionalism that numerous modern athletes seem unable to grasp. This season, Gasol will be featured, and I expect him to put up some early season MVP level stats.

In the preseason, Gasol was featured in numerous isolations on the block —  something Lakers fans and pundits have been clamoring for — often leading to a successful play. Gasol also ran the offense in a triple threat position from the high elbow, giving the offense multifaceted options: such as dishes or handoffs to open cutters for layups following weak-side screens, delayed swings for flare-screen three pointers, or a face up and attack for aggressive drives to the hoop. Overall, Gasol has looked pretty darn good, and I expect him to flourish this season.

Then there is old man Nash to steer the ship, and if his body cooperates with him, I have no doubt in his capability to do so. Unfortunately, Nash is 39 years old, making such a task quite difficult. In fact, Nash will start the season already banged up with an ankle and neck injury — fortunately the Lakers have some solid backup point guards instead of Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. If Nash can play about 75% of the season at a high level, the Lakers should be just fine.

With Howard gone and Bryant out, expect Nash to be the primary ball handler and run the pick and roll on a consistent basis. Nash can still nail the three ball — he shot .438% last season, his highest percentage in four seasons — and he still has great vision and a supreme understanding of the offense. This season, Nash will have greater playmaking opportunities, and he may look like the guy we fondly remember rather than the beaten down guy who played off the ball last season. It will be up to Nash to keep the offense rolling, and with so many shooters all over the court, doing so should be no problem.

The X-factor of the starting unit will be Williams. He is someone I have never heard of, but his three ball sure is sweet. An athletic four man in the mold of Earl Clark, Williams is 6'9" and 225 pounds. He is a versatile big man that can stretch the defense by hitting the three ball. Essentially, he is the "stretch four" that D'Antoni craves. In fact, he played under D'Antoni in New York in 2010-11 and he had the best season of his career, averaging 7.1 points while shooting .401% from deep.

A career .335% shooter from downtown, expect Williams to hit plenty of threes from the corner and wing. Furthermore, his presence on the court will allow Gasol to have greater freedom in the paint, and in turn will give the guards more space for driving angles to the rim.

Next up are the bench guys, a unit that may be top five in the league. Usually D'Antoni only relies upon a seven or eight man rotation, but this season, expect the Lakers to go ten deep. Such depth allows for an up speed tempo, multiple lineup variations, and overall team cohesion.

Considered a bust since being taken 4th overall in the 2010 draft, Johnson has a lot to prove this season, and the opportunity for him to breakout is promising. Legitimate size and length will allow Johnson to play anywhere from the two to the four for any number of lineup changes in D'Antoni's system. A career .336% shooter from downtown, expect Johnson to knock down threes from the wing with ease. Johnson seems to play a bit passive, but given an expanded role, and understanding that this is his best shot to truly make his mark in the NBA, I believe that Johnson will step up his aggression and deliver a solid season.

My take is that Johnson will thrive off the bench in a free flowing uptempo system. He may start the season at the three-spot, but ultimately, his role will be that of a knock down shooter off the bench. Given his athletic ability, Johnson may carve out even more minutes if he focuses upon wreaking havoc on the defensive end.

Moving on, Meeks and Blake showed how capable they are last season under D'Antoni. Each plays hard and can knock down three pointers. These two are consummate professionals, and their performances last season were some of the highlights of a rather disastrous season.

Blake shot a career high .421% from deep last season, pushing his career average up to .389%. Meeks continued his consistent shooting from deep, posting a .357% average, and maintaining his solid .367% career average. Each gives maximum effort, and plays tenacious defense despite being overwhelmed physically on a consistent basis.

You can never have enough hustle guys, and these two have that, and then some. Expect Blake to lockdown the backup point guard position  and probably start at shooting guard until Bryant returns  and Meeks to lockdown the backup shooting guard position.

Then there's the new additions of Farmar and Henry.

At first glance, it seems like the reunited Laker, Farmar, won't have much of a role on this squad, but with Nash likely under a strong minutes restriction, Farmar will get a decent amount of run despite being the third point guard. Even further, Blake may play some minutes at the two-spot, giving Farmar an even greater opportunity at the point. Just 26 years old, Farmar still has plenty of speed and athleticism, and his career .367% from deep is a perfect fit for D'Antoni. Farmar has always been a guy that plays tremendous ball when he is confident, and I expect D'Antoni to pump his confidence through the roof this season. Farmar is about as reliable a third-string point guard as they come.

Then there's Xavier Henry. Just 22 years old, Henry has a lot of potential on this squad. Henry will be the Lakers premier wing defender. Standing 6'6" and weighing 220 pounds, Henry is big and strong, yet surprisingly quick. So far in the preseason, Henry has shown an unexpected amount of offensive capability as well.

The 12th pick in the 2010 draft, Henry is left handed, and he has a knack for getting into the lane and finishing. Henry has the euro-step in his arsenal, and since he is left handed, he often gets to his dominant hand without the defender realizing it. Although he is a career .289% shooter from deep, from what I've seen, he has a nice stroke. Expect Henry to post career highs in about every category this season. Given his defensive capability, Henry is likely to play big fourth quarter minutes, and if he takes advantage of his opportunity with Bryant out, he may carve out a starting role at the three-spot, pushing Young to the two, and Blake to the bench.

As for the guys that I haven't mentioned, well, there is Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Elias Harris.

Kaman, Hill, and Sacre aren't exactly fits within the D'Antoni system, but they are serviceable big men.

Kaman is essentially a lesser version of Gasol. He has great vision, allowing him to pass out of the post for easy layups and open threes. He also has a pretty decent post up game, and he can shoot the midrange jumper. Although he is as slow as molasses, Kaman is a decent option as the backup big man.

Hill is one of my favorite players on the team. He plays hard, hustles, and rotates on point, something this team will need on the defensive end. Hill is limited offensively, but his main contributions should come from second chance opportunities and cuts to the rim. Hill has shown some improved footwork this preseason, and if he keeps working on his 12-foot jumper, his offensive game will jump through the roof.

Sacre likely won't have much of a role on this squad other than being a team guy that works hard in practice and pushes guys to give their all. He did show some talent last season, but hopefully the injury bug won't force regular minutes out of Sacre. If it does come to that, he is a pretty good defender and rebounder, and he can hit some baseline jumpers.

Lastly, there are two new rookies on the Lakers, Elias Harris and Ryan Kelly.

I know absolutely nothing about Harris other than the fact that Anthony Randolph dunked on him in the preseason. He is a a 6'8" 239 pound forward, that is all I know. Expect him to ride the pine.

Kelly may have some promise under D'Antoni. Kelly is a 6'11" 230 pound stretch four who can shoot the lights out. Kelly may get some run in the second unit, but I'm assuming his minutes will be quite limited this season. If Kelly gleans some of Gasol's post game, he could be a lethal offensive threat in due time.

Overall, the Lakers have some very promising offensive weapons and a deep bench. With multiple shooters and ball handlers, D'Antoni should be able to crank up the offense into overdrive, and this team should average somewhere in the 104-108 point range.

You have likely noticed that I haven't mentioned much of anything regarding defense. Well, there's a reason for that, simply put, the Lakers are going to be terrible on defense. This team is not built to stop people, and with D'Antoni at the helm, they are obviously built to outscore teams rather than play sound defense. Nash will give up penetration on just about every possession, and Gasol isn't exactly a formidable defender in the paint that is going to clean up mistakes.

Fortunately, the Lakers have shown in the preseason that they are at least committed to rotating, closing out, and playing hard on defense, something that the team lacked last season. With athletic wings, this team will likely gamble in the passing lanes in an effort to accumulate turnovers and easy fast break points. Opposing teams will destroy the Lakers with easy looks at the basket, but that is a given considering the makeup of the squad.

The bench unit may thrive defensively with Blake, Henry, and Hill, but other than those three players, defense will not be a strong suit. There is some promise due to the athleticism of Young, Johnson, Meeks, Farmar, and Williams, but I wouldn't exactly count upon a D'Antoni led squad to develop those guys into strong defenders.

Given the defensive makeup of the squad, expect the Lakers to push the tempo in an attempt to increase the number of possessions, and in turn, increase the amount of three pointers taken in order to compensate for the amount of easy field goals they are likely to give up.

Overall, the 2013 season is likely to be much more enjoyable than the previous one. The Lakers will be fast paced for the first time since the days of Magic and company. Three pointers will splash through the net regularly, and some fast break dunks might even be in the mix. There will be some cooky moments from the likes of Young and Farmar, and Nash and Gasol are sure to show their age at times, but overall, the season should be entertaining. If these 2013 Lakers can resemble those mid-2000's Suns teams, what's not to like?

Although the Lakers are unlikely to contend for a championship, the opportunity to play without championship expectations — a pressure that absolutely demolished last season's squad  may give the squad an enduring appeal. Remember how fun it was rooting for Bryant to lead the underdog 2005-06 Lakers against Nash and the Suns? While that series didn't turn out the way Lakers fans wanted, it sure was exhilarating to watch that series go to seven games.

Imagine if the Lakers pull off a first round upset this season, with this squad, and possibly against the Howard led Rockets. Tell me that wouldn't be a successful season. Just try.

So here's to the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers. Overwhelming championship expectations are out the window, and in its place is a freewheeling, gunslinging, entertaining squad. Isn't that what the organization wanted when they hired D'Antoni? Such a plan has come to fruition, and now it is time to see how it all plays out.

And hey, if the season goes down in flames, there's always the loaded 2014 NBA draft.