To say last season was a disappointment for the Lakers would be an understatement. The trades for All-Star and arguably the best center in basketball Dwight Howard and multiple time MVP winner Steve Nash led many to forecast another championship banner for one of the cornerstone franchises in the league. Pairing Howard and Nash with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol appeared to make this team a “superteam” to go up against the Heat. However, Nash got hurt early on in the season and it affected the flow of the offense. Head Coach Mike Brown was fired just five games in, whether that was fair or not is debatable, and after flirting with Phil Jackson, Mike D’Antoni was brought in to turn the team around. For a while it appeared that he had done just that, and then Gasol got hurt. Even though Kobe lead the team during quite possibly his best overall season as a professional and got them into the playoffs as an eighth seed, Howard hurt his back and was relatively ineffective and Kobe tore his Achilles tendon.
After the letdown the team experienced during his one season in Los Angeles under his existing contract, individually Howard played well during the regular season averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds per game, he became a free agent. The Lakers made a strong push to keep him in town, but Howard wound up choosing the young, up and coming Houston Rockets as his new team. This move leaves the Lakers searching for the pillar of the franchise going forward as Pau Gasol will become a free agent while Kobe and Nash are only getting older.
This season Kobe will have one of his biggest challenges since the tough 2005-06 when he put the team on his back and remarkably carried them to eight games over five hundred and a first round playoff loss to the Suns. The injury to his Achilles may or may not be completely healed, but he has been working his way to playing game one of the regular season. Coming back so soon from an injury that can be tricky to rehabilitate is a risky decision, but the Lakers will need him to come close to reaching the playoffs. On the court, it’s safe to say we all know what to expect from one of the best players in league history. A great scorer and one of the most intense competitors in any sport, not just basketball. If he is healthy you cannot count this team out. If he comes back too soon and re-injures himself, it could be disastrous.
Gasol is back on the court and played during the Lakers’ first preseason game, a loss to the Sacramento Kings. He is obviously another major piece in the lineup for this Lakers team. His great versatility on the offensive end cannot be overstated. He has the ability to make a variety of strong post moves due to his legitimate seven foot size and surprising strength. There is decent range to his game as well, with an ability to stretch out past the top of the key, and while he may not shoot many threes, he will put one up here and there. He has an incredible passing ability for a player his size, being one of the best passing centers in the history of the NBA. Defensively he is very good as well, with an ability to rebound and protect the rim. Given those great talents from a future Hall of Famer it is surprising how bad he has played at times during the past two seasons. After the championship win in 2010, Gasol seemed to be timid and anything but his physical self during the 2010-11 season. Last year he was hampered by multiple injuries. The narrative for this year’s edition of the Lakers rolls on. Can he stay healthy and play up to his previous great level or will he continue the disappointment of the past few years.
Steve Nash is the final of the “stars” remaining on the roster. He was once the best point guard in the league, winning two MVP awards while running the Phoenix Suns’ up tempo offensive under current Lakers Head Coach D’Antoni. Age and injuries have worn him down however, and there is a justifiable question of how well he will play this season for the Lakers. Backup Steve Blake has shown himself capable of running a team and playing well for spurts during the season, but with all due respect to him, he is not the player that Nash has been and could still be. Nash played during the preseason opener as well, but just 8 minutes. This is obviously a precautionary measure to keep him healthy for when the games actually count, but he could use the time on the court to shake some rust off after missing the time he did last season. He will be counted to run this team on the floor and be the great facilitator he has been during his career.
Young center Jordan Hill is a potential breakout player in Los Angeles this season. He has the potential to be a very a good rebounder when he is on the court, with a per 36 minute average of 13 per game last season. However, he only played 29 games due to yet another injury for this Laker team. If he is ever going to live up to being the eighth overall pick in the draft, Hill needs to stay healthy and on the floor. Jordan Farmar is back in LA after playing overseas and also for the Nets. Farmar could be a serviceable backup to Nash as well, and with the previously mentioned injury problems could see plenty of playing time this year.
One newcomer that could have a fairly large impact on the team this year is Nick Young. After six up and down seasons for three different teams, Young has a chance to make an impact due to Kobe’s injury. There is no expectation for him to be anything close to the player that Bryant has been over his career, but playing and learning alongside someone like him could have a great effect on a young shooting guard like Young. He is potentially a lethal scorer with range out to the three point line and the ability to finish at the rim with his athletic ability. If Young can refine his game and take the mentoring that Kobe can offer, this will be a great landing spot for him to finally live up to the potential that was seen in him while at USC.
The only other true veteran on the roster is Chris Kaman, another older player headed towards the end of his career. Kaman was once a very good center in the league for the other team in L.A., the Clippers. He has a good offensive game in the post to go along with rebounding and shot blocking ability. If this move was made five or six years ago, the Lakers would have a potent one two punch on the block with Gasol and Kaman. However, time has worn on Kaman as it does on everyone. There is still something left in the tank for him, or else he wouldn’t have been brought in, but exactly how much is an unknown.
In the end, the success this season for the Lakers will come down to health and if their stars can stay on the floor for not only the majority of the regular season to get them to the playoffs, but also perform during the postseason and get them past the first round. If Kobe, Gasol, and Nash are healthy and play at the level we have seen from them before, they could find themselves in the one of the final three playoff spots and be a threat to take down one of the higher seeded favorites. In the worst case scenario of Kobe’s Achilles not healing fully forcing him to miss a portion of the season, Nash still being hampered by his bad back and other various ailments, and Gasol not finding his dominating self, the unthinkable may happen; a lottery pick for the 16 time world champions. Keep your fingers crossed that the fountain of youth is in southern California, Lakers fans, or you may be reading up on the potentially great draft class coming up for 2014.