Los Angeles Lakers Season Preview

Last Years Record: 57-25
Key Losses: Ronny Turiaf, Ira Newble
Key Additions: Joe Crawford, Josh Powell, Brandon Heath, Sun Yue

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Los Angeles had a relatively quiet summer in terms of personnel moves. Perhaps the most noteworthy action was the lack thereof, particularly as it concerned Lamar Odom and a potential trade for Ron Artest. In general, team management seemed to take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it approach” and did not tamper at all with the core of the lineup that went to the NBA Finals last June.

Probably the most important decision by the club did make was to shell out the money necessary to resign blossoming sharpshooter Sasha Vujacic. Mitch Kupchak and company were fortunate to not lose Vujacic to a European club, as this was a legitimate concern for much of the free-agent period. Bringing back the man who calls himself “The Machine” gives Los Angeles a world-class threat from long distance that can punish teams if they try to clog the lane to deal with the Laker bigs with a zone defense or collapse on a slashing Kobe Bryant.

Though Vujacic is rejoining the self-proclaimed “Bench Mob”, the second unit will feel the loss of Ronny Turiaf’s energy and drive. Truthfully though for all his spirit Turiaf’s actual on-court production of 6.6ppg and 3.9rpg will be seamlessly replaced and given the outrageous offer he received from Golden State, the Lakers to let the fan favourite post to walk.

New additions Crawford, Powell, Heath and Yue will contribute very little after the New Year and will see many a ‘healthy scratch.’

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The Lakers seem to have an embarrassment of riches with the talent on their roster. When a team can legitimately question whether or not to start Lamar Odom, it is a clear sign that the basketball gods have blessed them. It is tempting to suggest that their strength rests on the block, where they can easily trot out a starting lineup that includes two skilled, versatile seven-footers (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol) and a 6’10” small forward in Odom that has lead the team in rebounding the last three seasons. On paper at least, that may be the West’s most formidable frontcourt and has the potential to push the Forum Blue and Gold over the top next June.

That being said, the team’s greatest strength is the fact that their opponent’s do not have Kobe Bryant. Fresh off a gold medal and his first long-overdue MVP, Bryant is the game’s consensus best all-around talent. Defensively he remains among the league’s elite one-on-one defenders, while on offense he is still an assassin with the ability to break a team’s will at a moment’s notice. Bryant’s presence is what makes them a title contender.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
To say last season’s Lakers’ defense was inconsistent is terrifically half-witted. Los Angeles has what may be the league’s best offense, but they learned first hand from the Celtics how a commitment to team defense can lift a team to heights that mere offensive greatness never can. Simply put, the Celtics humiliated the Lakers’ defender throughout the Finals, slashing to the rim at will and beating their defender off the dribble whenever they wished. This extended further to their rebounding, where Boston absolutely had its way with them. If they are to make a return trip to  the NBA FInals this year, they must mentally commit themselves to playing energetic, intelligent defense. There will be games where their shots won’t fall and the Triangle will go stale; it will be moments like those when a commitment to boxing out hard, tracking loose ball and playing tight off-the-ball will carry them. They have the athleticism and speed to lock down other teams if they ever put in the full team effort required. If they do not become more consistent in their willingness to work hard defensively, they have zero shot at achieving their goals

4. What are the goals for this team?

If Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson were to sit down and put together a checklist of goals for this season, their list should look as follows:

a) NBA Championship

b) Nothing else matters

Put simply, there is nothing else. Would first place in the Pacific be nice? Sure, but ultimately it means little. What about finishing first in the conference? Absolutely that would be a welcome achievement. MVP for Bryant? Coach of the Year for Jackson? All-Star trip for Gasol and Bynum? 70 Wins? All of the above would be tremendous. None of it would matter though unless David Stern is to hand Bryant the Larry O’Brien trophy next summer. Championship or bust. The team on the floor warrants such high demands this season.

5. What is the bigger X-Factor: Bynum’s health or Odom’s new role on offense?
The health of Bynum’s knee trumps any other concern for the Lakers this year (unless Bryant were to be seriously injured). Bynum has the size and athleticism to challenge any post in the league if he commits himself. He will bolster their shot blocking as well; something they seriously lacked last year in the playoffs when Gasol and Turiaf were pushed around constantly. Bynum’s return gives them another post scoring option, but more important will be how he impacts their rebounding and general toughness. If he can stay healthy and consistently provide double digit scoring and rebounding, the Lakers will have shored up their lone major flaw.

As for Odom, his role will be significantly less important this year so long as Bynum remains healthy. Anything he is able to provide them with on offense will be a bonus, as he will be no more than their fourth option in the Triangle. Instead, he will primarily be called upon for his defensive length and rebounding instincts. In last year’s playoffs, his rebounding, shooting percentage, steals, and assists all dropped off from the regular season. He will still figure heavily in the Lakers plans, but due to his age, position, and potential, his importance is no where near that of Bynum’s.

Predicted Record: 64-18