The success of the Lakers’ upcoming season, which begins at the end of October and runs until June, centers on the shoulders of 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
They were never on the court at the same time last season, when the Lakers made a surprising run into the NBA Finals, only to be beaten by the Boston Celtics.
Since Bynum’s return from a knee injury, Gasol has moved to power forward, and now we’ll find out if they’ll overpower the opposition, or have trouble functioning together.
The plot thickens when Lamar Odom is factored in. He’s unlikely to succeed at small forward, so he’ll probably become a reserve – but will he be happy with that?
And then there’s Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s MVP. Nobody questions his ability, but a significant injury could change everything. Bryant played all summer for the victorious U.S. Olympic team, but his recent minor knee injury brought to the forefront the reality that he’s advancing in years, and still playing a lot of minutes. Can Kobe handle another 82 games, plus playoffs?
No doubt the Lakers are a good team that will win a lot of games this season. That’s almost guaranteed because a growing list of NBA teams are pretty weak, a result of league rules that permit clubs to drop high-salaried players for little in return. Moves such as this allow teams to move far beneath the league’s salary cap in order to sign free agents, but the process takes many years. For example: the Lakers acquired Gasol last season from Memphis when they needed a replacement for Bynum but didn’t have to trade a player of comparable value.
Teams like Memphis, Charlotte, Oklahoma City (formerly Seattle) and half dozen others simply aren’t competitive. Forget how the Lakers fared against these weaker opponents, and concentrate on how they’ll do against better teams, especially eager Western Conference foes like New Orleans, San Antonio, Utah, Houston (which acquired Ron Artest), Phoenix, and Dallas.
In my research during the just-completed exhibition period, in which the Lakers went 6-2, almost everyone agreed that the Lakers will be a championship contender, but half the players, club officials and writers I contacted wondered if Bynum and Gasol can be dominate enough against quality teams to win a championship. Some also question if they’ll hold up over the marathon NBA schedule. Other still wonder if opposing coaches will neutralize them by using small lineups, forcing the big guys to run, run, and run some more.
A few even say some opponents can match up with their own power duos, such as Portland with Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge.
A goal of the Lakers’ exhibition period was to impress upon the youthful Bynum the importance of running back hard on defense. So far he’s been slow to grasp the concept.
Another factor works in the Lakers’ favor: Hall Of Fame coach Phil Jackson developed a productive reserve corps last season, with Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic leading a second unit that increased the tempo and built leads. Vujacic was injured during the Lakers’ exhibition period, but Farmar and Trevor Ariza produced the same results. A motivated Odom would make this already strong group even better.
However, nobody has yet claimed the starting small forward position. Will it be Vladamir Radmanovic (shooter), Ariza (defender), Luke Walton (savvy), or would Bryant move there? Or would Odom turn out to be the best solution after all?
In last season’s playoff finals, the Lakers couldn’t cope with the Celtics’ physical play. Boston was dominant inside, and that’s where many NBA games are won.
As a result, the Lakers decided not to match Golden State’s summer offer to the energetic Rony Turiaf, who didn’t rebound effectively in the season’s most important games. By contrast, the Lakers did match an offer to retain Vujacic, an outside marksman and improved defender, but not someone who will help with rebounding.
The Lakers are hoping that Josh Powell, who was with the Clippers last season, can be this year’s version of Turiaf. But it’s not certain Powell will make the team.
Fans are quite interested. Even in this tough economy, 99 percent of Laker season ticket holders renewed.
Looking ahead, Bryant will be eligible to opt out of his contract next summer, and Odom’s pact will expire, with little chance he’ll be brought back. The Lakers will have to pay Bynum around $80 million for the next five years, but they expect the investment to be wise.