Hi! How Was Your Summer? L.A. Lakers

2012-13 W-L: 45-37

New Faces: Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmer, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams

New Places: Dwight Howard (Houston), Metta World Peace (New York), Antawn Jamison (L.A. Clippers), Earl Clark (Cleveland), Chris Duhon (Free Agent), Devin Ebanks (Free Agent), Andrew Goudelock (Russia)

Draft: Ryan Kelly (48), Elias Harris (Undrafted)

Heading into last season, experts everywhere were predicting that Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard would turn into the best one-two punch in the league and ultimately lead the Lakers back to the promised land, en route to the hanging of banner number 17. But it was soon evident that they were all wrong. Very wrong. Not only that, but heading into the final 40-something games of the season, the Lakers were on the brink of missing out on the Playoffs – something that hasn’t happened in Tinseltown since Kobe went one-on-five against every team in the league for 66 games in 2004-2005.

To put it kindly, the Lakers were a walking nightmare last season, but the basketball gods sure weren’t kind to them. Had they not had to deal with a ton of injuries to key players like Kobe, Nash, Dwight and Pau, they could very well have competed for home-court advantage in the post-season, since they finished the season on an impressive 28-12 note. But hindsight is 20/20 and there’s no going back. However, this season could very well be a repeat of the one that has just past. Except this time, they’ll have to do without a seven-time all-star manning the paint, which is quite the void to fill.

The biggest question mark as of right now is Kobe. Had he not torn his Achilles with two games remaining on last seasons schedule, we’d be looking at the Lakers’ situation a bit differently. But the reality is, a torn Achilles is an injury that has derailed many careers over the last few years. Just take a look at Elton Brand, Chauncey Billups or Mehmet Okur. Kobe isn’t quite like those guys, though, in that he has that Adrian Peterson gene in him – you know, the one that makes severe injuries look like water off of a duck’s back – but there is obviously room for concern. The good news it that throughout the entire summer, reports have been popping up all over the place saying that he’s progressed much quicker than anyone had anticipated and could even be ready for the season opener. Lakers fans shouldn’t hold their breath, though, because without Kobe, they are a lottery team. All they need is for a healthy Kobe to play 60-odd games and they should be able to keep their heads above water, because even if he is a step slow, he’ll still be strong and nimble enough to go to work in the post, and that feathery jump-shot will always give defenses fits.

But the person who may face the most pressure this season isn’t the Black Mamba; it’s Pau Gasol, as he’ll be the one expected to pick up all the slack. After all, even though Kobe is getting paid an extortionate amount of money for his services this year, he is recovering from a pretty devastating injury. If he comes out the gates slow, people won’t make his life living hell. Pau on the other hand, is faced with a different kettle of fish. But now that Dwight isn’t packing the paint, Pau should be able to revert back to his old ways, which means he can be the one-in on the four-out. So the days of him hanging around the top of the key, launching jump-shot after jump-shot or playing facilitator for the rest of the starting lineup are over. Or at least I hope they are. The Lakers may very well put Pau on the trading block from the get-go (like every season), but it’s a contract year for him and I’m sure he’d like another big payday before he hangs up his sneakers for good. So expect big things from the Spaniard.

So that’s the positive part out of the way. Now, onto the bad.

While the front office brought in many new faces this off-season, none of them have the potential to turn the team around. Three years ago, Chris Kaman could’ve been the man for the job, but thanks to all the injuries he has sustained since then, he’s a shell of the all-star he once was and is now as brittle as a stick. To add to all that, he’s not the defender that he used to be, and I’m struggling to see how he’ll fit into D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense. Nevertheless, he’s a big body and has a lot of experience, which is more than what Robert Sacre can bring to the table, I can assure you that.

To make up for the loss of Metta World Peace, Mitch Kupchak chose to go down the “surround Kobe with a load of shooters” route by acquiring Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly. But really, that’s all they are – jump-shooters. Without Kobe breaking down the defense or Pau demanding a double team, it’s unlikely that any of them will get the space and looks needed to be effective. So they’ll go as Kobe and Pau go.

They do have one new guy on the block who can fill it up, though, and he is the infamous Nick Young.

While Young is grade ‘A’ chucker who’s spent most of his career being the butt of all jokes, he could very well have a career year with the Lakers, mainly because he’s got to answer to Kobe, who is known to expect nothing but the best from his teammates. Sure, he’ll still make some boneheaded decisions and will take shots that will leave you scratching your head, but with Kobe breathing down his neck, expect a little less of those, and instead, some more points and a slightly higher shooting percentage. If he can accomplish that, there is no reason why he can’t turn into a very solid role player on this Lakers squad. If he can’t, well, we may as well all lose hope because he’s 28 years old and will likely never learn.

There is just one more problem, though, and that is defense. Even with Dwight Howard – a three time defensive player of the year – and Metta World Peace – a one time defensive player of the year – last season, the Lakers ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. So by taking those two out of the picture and replacing them with the likes of Kaman, Young and Williams, things could get very ugly on the side of the floor that D’Antoni has been accused of neglecting over the years. Put it this way: who are Nash, Kobe, Young, Gasol and Kaman going to stop from scoring? The Thunder? The Heat? The Rockets? The answer is no one; none of the above. And unless Dwight has a change of heart and goes back to L.A. before the season opener, the Lakers won’t solve that problem this year. (Don’t worry, Dwight can’t change his mind this time round).

After everything that happened to the Lakers this summer, ESPN has penciled them in for the 12th seed in the Western Conference, putting them way out of the Playoff race. If that holds true, it will be only the sixth time in their storied franchise history that they’ll miss out on post-season basketball. If everything goes pear-shaped like it did last season, it’s easy to see why they’d be in that position by the time April rolls around. However, they could also find themselves fighting for one of the bottom two seeds if everything goes to plan. And that plan is: Kobe comes back as Kobe, Pau has an all-star caliber of a season, Kaman plays more than 60 games, Nash keeps the defense honest, and Young screws his head on really, really tight. That’s a lot to ask, though, and the safe money is on them just missing the Playoffs.

That is, if you are prepared to count out Kobe.

Scott Rafferty