Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the Los Angeles Lakers, who are title – like, now – or bust.
The Lakers are built to win now. Hopefully now. Definitely built to win a few years ago. Maybe built to win next year. Beyond that: not so much. When you bring in a 38-year-old point guard to complement your 34-year-old franchise player – no matter how improbably that point guard seems to defy aging – you are playing for the present, even if you acquire a 26-year-old superstar center for good measure. If the Lakers don’t win a title in the next two years, when Steve Nash will be 40 and Kobe might retire, the team’s offseason bonanza will be a failure. And the bad news for the Lakers:
It’s going to be really damn hard to win a title over the next two years.
The Lakers’ top four players – Kobe, Dwight Howard, Nash, Pau Gasol – constitute about as talented a quartet as any NBA team has ever featured. But the Lakers, as you know, aren’t the only team in the NBA with tons of talent at the top of the roster. They’re not the only team in the conference with tons of talent at the top of the roster. The Thunder are deeper, and they’ve been together longer, so we know how the pieces fit. They’ve been to the Finals already, and all their building blocks are still young. They’re a team built for the present and the future. The route to the Finals in the Western Conference still leads through OKC, and it’s a road the Lakers don’t have much time to navigate.
About the pieces fitting together: we have no idea how they will. Nash is more of a distributor than a scorer and is distributing to the most talented group he’s ever been around. He should be fine (again, as long as the cumulative effects of aging don’t suddenly hit him all at once). And Gasol’s used to not being the No. 1 scoring option from playing the last several years with Kobe. But Kobe and Howard – those are two big-time players, and big personalities. The Magic were built around Howard. The Lakers aren’t built around him in nearly the same way.
Kobe’s a little past his prime, but he’s still one of the best players in the league, and he’s still going to want to be the top dog. Howard’s going to want touches. Gasol’s still going to want his share. And Nash is such an efficient shooter that he’d be doing the Lakers a disservice if he didn’t shoot his share of times. If anyone can make this show work, it’s him, but there’s no guarantee this experiment will run smoothly. (The Lakers’ 0-7 start this preseason, even though you can basically throw it out since it’s the preseason and they gave their top guys tons of rest, gives doubters a bit of fuel.) And if even if it does run smoothly eventually…
It’s going to take time.
Time, again, that the Lakers don’t really have. They’ll be able to overwhelm most of their opponents with the sheer talent of their best players. In the playoffs? Things’ll get a little tougher. We know that thanks in part to the Heat, who struggled early in LeBron’s first season with the team, then fell apart when it counted most against the Mavs in the Finals. They didn’t really figure things out until this past season. The Lakers had better not take any longer to gel than the Heat did – and if they make it work, they’ll have to beat those same Heat, led by a LeBron at the peak of his powers, to win that elusive title. That’s a ton to ask even of the team the Lakers put together this summer.
And behind that partly-aging top four, the Lakers have… not a ton. Steve Blake and Chris Duhon are serviceable backcourt backups, but Jodie Meeks is no Kobe (not that almost anyone is). If Kobe misses any time (and he did miss eight games last season), the Lakers are thin behind him. And their frontcourt depth is pretty much “Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison” – hey, speaking of “win now,” Jamison’s 36. Also, Jamison’s not really a post player, so he’s probably better seen as a backup to Metta World Peace than the Gasol/Howard tandem. The Lakers will hope for the best, health-wise. To do what they’re hoping to do, they desperately need it.
One reason you might not be screwed: Come on, these guys are on the same team.
The collection of talent Mitch Kupchak assembled is irresistible. If the pieces fit, the Lakers are going to be almost unbeatable. How could the prospect of Kobe and Howard and Gasol coming at you, with Nash masterfully orchestrating, not scare the crap out of pretty much any team – the “using LeBron as a power forward” Heat included? The Lakers might not win a title. Winning a title is really hard. But even if they don’t, it was worth a shot to put a team like this together. Call it a noble experiment – and there’s a real chance it could be a spectacularly successful one.
Actual season prediction: 63-19, first in the West. Will they be a cohesive enough group – and will Kobe have enough left in his legs – to dethrone the Thunder and the Heat come playoff time? To be continued.
Photos via Getty