NBA season preview: L.A. Lakers

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Last Season: Failure. For a team that measures success in terms of championships, especially when it has enough talent on paper to compete at that level, 2012 just wasn’t good enough.

The Lakers struggled with depth and exited the playoffs in the second round for the second straight year, this time to a younger, more athletic, and more explosive Oklahoma City Thunder squad. This came after going a longer-than-planned seven games in the first round against a talented, yet inexperienced Nuggets team that shouldn’t have been able to push L.A. that far.

Key Departures: There were departures, though not many close observers of this Lakers team would choose the word “key” to describe them. Ramon Sessions departed for a bigger role in Charlotte, Matt Barnes switched to the less glamorous locker room down the Staples Center hallway, Josh McRoberts is now in Orlando, and Troy Murphy is just gone.

The Lakers did, of course, lose their All-Star center from a season ago in Andrew Bynum, but they acquired a replacement whom they hope will be one of the keys to returning to championship relevance.

Key Additions: Here’s where things start to get interesting. L.A. helped end our long national Dwightmare by trading for one of the game’s top-five players in Dwight Howard, giving up Bynum in the process. Howard for Bynum on its own is an improvement on paper, but not one large enough to tilt the championship odds immediately in the Lakers’ favor. The acquisition of Steve Nash, however — a two-time MVP, a master conductor of the offense and one of the game’s best shooters — might have done exactly that.

Antawn Jamison was added for some scoring assistance off the bench, and backup two-guard Jodie Meeks should provide some productivity when Kobe Bryant is getting some rest.

Three keys to the Lakers season:

1) Kobe thriving without the ball in his hands: Nash is one of the best point guards in the game, but to do what he does best, he’ll need the ball to open possessions. With Howard and Pau Gasol on the floor at the same time, there should be a number of successful offensive possessions where Bryant doesn’t even see the basketball. Obviously, this will be a major adjustment. Will Bryant choose to adapt to the new offense — one that, much like the Triangle, features motion and multiple options at every turn — or will he resist and revert to old habits of forcing isolation situations with the shot clock winding down, while his teammates stand around and watch? There’s a time for that, certainly, but with all of the weapons on this year’s roster, those situations should be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself.

2) Will the bench be enough? A starting five featuring Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, and Metta World Peace should provide plenty of punch on both sides of the ball to win on most nights. But regular season achievements are not why this core was assembled, nor will finishing the regular season with the league’s best record mean anything if the starters are gassed for the playoffs. Bryant and Nash need to save themselves somewhat for the postseason, and limiting their minutes will only be possible if the bench doesn’t blow huge leads which force the team’s veteran stars to sub back in early in the fourth quarters of games which should have already been decided.

3) The correct utilization of Pau Gasol: From a numbers standpoint, Gasol appeared to be every bit as effective as he’d been in his seasons in L.A. that resulted in championships. But to those who watched the majority of the team’s contests, Gasol seemed uncomfortable, under-utilized, and out of place in head coach Mike Brown’s attempt at an offense.

The Lakers need to find a way to maximize Gasol’s talents, and the new Princeton offense that the team is implementing this season should go a long way in doing so. Gasol has great court awareness and is able to make the smart pass, but is also a deft scorer — both on the low block, and from mid-range distance on the perimeter. The team needs to recognize this, and perhaps watch some film of the gold medal game of this past summer’s Olympics to truly see what a force Gasol can be when given the right opportunities.

What Lakers fans should fear: Two words: Mike Brown. L.A.’s head coach used the lockout-shortened season as a constant excuse last year, lamenting the lack of practice time available for him to get his new systems installed. Well, no such excuse will be available this season, as Brown has had all summer and a full training camp to design and implement sets which will maximize his team’s talents.

The team added former NBA head coaches in Eddie Jordan and Bernie Bickerstaff to assist Brown, who has always been described as a defense-first coach. If the defense is top-five in the league, that’s great. But last year’s Lakers were middle-of-the-pack defensively, and the offense never gained the necessary cohesion to contend deep into the postseason. With all of the talent assembled for the 2012-13 run, the blame will undoubtedly fall on Brown’s shoulders if he’s unable to bring this group to the level of champions.

Prediction: Dwight Howard is an upgrade over Andrew Bynum, but the basketball IQ and shooting prowess of Steve Nash is what pushes this team over the top. Anyone predicting anything other than a trip to the Finals for this stacked Lakers squad is being delusional at worst, or contrarian at best. The Thunder return essentially all of their important pieces, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be waiting in the East. But the amount of talent in the Lakers’ starting lineup is too much to dismiss, and they should ultimately take home the title if things go anywhere near as planned.

Steve Alford: LaVar Ball never meddled with UCLA Basketball

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Is LaVar Ball just a harmless loudmouth, or will he actually undermine the team that drafts his son, highly touted guard Lonzo Ball?

The Lakers, who hold the No. 2 pick, are the most likely team to find out.

President Magic Johnson said LaVar won’t affect whether they draft Lonzo, but coach Luke Walton wants the team to ask UCLA coach Steve Alford about LaVar’s involvement.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times did just that:

Was LaVar Ball around the team much?

“Zero,” Alford said.

Was he ever at practice?

“Never at practice,” Alford said. “Never at practice; never called me.”

Did he ever try to meddle in your coaching?

“Never,” Alford said.

LaVar has said his other sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, will play for UCLA. So, Alford has incentive to maintain a productive working relationship with LaVar. The players’ high school coach had a much worse experience dealing with LaVar.

Alford vouching for LaVar means something, but the total picture is more complex.

Still, LaVar would hardly be the first difficult parent of an NBA player. He’s just the most public. Even if he’d try to meddle into the Lakers, they might be willing to handle that to get his talented son.

John Wall: Bench was Wizards’ ‘downfall’

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John Wall left the Wizards’ season-ending loss to the Celtics talking about how badly Washington’s bench got outscored.

Now that he has time to reflect and isn’t just speaking with raw emotion shortly after a devastating loss, how does he feel?

Wall, via CSN Mid-Atlantic

“We need to help our bench,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “Just to be honest, that was our downfall in each series that we had in the [Eastern Conference] semifinals, our bench got out played.”

It starts from upstairs – just building the right bench guys and building the chemistry. That’s all it is.

I think that’s where they won the game at. I heard Marcus Smart say after the game that I had no legs. He’s basically right. I don’t make excuses. I’m going to play. If I miss shots or make shots, I’ll live with it. I know people will say he finished oh for 11, but I play – I took everything I had in me to keep fighting.

It’s just that their bench guys came in and played well. I think Kelly Oubre could’ve played a little bit more. I wish he would’ve played a little more than Jason. But coach makes the decision, and we stick behind him 100 percent. I feel like those two guys could have really helped us.

Wall – eligible for a designated-veteran-player extension but reportedly unsure about signing one – is clearly telling the Wizards what he wants. Marcin Gortat similarly criticized Washington’s bench earlier in the season, and he apologized. Wall has the leverage not to stand by his assessment.

Both Wall and Gortat were right. The Wizards’ bench was the source of much of their problems.

Washington’s starting lineup outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. Its bench (all other lineups) got outscored 15.5 points per 100 possessions.

Only the Thunder had a similar split in net rating:

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The Wizards knew their flaw and tried to hide it. Washington’s starters played 34.2 minutes per game together in the postseason – second only to the Pacers (34.5). Wall’s heavy workload contributed to him running out of gas late in Game 7 against Boston, which Marcus Smart noted.

What can the Wizards do to upgrade their bench? Spend.

They sound committed to keeping Otto Porter, a restricted free agent this summer. But that would push them near the luxury tax – so they could scrimp on the bench in a variety of ways:

  • Don’t re-sign Bojan Bogdanovic, another restricted free agent. He’s in line for a raise.
  • Trade Marcin Gortat, elevating Ian Mahinmi into the starting lineup and therefore weakening the bench.
  • Trade Jason Smith, who might be expendable at his salary (especially given Wall’s comments about not wanting him to play as much) but at least still provides depth.
  • Don’t use the mid-level exception. That’s Washington’s best mechanism for adding outside help, but it’d be costly.

Will the Wizards take any of those cost-saving measures? Wall is certainly watching.

Don’t like the wait for this year’s Finals? Here’s the top 10 plays from the last two (VIDEO)

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Que the Tom Petty

Nobody is enjoying the week-long break between the end of the Eastern Conference Finals and the start of the NBA Finals (except maybe a few of the older Cavaliers players trying to get healthy). For those of us basketball junkies, we just want to get on to the two best teams in the league battling it out.We need a fix.

Here’s the best we can do today: The top 10 plays from the last two NBA Finals, the last two Cavaliers/Warriors showdowns. Courtesy the folks at NBA.com. There’s plenty of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and a big shot by Kyrie Irving made the list. Enjoy. And just try to be patient.

Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia cleared to play in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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These playoffs, the Golden State Warriors have been 15.4 points per 100 possessions better when Zaza Pachulia is on the court as opposed to on the bench. That’s a bit misleading, the reason for the gaudy number is he rounds out the dominant starting lineup, which has outscored teams by 32.6 points per 100 this postseason (that is actually better than the legendary “death lineup” in these playoffs). Pachulia is just the first big in the rotation with four All-Star, powerhouse players, but he fills his role well.

Pachulia was slowed by a sore right heel against the Spurs but is 100 percent and ready to go for the Finals when they tip-off Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Here are the details via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Zaza Pachulia, the only injured Warrior rotation player late in the Spurs series, has participated in all parts of all three practices, without restriction on that sore right heel. He is on track to start Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday.

“We’ve done running, had scrimmages and he’s done everything,” Mike Brown said.

He will have a crucial role on the glass against the Cavaliers. Cleveland brings two dominant rebounders to the party with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love (plus that LeBron James guy can get some boards), the Warriors will use Pachulia to counter. Before you roll your eyes, he had 13 boards in the second meeting of these teams in the regular season, a blowout Golden State win.

He’s the first big in a rotation of them the Warriors will throw at Cleveland — JaVale McGee may get a little time, but expect a lot of small-ball lineups from the Warriors. If Pachulia can give Golden State a solid 18 minutes a night where he is strong on the glass and helps protect the rim, it will be huge for them.

Pachulia is going to get his shot, he’ll be healthy and ready to go.