ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: It was supposed to be yet another year spent contending for a championship for a storied Lakers franchise that already has 16 of them. L.A. loaded up with free agent talent in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and was on paper the team most believed would stand in the way of a second straight Miami Heat title.

Instead, it was a season full of drama and disaster. The Lakers were decimated by injuries to nearly anyone that mattered, Howard struggled to embrace head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and playing alongside Kobe Bryant, and the team snuck into the playoffs only to be swept in the first round by the Spurs.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Bryant went down with a torn Achilles injury near the end of last season that will have a lingering effect on the team entering this one.

Signature highlight from last season: Bryant’s Achilles injury and subsequent free throws that helped give the Lakers a much-needed late season win to keep their playoff hopes alive was a candidate here, as was Steve Nash, literally the best teammate in the game, losing his temper Dwight Howard. But those were both bummers for Lakers fans, so instead let’s revisit some vintage Bryant heroics during one of the team’s most exciting wins of the year.

Key player changes: The loss of Dwight Howard in free agency immediately dropped the Lakers out of championship contention in the eyes of most pundits. But L.A. did a nice job of adding talented role players at below market value to support the stars still in place on the roster.

  • IN: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and Wesley Johnson were all signed to guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season.
  • OUT: Dwight Howard choose to sign in Houston in free agency; Earl Clark did the same with the Cavaliers, as did Antawn Jamison, now with the Clippers. Metta World Peace was waived using the amnesty provision, and was picked up by the Knicks. Other seldom-used players who are no longer Lakers: Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks.

Keys to the Lakers season:

1) The health of Kobe Bryant: Recovering from an injury as severe as a torn Achilles is no small task, even for someone with a ruthless work ethic and insanely high pain tolerance as Kobe Bryant. While his rehabilitation appears to be going well and Bryant has said that he’s ahead of schedule, the timing of his return isn’t nearly as important as the quality of his play whenever he does see the court this season for the first time.

Assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, with the latter playing in a contract year as the featured big man in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, there is still legitimate star power on the Lakers roster beyond whatever Bryant brings. He puts the team over the top, however, in terms of having enough talent to do real damage — but only if he’s back playing close to the level we’ve come to expect, at least for the majority of the season.

2) Pau Gasol returning to All-Star form: Ever since coming to the Lakers via trade during the 2008 season, Gasol has been the one who largely was blamed publicly when things weren’t right with the team. He’s been the constant subject of trade rumors, and due to a variety of factors, many thought it was a long shot that he’d even be back with the Lakers this season.

Gasol appears healthy now, and after being marginalized in favor of Dwight Howard, D’Antoni has spent every opportunity praising Gasol’s abilities, and seems genuinely excited about being able to feature him in the offense. There should be a monster year on the horizon for the Spaniard, and depending on what version of Bryant we see, Gasol’s return to form could help the Lakers overachieve by most people’s standards.

On the flip side, Gasol is in the final year of his contract, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he stumbles at all or the team doesn’t produce wins in spite of his stellar play, the Lakers could look to dump him at the trade deadline in order to make sure they get something in return for a player of his caliber. A lot will hinge on Gasol’s play this season, both in terms of the team’s fortunes, as well as what the future may hold for him personally.

3) One word — Defense: The good news for the Lakers is that Mike D’Antoni has had a full training camp to put in his offense, and the Lakers have added players like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar who should thrive in his system while having no trouble putting up big numbers.

But D’antoni teams have never been known for their lock-down defense, and the personnel in place this year looks to be woefully inadequate on that end of the floor. Nash, Young, and Chris Kaman have a history of struggling defensively, yet all are expected to play big minutes this season. Bryant has proven he can play above average defense over the years, but was dreadful there a season ago, largely by personal choice.

These Lakers don’t have quite enough firepower to outscore teams, and don’t have nearly enough defensively to shut their opponents down for extended stretches .That middle ground is likely going to be troublesome to escape, and along with the uncertainty surrounding Bryant, it’s the primary reason that most have the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs.

Why you should watch: Well, the first reason is you won’t have much of a choice — the Lakers will be on national television 29 times. Beyond that, the intrigue surrounding how Bryant returns, what Nash has left to give in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, and what ends up happening with Gasol are each reasons on their own, and combined they’ll make the Lakers as interesting as usual.

Prediction: 46-36, one more regular season win than last year’s supposed world-beater squad, and enough to secure one of the final two playoff spots in the West.

Look, there are six teams that are essentially guaranteed to make the postseason in the Western Conference, which only leaves two spots up for grabs. There are a lot of “ifs” surrounding this Lakers team, but I’m taking the optimistic approach on Kobe’s health and the overall team talent being enough to finish in seventh or eighth place when the regular season is finished.

Rudy Gobert says France’s bronze medal ‘means everything’

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Some countries, like the United States, don’t really care about the World Cup. The 2019 FIBA World Cup in China was perhaps evidence of that, with Team USA not even bothering to medal.

For countries like France and players like Rudy Gobert, the World Cup is a chance to show that their nation is one that is coming forth as a place to be reckoned with when it comes to basketball development.

France recently took home third place in the 2019 Cup, and for that the Utah Jazz center was grateful. Speaking to reporters after their win over Australia, Gobert said that grabbing the bronze “means everything” to him and to France.

Via Twitter:

That’s some pretty moving stuff from a guy in Gobert who we know is someone who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

Bernie Sanders says LeBron James is the GOAT over Michael Jordan (VIDEO)

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Everyone has an opinion about who is the greatest player of all time between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Most folks still seem to pick Jordan, although it’s been hard to argue with the type of player that James is in a vacuum outside of measurements like championship rings.

In any case, we now have one more person who has tossed their opinion into the ring of public consciousness. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has now said that he believes that LeBron is the GOAT thanks to his public service.

Via Twitter:

“I think LeBron has been willing to do what a lot of athletes are not and get involved in the political process, put money into education, and I respect that.”

James has certainly done a lot politically, socially, and as an activist. He’s supported things like entire schools, and he’s been on the bleeding edge of NBA activism against things like police brutality.

Jordan has also done his part, including a recent pledge for $1 million in funds to aid Bahamanian hurricane relief. Folks like to bag on MJ for his purported “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment, but it’s unclear whether he actually ever said or felt that.

In either case, it appears that we know who Sanders thinks is the GOAT. Next someone should ask Elizabeth Warren if she would have taken Kobe or Shaq in 2004.

Watch Zion Williamson snap the head off a golf club (VIDEO)

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As any good golfer can tell you, the key to getting a pure ball flight is figuring out the idea of compression. Instead of scooping the ball off the ground, the idea is to hit the ball first and use the ground to compress the dimpled object between the earth and the clubface.

And while New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson probably isn’t concentrating on his golf game heading into his first NBA season, it looks like the idea of compression isn’t lost on him.

As the Pelicans held a golf event this week, Williamson was filmed snapping the head off of an iron while taking a shot off the tee box.

Via Twitter:

It’s hard to tell from this angle, but it looks like Williamson has a pretty solid swing. I’m extremely jealous of the amount of lag he has at the return parallel position on the downswing.

Someone get this guy a stiffer shaft or something. I can only imagine the kind of havoc Williamson is going to inflict on NBA rims this year if this is how the man golfs.

James Harden on Russell Westbrook pairing: ‘We’ll figure it out’

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There has been some doubt that James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be able to fit together with the Houston Rockets this season. Both players have matured quite a bit since their time together in Oklahoma City with the Thunder, and now there are real questions about Westbrook’s ability to fit next to just about anyone.

Like Westbrook, Harden is a ball-dominant guard, and we still don’t know the long-term plan for Coach Mike D’Antoni. Houston has real championship hopes, but they could also look much different in a year or two.

Still, Harden and Westbrook have known each other since they were 10 years old. They grew up together in Los Angeles, and are at least very good friends. To that end, Harden says that he believes they will be able to figure it out even if the first year together has bumps along the way.

Via GQ:

It’s like, yo, we’ll figure it out. Everything isn’t necessarily going to be smooth at first, there are going to be ups and downs, and that’s part of an 82-game season. Hopefully by the end of the season, we’ve caught a rhythm and everybody is on the same page going into the playoffs. That’s all you can ask for.

That’s a pretty reasonable outlook to have at this juncture. The NBA is constantly changing, and it’s possible that these two guys could have such a personal connection that their on-court conflicts end up being negligible.

It’s another new era in Houston as they try to capitalize on the Golden State Warriors’ injury issues.