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.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.