ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: The Lakers finished with a record of just 27 wins against 55 losses, and the primary reason for that can be summed up with one word: injuries. L.A. was decimated by them at all positions for most of the year, and saw its players miss an absurd total of 319 games due to them — among the highest recorded in the past 30 years. The team wasn’t going to contend for a title with a roster that dropped off significantly from a talent perspective once you got past Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. But contending for a spot in the playoffs might have been a possibility, had Bryant and Nash managed to appear in more than 21 combined games.

Signature highlight from last season: It was tempting to run this one of Nick Young prematurely celebrating a three-pointer that he ultimately missed, because that’s really the kind of season it was in Los Angeles — embarrassing by the franchise’s lofty standards. But early in the year, before the injuries spun out of control and as the pieces began to fit into place, the Lakers came away with a victory in Houston over a much more talented Rockets team on a three-pointer near the end of regulation from Steve Blake — who was traded to the Warriors later in the season.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Lakers season:

Kobe Bryant: It isn’t only the health of Kobe Bryant, who appeared in just six games for the Lakers last season, that will determine the team’s fate in the upcoming campaign. Merely staying on the court won’t be enough, as the roster construction faces severe challenges on both ends of the floor. In order for L.A. to compete most nights, it will need Bryant to return to an All-Star level, scoring on a consistent yet efficient basis, while being a focal point offensively who can facilitate things on the possessions where he isn’t the one taking the shots. It may be too much to ask at this stage of Bryant’s career to do so much, and once again, the health concern is real after the two major injuries he’s suffered in the last two seasons. But if he can simply be the one who holds it all together, there’s a slim chance this team could exceed expectations.

Byron Scott: L.A. hired Scott as head coach this offseason, after an extensive search that included interviews with candidates that seemed far better suited to lead the team into its long-term future. The reasons given were dubious at best, especially the one about wanting a head coach with a defensive-minded reputation. Scott’s Cavaliers teams, where he coached most recently, were historically bad on the defensive end of the floor, and improved immediately the season after he was gone with Mike Brown hired as his replacement in Cleveland — an uninspiring fact, to say the least. Scott was hired for his ties to the organization, to be someone who understands the championship culture and to remind fans of the team’s storied past. But his decisions thus far have been cause for concern, and coaching as much as anything could be the team’s downfall if the thin level of talent in place isn’t properly utilized.

Defense: The Lakers were 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and despite Scott’s wishes, there isn’t much hope that the team is in a position to greatly improve its ranking. Boozer’s defense has been the biggest weakness in his game, and was exposed even more playing alongside such committed defenders while with the Bulls. Nash has always struggled to contain the other team’s guards, and Bryant, who has historically been able to defend extremely well when focusing his attention there, has been less interested in doing so in recent seasons. With an offense expected to struggle (especially if L.A. chases inefficient midrange shots more than it does three-pointers and shots at the basket), the Lakers aren’t going to be able to outscore very many opponents. Defense will be an important determining factor in the team’s quest for victories, and given the personnel in place, that shouldn’t exactly inspire an outlook here that’s overly-optimistic.

Why you should watch: Kobe Bryant essentially missed all of last season, and is one of the game’s all-time greatest players. He has two years remaining on his contract with the Lakers, and then will likely disappear from the NBA landscape forever. It’s worth tuning in to see the highlights he can still provide, even on a Lakers team that isn’t expected to be very good this season. Oh, and the same goes for Steve Nash, who is similarly in the twilight of his career, and is likely done after this season.

Prediction: If everything were to go perfectly for the Lakers this season, it would still be tough to envision a win total of more than 45 games — and even then, that probably wouldn’t be enough to reach the postseason in a traditionally loaded Western Conference. What’s far more likely is that Bryant and Nash miss time at some point due to injury (whether major or minor), and that the roster simply doesn’t have enough from a talent perspective to be able to compete on a nightly basis. A total of 35 wins and another trip to the Draft Lottery feels about right.