One major component of the sports media business is making predictions. To call it more an art than science is a major disservice to art. It's more about making the best possible educated guess before hoping enough time passes that nobody remembers what you actually said (and lacks the inclination to fire up their Googler Machine).
With the regular-season opener against Dallas a little more than 24 hours away, it's in that spirit I make the following 12 predictions about the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. Which will be proven correct? Correct adjacent? Wrong, whether mildly or absurdly?
We'll know in six to eight months, give or take.
1. Kobe Bryant will be in street clothes for at least 12 games.
He hasn't missed more than nine over a full 82-game season since the 2004-05 season, when he played 66. This year, Bryant will spend more time on the sideline. It's less about a 34-year-old body with more than 50,000 regular-season and playoff minutes breaking down or a reaction to the state of his sprained right foot, but a reflection of context: (A) With Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol around, the Lakers have enough talent to win games in his absence; (B) at this stage of his career, it's simply not smart to push through real physical problems in quite the same way. The risk /reward isn't worth it anymore. Kobe has shown a greater willingness to take the long view over the past couple seasons, a trend he continues this year.
(Note: I have real concerns about the foot, not because he might miss the opener -- in the grand scheme of things, that doesn't matter -- but because he's starting the year fighting an injury to such a vital body part. Nobody, not even Kobe, can "adjust" his way through a foot injury.)
2. That said, the Lakers will finish in the lower third league-wide in man games lost due to injury.
The Lakers are spoken of like an '82 Chevy Malibu held together with duct tape and chewing gum whose odometer has flipped over a few dozen times. Yes, the core players have some mileage on the tires -- car metaphors go a long way on this subject -- but overall they sport strong track records for health. Gasol started the '09-10 season with a hamstring injury and ended up missing 17 games overall, but in his other three full seasons as a Laker, he has missed a total of two. Nash's back frightens some, but he hasn't missed more than eight games since his fifth year in the league. Howard, until last year, was a robot, and he is once again healthy. He's not an automatic 82 anymore, but I'd be surprised if he played fewer than 75. Not to say the Lakers won't have some injuries, I just don't believe they'll wear out MRI machines around town.
(In a related note, Gary Vitti will be the first trainer to land in the top 10 in MVP voting.)
3. Kobe will average fewer points per 36 minutes than in any season since '03-04 (22.9) and hit .570 in his true shooting percentage for the first time since '07-08.
In other words, points go down, efficiency goes up.
4. Steve Nash will finish outside the top 5 in assists per game.
In five of the past nine seasons, Nash has led the league in APG. In the other four, twice he was second, twice he was third. Still, this year Nash won't be among the NBA's top 5. Last season, Deron Williams finished fifth with 8.7 a night. The year before, Jose Calderon was fifth at 8.9, and in '09-10 fifth required 9.1 a night from Jason Kidd. If the Lakers need Nash to pump out those kinds of numbers, something has gone wrong. They don't want him carrying the sort of burden required to generate that much offense, and shouldn't need him to given the new system and great passing skills of his teammates.
5. Dwight Howard will reclaim his Defensive Player of the Year award.
He's the most accomplished defensive player in the NBA, and by the time voting season rolls around will be at the center (figuratively and literally) of a major turnaround for the Lakers, who will again be a top-5 team on that end of the floor. Writers will have to find reasons to not vote for a healthy Howard, and it won't be worth the effort. Still, Howard won't be the only reason the Lakers improve.
6. Metta World Peace will finish in the top 5 in DPOY voting.
Nobody in the NBA has a more linear job than MWP -- go guard the other team's best wing, hit 3-pointers periodically -- and because his role will be so specific and the talent around him in the starting lineup so star-studded, people will focus on what Metta does for the Lakers and acknowledge it.
7. Pau Gasol's assist percentage (a measure of the number of teammate FGs a player assists while on the floor) will crack 20 percent for the second time in his career.
Twenty percent is a huge number for a 7-footer, but while there weren't many clues flashed in the one preseason game in which all five Lakers starters played, one was clear: Pau Gasol will be a primary ball-mover. He racked up five assists in 36 minutes, working as a pivot point in the high post tossing lobs to Howard and kicking the ball to shooters on the wing. His ability to facilitate is a key component to lightening the loads on Nash and Kobe and prevents opposing teams from overplaying either guard, particularly in the pick-and-roll. They'll find Pau, and Pau will find the next open man.
8. Dwight Howard will again pace the league in rebounding.
Playing only 54 games last year, Howard grabbed 51 more rebounds than anyone else in the NBA. It was the sixth time in the past seven years he's led the league in TRB. This year will make the seventh in eight. Despite playing next to Gasol (seventh in '11-12) and a strong rebounding guard in Bryant, Howard is still so good on the glass he'll set the pace -- particularly with Kevin Love on the shelf until December. On a per-game basis, Howard's 12.9 will be his lowest in six seasons, but just enough to earn him another rebounding title over Love and Andrew Bynum.
9. The Lakers will have three All-Stars.
Kobe and Howard are mortal locks to be voted in by the fans, and Gasol will be named as a reserve (injuries to Love and Dirk Nowitzki help open the door). Nash's diminished APG totals will leave him squeezed behind Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and a wild card such as Ty Lawson.
10. The Lakers won't enter the playoffs as the Western Conference's top seed.
Even after Oklahoma City's fairly stunning trade of James Harden to Houston, the Thunder remain an elite squad capable of winning enough games to take the conference, and just as important still have enormous incentive to land the top seed. Even if the Thunder slip, the Lakers still have to eat up last year's gap with San Antonio, the team everyone seems to forget ran up the league's best record and ought to be just as good this season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have major work left integrating new parts and a new offense and will be far more interested in keeping everyone healthy than in earning home-court advantage in the conference finals. The same can be said for the Spurs, who routinely sit stars without concern for wins and losses, but they start the season as a more cohesive group. All told, it's more likely the Lakers are a 2 or a 3 than a 1-seed.
11. The Lakers will represent the Western Conference in the Finals ...
And if this is the result, does it matter if they're a top seed along the way? Assuming good health, there isn't a team in the W.C. against whom the Lakers can't match up effectively given their top-end talent and variety of skill sets. Not to say they'll "fo', fo', fo'" the playoffs, but the conference contains no kryptonite squad, either. The Harden deal, meanwhile, makes the Thunder a far less threatening opponent on both ends of the floor. I had the Lakers getting out of the West before Harden was shipped to Texas. In the wake of the deal, L.A.'s path opens up considerably.
12. ... Where they will lose to Miami in a very tight, wildly entertaining series.
Like most of the basketball-watching members of planet Earth, I really want to see these teams meet. While the hype would undoubtedly be suffocating, the actual hoops could be epic. I like the way L.A. matches up with Miami, and there's no question the Lakers have the talent to beat them. But Miami has been there twice now and has continuity on its side. The Heat know what they are and, having broken through, ought to be more confident this season. Certainly LeBron will be. We know what they are and what they can do.
The Lakers are still theoretical, and that's enough to give Miami the edge.