When we last left the Los Angeles Lakers, a painful season was mercifully being put to an end at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
But the past is the past. A new season is right around the corner. Hope springs eternal, right?
A lot has changed in Laker Land in the five months between the Spurs series, which ended in a 21-point loss to complete the sweep on April 28, and when training camp opens up Saturday. Most notably, the will-he-or-won’t-he game the team played with Dwight Howard ended with the Lakers stranded on the dance floor as Howard made his Texas two-step to the Houston Rockets. Beyond that, L.A. said goodbye to key contributors Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark, and hello to a handful of hopeful replacements in Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson.
With that said, it’s time to count down to training camp. Let's take a look at the 10 storylines to keep in mind as the Lakers open up the 2013-14 season.
1. How will Kobe Bryant open up the “last chapter” of his storied career?
Seemingly whenever Bryant’s Achilles tear was brought up this offseason, one would point to Bryant’s age (35), his amount of career minutes logged (54,000 and counting between the regular season and playoffs) and other players to be decimated by the same injury (Chauncey Billups, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Elton Brand, etc.) to analyze Bryant’s chances of returning to form, but then couch all that with a statement along the lines of, “But I wouldn’t bet against him.” The speculation will end soon enough. Beyond the perfunctory questions of when Bryant will actually return to the lineup and how much playing time he’ll receive, there’s the more meta cloud of mystery as to what type of approach Bryant will take once he is back. Did all this time away from the game change him? Will he still be the player with individual iron will who demands his teammates to follow, or will he be more willing to meet them halfway? If the Lakers struggle, as ESPN.com’s NBA panel suggested, how will Bryant respond to potentially playing on a noncontending team for the first time in nearly a decade? After tapping into the fountain of youth for his “Vino” resurgence the past couple of seasons, does he have anything left for an encore? It’s sure to be fascinating.
2. What will a full training camp do for Mike D’Antoni?
"This year we should start off finding and solving some problems in October and in September when you watch guys play and [find out] what's their tendencies, and then you formulate your ideas and you try to get it going by November," D'Antoni told ESPN 710 in August. There were excuses built in from the start of D’Antoni’s tenure with the team last year, from the disadvantage of taking over a team that was 1-4 in the regular season following an 0-8 preseason to a roster that included a starting point guard with a broken leg (Steve Nash), a backup point guard with a lingering abdominal strain (Steve Blake) and a starting center still rehabbing a major back injury (Howard). Not to mention D’Antoni was coming off knee replacement surgery of his own when he took the gig and facing the fallout of being the guy the franchise chose over Phil Jackson. He’ll go into this season with a roster that better fits his style of play, a clean 0-0 record and more manageable expectations from a fan base that is no longer thinking championship or bust.
3. Who will make the team?
The Lakers have 11 guaranteed contracts for next season in Bryant, Nash, Blake, Young, Kaman, Farmar, Johnson, Pau Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill. They have also signed Shawne Williams, Elias Harris, Marcus Landry, Xavier Henry and Ryan Kelly as camp invitees. How many out of those five will make the team? The most who can make it is four, as the maximum number of players allowed on an NBA roster is 15. The Lakers will indeed likely open the season with a 15-man roster according to a team source, with several of those players on partially guaranteed deals that become fully vetted only if they stick around the team later in the season. Williams already has a partially guaranteed deal, according to a league source, so you figure he would put the roster at 12 (D’Antoni recently raved about him in an interview with Time Warner Cable SportsNet). And Elias Harris also has a partially guaranteed deal, according to the L.A. Times, so let's say he's No. 13. From there, who out of Kelly, Landry and Henry will be the odd man out when it comes to cut day?
4. Who wins the backup point guard job?
Yes, Blake will turn 33 this season, while Farmar will only be turning 27. And yes, Farmar has proved to be a championship-caliber player in L.A., helping to capture two rings before leaving as a free agent in the summer of 2010, but let’s not diminish what Blake is capable of. The 11-year veteran was at his best when the Lakers needed him the most last season, averaging 12.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 40.7 percent from 3 during eight games in the month of April when L.A. made its playoff push. There could be plenty of time for both of them if D’Antoni is committed to cutting down on Nash’s minutes, but on nights when Nash receives a lot of burn, either Farmar or Blake will find himself riding the pine.
5. How long before the next Phil Jackson rumor pops up?
As long as Phil Jackson doesn’t have a job with another NBA team, his presence will continue to swirl around the Lakers like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. His name was already linked to the failed Seattle ownership group, the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons in the past year, but none of that has quieted the calls by fans for him to return to the Lakers in some capacity (and consulting on a scripted television series about the team for Showtime won’t be enough). With the Jeanie Buss-Jim Buss relationship continuing to be played out in the public eye, it’s doubtful we’ve heard the last of Jackson when it comes to the team he coached to five championships.
6. Can Kurt Rambis get these guys to play defense?
In a move that is still somewhat puzzling considering D’Antoni’s natural motivation to remove himself from Jackson comparisons, Rambis was brought in as an assistant coach this offseason. While D’Antoni hasn’t made any delineations as to which one of his aides will responsible for what next season, Rambis’ defensive mind will surely be explored to help the Lakers start to find a way to get stops. The Lakers were tied with Brooklyn for 18th in the league in defensive efficiency last season, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In a word: dreadful. Now, without the services of two former defensive player of the year award winners in Howard and World Peace, the Lakers will try to figure out a way to improve in that all-important end of the court.
7. What does Pau Gasol have left?
After he turned in a masterpiece of a Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals with 19 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, it’s been pretty much all downhill for Gasol. In the 2011 season he fizzled in the playoffs as Jackson’s “Last Stand” season went up in smoke. In the 2012 season, he was demoted in the pecking order as Mike Brown tried to develop a system around Andrew Bynum. And last season, D’Antoni felt compelled to go through Howard rather than Gasol to appease the impending free agent, not to mention that the Spaniard’s health was an issue during the entire campaign. With Bynum and Howard out of the picture and Gasol's body supposedly in good shape after he took the summer off from international competition for the first time in a long time, can he return to the form that made him a four-time All-Star and two-time champion, or will the 2013-14 season be a continuation of his rapid descent?
8. Will history be made?
Bryant enters the season with 31,617 career points, placing him fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The next name ahead of him? None other than Michael Jordan, sitting 675 points away with 32,292 career points. If Bryant can maintain his 25.5 points per game career average, it will take him somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 games to catch MJ. Nash enters the season with 10,249 career assists, putting him fourth on the all-time list. He is just 85 assists away from Mark Jackson for third. If he can distribute dimes at his 8.5 per game career rate, it will take him a mere 10 games to move up the ranks.
9. Will there be a Howard hangover?
By most estimations, having Howard in Houston will help clear the chemistry in the Lakers' locker room and allow the team to start fresh with a much-needed attitude adjustment. But what happens if the Rockets soar to the top of the Western Conference standings and L.A. is left with a roster devoid of rim protectors? The prevailing sentiment from Laker Nation after Howard skipped town was “good riddance,” but will regret creep up if a healthy Howard has an MVP-type season for Houston? Will everything that went down with Howard haunt the franchise in the way that the vetoed Chris Paul trade still lingers around the Lakers? Or will Howard wear out his welcome with the Rockets in the same fashion he did with the Lakers and the Orlando Magic?
10. How will those new jerseys look?
Being a fan isn’t just about analyzing the rotation and cheering for what the players do on the court, it’s about having an opinion on how they look while they’re doing it, too. It’s not all serious stuff. Paul Lukas of Uni Watch recently ranked the Lakers’ jerseys as the No. 2 best kit in the league, just behind their rival Boston Celtics. It’s tough to mess with a classic look like that, but the Lakers are giving it a try, introducing a black alternative “Hollywood Nights” uniform as well as a white, short-sleeved jersey. If that wasn’t enough new wardrobe possibilities, the NBA is considering allowing players from the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets to put nicknames on the back of their jerseys, which could lead to a “Black Mamba” No. 24 uniform down the road.