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2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-2015 NBA season with a look at the Los Angeles Lakers of the Pacific Division.

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The Los Angeles Lakers ended last season with the worst record (27-55) in the franchise’s illustrious 66-year history. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 roster as this proud organization attempts to not only rebuild in the shadow of an aging giant, but also find a way to permit five-time champion Kobe Bryant to finish his Hall of Fame run as gracefully and successfully as possible.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers.

Five Guys Think

Here’s the cold reality for the Lakers: Kobe Bryant makes a lot of money for a team that wasn’t very good a year ago, so currently Hollywood is not the free agency hotbed that it used to be. The Lakers also are not quite the team they used to be, but for those already writing them off completely: stop it. There are some decent ball players on this team, even if half of the roster is seemingly comprised of power forwards, and behind players like Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, they can be more competitive than many are giving them credit for. Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Julius Randle all should be respectable role players, and if healthy, Bryant would definitely rather go out with a roar than with a whimper. They’re not competing for a championship, but they’ll be better than many expect.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

-Joel Brigham

The Lakers had a disappointing offseason. They entered the summer hoping to land a star player like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love. Instead, their big acquisitions were Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis. Getting Kobe Bryant back from injury should help them, but it remains to be seen if he can return to elite form. Drafting Julius Randle was an excellent decision for L.A. and he could be a star for them in the future. However, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers having much success in the short-term. The team may be marginally better than last year’s 27-55 squad, but they’re bringing back many of the same players and the Western Conference is just as loaded with talented teams. It seems like the Lakers are poised to struggle once again.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Los Angeles Lakers are no longer among the league’s elite and will head to training camp with plenty of question marks. Can Kobe Bryant regain his form and play at a high level after numerous injuries? How much does point guard Steve Nash have left in the tank in what may possibly be his final season as a professional? Is rookie forward Julius Randle ready to play a significant role right out of the cereal box? The health of Bryant is obviously the most important in the equation. Without Bryant playing at a high level, for a significant amount of games, the team will struggle to pull out wins. Too many what-ifs present to predict a playoff berth, but the team should definitely improve on its 27 victories from  last season.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

Although the Los Angeles Lakers failed to catch one of the big fish from last July’s free agency school, they managed to salvage quite a bit. The acquisition of Jeremy Lin is a low-cost, high-reward proposition, as the point guard position has been a void on this roster for quite some time. Carlos Boozer, though not as talented as Pau Gasol, will replace the Spaniard and, along with rookie Julius Randle, provide the Lakers with some much-needed size up front. Whether or not the Lakers have a real chance of qualifying for the playoffs or not will ultimately fall squarely on the 36-year-old shoulders (and knees) of Kobe Bryant and whether or not new head coach Byron Scott can replicate the success he had as the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 2000-2004. In all likelihood, the Lakers will once again be on the outside looking in when playoff time rolls around, but with so many new faces and Bryant’s pending return, it would be unwise to completely discount them.

4th place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

For decades the Los Angeles Lakers have been operating with distinct advantages that the rest of the league struggled to compete with. The league’s increase in exposure has really worked against them, taken away from their prestige and even the playing field when it comes to recruiting stars. You no longer have to play in Los Angeles to be a nation-wide, or global-wide star. That’s why they’ve been one of the biggest losers in each of the last two offseasons. That, and the appeal of playing with Kobe Bryant coming off of the two most serious injuries of his career while he’s getting paid the most money in the league just isn’t that attractive. It’s quite possible that we’ve seen the last of Bryant in the playoffs, as the Lakers lack the top-tier talent necessary to compete in the Western Conference right now. Barring impressive bounce back seasons from Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer and Bryant, it’s hard to see how the Lakers even come close to competing for a playoff spot. Their competition only got better, while they frankly got worse. For the first time in his career, it’s easy to choose against the Black Mamba, and it could be until they strike gold in the draft like they did with him before they ever contend again.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: For the first time in a decade, last year’s Lakers team didn’t have Kobe Bryant to serve as the team’s top offensive weapon and it was evident on many nights. While players like Jodie Meeks (Detroit) and Nick Young (re-signed) may have enjoyed career seasons, the team lacked a clear-cut and dependable “first option” and someone whom could be leaned upon for leadership and guidance throughout adversity on most nights. Although age and the attrition of both minutes and injuries will force Bryant to continue adjusting his game, he will likely remain the top offensive player for the Lakers until he removes his jersey for the final time.That isn’t to say he’ll absolutely need to be the team’s leading scorer each and every night (although we wouldn’t put it past him to end up leading with somewhere around 23.5 PPG), but Bryant will still remain the most pivotal offensive piece both as a scorer and playmaker for the Lakers frankly because he’s still talented enough to do so. Even though we’ve likely seen the last of his free-wheeling and high-flying days of the past, as long as Bryant is healthy he’ll still be able to out-think and out-maneuver most opponents on a given night. Scott and Bryant have to find a way to balance his responsibilities and minutes played so that he can be most efficient and effective while on the court. Never has there been a greater need for Bryant to pace himself, not only throughout the season and from game to game, but even as far as self-assessing from quarter to quarter.

Top Defender: This will likely be Scott’s most difficult responsibility in 2014-15. The fact is the team simply doesn’t have enough defensive oriented players at this time. Bryant is 36, in his aforementioned 19th season and returning from what were ultimately consecutive season-ending injuries. As someone that had been unable to consistently answer the bell on the defensive end even prior to the last two seasons, clearly the Lakers cannot and should not enter the year expecting Bryant to champion the cause. Julius Randle is a young and active body, but we have yet to see what his defense will look like at this level. Ed Davis and Jordan Hill have each been rim-protectors in reserve roles, but with a potential starting backcourt that could have a combined age of 77 years old by the second week in February, chances are these Lakers are going to need the equivalence of the reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain or a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Sweet Lew, if you will…) manning the paint in order to prevent opponents from living in the lane. Scott can preach about pride and passion all he’d like, but unless he can devise and get the team to execute perfect defensive schemes and game plans on a nightly basis, that will remain their biggest issue along the way.

Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin is in the unique position of being in a contract year with an opportunity to lead one of the NBA’s ‘Glamor Franchises’ as it attempts to rise from the ashes all while during the comeback  and literal Swan song of the one of the more beloved players in the organization’s history. If that doesn’t make for a grand stage for a free-agent-to-be, we aren’t sure what might. We’re not predicting a repeat of ‘Linsanity’ or anything of that nature, but the circumstances are in place for Lin to have a very productive year as he seeks long-term security moving forward. While known for being a guy that thrives in the pick-and-roll, Lin has actually improved as an all-around offensive player that can also play off-ball. At 6’3, Lin does a good job of probing in the halfcourt set, and routinely finds his way into the paint and to the rim. Although he should be one of the team’s primary ball-handlers and playmakers, he remains versatile and flexible enough to shift into whatever role Scott may ask of him.

Top Clutch Player: This is probably the easiest answer of any preview we’ll do throughout the preseason, but we have no doubts Bryant will occupy that spot once again for the Lakers. He may not be expected to go off for 20-point quarters or single-handedly carry these Lakers throughout a game, but if there’s one thing Bryant has absolutely lived for throughout his career it would be for the opportunity to pull his team through in the end by any means necessary.

Top Unheralded Player: A strong case should probably be made for Nick Young as he heads into his second season with the Lakers and a chance to play alongside a mentor in Bryant, but we’re not sure just how “unheralded” you can claim to be when you’re in the limelight (for various reasons) quite as much as the 29-year-old swingman. Instead, we’ll actually take a moment to acknowledge Wesley Johnson as someone we expect to have a bit of a turnaround season this year. While Johnson was one of the few players from last year that was active on the defensive end in most games, he still struggled to find consistency on the offensive side of things and in particular with his shot. In an effort to improve on that end, it was reported that Johnson decided to work with Bryant throughout the summer and emulate his offseason training regimen. Put simply, if you’re looking to learn a few tricks of the trade and further develop your game, then you could probably do a lot worse than being personally tutored by a ‘Roundball Rembrandt’ like Bryant.

Top New Addition: The Lakers have to absolutely hope Julius Randle fulfills this role. Even though Bryant will remain a key figure regardless of the circumstances, the team must move forward in terms of developing and nurturing the up-and-coming talent. After concerns surrounding the draft, all reports are that Randle’s surgically repaired foot is strong and healthy. Although seen as a guy that is generally liked and respected by his players, Scott is also known for holding them accountable and has already challenged Randle to report to camp in the best shape of his life. Randle isn’t currently slated as a starter despite being a high lottery pick, but don’t be surprised to see this determined and self-motivated young man work himself into playing a significant role within the rotation and earning additional minutes and trust throughout the year.

– Jabari Davis

Who We Like

1. Kobe Bryant: Forgive us if we fall over ourselves saying “DUH” to this one. Even at this state of his career, Bryant finds a way to enter the season with a proverbial chip on his shoulders as he attempts to disprove any/all doubters (See: Charles Barkley). The truth of the matter is, the greatest battle may just lie within as Bryant has been very candid and forthcoming about the natural doubt and questions that come along with attempting to rehab and return to form after so many years.

2. Julius Randle: Whether he starts to begin the year or serves in a reserve role for his rookie campaign, the most important thing for Randle (and these Lakers) is that he is permitted to work on his game against live action as much as possible. He’ll provide the energy and effort, but it will be upon Randle, Scott & Co. and his teammates to ensure that he is afforded the opportunity to develop. He already has a nice over-the-shoulder and jump-hook game from the post, but could stand to develop consistency as a face-up option as well as fine-tuning his ball-handling skills. He may be versatile and more agile than expected at his size, but actual season will not be quite as forgiving as some of the summer league action was when he attempted to act as a playmaker off the dribble.

3. Carlos Boozer: It was about time we mentioned Boozer, as he was actually a pretty good pick-up for these Lakers once Pau Gasol decided to leave for Chicago. Boozer may be far from the player he once was while playing as a member of the Utah Jazz, but he can still be an effective offensive player at this point in his career. He’s coming off a year where he provided 13.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG, and while he may not play quite as many minutes (28.2) especially by the end of the year, he is a guy that knows how to score and produce while on the court.

4. Jeremy Lin: We’ve already mentioned that he’s in a great spot during a contract year and should be expected to provide some quality minutes as the primary ball-handler, but he can also serve as a mentor along with Steve Nash for the Lakers’ second-round pick (purchased from Washington) in combo guard Jordan Clarkson.

5. Nick Young: Young may have played the market a bit, but it made a lot of sense for him to return to the ‘Purple and Gold.’ Not only was he absolutely embraced and beloved by the fan base, but Young was as comfortable as we’ve seen him at any point in his career last season. The trick for Young will be finding a way to be productive while serving as a member of a competitive team, and giving the focused effort it will take on the defensive end to keep Scott happy.

– Jabari Davis

Strengths

Even though no one is going to mistake the Lakers’ roster – as currently constituted – as any type of contender, they have clearly improved at several positions where they were playing D-League call-ups for long stretches of 2013-14. If healthy, they should be able to score and produce on the offensive end as everyone settles into and learns Scott’s offensive philosophy. If Scott stays true to form, you’ll probably see them running a mixture of pick-and-roll with various elements of the Princeton offense.

– Jabari Davis

Weaknesses

We hate to harp on the subject, but defense is most likely to be this team’s greatest weakness. Neither Jordan Hill nor Ed Davis have ever served in a starter’s capacity for an entire season, so it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to break down the minutes at the center position. The roster is also a bit heavy with players that are generally power forwards, and does not much depth in case of injuries to either of their four swingmen. They could ultimately decide to test the 6’5 Clarkson with some reserve minutes as a shooting guard if things progress well enough for the first-year player.

– Jabari Davis

The Salary Cap

For the first time since the team acquired Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, the Lakers dropped under the salary cap.  After acquiring Jeremy Lin in trade, Carlos Boozer via an amnesty claim (from the Chicago Bulls) and re-signing Nick Young, the Lakers have used their spending power.  The team also utilized their $2.7 million Room Exception to re-sign Ryan Kelly and Xavier Henry.  The Lakers chose not to stretch out Steve Nash’s $9.7 million salary over three years (at $3.2 million) to protect future spending power.  With 13 players under contract, the Lakers can only add via minimum deals or trades.  The team may look to send out Nash before the trade deadline, and even recently re-signed Jordan Hill (not until after January 15), but unless the Lakers get value in return, they may just wait for next summer when they should have cap space once again.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

It was a desultory 2013-14 for the Los Angeles Lakers in all respects.  Kobe Bryant got a ludicrous extension that will curtail the Lakers’ efforts to compete through 2015-16, then immediately was re-injured. Mike D’Antoni elected not to return without a contract extension, and the club was unsuccessful in landing Carmelo Anthony, the only major free agent it chased.  Free agent signings with the ostensible goal of competing resulted in a roster without a single above-average defensive player.  Byron Scott, who presided over defenses ranked 25th or worse during all his years in Cleveland, was brought in to coach.

Alas for Lakers fans, there does not appear to be much of a coherent plan in Lakerland these days.  The Bryant extension and his presence on the roster is greatly complicating for a team that should be looking to develop young talent rather than pursue the Sisyphean task of making the playoffs with this roster.

Best Case Scenario

20-62

The Lakers and Celtics, the league’s two proudest franchises, share the dubious distinction of benefitting long-term from having worse records in 2014-15.  While I have argued tanking is an overblown concern in general, that is certainly not the case when a team trades away a protected pick.  In the Lakers’ case, the top-five protected pick they owe Phoenix for the Steve Nash trade provides a great incentive to finish as badly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ hopes of acquiring a major free agent or two in 2016 when Bryant comes off the books hinge on having young talent on the roster.  Randle is the only player who qualifies, and he will hopefully start and play over 30 minutes per game. But having another young cost-controlled stud on the squad may be essential to luring top-end 2016 talent.  The Lakers have no way to obtain such a player except by retaining their pick in 2015.  Unfortunately, it looks like the presence of Bryant and myriad mediocre veterans will likely preclude that possibility unless the Lakers get some lottery luck.

Worst Case Scenario

32-50

Randle starts poorly and plays little, as players without a long-term future in LA like Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill play more minutes than he does.  Bryant is painful to watch, while the best defense in Lakerland belongs to the rabid combination of Laker and Jeremy Lin fans reacting to perceived slander of the team.  The squad misses out on the playoffs, yet gives up its draft pick to Phoenix.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can the Lakers remain competitive in a deep Western Conference?

Considering it a longshot might be putting it mildly, but then again we aren’t as bold (or as foolish) enough to prematurely kick dirt on Bryant’s grave until we see what his body will permit him to do upon returning. Regardless of what he has left in the tank, this team’s overall team health will be the difference between whether the 2014-15 Lakers are at least competitive or in jeopardy of having to worry about surrendering a lottery pick (1-5 protected) to a team within the division in the Phoenix Suns.

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