2014 NBA Futures: Lakers still gunning for Title Next Year

la-lakers-titleLast season, the Los Angeles Lakers featured a loaded roster that seemed perfectly capable of winning the NBA Championship. But even with a team of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol, the Lakers struggled to a seventh place Western Conference finish and were promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Now the Lakers enter the 2013-14 season having lost the battle to re-sign Howard and with Bryant rehabbing his torn Achilles tendon. They also cut World Peace, who later signed with the New York Knicks. That leaves LA with the aging core of Gasol, Nash and Bryant – not exactly the chic pick to win it all next year.

Taking this into account, some people thought that the Lakers would be best served by bringing Kobe along slowly, clearing up cap space and waiting until the summer of 2014, when they could sign a big-time star like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. By tanking next season, the Lakers could also pick up a high pick in the talent-laden 2014 NBA Draft.

la-lakers-title-1But none of this seems to be in the cards for LA as they’ll be entering October with the same mindset as always: compete for an NBA Championship.

Bryant is rehabbing with plans to be ready for the preseason, the team signed big man Chris Kaman to a one-year, $3.2 million deal, and Nash is also healing from his injuries in hopes of playing a full season. As if these aren’t signs that LA is preparing for another shot at the title, general manager Mitch Kupchak recently said so himself.

“You know that’s not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll,” Kupchak said, when asked about mailing in next season. “That’s never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.

“We have challenges. There’s no doubt. We don’t know when Kobe’s coming back, and we don’t know what level he’s going to come back at, although we’re optimistic. Everything’s good with Steve. Pau should be fine. We’ve added some athleticism. We’re hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game.”

la-lakers-title-2No NBA general manager is going to flat-out admit that they hope to be non-competitive just to pick up a high lottery pick. But there’s sincerity in what Kupchak says because the Lakers fan base has come to expect winning, and throwing an entire season away just isn’t acceptable. Plus they have some stars left over in Bryant, Gasol and Nash, who would be pretty mad if they got another year older without another playoff run.

But do the Lakers truly have a shot at winning the NBA Championship? If you were making a 2014 NBA futures bet, odds are that you wouldn’t put your money on Kobe and company. But then again, with the chemistry disaster that we witnessed between Bryant, Howard and Gasol last year, perhaps playing without Howard can only improve the Lakers’ chances next season. And even if they have another difficult, injury-riddled season, well, at least Los Angeles still remains an attractive destination for big-name free agents next summer.

James, Anthony, John Wall, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Andrea Bargnani all hit the market in 2014. And while some of these players will re-sign with their team, it’s likely that LA could land at least one of them based on location and reputation alone.

Lakers finish One of Most Disastrous Seasons in NBA History

lakers-disaster-seasonComing into the 2012-2013 NBA season, expectations were high for the Los Angeles Lakers. Many people, including ourselves, had L.A. contending for the title this year. And why not since they added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to an already strong cast that featured Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Antwan Jamison.

But after being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in a highly noncompetitive series, those lofty preseason expectations seem light-years away. The closest that the Lakers managed to get during this matchup was a 9-point loss in Game 2. And the blowout playoff losses seemed like the perfect way to cap what’s been one of the most disappointing and worst seasons for a team in NBA history.

Sure Kobe Bryant’s torn Achilles at the end of the regular season limited this club’s ability to compete with the Spurs. But that only explains the playoffs, and not the drastically underachieving team that finally secured a playoff spot in the last week of the season.

pau-gasol-steve-nashPeople were quick to dismiss awful preseason performances that saw the Lakers go winless. However, panic quickly set in after a 1-4 start that led to the firing of head coach Mike Brown. By late January, the team was 17-25 and in serious danger of missing the playoffs.

If there’s any silver lining to this season, it’s that L.A. did rally to go 28-12 over the second half and grab the Western Conference’s seventh seed. However, this is of little solace to Lakers fans who thought that the team stood a good chance of grabbing the 17th NBA Championship in franchise history.

So where did everything go wrong? Well for starters, Mike Brown’s decision to implement the Princeton offense was never popular from the get-go. Skepticism was warranted too as the team made a large number of turnovers in the early going.

dwight-howardCompounding problems was the fact that Howard missed most of the preseason and never got into the new offense. Additionally, Nash would miss most of December and January with a broken leg, thus adding to the team chemistry issues.

When Mike D’Antoni entered the picture as the Lakers’ new coach, things only got more complicated. Now the team was learning a more uptempo offense, with Howard and Gasol struggling to find their place. Gasol especially suffered and even lost his spot in the starting lineup to unheralded Earl Clark for a short while. The 7-footer also missed 33 games during the year in one of his most injury-plagued seasons ever.

kobe-bryantSo based on the injuries and lack of team chemistry, it’s a bit easier to see why Los Angeles had such a disastrous year. But management is not going to be accepting excuses this offseason, and some major changes are definitely expected.

Howard could re-sign with the Lakers next year after averaging 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG and 2.45 BPG. He’d likely earn $117.9 million over five years with L.A., as opposed to an $87.6 million, four-year deal with any other team. However, nothing is guaranteed since the talented shot-blocker is intent on testing free agency waters.

The Lakers also have plenty of payroll issues to deal with next season because Bryant is due $30 million, Gasol is set to receive $19 million, Nash would earn $9 million and World Peace is due $7.7 million – all before Howard is even signed. Based on these huge contracts, it’s a good bet that one of these stars will have to go.

Bryant appears to be the only certainty out of the five stars as he’s the face of the franchise and leading scorer. The Lakers would no doubt like to have Howard back too – if possible – so this leaves Gasol, Nash and World Peace left to discuss.

Gasol had some strong games to close out the year after tallying several triple-doubles. Plus he finally looked more comfortable in D’Antoni’s offense at the end. However, the Spaniard also has a player option for the $19 million and could be released. World Peace is in the same player option boat, but could stay on due to the fact that he’s only set to earn $7.7 million.

Considering all of this, it’s possible that we’ll be seeing a different Lakers team take the floor next year. And the big question is if they can put together a lineup that not only stays healthy, but also plays well together.

Are the L.A. Lakers even a Playoff Team?

Before the 2012-2013 NBA season opened, Metta World Peace made a bold prediction that the L.A. Lakers could go 73-9, thus beating the Chicago Bulls’ regular season record of 72-10. And while most people thought this was a difficult goal to reach, it didn’t seem impossible given that the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to go along with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison and World Peace.

But here we are now 26 games into the regular season, and the Lakers have already missed out on this goal. In fact, L.A. is just 12-14 and sitting 12th in the Western Conference standings. Taking this into account, it’s worth asking whether or not the Lakers are even a playoff team by looking at their promising and not-so promising points.

The Good: A Big Missing Piece

We’re not going to argue that Los Angeles hasn’t underachieved because they’ve had Bryant, Howard and World Peace for the entire year. Gasol has also played in most of the team’s games, which, given these four stars, SHOULD be enough to be among the playoff teams.

However, one integral part has been missing from this club all year and that’s PG Steve Nash. He’s been out since October 31st with a leg fracture and hasn’t been there to orchestrate the offense. In his absence, L.A. has been trying to get by with a trio of Chris Duhon, Darius Morris and Steve Blake. The result: 12.8 PPG and 9.7 APG among three players.

While this is okay, Nash figures to do this – or more – by himself after returning from injury. Going further, the Lakers’ overall flow on offense should be much better with Nash back in the lineup.

The Bad: Gasol and Howard are struggling Together

In theory, the ‘Twin Towers’ setup always seems great because you’ve got two big men dominating the paint. But as history has often shown us, two excellent big men can hamper each other’s production. Such seems to be the case with Howard and Gasol since these two don’t work well off each other.

The thinking before the season was that Pau could play more forward while Howard would man the paint. However, Gasol has never been comfortable in the forward role and is shooting a dismal 41.4% – down from a career average of 51.8%. Now 41.4% might work if you’re a 6’2″ runner and gunner; but not when you’re a 7’0″ forward-center.

Howard is not innocent in the matter either because, while he’s shooting 57.6% from the field and averaging 18.1 PPG, there have been plenty of times where he’s completely disappeared on offense. That said, the Lakers have been transitioning to a gameplan where the two natural centers play in separate units, rather than together.

The Good: Stats are looking Nice

Another indication that L.A. could grab a playoff spot in the West involves their strong statistical performance. Despite being a sub-.500 team, the Lakers are sixth in points per game with a 102.08 average. Their defense hasn’t been quite as good since they’ve allowed 99.32 PPG, which ranks 21st in the league.

However, this is still a +2.76 differential, thus indicating the tide could later turn. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that have had a positive point differential are over 95% likely to make the playoffs. So this definitely bodes well for the Lakers’ postseason hopes.

The Bad: The West is Deep

We expect L.A. to improve as the season keeps moving along. But even with improvement, it’ll be no cakewalk to make the playoffs with how many solid teams are in the Western Conference – especially after starting 12-14.

Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis and the L.A. Clippers are locks to make the playoffs with their talent and strong starts. That leaves four spots open, which are currently occupied by the youthful, but talented Golden State, Denver, Minnesota and Houston. Let’s also throw in the fact that Utah, Dallas and Portland are all ahead of the Lakers and figure to compete for playoff spots. Including the Lakers, this makes eight legitimate contenders for four postseason spots.

The Verdict?

Overall, the L.A. Lakers are easily more talented than every team chasing what we suspect are the last four playoff spots. And given that they’re playing without Steve Nash and are the only non-playoff team with a positive point differential, we believe the Lakers will get it together and at least make the playoffs.

One more point worth mentioning is that L.A. is only 1 1/2 games behind both Minnesota and Houston (currently seventh and eighth). Given that we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, expect the Lakers to make up this ground and grab anywhere from a fourth to eighth seed.