Someone once told me, the Lakers are the single most important team in the NBA, and that their success is most directly correlated to the success of the league as a whole. You know what? That person is right.
Tim Duncan is great. Ben Wallace is great. And if you insist, we can have 75-78 games in the Finals while people steadily migrate over to watch Everybody Loves Raymond. But the Lakers are still the Lakers. LA is still LA. Missed Playoffs and all, the drama and the league wide appeal still reside with the purple and gold. The league is at its best when the Lakers are at their best.
And as anyone can tell you, the Lakers, are not at their best. Lionel Richie is closer to seeing his best days than the Lakers are. Shaq and Phil took their cue and left last season, leaving the Kobe squad to try and limp into the Playoffs without them. We all know how that worked out. Kobe couldn’t find the support he needed, Divac never worked out (and never will), and Chucky Atkins got to take 900 shot attempts, third most on the team. The Lakers ended the 2004-2005 season with six consecutive loses and fourteen games under .500.
Enter this summer. Big free agent acquisition? Blockbuster trade? Nope, they just brought back Phil Jackson. So what, I’m supposed to use my imagination and pretend that it’s going to turn the Lakers around? Because it’s not. Again, the league needs the Lakers to be successful; tough luck for league, because they won’t be.
The Lakers were a bad basketball team last year; I can’t imagine anyone thinking differently unless they’re, you know, stupid. And what would lead one to believe they’re going to be significantly different this season? Ignorance I suppose.
Lets recap the Lakers’ off-season moves since their 34-48 season in 04-05: they brought back Phil Jackson which is a commendable effort, not a 180 degree turn around type of move; they signed an aging mediocre veteran in Aaron McKie, drafted a guy from Florida State whose name sounds like an invention of the Keebler Elves (Von Wafer), they drafted a high school kid who is a four year project (Andrew Bynum), and traded for a guy who was a four year project out of high school and is looking like he’s on course to become a five, six, and seven year project in Kwame Brown. Looks to me like they’re slated for a whole three games improvement.
Phil Jackson is one thing, but the players simply aren’t better than they were last season, one could argue this Laker team is worse than last year’s. They have no point guard and they have no true capable center at this point. With the departure of Chucky Atkins the Lakers are left with a gaping hole at the lead guard spot and at best it is filled by fourth year
player Tierre Brown who has failed to average at least five points per game in his career. Vlade Divac isn’t the answer at center either; he’s too old and too slow. This isn’t Sacramento and Vlade just doesn’t fit in LA. Chris Mihm has showed promise at times, but nothing spectacular and regardless he’s not a true center.
Of the current players on the Lakers’ roster, only three (Kobe, Lamar Odom, and Divac) have double figure scoring averages for their career. You look at the Laker roster and see names like Tony Bobbitt, Tierre Brown, Von Wafer, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, and Laron Profit. The Showtime Lakers, they are not. And in the midst of this D-League reunion, we see Kobe Bryant, only able to reminisce about his dynasty days.
If you ask some, they’ll say Kobe Bryant got himself in this mess and that he drove Shaq and Phil out of town leading to the Lakers descent. Whether that be true or not, whether he got himself in this mess or not, he is the only one that can get the Lakers out. For the Lakers to be good, Kobe must be great, and even then it may not be enough. Never in his career has this much of team’s success rested on his shoulders, not even last season. Lamar Odom will provide Kobe’s only real support and alternate scoring threat, beyond that, the Lakers aren’t in a position to do anything other than hope Kobe can carry them. Kobe Bryant will dominate, or the Lakers will lose. In fact, it’s not inconceivable both may happen simultaneously.
We may see Kobe score 40 and the Lakers lose by fifteen. Kobe can score 40, 50, or even 60 points all by himself. What he needs is a supporting cast that can chip in the remaining digits and play a little defense while they’re at it. Kobe will do what Kobe does, now if only his new (and old) coach could get the rest of the squad up to par.
Phil Jackson returning back to LA is being touted as the type of move to turn around a team and quite honestly, I can see why. Jackson isn’t Bill Parcells; he isn’t the old ball coach who "coaches ’em up." That’s never been his modus operandi and it won’t change now. Phil Jackson took over as head coach for the Bulls when they were on the brink, with MJ and Scottie coming into their prime. Shaq and Kobe were already in place as a superstar nucleus in LA the first time Phil came on board. Every year Phil Jackson has ever won a championship he had two superstars and a solid cast of veterans and role players to work with, now he has neither. He can’t make superstars out of these Lakers. He’ll shape them into a half decent supporting cast for Kobe, install the triangle offense for the better, instill discipline in this young team, and hopefully benefit Kobe in his maturation process as a leader. Phil Jackson is a great coach, perhaps the greatest coach ever. That I am not disputing that. What I am disputing, however, is that he can come on to any team – particularly one that was fourteen games below .500 – and make them a Playoff team.
Phil can only do so much. Kobe can only do so much. The Lakers are a young team with few veterans whose value in terms of actual on court production is dwindling. They have a great coach and one great player. They do not have a Playoff caliber team. At best they make a run at 40 wins this seasons. Fans will watch the Lakers with great interest this season, their league status insures that much. Just don’t expect to see much.