Lakers.com breaks down the ten most important factors that will determine the team’s success this season.
10. Chris Mihm’s Return From Injury
After missing the end of the 2006-2007 season and all of last season, Chris Mihm’s health is finally approaching 100%. However, the seven-footer is coming off a severe ankle injury that has limited his lateral quickness on the offensive and defensive end in seven exhibition games so far. As a result, it will inevitably take several games of live action to determine Mihm’s full effectiveness—an assessment that could weigh heavily on the Lakers front court depth this season. Moreover, Mihm must answer questions as to as how effective he will be at defending some of the larger players in the Western Conference. If he heals, Mihm brings a solid post presence on the offensive side and some lane clogging on the defensive end. If he has not, then he will likely pick up quick fouls defensively and see limited minutes on the court.
9. Phil Jackson’s New Up-Tempo Offense
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is not abandoning his vaunted triangle offense, but has decided to tinker with the system’s mechanics as the team enters the 2007-2008 season. Specifically, Jackson is implementing a faster tempo that leads to easy shot opportunities in the first seven to eight seconds of a possession. The Lakers will primarily rely on Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton and their point guard quartet to push the ball up the floor. Jordan Farmar, Javaris Crittenton and Sasha Vujacic have all been cited by Jackson as players who will also benefit from the new style of play. If properly executed, the faster pace will undoubtedly ignite a Lakers attack that was already fifth in the NBA in points scored last season and may decrease the team’s dependency on Kobe.
8. Battle for Minutes at Point Guard
After two years of inconsistency from starter Smush Parker, the Lakers signed veteran Derek Fisher to a contract in the offseason—a move that should solidify the position and allow ample time for the team’s younger guards to develop. With Fisher orchestrating the Lakers offense to start the game, sophomore Jordan Farmar, rookie Javaris Crittenton and fourth year guard Sasha Vujacic will all be relied upon to help shoulder the load at point guard. All three likely backups have had promising training camps, potentially giving the Lakers the luxury of four solid guards with which to divvy out minutes. With over a decade of NBA experience behind him, there should be more than enough minutes to go around for the backup point guards. Still, there are serious questions for each guard with regards to their play on the defensive end. In a conference that includes the likes of Steven Nash and Tony Parker, it is essential that whoever is manning the one-spot for the Lakers slow down their opponents’ attack. If the point guard core can successfully contribute on both ends of the court, they will go a long way toward determining how far the Lakers go this season.
7. The Second Unit
Despite winning three consecutive championships from 2000-2002, the Lakers largely competed with a bench that was inferior to that of most opponents. Flash forward five years later and the Lakers now boast one of the deepest benches in the league, with enviable depth in their front court and at point guard. Currently, the team has three starter-quality centers in Chris Mihm, Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown. Although Jackson has hinted that he may use Mihm in the power forward slot depending on matchups, the team will have two serviceable centers to choose from off the bench at all times. Seldom used forwards Vladimir Radmanovic and Brian Cook join Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf in completing the Lakers imposing depth at center and power forward. While the second unit has arguably outperformed the team’s starters in six pre-season games so far, carrying that same level of consistency into the regular season and against front-line players will be vital to the Lakers success.
6. Lamar Odom’s Impact
After undergoing surgery on his shoulder and an offseason swirling with trade rumors, Odom returns to the Lakers for his fourth season of play, prepared to improve upon his second stellar playoff performance in as many seasons. Since being traded from Miami to the Lakers prior to the 2004-2005 season, Odom has been a disappointment in many fans’ eyes as he has failed to provide the Lakers—Kobe Bryant in particular—with a second teammate who averages more than 20 points per game. Still, Odom has excelled in other ways, leading the team in rebounds last season and proving himself a consistent triple-double threat on any given night. With Fisher’s triangle expertise running the point this season and hopefully a clean bill of health, Odom should be free to explore the nuances of his untapped potential as he did in the playoffs versus the Suns the past two seasons. If he can match that level of play, his impact alone has the potential to vault the Lakers into one of the top five seeds in the Western Conference.
5. Kobe’s Adjustment to New Facilitator Role
The Lakers got off to an unexpected 26-13 start to the season last year, due in large part to the team’s increased focus on team basketball. However, as injuries piled up and the Lakers favorable home schedule the first half of the season ended, some members of the team strayed from the offense—most notably Kobe Bryant. Although Bryant provided one of the most awe-inspiring offensive stretches in recent history, scoring at least 50 points in four consecutive games, the team seemed to reach its peak playing potential when the ball was consistently moving. Coach Jackson has obviously taken note as he has requested that Bryant act more as a facilitator this year, much like he did when the Lakers battled the Suns during the last two playoff series. If Bryant can fine tune the role and his teammates respond successfully, the Lakers will have an impressive balanced attack to throw at opponents.
4. Andrew Bynum’s Growth
Year three in the NBA is widely regarded as the most important one in gauging a player’s development. This stereotype certainly rings true for budding Lakers center Andrew Bynum. After two seasons in which he has both dazzled fans with his monster-sized potential, but also disappointed many with his inconsistency, Bynum returns to the Lakers this season more determined than ever to prove his naysayers wrong. The seven-footer showed up to camp this year leaner and stronger—a sense of dedication that many questioned whether or not Bynum could ever attain. While it may be wishful thinking to expect All-Star-type averages from Bynum this season, if he can build on last year’s eight points and six rebounds, he has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape for the Lakers. Whether or not Bynum responds to the challenge is arguably the second most important personnel related factor that will influence the team this season.
3. Kobe’s Mindset
Kobe Bryant had a disappointing exhibition season for the Lakers, leaving many fans to wonder where exactly his heart and mind are located heading into the regular season. After spending the summer captivating fans across the world with his shutdown defense and late-game heroics for Team USA, Bryant has appeared lackadaisical at times, failing to assert his game on either end of the court. Phil Jackson recently singled out Bryant for his subpar play, publicly questioning his commitment to the Lakers. Although Bryant has adamantly refuted Jackson’s claims, whatever is causing his poor play—whether it is due to the more relaxed play in the pre-season or something more—will need to be remedied if the Lakers have any chance of jumping out to a solid start to the season.
2. Commitment to Defense
The Lakers finished last season as one of the worst teams in the NBA in points allowed, conceding over 100 points per game to opponents and failing to show any level of fluidity on the defensive end. While Kobe Bryant has a reputation as one of the premier perimeter defenders in the game and Kwame Brown has emerged as a force on man-to-man defense, the Lakers are largely comprised of one-way players. Even though the team is bringing back roughly the same core as last season, team defense should be boosted with the addition of Derek Fisher—a player known for his hard-nosed play on both ends of the court and willingness to take charges. Ronny Turiaf and Jordan Farmar have also shown glimpses of their defensive potential, each bringing energy and grit against opponents. Both youngsters should receive more playing time this season which should result in improved numbers on defense. Andrew Bynum similarly impressed coaches with his shot-blocking potential last season, perhaps foreshadowing growth in his defensive game this season.
1. Health of Key Players
Will Odom’s surgically-repaired shoulder recover in time to avoid an early season slump? How will Mihm’s ankle hold up after missing more than a season of action? Will Kobe’s wrist injury linger into the first few weeks of the season? After a season in which several key players were forced off the court for significant periods of time, the Lakers enter 2007-2008 with an entirely new set of questions regarding players’ health. As the team learned last season after watching a 26-13 start to the year slip away, the injury bug has the power to single-handedly decimate team chemistry and success. Without any long-term injuries to their core rotation players, some believe the Lakers have the potential to secure a top six seed in the competitive Western Conference. However, should the injury bug seek its teeth into the team once more, the Lakers could find themselves with a date to the NBA Draft Lottery.