For the first time in seven years, the Lakers will likely not see a familiar face in the starting lineup come opening night: Kobe Bryant.
After the team’s final practice in preparation for Tuesday’s home opener against the Clippers, coach Mike D’Antoni stated there remains no clear timetable as Bryant continues to rehab his Achilles.
“He’ll back when he can get back,” D’Antoni said. “I’m sure he’s making progress, but he’ll be back as soon as he can.”
In addition to Bryant’s uncertain return to the court, the Lakers enter the 2013-14 campaign with some uncertainty. Finding the right rotations during the preseason was a point of emphasis from the coaching staff, especially with eight new faces on the roster.
“When the lights come on, we’ll see how guys respond,” D’Antoni said. “You don’t know how the exact combinations will work or not in a battle. That’s all to be seen. We don’t have a great bead on all the combinations because there are so many. We have so many guys that can play and we’ll try to sort it out.”
What remains to be seen is whether D’Antoni chooses to start Shawne Williams as a stretch four alongside Pau Gasol, or use a more traditional lineup with two bigs in Chris Kaman and Gasol. Williams can stretch the floor, while Kaman also has the ability play outside the paint, a key that will allow the 7-foot Spaniard to operate inside as opposed to the last two seasons playing with Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard.
“I’m a lot more comfortable, confident and in a much better rhythm,” Gasol said. “I’m operating in areas where I’m most comfortable and most effective.”
On the defensive side of the floor, increased athleticism on the wings allowed the team to force more turnovers, something that showed in the preseason. Last year, transition defense was also a sore spot, an area the team will likely emphasize against the Clippers, who finished eighth in fast break points per game.
“Chris Paul is the guy you’ll have to deal with,” D’Antoni said, “and it all starts and ends with him.”
Paul has arguably been the main reason for the Clippers resurgence, as they swept the season series last year from the Lakers for the first time since 1974-75 when they were known as the Buffalo Braves. Building upon last season’s success, the Clippers added new pieces to surround their core group and brought in Doc Rivers to lead the team on the sidelines. This year, both teams have different expectations.
“It’s definitely a different situation,” Gasol said. “We don’t look at ourselves as underdogs, but obviously, we’re facing circumstances that put us in that position. We just have to be confident and stay together throughout the season, and continue to work to get better. We have a young group that still needs experience to grow together and stronger as a team, and we’re looking forward to that.”