We’re going to make a big push to churn out the rest of the 2008-09 RotoRob NBA Draft Kit over the next few days; today Herija puts the Lakers under the microscope.
Few teams in recent memory did a more complete 180 from the start of a season to the end than the 2007-08 Lakers. The year began with Kobe Bryant vocally expressing his desire to be dealt from LA, throwing everyone from GM Mitch Kupchak to Andrew Bynum under the bus. The team played uninspired ball in November, but started to hit its stride in December and on into January, posting a 27-14 mark over the first half of the schedule.
Despite their record, few experts considered the Lakers a legitimate threat in the playoffs. That all changed on February 1, 2008, when the Lakers fleeced the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. The arrival of the former All-Star seemed to be a natural fit from the get-go, and the Lake Show won 13 of its 15 games in February, announcing its presence as a contender. The trade also had the unexpected benefit of creating a domino effect among some of the West’s other top clubs, causing the Suns and Mavericks to attempt to make big splashes of their own that met with minimal success.
With Bryant, Gasol and Lamar Odom running the triangle offense to perfection, the Lakers captured the top seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and easily dispatched the Nuggets in Round One. They struggled with a tough Jazz club in the semis but prevailed, and caught a break against the Spurs when Manu Ginobili broke down physically in the conference finals. The Lakers were favoured by most to oust the Celtics and claim the NBA Championship, but Boston was the more physical club and eliminated LA in six games, which included an embarrassing loss in the deciding Game Six.
During the offseason, Los Angeles decided not to mess with what got it to the dance, with the only marginal rotation guy not coming back being Ronny Turiaf (Warriors). Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs following a knee injury, returns and Trevor Ariza could play a significant role off the bench after missing most of last season, but other than that it’s pretty much the same group.
However, despite limited changes, there remain plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the Lakers and their hopes for a second straight Western Conference banner. Even before tweaking his knee in the preseason (which appears to be mild), Bryant still had his lingering finger injury that will eventually require surgery to repair. Plus, he played deep into the playoffs last season and followed that up with an extended run in the Olympics. He’s north of 30 now, so fatigue could become a factor at some point.
The Bynum-Gasol-Odom dynamic is the most interesting question, as Odom will be asked the slide to small forward when all three are on the floor together, but that isn’t his natural position and he may be a bit slow afoot to guard his opposite number. Bynum’s ability to bounce back from his first serious injury is a concern, and his ongoing contract negotiations could be a distraction. Gasol got pushed around in the Finals and rarely pushed back, which raised questions about his toughness. And if things don’t work out, who can they land in exchange for Odom? So while on paper this could be a potentially dominant threesome, there are certainly plenty of things to be concerned about in 2008-09.
Despite the questions, the Lakers have a deep and talented team, and assuming Bryant’s knee injury is not serious they should challenge for another trip to the Finals.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Derek Fisher
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Vladimir Radmanovic
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Andrew Bynum
Key Bench Players: Odom, Jordan Farmar, Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton.
A lot of things are still up in the air in LA, though we pretty much know who will see the majority of the minutes. Look for Odom or Bynum to come off the bench, but both should get plenty of run. Bryant and Fisher will likely see fewer minutes this year with an eye on the playoffs, which means increased roles for Farmar and Vujacic.
The only true battle might be between Ariza and Walton, as successful 10-man rotations are few and far between. Ariza is younger and has more upside than Walton, and he looks to have the inside track at back-up small forward. Walton might be able to grab a few minutes at power forward if the Lakers want to go small, but he looks like he’ll be the odd man out when everyone is healthy.
Stud: He has played a ton of basketball the past 12 months and is holding off on a needed finger surgery, but Bryant is a no brainer as LA’s stud. He does it all on the court and contributes consistently in all the major fantasy categories. He might take a slight step back statistically this season as Jackson tries to get him a little more rest, but he’s still a lock as a top five pick.
Dud: Despite having plenty of options, Lakers fans have made Odom the goat of their Finals lost last year, and he has never exactly been Michael Jordan when it comes to mental toughness. He’s also being asked to play small forward instead of power forward and potentially come off the bench, which certainly doesn’t sit well with someone in a contract year. If things go south with the Gasol-Bynum-Odom experiment you can bet Odom will be the one leaving LA. I look for his numbers to drop across the board this season, which isn’t good news for an expected high-round fantasy pick.
Sleeper: I have to go with Farmar here. He looks poised to take over the starting role from Fisher, whose age and lack of foot speed make him a poor matchup for the West’s talented young point guards. I’m not expecting Farmar to be a breakout player this year, but if there is an unheralded Laker ready to step up, it’s this youngster.
Rookies to Watch: Their only draft pick was Joe Crawford, who was waived earlier this week. See ya, kid.
Fantasy Stories to Watch
Judging by his struggles this preseason, Odom is having a hell of a time adjusting to life off the bench. Because of his across-the-board production, he’s still someone you’ll want on your team, but don’t be grabbing him thinking you’re getting a double-double every night.
Bynum looks like a new man this preseason, clearly having shaken off his injury-riddled 2007-08 season. This could be the season he finally emerges as a legitimate No. 1 fantasy centre. The fact that he could be a restricted free agent at season’s end only serves to motivate the big man even more.