As the Lakers walked off the court in Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder last May, it didn’t just feel like the end of the season. It felt like the end of an era.
The Lakers looked slow, tired, and old. They were run out of the gym by a much younger and more athletic Thunder team that was just starting to hit its stride. Nobody escapes Father Time, and in the Lakers' case, that appeared to be the harsh reality that would linger in Los Angeles for a long and uneasy off-season.
However, in the final minutes of the Thunder’s decisive victory, there was a camera shot in the midst of the TNT telecast that would eventually prove to be foreboding not for the Lakers, but rather for the rest of the league.
The camera slowly zoomed in on General Manager Mitch Kupchak, his tall, lanky figure blatantly standing out in a ravenous sea of blue. His arms were crossed, his brows furrowed, his expression appeared to be one of grave concern, or even worse, of acknowledgement of the end of an era. He didn’t look like a guy at a basketball game. He looked like a man at a funeral.
But in hindsight, his outer appearance probably did not reflect his inner thoughts. Given his track record as a general manager, he was likely already contemplating his next move.
What appeared to be a look of anguish was more likely that of cogitation. The wheels were turning, the gears were grinding inside an ingenious mind that had once put together some of the great teams in NBA history, those of which had solidified the Lakers as one of the great franchises in all of sports.
He traded Shaq instead of Kobe in 2004, acquiring pieces that would eventually turn into Pau Gasol in 2008. And in the summer of 2012, when it seemed as though even a general manager of his brilliance couldn’t resurrect this sinking ship, he did it again.
In acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, Kupchak has filled two gaping holes that were blatantly absent in last year’s defeat, and have been for quite some time: A true point-guard and a domineering defensive anchor.
Just like that, within the span of a couple months, and without playing a game, the Lakers had gone from a withering franchise on the decline right back to legitimate title contenders. Now the entire complexion of the team had been transformed, both on offense and on defense.
On offense, Nash will finally provide some playmaking that the Lakers have desperately needed. Their offense has become increasingly stagnant over the past years, too often relying on an aging Kobe to bail them out of one bad possession after the next. As great of a warrior as he is, he has too much mileage on his 34-year-old legs to single-handedly win games for the Lakers like he used to. It’s simply too much of a burden for him at this stage in his career, and it showed in the playoffs last year.
Kobe was visibly tired down the stretch in several games against Oklahoma City – games that the Lakers gave away in the final minutes. With Nash, he can now relax in his natural position, with the luxury of taking a few plays off every now and then. Nash alleviates Kobe of primary ball handling duties – a role he has never been suited for from the get-go. Kobe is an isolation, one-on-one scorer, he always has been and always will be. That’s simply the way he’s engineered, and with Nash’s knack for creating easy opportunities for his teammates, combined with Gasol’s above-average passing abilities, Kobe may be more efficient and productive than he’s been in years.
With Howard, the Lakers get the best center of this era, an asset they’re historically accustomed to having. Like Mikan, Chamberlain, Kareem, and Shaq, Howard is a dominant defensive force that the team can rely on to protect the rim.
His predecessor, Andrew Bynum, was a great shot blocker, but was plagued by maturity issues that quickly became a glaring detriment to the team’s success. Bynum would often check in and out of games sporadically, looking like a legendary shot blocker in one game, and then being too lazy to even try in the next.
With Howard, that problem will cease to exist. Howard has been criticized for his maturity off the court, but on the court it’s never been a question. Unanimously considered the best defensive player in the league, he’ll provide a young, tenacious interior presence that the Lakers have desperately needed to contend with a league chalk full of swingmen and scoring guards. And while his offensive post-game is still a work in progress, Nash and Gasol should provide him with better opportunities around the rim than he’s ever had before.
As rosy as it all appears to look on paper, there’s reason to take caution before getting swept up in the hype of this super-team. As promising as it all looks, there’s still a myriad of ways this concoction of Hall-of-Famers could go awry. The bench is still a huge question mark. Antawn Jamison, brought in over the summer specifically to shore up the bench, hasn’t shown much in the preseason. Save for the occasional spot-up shooting of Jodie Meeks, and a few positive signs here and there from Robert Sacre, the bench doesn’t look all that much improved from last season.
However, the most prominent concern is that the success of this offensive engine is going to heavily rely on the 38-year-old legs of Steve Nash. Even if he doesn’t play like a 38-year-old, his health is an ever-so-fragile variable in the equation. His minutes will already be limited, and if anything happens to him along the way, that almost certainly will wipe out any chance of the Lakers playing in June.
Another issue with Nash is that he has rarely played with the kind of half-court offense that the Lakers employ, especially with two 7-footers clogging up the paint. While there’s no debating that Nash is one of the greatest point guards the league has ever seen, it should be noted that the offensive system that he was given for years in Phoenix was partly responsible for his ability to thrive at such an uninhibited level. Their free-flowing, small-ball, run-and-gun offense gave Nash the freedom to run wild, often times in circles around the court before finding an open shooter or a forward slashing to the rim. The Suns functioned like a soccer team, constantly moving the ball and cutting every which way.
In the one season that Shaq was brought into Phoenix in an experimental move by GM Steve Kerr, Nash’s assist average dipped lower than it had in the 4 previous seasons. While Nash still played well, having Shaq in the paint all the time limited Nash’s mobility. Having Howard and Gasol on the blocks may create similar problems.
Meanwhile, aside from World Peace, who is streaky from behind the line, and Meeks, who will be coming off the bench, Nash won’t have an arsenal of spot-up shooters at his disposal like he did in Phoenix. A lack of shooters, along with limited room for Nash to operate, could stifle his productivity significantly.
Or it might not at all, as the Lakers could win 70 games and sweep Miami in the Finals. At this point, with only one preseason game played with the full starting five, all we can do is speculate as to how good this team will really be. In any case, the potential obstacles for this team are the kind of hypothetical problems that any NBA fan would love to have going into a season. With a starting five consisting of two former MVPs in the backcourt, two former defensive players of the year in the front-court, and a four-time all-star, the future looks pretty golden for the purple and gold.
By Max Rucker
Contributing Writer for The Daily Sports Herald