Eventually, Lakers Will Be Better; Just Not Now
The Lakers will be a better team this year . . .eventually.
The trick will be not to panic early, when Kobe Bryant’s knee isn’t near 100 per cent and Andrew Bynum isn’t around and the new guys like Steve Blake and Matt Barnes are still adjusting to the intricacies of the triangle offense.
Tonight’s season opener will be a festive event with championship rings handed out and fans cheering deliriously and confetti falling all over Staples Center. But then the games begin, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Phil Jackson’s guys absorb a few lumps in the opening weeks.
But it is nothing to worry about. Coming off two NBA titles in a row, this team can sort of cruise through the regular season the way Boston did last year, concentrating on Kobe and Bynum slowly getting healthy and keeping Pau Gasol from carrying too heavy of a load. They’re talented enough to do that and still finish if not first, at least very high in the West.
Come springtime, they can be better than they were last year because:
1) Bynum, if finally healthy by Thanksgiving, can become the inside force the Lakers have always projected him to be. If he can settle in and start playing major minutes night in and night out by springtime, these guys will be unbeatable inside, especially against the undersized LeBrons from Miami.
2) Blake will become the quasi-starter at point guard, giving Derek Fisher more time off and keeping Fish fresher for the playoffs. Just as important, Blake will be the solid 3-point shooter this team has lacked for years.
3) Ron Artest will be more comfortable coming off a big playoffs performance and will be spelled by Barnes, whose aggressive, even furious style will be a welcome addition off the bench, particularly on defense.
4) Theo Ratliff is yet another shot blocker who should contribute valuable minutes here and there. Combined, Blake, Barnes and Ratliff give Jackson far more versatility off the bench than he had the past two years.
5) Most important, Kobe can still be Kobe, particularly if he can take his time before stepping hard on the gas pedal come April, May and June. The surgically repaired knee was clearly still bothering him in the preseason, so there is no need to rush him past 30 minutes a night early. It is a luxury that will pay off late.
6) Gasol continues to get better. At the end of last year, he played like the best big man in the game. If he can keep honing those skills and improve even more, this group has nothing to worry about.
7) Lamar Odom remains the team’s best safety valve. Yes, I’ve been on him about being erratic as much as anyone, but the truth is, his remarkable versatility at 6-10 gives Jackson so many options, he has more value now than ever. The key will be not to overwork him, either.
Yeah, I know, so you’re asking what about Miami? Well, what about the Heat?
With LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, they will easily be the most watched and discussed club in the league. But they will also face the most pressure.
They HAVE to win, or their whole experiment will have been a flop. Can they play together? Can they check their egos at the door? Can they stay away from injuries? And, maybe most interesting, can they decide who will be taking the last shot in close games?
Those are all questions they’ll have to answer. In the meantime, other East contenders like the Magic and Shaq-fortified Celtics will be hungry to swallow them up.
So will it be, as David Stern fervently hopes, the Lakers and the Heat in the NBA Finals?
Obviously, it would be the glitziest match up yet, and it certainly could happen.
But, as we all know, the NBA is a long, exhausting grind of a season, and it would best be wise to simply wait and see how it all turns out.
— STEVE BISHEFF