Let us stipulate the following:
First: ”HERE IN L.A. WE ONLY ACCEPT TITLES FROM OUR LAKERS BECAUSE ANYTHING ELSE IS THE WEAKEST OF SAUCE AND WHAT DO YOU KNOW ANYWAY KAMENETZKY YOU GREW UP IN ST. LOUIS!”
Second: The most plausible scenario in which the Lakers win a title this season involves, say, 12 of the NBA’s best teams deciding at the last minute to form their own league.
Harsh realities notwithstanding, the Lakers still are required to play 82 games (and if things break the right way, a few playoff games as well) before The Transformational Summer of 2014 begins. I won’t pretend title runs aren’t more exciting or that this (meaning campaigns in which “better than people think” means landing a seven seed) is the goal, but there’s no reason 2013-14 can’t be a perfectly enjoyable year for Lakers fans. There is, even, the potential for some fun! Yes, the F-word, something nearly absent in each of the last three seasons, the last two particularly, and last year totally. This season, games can be watched for enjoyment. None of us must imbue every result with larger meaning and speculation on how whatever shortcomings will impact their chances in June. If they win? Great! Enjoy your evening. If they lose? Great, they’re closer to a better draft slot. Enjoy your evening.
Given how the expectations anaconda has squeezed the franchise over the last three years, a relatively consequence-free season* isn’t the worst thing in the world. And since the larger team goals are limited, it’s more about individual stories and sources of entertainment. And in those, the 2013-14 Lakers are pretty well stocked.
Here are 10 reasons the Lakers could be interesting:
1. Kobe Bryant’s return. We’ve all made The Black Knight jokes. We know Kobe is a freak, a sort of athletic sadist motivated by pain. We’ve seen the flu games, the broken joints, the mangled fingers, the football sized ankles. But this is different. The history for athletes returning from a torn Achilles tendon is littered with failure, and at age 35 Bryant has about 20 years of mileage on his odometer. At what point does he play this season, and to what level? For Kobe to reach a reasonable level of Kobe-ness this year would be a remarkable achievement of mental and physical will. Arguably the Kobe-est thing he’s ever done. Then from there, we can all kick around the implications for Bryant and the Lakers in 2014-15 and beyond. But for now, sink your teeth into the drama of his recovery.
2. Pau Gasol’s rehabilitation. He’ll spend a lot of time in the post, where he wants to be, functions best, and was still productive when Dwight Howard was off the floor. But where Bryant hopes to rehab his body, Gasol hopes to fix his body and his reputation. At 33, what kind of value can he build heading into free agency? (And in the process, what value can he build as a trade asset for the Lakers?)
3. Basically the same thing, except with Steve Nash. He’s not in a walk year (though the Lakers can certainly fix that by using their stretch provision on Nash next summer), but believes he’s still a good NBA player and is fighting to prove it. It’s a very, very thin line players walk near the end of a career. Which side are Gasol and Nash on?
4. Wes Johnson. Here’s a guy hoping to wash the draft bust stank off himself. If he looks bad in L.A., his days in the Association probably won’t end… but he’ll be deep in the danger zone. I’m not optimistic – in three seasons, Johnson simply hasn’t been a good NBA player – but he’s a good kid and easy to root for. And if things pan out, the Lakers have access to a still-inexpensive, young, athletic wing helpful for the rebuild.
5. Jordan Farmar. While not exactly in the same boat as Johnson – Jordy has been a much more productive pro – after spending last season overseas, Farmar must re-establish his NBA value. He elected to join a very crowded Lakers backcourt, and depending on how things play out could be scrapping for floor time, or (especially in the case of injury) flush with minutes. Plus, seeing how he’s evolved as a personality since leaving the Lakers in the summer of 2010 will be interesting. He certainly had a whiff of entitlement to him during the first go round.
6. Nick Young. Seemingly invented for seasons like this one, where his shortcomings as a player won’t matter. Every team without title hopes should have Nick Young. He’s the Kevin Durant of consequence free basketball.
7. Chris Kaman. Still a pretty good player when he’s healthy, and one who should fit well in the offense. Kaman can pass, has a well-developed mid-range game, and nice touch from the post. But more importantly, following the summer dump of Metta World Peace, Kaman fills an important role as a producer of colorful quotes.
8. Taking the over. The Lakers will score a bunch of points in the process assuming Kobe rounds back into form and Nash is there to direct traffic. Young and Farmar add perimeter punch they’ve lacked over the last few seasons. Gasol and Kaman can score up front. Jordan Hill’s offensive rebounding will give him three or four buckets a game. 110 point? 120? 130? Sure, why not! Granted, the might give it all back (and then some) on the defensive side, but the product is still a lot more entertaining than some 48 minute, ground-and-pound basketball siege. So don’t fight reality, embrace it. Develop drinking games and catch phrases for when somebody doesn’t rotate or the Lakers get caught in transition. Point at a buddy when Kobe points at a teammate. The world is your oyster.
9. Guessing when Young gets his first Kobe Death Stare for, shall we say, questionable shot selection. GIF-makers are poised and ready.
10. Flexibility. Sometimes the Lakers are playing the Bobcats while the Thunder and Heat square off. In another year, there might be a sense of obligation to watch the purple and gold. Not this season.
The season could bring some semblance of surprise, if everything breaks exactly the way they need it. If everything just breaks, it’ll be a train wreck. But nobody has to pretend the Lakers are playing for something bigger than available talent and circumstances allow. That was certainly the case in 2011-12, and something that became very clear as last year went along, when the Lakers were elevated in ways their on-court performance didn’t deserve. Kobe’s injury simply turned an inevitable playoff exit into a straight execution as opposed to something more drawn out. A bad/tense atmosphere for players generally means a bad/tense atmosphere for fans.
This season, everyone gets to hit the reset button a little. Do what you can to find enjoyment in it.
*It’s not that this season has literally no consequences. There are plenty of big issues important for this year and beyond, Kobe’s health chief among them. (From there, add D’Antoni’s future, wondering if any of the one-year contract wonders might stick around, draft position, and so on). But insofar as the way in which individual game results impact long term hopes, there really aren’t consequences. Losses won’t hurt their chances at home court advantage, or lead to bad habits causing trouble deep in the postseason. Because, well, you know…