Like most people in the hoops (or gambling) industry, I don’t think the 2014-15 Lakers will be a playoff team, for a variety of reasons. I can’t, for example, definitively answer the question, “Who is the second best player on the Lakers?”, but can say definitively that all of the potential answers point to trouble. The Western Conference is stacked too deep. Phoenix missed the postseason last year, despite winning 48 games. None of the teams ahead of them are obvious candidates to fall out, and meanwhile Denver, who won 57 games two seasons ago but was decimated by injuries last year, should be healthier and added Arron Afflalo. Anthony Davis leads a New Orleans team potentially capable of breaking out (though they have injury issues as well).
The Lakers on paper aren’t better than any of them, unless a line of things play out very favorably. String enough “ifs” together and anything is possible.
But all “if’s” are not created equally, whether in importance or likelihood of occurring. So below, I present a (not completely comprehensive) list of things that would lead to the Lakers winning more games than expected, perhaps many more, and the chances of them actually happening. A Degree of “Ifficulty,” so to speak.
1. If Kobe Bryant stays healthy and produces…
On a 1-10 scale of importance, where 10 signifies “most important,” this rates at eleventybillion. Nothing is more important to the fortunes of the Lakers than a healthy Kobe. Last year, he played six games, and we saw how that went. And that was on a team featuring Pau Gasol, who while no longer a star is still a player capable of opening space for others. If Kobe sustains some sort of long-term injury, their already long playoff odds almost surely grow insurmountable.
The good news? I’ve long maintained that if Kobe plays, he’ll play well. He’ll score, he’ll rebound, he’ll grease the wheels for others. He can’t be expected to be a defensive force anymore, but that’s not new. The difference in pre- and post-Achilles/knee Kobe won’t be drastic, but a continuation of the evolution his game has undergone for a few years. To his credit, Monday at Media Day Byron Scott said his job isn’t just to keep Kobe healthy for the season, but to make sure he’s able to play comfortably with his girls once Bryant hangs up his sneakers. Kobe says he understands the need to monitor his minutes, and I don’t think he’ll chafe until it looks like Plan Preservation might impact Plan Playoffs, which given the strength of the Western Conference could come sooner than people think.
The bad? No matter how Kobe feels now — excellent, he says — there’s no way to predict what the season will do to him. The time off hasn’t erased nearly two decades worth of wear and tear, and as soon as the season cranks up all the old infirmities will rear their heads. 70+ games feels like a realistic possibility, but as noted here, Kobe isn’t trying to cheat time this season, he’s trying to cheat time again. At some point, things break down, and when it happens, it can come quickly. Just ask Steve Nash. I’m optimistic. Like most people, my default is that Kobe can find a way. But that’s not exactly high end scientific insight.
2. If Steve Nash plays often, and well…
Nobody expects MVP-level Steve Nash to take the floor this year, but were he to play around 65 games at something in the general ZIP code of his final season in Phoenix on a per-minute basis, it could completely change the complexion of the roster. Suddenly, even if it’s only for 20 minutes a night, the Lakers have two great facilitators in their lineup, with Nash and Bryant. Their presence opens the floor for others (defensive problems notwithstanding). The easy bucket count rises. There is lineup flexibility, giving Scott more combinations to choose from. Some pressure comes off Jeremy Lin to play at Linsanity levels. Jordan Clarkson gets minutes out of merit, not necessity.
Nash will always be remembered in L.A. as a symbol of failure and disappointment. A good final season helping the Lakers push towards the playoffs won’t change that, but at least it would leave fans with more positive memories, and perhaps more importantly would let one of the greatest players of this generation leave the game on something resembling his terms. Can he do it? I really hope so, but it’s much easier to believe in Bryant’s chances to rebound, physically. Until Nash shows he can play regularly, absorbing contact without his nerves firing out of control, it’s hard for optimism to morph into confidence.
Degree of Ifficulty: 8.5
3. If Wesley Johnson* makes a leap…
Look at the dude’s game log for 2013-14 – he was all over the place. 24 points one night, one point the next. Blame Mike D’Antoni if you’d like, but much of that is on Wes. Some games, Johnson was a force on one end or the other, or occasionally both. Too often, though, he’d disappear like a wood-grain chameleon, on the floor but basically invisible. He’s not untalented, but Johnson has rarely managed to display his gifts effectively for any length of time. He’ll have another chance this year, because the Lakers don’t have another wing who can defend at his level, nor a bunch of pure 3′s trying to steal his minutes. Johnson has been working out with Kobe a lot over the summer, and combined with the opportunity to play real games with him, maybe it’s enough to help realize more of the potential making him the fourth pick in the 2010 Draft.
At games, whenever I’m seated next to a scout I ask his opinion of Johnson. Like his play, answers tend to be all over the map. Nobody thinks he’ll be a star, but a productive rotation player on a good team? Some believe it’s still possible. But while Johnson is only entering his fifth season, he’s already 27. Plenty young in real life, but starting to exit that space where young players progress into something more than they’ve been. By 27, what’s written on the wall tends to stay there.
*The same basic principles apply to L.A.’s other members of the first-round castoff club, though to a lesser degree. Xavier Henry is Maggette-esque in his ability to draw fouls putting the ball on the floor, but needs a fuller game. Ed Davis is a champion of the analytics crowd and a great signing, but if he’d been able to put it all together over a long period of time, the Lakers wouldn’t have him on what I’m sure he expects to be a one-year deal near the minimum. Statistically, Jordan Hill had a career year last season, and the team won 27 games. He’ll need to improve, too.
Degree of Ifficulty: 7.5
If Julius Randle contributes at levels not generally expected of rookies, even ones surrounded by ROY chatter…
In theory, the importance of this one is mitigated by L.A.’s depth up front. Without re-litigating my litany of problems with the Carlos Boozer signing (articulated well by AK here), his presence does take pressure off Randle to win games for the Lakers this year. And with Jordan Hill and Ed Davis in the frontcourt rotation as well, the Lakers can get by without requiring their highest pick since James Worthy to make a Worthian impact right away. Which is good, because playing in the NBA is hard, particularly for big men. Even more so for bigs who aren’t unusually long, and used strength arguably more than any other tool to succeed at the college level. I like Randle a lot and think he’ll be a very good pro, but expecting him to hit big right away isn’t fair. There will be a learning curve.
Degree of Ifficulty: 8
If the Lakers can stay healthy…
For all the talk of Kobe and Nash, the Lakers have some whippersnappers who haven’t been the picture of health, either. Henry has never played a full season, and is starting the year recovering from last year’s knee and wrist problems. Jordan Hill has dealt with back and knee problems, and two seasons ago played only 29 games thanks to a torn labrum in his hip. Jeremy Lin dealt with back spasms last season. They’ve been practicing for what, 26 seconds? And already Ryan Kelly is hurt. You get my point. The Lakers can’t afford Kobe to go down, but they also can’t have their depth eaten away at the back end, either.
Still, injuries are to some degree matter of luck, good or bad. A player’s history factors in and the Lakers have question marks dotting the roster, but it still feels unlikely they’ll reproduce last year’s sports injury apocalypse. Even regressing back from 319 to a normal amount of missed games would make a huge impact. That feels doable.
Degree of Ifficulty: 5
If the Lakers can be a defensive group whose sum greatly exceeds its parts…
Many fans are still on edge, so badly were they assaulted by the endless barrage of points leveled at the Lakers last year. Particularly after halftime, when only three teams were worse on a per possession basis than the purple and gold (yes, there really were three teams, hard as it is to believe) and in second halves during the season’s second half, when only the Jazz out-ole’ed the Lakers. But the important thing for optimists to remember: Over the first 16 games, while the injuries were a thing but not yet a cruel thief of continuity and spirit, the Lakers actually ranked a perfectly pedestrian 13th in defensive efficiency.
Last year’s roster didn’t have many guys with strong defensive reputations, nor does this one. For all the (legitimate) ire thrown at Gasol’s work on that end, swapping him for Boozer is a downgrade. The downside to a healthy Nash is that every other possession he’ll be required to defend. Kobe isn’t All-Defensive Team Kobe anymore. Jordan Hill can block shots and rebounds like a maniac, but in a team structure is unreliable. To his credit, Nick Young started giving a shit, but that doesn’t make him Andre Iguodala. Randle is part of the yearly infusion of fresh meat for veterans and coaches known as “rookie.” Johnson has length and versatility, Ed Davis has been known to influence a penetrating guard, and Jeremy Lin probably takes more flak for his D than he deserves, but this from a personnel standpoint this is not a promising group.
So Byron Scott, as we’ve already seen, will try to make them over-the-top fit, and instill a defensive discipline Mike D’Antoni couldn’t/wouldn’t. Scott turned around bad defensive teams in New’s Jersey and Orleans – Cleveland was a post-LeBron tire fire for which he probably deserves a pass – so there’s a track record, but the man isn’t an idiot. Those improvements required time and roster changes he can’t yet make in L.A., so he’s setting a still-ambitious-but-more-attainable goal to make the Lakers a top-15 defensive squad.
Frankly, if Scott can land them anywhere in the neighborhood of 15 in defensive efficiency over the course of the season, he’d be doing fantastic work, and the first fifth of last season provides at least some level of hope. Top-15, maybe not, but even a boost into the high teens would make a big difference.
Degree of Ifficulty: 8
Were it simply a question of having one “if” come through, we’d all be having a different conversation. But the Lakers need a bunch, whether on this list or otherwise. It’s one thing to hope for best case scenarios, but another thing entirely to need them.